Why I am Southern Baptist

As I sit in Asia working with some of our IMB missionaries, I am blessed to see the work we do together. And, honestly, everyone here sees the importance of our denominational cooperation for the purpose of global missions. (You can follow along on our trip here.)

But, right now, things seem to be a bit “in flux” back home. So, perhaps I can add a little encouragement today as I sit with a group of missionaries talking about how to engage this context in evangelism and church planting. Seeing this ministry in action, it seems a good time to share why I am a Southern Baptist and maybe encourage you to be involved in that partnership as well.

In my role, one of the more common questions I am asked is, “Why are you in a denomination?” After all, many of the conferences where I speak are sponsored by non-denominational groups and are attended by non-denominational church leaders. It turns out that I am an anomaly at events like the National Outreach Convention and the Catalyst Conference, at least in terms of the scheduled speakers. Last I checked, I am the only speaker with a denominational business card.

So, they ask me, “Why go denominational?” and, with more volume and incredulity, “Why Southern Baptist?”

Besides the preference for some to remain non-denominational, there are those who believe denominations are passé, that we are moving into a post-denominational era. So, they ask, “Why remain in a denomination at all? Why not be a part of the wave of change?”

These are good questions, so let me answer them here with five reasons why I am Southern Baptist. I will share more of this at the upcoming Union University conference and in a forthcoming article in Christianity Today (on denominationalism in general).

Here are the reasons I am a Southern Baptist. I hope they encourage you to be a part of our family of churches committed to reaching the world through cooperative missions.

1) Theology

I am an inerrantist, complementarian, cooperating Baptist, and fit in my denomination. If I found things in the Bible I could not believe, thought I could throw water on a baby and call it baptism, or preferred total church independence without denominational cooperation, I would be in the wrong spot. I am here by informed choice.

Unlike many in my denomination, I did not grow up “in the system.” I came to Christ in another denomination-one moving from orthodoxy to liberalism. So, I looked around to find who most closely matched my convictions of inerrancy. At the time, the Southern Baptist Convention had undergone a return to biblical inerrancy and sufficiency. It was the people that I felt the greatest affinity with as a group. So I joined up. (Well, I didn’t exactly join up, but I joined a church that was joined up…ah, you know what I mean.)

2) Conservative

No denomination is perfect. But choosing a denomination is the chance to choose your problems as well as your strengths. Coming into the SBC as a young man, I didn’t know everything but I knew enough to know I belonged.

If you read my writings, you know that at heart: I’m just a God-loving, Bible-thumping, Christ’s blood-preaching, Baptist. Sure, I wrap it all in missiological jargon but I’m really just a conservative theologian who loves God, His people, His Word, and the lost of the world. Being a conservative in doctrine and flexible in my method, I find a comfortable home with the SBC.

Now, we are Baptists which means we like to disagree. As the joke goes, we’re tempted to think Matthew 18:20 reads, “where two or more are gathered, there will be three or more opinions.” But I am glad to know that our disagreements are not on the core issues. In the doctrinal issues of the atonement and the Scripture’s authority along with the cultural issues of active missions and the need for justice, we are all on the same team.

3) Cooperation

I do not disparage those who choose to remain independent of a denomination. But, I believe that the old saying is a true saying: “We can do more together than we can do alone.” The theory behind the SBC is that we cooperate on multiple levels. Now, I know we don’t always do a good job but the opportunity comes with multiple levels of influence (local, state, national and international) for those who will embrace it.

As a church planter, I worked alongside local associations, state conventions, our North American Mission Board, and the national convention. It is a family of churches who have a tremendous reach and tremendous resources. Sure every family has a few crazy uncles who eat all the apple pie at family reunions, but all-in-all, we get along pretty well. In fact, we get along very well for a denomination of 50,000 churches and congregations, over 1000 local associations, 42 state conventions, six seminaries, the largest domestic mission agency on our continent (NAMB), the largest Protestant denominational mission agency in history (IMB), and one of the largest Christian publishing houses in the world.

I am proud to stand on a history of cooperating churches that constantly renew their commitment to Christ, the Great Commission, and finding new ways to care for the needy of our world. It is a system where you can find what you need and give as much as you want. Because, the key to cooperation is to both give and take. That is why I mentioned the importance of the Cooperative Program at the Baptist 21 panel. Where I am right now, I see the importance of the CP.

Which leads me to my fourth point.

4) The Cooperative Program

As I travel around the world (as I am right now in Asia), I meet church planters and various missionaries from many denominations. But few outside of the SBC workers are able to stay on the field year-round. They wish they had our Cooperative Program to fund their work rather than spending valuable time raising funds from partners back home.

Recently, we have had some intensive conversations about its inner workings. Is it at times inefficient? Yes. But a compelling and historically validated argument can be made that it would be less efficient if we did not have the CP and every church did its own individual strategy without cooperating with other churches. More than just the mere pooling of cash, the Cooperative Program allows for a further reach than all of our churches could hope to do one at a time.

By being in the SBC, I can give away resources to people whom I will never meet to reach places I will never go and give the Gospel to the lost who are beyond my reach. The Cooperative Program is a genius invention.

5) Fellowship

Did I mention the crazy uncle at your family reunion? Sometimes he’s the one that shows up and sometimes he is… you. But whoever is the difficult one in the room or the life of the party, our denomination finds a way to pursue God’s mission and pursue it together.

I tell a lot of self-deprecating humor on the part of our denomination. I think we need to laugh at ourselves at times. Things are not perfect, but we can grow through them and figure them out as a family.

And, I am not here because I need to be. I am here because I believe in what we can be.

Yes, meetings can be a challenge and organizations can get sidetracked. When we get together, it makes for classic “iron sharpening iron” moments. But when we go out together, I don’t believe any force can stop us.

The fellowship achieved through our denomination provides for both encouragement and accountability. When churches are hurting, fellow churches can come alongside of them. And when churches fall astray, we can call on them in love to return to faithful relationship with Christ. Our fellowship can be abused but more often than not, our pastors and leaders find ways to enjoy one another’s company as they minister to one another.

Being a part of our denomination-or any denomination-has its challenges. Operating a large organization for spiritual purposes is complicated. And, I know our denomination pretty well and have compared it with many others. At the end of the day, we may need to fix and re-prioritize some things, but the SBC is a tool that God is using in powerful ways in the states and around the world. And, that is part of why I believe God has called me to be a part of our SBC family of churches.

Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future

This week Crossway has published a new collection of essays titled Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future. David Dockery edited the volume, which is substantially (though not entirely) based upon the two Baptist Identity Conferences held at Union University in 2004 and 2007. You can still listen to the audio presentations from those conferences by clicking here and here.

The contributors to Southern Baptist Identity include Dockery, Al Mohler, Stan Norman, Greg Wills, Timothy George, Russ Moore, Paige Patterson, James Leo Garrett, Morris Chapman, Ed Stetzer, Jim Shaddix, Thom Rainer, Mike Day, Richard Land, Nathan Finn, and Danny Akin. Justin Taylor at Between Two Worlds recently conducted a helpful interview with Dockery. The book will be available for purchase at the SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville.

On The GCR Declaration, Part 6

This is the final article in a series on the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. As you read, please remember that while Between the Times is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

Article IX: A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure

Judging by the reactions on all sides, you would think this is the only thing in the GCR statement. There are people who have been energized by this article. There are people who have been horrified by this article. There are some who think this is the most important section of the GCR Declaration. There are others who think this section needs to be cut. I have saved my engagement with this article for last, for two reasons. First, it is the article that has generated the most buzz. Second, I want to be absolutely clear about my convictions–and one major concern–related to this section of the GCR Declaration.

Let me begin by saying I think the SBC needs to be reevaluated and possibly restructured. I am not sure that Covenant for a New Century went far enough, though I think it began moving us in the right direction. I also believe that the various autonomous layers of our denomination that cooperate with the SBC (like state conventions) also need to be reevaluated and in some cases possibly restructured. I agree with the GCR Declaration when it says, “Some of our convention structures at all levels need to be streamlined for more faithful stewardship of the funds entrusted to them. We must address with courage and action where there is overlap and duplication of ministries, and where poor stewardship is present”.

Second, I realize that every layer of our denomination is autonomous and that the SBC can only make decisions about the SBC. If President Hunt’s taskforce is approved and if that taskforce recommends a restructuring, such recommendations, if implemented, will only affect the SBC. State conventions and local associations may or may not follow suit. Only a majority vote of the messengers to multiple annual meetings in each layer can bring change to that layer. But that didn’t stop us from pursuing a Conservative Resurgence, did it? I think a Great Commission Resurgence is worth the same effort. If enough churches want to see changes, you can bet that every layer of the denomination will start changing. It’s that simple.

Third, contrary to some of the rhetoric you may have heard, any restructuring would most certainly be about the Great Commission if it was done well and for the right reasons. While the Great Commission was given to the churches, in our polity the local churches have entrusted some of their “Great Commission responsibilities” to different denominational layers on the assumption that those layers would help the churches pursue the task more effectively. To the degree that any of our denominational parachurch ministries are not helping our churches in these responsibilities, they are a Great Commission liability. We have an obligation–for the sake of effective gospel proclamation–to examine everything we do and see if we can do it better.

Fourth, I have no specific recommendations about what any potential restructuring should look like. I leave such decisions to wiser people. But I know there are weak spots. To cite just one example, in our North American church planting in particular there is way too much overlap, as numerous others have already alluded (including President Hunt and Dr. Akin). We have to rethink how we presently do church planting because we don’t do it very well. As one particularly bright (and well-known) younger Southern Baptist said in a recent meeting I attended, “Most of the guys I know believe that ACTS 29 is a resource and NAMB is just a hoop you have to jump through”. I know naming ACTS 29 just sent some readers into cardiac arrest, but rest assured that this young man wasn’t thinking about Calvinism, alcohol, wearing jeans and flip-flops to corporate worship, or cussing in the pulpit when he made that comment. He was thinking about how ineffective our denominational parachurch ministries are when it comes to planting churches. He could have compared NAMB (and many state conventions) to a dozen other church planting agencies and the verdict would have been the same.

Fifth, I think that whatever reevaluation and restructuring may take place applies just as much to me and my institution as it does to you and yours. Let me say loud and clear that if a restructured SBC means I don’t get to be a professor, I will gladly find a local church to serve or will apply for the mission field. God called me to the gospel ministry before he led me to become a professor. And since I hope and pray it is God’s will for us to embrace a more “simple” denominational structure, I trust that if I must go then that is also his will and he will lead me to wherever he wants me to be.

Finally, please know that I am a big fan, in principle, of state conventions and local associations. All state conventions do some things well and some state conventions do most things well. Certain state convention ministries like summer youth camps, Baptist papers, and Christian liberal arts education continue to have a considerable influence on our wider denomination. And who isn’t glad that most state conventions have programs to help connect ministers with open staff positions in local churches? State conventions provide some valuable services. I particularly appreciate some of the smaller state conventions that put a majority of their financial resources into evangelism, church planting, and church revitalization because they are located in what we used to call “pioneer” areas. So rest assured that I do not want to see state conventions go away.

But many state conventions, especially the larger ones that are in regions where the SBC has always been numerically strong, have acquired large bureaucracies as their number of programs has proliferated. Being somewhat familiar with several state conventions, I am convinced that almost all of the “big” conventions (and some of the “smaller” ones) have at least some superfluous programs and initiatives that need to be cut. Some of these programs do little more than perpetuate the bureaucratization of the state conventions.

Let me give one real-life example: no state convention should employ an individual or individuals whose sole job is to figure out how to convince autonomous churches to give more money to the Cooperative Program. I have talked to Southern Baptists in three different states who have told me that the fact such a position even exists in their conventions demonstrates why churches refuse to send a higher percentage of their CP money through the state convention. Two of the brothers who told me this are part of megachurches that greatly irk the state convention bureaucrats because they don’t give the “right amount” to the CP. But for these churches, their choice is a matter of good stewardship.

Thank God for state conventions, but some of them need to go on a diet so that they can get healthier, live longer, and accomplish more for the sake of the kingdom.

As for associations, they have the potential to be the most fruitful layer of our denominational life because they are the layer “closest” to the local church. I know a handful of directors of missions who are some of my heroes because of the way they are serving their churches and advancing the gospel in their respective regions. But as a general rule, since the mid-20th century associations have been little more than the local arm of the bureaucracy. I don’t want to say too much more at the risk that I engage in overgeneralization. Let me just say this: I am sorely disappointed that the very layer that could be the most helpful to our churches is often the layer that is most irrelevant.

Before closing, remember that I said earlier in this article that I did have one major concern about Article IX. I confess it is a very different concern than those voiced by opponents of any type of reevaluation and restructuring. I am very concerned that we will embrace a restructuring and substitute it for the rest of the agenda. I fear we will wake up around 2013 or 2014 and have a “leaner” denomination but will have not grown in our love for God and neighbor, not renewed our commitment to gospel-centeredness, not been honest about some of the problems in our churches, not become more missional, not stopped fighting over secondary and tertiary issues, and not honored our Lord Jesus Christ in the process. I am deathly afraid that five years from now we will be nothing more than a streamlined version of who we are right now. This is what I pray against. I think a restructuring could be of benefit to our denomination, but I do not want to see a restructuring at the expense of the other nine articles. It’s not worth it.

I could say much more, but it’s time to close out this series of articles. I will be in Louisville from Sunday through Thursday. I plan to be at most of the Pastor’s Conference, the Baptist 21 Panel Discussion, the two Nine Marks at Nine events, and of course the Convention itself. I’ll also be in and out of the SEBTS booth a good bit. If you’ve never seen me before, I’m the stocky dude with the bowtie and the beard. I hope you’ll introduce yourself. And even if you don’t, I hope you will join me in praying (and voting!) for a Great Commission Resurgence among the people called Southern Baptist.