Is the Cooperative Program Worthy of Sacrifice?


Is the Cooperative Program Worthy of Sacrifice?

by Nathan Finn and Micah Fries

We are concerned. As we look across our beloved Southern Baptist Convention, we see a problem that is significant, and is growing. Sadly, statistics inform us that this is an issue across the entire spectrum of SBC life, regardless of location or age and type of congregation. This issue is no respecter of persons. Our shared commitment to the Cooperative Program (CP) is on a precipitous decline. We believe this is a great tragedy that bodes ill for our Convention’s future.

Lest you think we’re simply writing to stump for the CP, please understand that we believe there are vital modifications which need to be made to the CP. Micah has started to address some of those concerns here and here. However, despite our views concerning needed reforms, we absolutely remain convinced of the viability, even more so , the continued centrality of the CP as a means of partnering together for mission. Which brings us to what concerns us.

This summer, at the SBC Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Executive Committee President Frank Page issued a challenge to Southern Baptists. After noting that CP giving has steadily decreased over the previous generation, Dr. Page urged every Southern Baptist pastor and local church to consider increasing their CP giving by one percent. He argued that this seemingly small increase would lead to a significant influx of money that could be used for kingdom purposes.

An article in the December 2011 issue of SBC Life elaborates a bit on the effects a one percent increase in CP giving would have on our denominational ministries. Assuming tithes and offerings to local churches remain close to 2010 numbers, about $89 million more dollars would be given through the CP. According to present CP distribution, that would equal about $55 million more for state conventions and $34 million more for SBC agencies. The International Mission Board would receive an extra $17 million, while the North American Mission Board would see an increase of almost $8 million. Our seminaries would receive about $7.5 million more, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission would see an increase of $500,000, and the Executive Committee would gain an extra $1 million.

These dollar increases would have a dramatic effect on our Convention’s ministries. According to SBC Life, “This [increase] would allow the IMB immediately to appoint 375 new missionaries, NAMB to expand church planting support, and the seminaries and ERLC to address numerous maintenance, capital, and moral advocacy needs.” While the article didn’t directly address state conventions (SBC Life is published by the Executive Committee), a one percent increase would have a similar effect on state ministries. We appreciate the heart of Dr. Page’s call for a one percent increase to CP giving and we hope that thousands of churches will consider how they might give more generously to the CP.

Having said that, we want to highlight a theme that is often neglected in current discussions about the Cooperative Program: shared sacrifice. We are increasingly concerned with Southern Baptist pastors and churches who are diminishing their commitment to doing mission together primarily through the CP. We believe a recovery of a sense of shared sacrifice among our churches could lead to an increased commitment to CP giving that, Lord willing, would eventually amount to much more than one percent.

For many years, it was common to hear Southern Baptist leaders talk about the need for churches to sacrificially give to the Cooperative Program. While this language hasn’t totally disappeared, it’s not nearly as common as it used to be. We believe that it is a priority which Southern Baptists need to recover. In fact, we believe that a major reason-perhaps the major reason-CP giving is down is because most churches give to the Cooperative Program conveniently rather than sacrificially. They give to the CP, but only insofar as that support doesn’t drastically affect their budget or their giving to other ministry priorities.

We want to issue our own Cooperative Program challenge. We want to urge churches to consider giving sacrificially to the CP, to be willing to stretch themselves for the sake of gospel advance. Giving sacrificially can easily be neglected when we use phrases that diminish the reality that the CP is an ingenious means of financially partnering for the sake of mission. When we use phrases like “denominational machine” or “bureaucracy” in reference to the CP, it becomes far too easy to dismiss the CP. When we treat the Cooperative Program as a mere program, we neglect the fact that the CP is, in fact, a tremendous method through which we channel funding to take the gospel to the nations.

We recognize that the sacrifice we’re calling for will look different in each congregation. Some churches will forego renovations or building programs, or at least consider spending less money on such projects. We think this would be an appropriately countercultural move in an affluent society. Others will consider training more volunteers to serve in the place of paid staff. We think churches should be doing this anyway (see Ephesians 4:11-12). Still others will consider cutting some of the money they budget for their own ministries. We think most churches have at least one or two projects or programs that, when placed under a microscope, aren’t vital to that church’s wellbeing or gospel advance. Understand that these are just ideas-the sacrifice will be contextual to each congregation.

As younger leaders in our 30s, we want to take a minute to speak frankly to our generational contemporaries. To be candid, some of you have reaped the benefits of the Cooperative Program but you refuse to give generously, let alone sacrificially, to the CP. Like us, many of you have received a college and/or seminary education that was substantially subsidized by the CP. Some of you have served as short-term foreign missionaries with IMB or received NAMB funds to plant a church. You have gladly accepted these moneys, but now you refuse to invest in the very system that has provided you with so much. When we see this attitude, we are grieved. This appears to be, in a best case scenario, the result of ignorance; in the worst case scenario, it could be outright hypocrisy. In recent conversations with state convention staff and others, we’ve been shocked at the number of churches led by younger pastors who give little or nothing to the work of Southern Baptists through the CP.

We want to urge younger Southern Baptist pastors and church planters to lead their churches to give sacrificially to the Cooperative Program. We want to plead with you to educate your congregations as to how the CP works. We want to implore you to become Great Commission champions in part by becoming Cooperative Program advocates. We want to encourage you to join all Southern Baptists in those ministries we all have deemed important. We want you to take ownership of the shared mission strategy that, by God’s grace, helped enable so many of you to get to where you are today.

We know that many of you have concerns about the stewardship of some CP funds. We know you are concerned the CP is too impersonal. We know you fear the bureaucratic inflation that tempts almost all large organizations, including the SBC. We know you want more money going to evangelism and church planting and less going to salaries and overhead. Hear us say that we share your concerns. But we also believe that those who give are those who earn the right to offer friendly suggestions about ways to improve the Cooperative Program. And while there is room for improvement, we remain convinced the CP is a wise strategy for cooperating together for the sake of the gospel.

The fact is, the Cooperative Program is a significant part of who we are as Southern Baptists. The CP isn’t our only distinctive, or even our most important distinctive, but it is most certainly a defining distinctive of the Southern Baptist Convention and has been so for nearly a century. In light of this, if we may be so bold, we want to call upon our fellow Southern Baptists, and especially younger Southern Baptists, to not be afraid of linking arms with all Southern Baptists as we partner together in this manner of doing mission. This is the Southern Baptist way, and while it may not be a perfect way, we’re convinced it remains the best way. Southern Baptists are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the full inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, the primacy of the local Baptist church, and the importance of cooperation for the sake of the gospel. This is who we are. Let’s recommit to partnering together, especially through the Cooperative Program, to advance Christ’s gospel across North America and to the uttermost parts of the earth.

On the Future of the Southern Baptist Convention: A Graduation Meditation

This morning, we’ll celebrate our December graduation at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is our smaller of two annual commencements, but we’ll still graduate around 130 students today. The vast majority of them are Southern Baptists who are currently serving in paid vocational ministry, are presently looking for paid church staff positions, or are preparing to be domestic church planters or foreign missionaries. I hope you’ll pray for those who are transitioning to their next ministry assignment in the coming weeks and months.

There is quite a bit of talk these days about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention (or whatever it is we’ll be called by the time we get there). Much of it is negative. Some are worried about the number of SBC congregations that evidence declining membership and baptism statistics. Others are worried about the ongoing viability of the Cooperative Program. Some are uncomfortable with certain individuals in either real or perceived positions of denominational leadership and/or influence. Others are worried that a particular theological or cultural agenda will overwhelm and ultimately destroy the SBC. Some are nervous about younger leaders, while others are dissatisfied with more seasoned leaders. And some just pronounce a pox on all the houses within Southern Baptist suburbia.

I admit that I struggle with negativity from time to time. To be totally candid, it’s hard to study Southern Baptists for a living and not get discouraged on occasion. But I study American Christianity in general enough to know that every denomination has its peculiar strengths and weaknesses. Our denominational neuroses are particularly irksome because, well, they’re ours, but the grass isn’t that much greener in other groups-it’s just a different breed of grass. So rather than despairing over the cranky and delusional among us, I prefer to focus on the good. And there is a lot of good.

Back to graduation. One reason I refuse to despair about the SBC is because, as a seminary professor, I have a unique vantage point on the future of the Convention. Simply put, I’m personally acquainted with hundreds of (mostly) younger Southern Baptist pastors, missionaries, and other younger leaders. Their zeal is contagious. Their orthodoxy is robust. Their burden for evangelism and missions is inspiring. Their commitment to the local church is deep-rooted. They are a constant encouragement to me.

Some are worried because they perceive that these younger ministers lack commitment to the SBC. I confess that I’ve met a few for whom this is the case. But by far most of the seminarians and recent graduates I know are strongly committed to the SBC. They believe what we believe. They appreciate our approach to cooperative ministry and missions. They want to be Southern Baptists. Even those students who are “on the edge” are frequently those who were raised Southern Baptist and deeply love the SBC-so much so that the cranky and delusional voices gnaw at them and push them away. They are tempted to give in to the despair.

You need to know that I’m on a personal mission to do my part to prevent that from happening. We can’t afford to lose the next generation. And make no mistake about it-these aren’t denominational apostates who “went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” No, these are folks who want to remain part of us, but (understandably) bristle at some of the frankly outrageous things that some Southern Baptists say and do-occasionally even those who are, or have been denominational leaders. I try my best to convince students and others that the SBC is bigger than any single personality and better than the conspiracy theorists and frankly mean-spirited among us. Many on the ledge come to agree with me, and I’m thankful for every one.

Graduation is a biannual reminder that God is always at work setting apart a rising generation of pastors and other leaders. Among the people called Southern Baptist, he’s doing some exciting things, no matter what you might have heard from a misinformed denominational servant, a malcontent pastor, or a malevolent blogger. God isn’t finished with us yet, and I remain convinced that the course correction that began in the latter third of the twentieth century will continue to bear good fruit long into the future.

I’m thankful for our graduates and for their peers in our sister institutions. I’m thankful that almost all of them are convictional and committed Southern Baptists. I remain hopeful that most of the few who are convictional, but not committed will change their mind as they see the many good things that God is doing in and through Southern Baptists. And I remain very hopeful that our best days lie ahead, should God continue to desire to work through our Convention of local Baptist churches for his glory.

(This post was cross-published at Christian Thought & Tradition)

Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?

Several years ago, Southern Seminary president Albert Mohler wrote an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” In that essay, Mohler argues that a key to spiritual maturity is being able to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. According to Mohler, primary or first-order doctrines are those that are essential to the faith-you cannot reject these beliefs and still be Christian in the biblical sense of the term. Mohler’s examples include such matters as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, justification by faith, and the full authority of Scripture.

Secondary or second-order doctrines are those that generate disagreement among authentic Christians and typically result in an inability to be a part of the same denomination or often even congregation. Mohler’s examples of second-order doctrines are gender roles and baptism.

Tertiary or third-order doctrines are those doctrines that engender disagreement, but do not normally prevent two Christians from being part of the same church or group of churches. Mohler’s cites disagreement about the finer details of eschatology, presumably the nature of the millennium and the timing of the rapture, as textbook tertiary doctrines.

Southern Baptists have responded in a variety of ways to Mohler’s paradigm. Some argue it is a helpful way to think about the nature of Christian cooperation. They claim we all do theological triage, even if subconsciously and without using the label. Others voice concerns that Mohler’s views, or at least some possible applications of his views, lead to a downplaying of important theological convictions. They claim that theological triage results in our picking and choosing which biblical commands we will obey and which we will fudge on for ecumenical purposes.

For my part, I am firmly in the camp that agrees that theological triage is a helpful term that describes what all Christians already do, even if they don’t know it. I reject the notion that in principle categorizing doctrines as either primary, secondary, or tertiary necessarily leads to some sort of inappropriate compromise. When I choose to work with others with whom I disagree on secondary or tertiary convictions, I am not endorsing their convictions-I’m simply recognizing that what I believe to be their error doesn’t preclude us from working together in certain matters.

I think one reason the idea of theological triage raises concerns for many Baptists is because ecclesiological distinctives, and particularly baptism, are almost always considered second-order doctrines. Mohler himself uses baptism as one of his examples as a secondary doctrine. How should Baptists, and particularly Southern Baptists, think of the doctrine of baptism (and ecclesiology in general)? Is baptism a second-order doctrine?

I think the answer is both yes and no. There is a sense in which baptism is most certainly a secondary doctrine because a certain form of baptism is not necessary for salvation. In other words, you can be really converted and really love Jesus and really be growing in your faith, yet hold to an erroneous view of baptism. It is a secondary doctrine.

But as Southern Baptists, it is important to recognize that a particular understanding of baptism-the full immersion of professed believers-is a core distinctive of our churches and our denomination. While every Southern Baptist I know would agree that baptism doesn’t contribute to our salvation, almost every Southern Baptist I know would argue that confessor’s baptism by immersion is the explicit teaching of the New Testament and that other Christians who sprinkle babies and call it baptism are in error, even if they don’t know it.

Baptism is a secondary doctrine, but one that Baptists honestly believe is taught in the New Testament and should be embraced by other believers. To argue baptism is a primary doctrine is sectarian and smacks of a bapto-centric spirit that values the sign of the new covenant over the realities of the new covenant, even if implicitly. But to argue that baptism is unimportant or a matter of adiaphora is to disregard a doctrine that Scripture ties to the gospel (Rom. 6), missions (Matt. 28), and the church (Acts 2). Baptism is very important, but it is not of first importance.

For the record, I think Mohler would likely agree with my argument (though he’d no doubt make it more eloquently were he writing this). I don’t see anything in his essay that hints at the idea that baptism-or any other secondary or even tertiary doctrine-is unimportant. In fact, he argues that disagreements about secondary doctrines help define denominations and churches. Baptists give special emphasis to the secondary doctrine of baptism, which necessarily helps distinguish us from other types of Christians.

Southern Baptists should not retreat one inch from our commitment to New Testament baptism. But neither should we act as if an erroneous view of baptism necessarily calls into question one’s regeneration and/or his gospel usefulness. We should speak prophetically to our brothers and sisters in Christ when it comes to baptism (and ecclesiology in general), but we should also humbly recognize that God is working among those who are wrong on baptism, sometimes to a much greater degree than he is working among Baptists. I hope we will work with them in every way we can without sacrificing our baptismal convictions.