As I previously wrote, I do think there is a future for denominations—specifically the SBC—in America. Denominations are inevitable because like-minded people will always find a way to associate with one another. They are inevitable because, although the Great Commission was given to the church, your local church can’t finish it alone—you HAVE to form up a team with others to get to all nations.
And, if you don’t use the tool of the SBC, you are going to need to create another one. Sure, it will look like a sleek network at first (and I am for them), but over time it will start broadening its mission and eventually become a denomination, just like, well, every other network over time in the history of the world.
So, what should we do to be the best denomination we can be? If the SBC and other denominations are to not only continue, but flourish, I believe they must:
1. Be on mission together as opposed to being suspicious of other tribes. Denominations should be made up of churches that look outward rather than inward and help other churches do the same. We don’t need to have different groups circling the wagons, but rather we need them to be partnering in mission.
I could give several examples of such tribalism, but let me address the newest controversy. For example, there are now groups and places where the defining narrative and purpose is Calvinism. There are also groups and places where the defining narrative is baptist theological traditionalism. If that’s our driving purpose, that’s not helping. There are legitimate discussions that need to be had, but forming up tribes is not the way to have them.
2. Partner with confessional consensus. I believe strongly in the importance of confessions of faith. As the SBC works to become more ethnically diverse, partnering together with biblically faithful contemporary, traditional, ethnic, and all kinds of churches, and working through questions of our future in all of our demographic variety, we must maintain a strong confessional consensus in order to partner together.
That means we don’t need agencies and organizations within the convention to have a standard other than the SBC’s standard. We do not need, and we cannot survive, with a balkanized theological system. Instead, the BFM should be the confessional standard for our partnerships—formally, informally, and in every other way. Other standards breed distrust and, in my view, undermine a central promise of the Conservative Resurgence that eventually we’d agree on enough to partner together.
3. Value methodological diversity. Confessions are important but do not answer all of the methodological questions churches will face. Holding a common confession as a denomination gives us the confidence to trust those within the confessional community who differ methodologically from us. One of the signs that tribalism has replaced a missional identity is when we think that the denomination would be much better off if everyone operated “just like our church.”
Cooperating Southern Baptists work together because of common doctrine, not uniform methodology. God forbid we apply the domestic standard some have of a uniform methodology to our foreign missionaries. It would only mean the outsourcing of a bygone era of Americana.
4. Assist local churches, not vice versa. We must remember that denominations are begun for missional reasons and that denominations should continue for missional reasons. The denomination exists to help churches carry out the Great Commission. When we get this backwards, self-preservation becomes the goal. The denomination is subservient to the church. The denomination exists to support the mission of the churches, not to perpetuate a temporary organization. The church carries forth God’s eternal purpose and the denomination assists the churches to do so better, together.
It is this nature that I believe holds the future of denominations. Less political legislation, less cult of personality, and more cooperation, anchored by a confessional consensus, between mission-focused churches lasered in on the mission of God.
There is strength in denominations. In His wisdom, God has allowed for the cooperation of churches in networks and denominations so that the greatest number of people in our world can be most effectively reached with the one thing that brings true unity: the gospel.