“Our problems aren’t structural, they are spiritual.”
I can’t tell you how many times I have read or heard some variation of the above sentiment in the past eight or nine months. Sometimes it is voiced by stakeholders who are in the “structure,” people like state paper editors, seminary professors, and other denominational employees. It is perhaps understandable that these folks would want to divert attention away from whatever issues may or may not be present within our various denominational ministries. Of course other times the spiritual vs. structural dichotomy is put forth by Southern Baptists who have no vested interest in preserving the denominational status quo. No matter who is making this case, however, and regardless of what motives may or may not be guiding them, the argument entails a false dichotomy.
It is simply not true that our problems are either spiritual or structural. Make no mistake about it-both are issues. And it is foolish to think that we should only address one of these problems to the neglect of the other.
Some of our problems are indeed primarily spiritual in nature. Taking the gospel for granted and/or failing to clearly articulate it in our pulpits, programs, and personal evangelism is a spiritual problem. Lack of evangelistic zeal, wherever it is present and for whatever reason it is the case, is a spiritual problem. Church members not giving generously and churches hording their financial resources is a spiritual problem. Uncharitable interpersonal relations between brothers and sisters in Christ-and the sins that fuel this situation-is a spiritual problem. Pride, in all its forms, is a spiritual problem.
Other problems among us are primarily of a structural kind. Focusing the vast majority of our Cooperative Program dollars on the Deep South and the Southwest is a structural problem. State conventions in the heart of Southern Baptist country receiving over tens of millions of dollars back from the NAMB is a structural problem. The duplication of some ministry efforts, particularly church planting, is a structural problem. And, at the risk of being provocative, any bloated bureaucracies that may exist in any of our ministries at any layer of our polity is a structural problem.
Still other problems are a combination of the spiritual and the structural. For the sake of space, I’ll limit this to one example. Making the amount a church gives to a denominational budget the chief standard by which that church’s faithfulness is measured (in function, if not in theory) is both a spiritual and a structural problem.
Southern Baptists have lots of problems, both spiritual and structural. But here’s the important thing to remember, and it’s very relevant to the GCR: the Convention (and its Great Commission partners like state conventions and associations) can only fix structural problems. The SBC or the Mississippi Baptist Convention or the Long Run Baptist Association can call attention to spiritual problems-and they should. They can debate the best way to handle spiritual problems-and they should. They can pass resolutions that suggest ways to biblically rectify spiritual problems-and they should. But these entities cannot actually fix those problems. Even if a denominational meeting was invaded by the Holy Spirit and resulted in mass repentance, it would only directly affect those at that meeting. Our spiritual problems can only be fully addressed at the level of individual local churches, which are the only biblically mandated layer of our polity and the only one that matters in any ultimate sense.
What our denominational ministries can address is our structural problems. To be sure local churches have a crucial role in this as all of our denominational ministries represent the churches. But the influence of churches is through democratic processes; problems are actually fixed by the trustees, administrators, and employees of our denominational ministries, though certainly in accordance with the will of the churches. For example, a task force can make specific recommendations about some of our structural problems. Assuming the convention adopts those recommendations, individual denominational ministries will then work to align their work with those recommendations. A similar thing could happen in state conventions and even some larger associations with multiple staff. Before you know it, structural changes have been addressed.
The structural and the spiritual coincide. To argue otherwise is to perpetuate a false dichotomy. Structure to varying degrees reflects spiritual concerns, and at times spiritual issues are exacerbated by structural shortcomings. The SBC needs a renewal in both areas.
I’m committed to praying for authentic spiritual awakening among our people and our churches. I’m also committed to advocating and, Lord willing, eventually implementing structural changes that will aid an awakened people in embracing all the gospel-driven, Great Commission priorities God has for us. The GCR is studying the structural problems, and the churches will decide how to respond. Similar task forces or blue ribbon committees are at work in several state conventions. Let’s pray that the Spirit will move the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to address our spiritual problems. And let’s hope that addressing all of our problems will mean that our best years of gospel faithfulness and Great Commission fruitfulness are still to come.