The Gospel and Baptist Identity

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on July 6, 2008.] 

It seems to me that there is an unhealthy false dilemma that has arisen in the discourse within the Southern Baptist Convention over the last few years. There are some Southern Baptists who talk quite a bit about the gospel. There are others who talk about the importance of Baptist identity. Particularly in the SBC blogosphere, these two emphases are often pitted against each other, whether intentionally or not. This is surely not healthy.

The great shame of the false dilemma between the gospel and Baptist identity is that I doubt very many people actually believe one to the exclusion of the other. I have no doubt that the vast majority of “gospel Baptists” strongly affirms Baptist identity. But it seems sometimes like gospel Baptists divorce the gospel part from the Baptist part, or at the very least like they are a bit embarrassed by the Baptist part. I think this happens for at least two reasons. First, as a general rule, gospel Baptists spend most of their energy debating and defending the good news, not ecclesiology, which is the most visible aspect of Baptist identity. Second, many gospel Baptists are willing to cooperate at various levels with gospel-centered evangelicals in other traditions, which raises the ire of Baptists who are suspicious of other types of believers.

I also believe that the vast majority of “identity Baptists” believes the gospel; it would be very bad news if they did not! But it seems sometimes like identity Baptists also divorce the gospel part from the Baptist part, or at the very least like they are suspicious about too much talk about the gospel without giving due deference to Baptist distinctives. I think there are also at least two reasons for this tendency. First, as a general rule, identity Baptists tend to emphasize the differences that Baptists have with other Christians rather than commonalities. Second, because identity Baptists spend most of their time debating and defending ecclesiology rather than the gospel, other Baptists get the impression that identity Baptists are more concerned with the jots and tittles of Baptist principles than they are with the main thing: the good news of Jesus Christ.

The dilemma is further complicated by code language, arrogance, and sectarian tendencies in both streams of thought. For some gospel Baptists, the word “gospel” is really code language for five-point Calvinism. Take, for example, Together for the Gospel, where the lineup of speakers (including the Baptists) at least suggests, even if unintentionally, that the conference is really Together for Calvinism. Other Calvinists are quite intentional, bandying about Spurgeon’s infamous dictum that Calvinism is nothing more or less than the gospel itself. Though very few Calvinists will go so far as to argue that non-Calvinists are non-Christians, there is a discernable sectarian streak among some Calvinists who equate the gospel with their own theological convictions.

For some identity Baptists, the phrase “Baptist identity” is really code language for Landmarkism, or at least Landmark-like interpretations of some Baptist distinctives, particularly baptism. Blogs, articles, papers, and conference addresses indicate that there are some Baptists who think “Baptist identity” really means their personal interpretation of Baptist distinctives. (This is most curious in a tradition that has, as a general rule, been quite diverse because of our emphases on freedom of conscience and local church autonomy.) It is also clear that some identity Baptists are uninterested in cooperating with other Christians at almost any level, though I trust very few would go so far as to argue that non-Baptists are non-Christians. There is a discernable sectarian streak among some identity Baptists who assume-or at least imply-that real Baptists are the ones who agree with their opinions, even on matters not tightly defined by the Baptist Faith & Message.

So how do we move past this unfortunate impasse? I would humbly suggest to my fellow Southern Baptists that all of us do a better job of clearly articulating the gospel and grounding our Baptist identity in that gospel. We must reconcile the gospel and Baptist identity.

We have to clearly define and proclaim the gospel. All Southern Baptists, regardless of their views about Calvinism, must believe and preach the good news of all that God has done through the person and work of Jesus Christ, even if we articulate aspects of that good news in slightly different ways. We cannot downplay the holiness of the Triune God who created all things. We cannot go soft on human sin in general and our own sin in particular. We cannot deemphasize Christ’s incarnation as the God-Man and his position as the final Adam. We cannot ignore the saving work of Christ in perfectly fulfilling God’s law, paying the penalty for sin on the cross through his own shed blood, absorbing the wrath of God on our behalf, defeating the powers of darkness in his atoning death and victorious resurrection from the dead, and securing the final redemption of the cosmos. We cannot undermine the truth that sinners are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And we cannot downplay the need of every person on earth to personally repent of their sin and trust in the finished work of Christ for their salvation. All Southern Baptists must embrace and proclaim these truths, lest we find ourselves clinging to individual pieces of the gospel rather than the entirety of the good news.

Southern Baptists must also define and defend our Baptist identity as the ecclesiological fruit of the gospel. A regenerate church membership includes the people created by the gospel as they covenant together in a local visible community. Believer’s baptism by immersion visually depicts the gospel, is the public, personal owning of the gospel, and identifies a believer with the people created by the gospel. Healthy congregational church polity is the gospel lived out in community by gospel people. Responsible local church autonomy reflects the freedom of gospel people in a specific gospel community to pursue gospel ends. Defending religious liberty for all protects the freedom of the gospel to be commended, believed, and embodied by present and future gospel people. The priesthood of all believers means that the people of the gospel minister that gospel to one another and to those who do not yet believe the gospel, because of the continuing mediation of the final High Priest who is at the center of the gospel. Redemptive church discipline protects the integrity of gospel communities by rescuing gospel people who have strayed and removing from the community those people who show no evidence of embracing the gospel. It is not enough to proof-text Baptist distinctives; our identity must be grounded in the gospel itself and commended to others as the most consistent application of that gospel to all ecclesiological matters.

This post is not intended to answer every question about the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. But it is intended to start what I pray is a healthy conversation that can help to bridge the gap between different types of Southern Baptist conservatives. If we are to move forward and embrace a Great Commission Resurgence, we must be sure that we know who we are, that we know why we are, and that we know what to preach to others as we make disciples of all people and baptize them in the name of our Triune God. We must be a people of the gospel. And we must be a Baptist people. And I believe that we can humbly, but firmly, argue that we are the latter because we embrace the former.

The Future of the Cooperative Program

I love the Cooperative Program because I have seen it at work. My first paycheck as a Southern Baptist pastor consisted of combined funds from my church, the local Baptist association, the state convention, and the Home Mission Board (now NAMB). Cooperative Program funds made it financially possible for me to earn three degrees at a Baptist university and seminary. As an employee of two Southern Baptist seminaries and the International Mission Board, I have seen the Cooperative Program at work every day. Students and missionaries are engaging lostness around the world, and the Cooperative Program makes that possible.

Like many others, though, I am concerned about the future of the Cooperative Program. Here are the thoughts of one loyal Southern Baptist.

First, something must change. I’m sure that statement sounds simplistic, but even those of us who love the Cooperative Program must admit the direction we have been heading is not a positive one. I see glimmers of hope, but glimmers will not suffice when churches are still plateaued, cities are still unreached, and 1.7 billion people still have little access to the gospel.

Second, all Southern Baptists, beginning with me, must make sure we are wise stewards of the dollars God gives us. I must budget well and spend wisely in my home, prioritizing funds for God’s work. So must my local church, the local Baptist association, and my state convention. So, too, must the Southern Baptist organizations for which I work. None of us should be threatened by an honest call to prioritize the Great Commission in our spending.

Third, we must admit what approaches to promoting the Cooperative Program will not suffice; that is, we must recognize that some approaches by themselves will not fix the problem. Seminary classes—and I write as a seminary dean—will not by themselves produce Cooperative Program advocates. Denominational programs by themselves will not work. State convention and associational promotions by themselves will not accomplish the task. Frankly, many of those who need to hear the call to Cooperative Program support have already tuned out denominational voices.

I make no claim that this proposal is the answer, but I do believe it is one answer: we who have been have seen the Cooperative Program at work must intentionally teach others about its value. I am not talking about pastors “preaching” the CP to a congregation, or state convention leaders promoting the Program to convention attendees. I am speaking of individuals who strategically invest in other individuals, guiding them to see the value of the CP and challenging them to get on board—a type of “Great Commission mentoring,” if you will.

And, there are many of us who could take on this challenge. Every Southern Baptist educated at a Southern Baptist seminary has been the recipient of Cooperative Program funds. Those of us who have volunteered alongside International Mission Board missionaries have seen the value of cooperative giving. Many state convention employees, associational directors of mission, and church planters have received Cooperative Program funds through the North American Mission Board. If you have met a young leader who is investing his life in a major city to plant a church, you have likely seen those funds at work. Many of us—like me—would not have had a livable wage as a young pastor were it not for Southern Baptists giving through the CP. Even now, the young people in our churches can receive an education and fulfill their ministries because of the Cooperative Program.

We have an obligation to share with others the gift we have received. The needs of the nations demand our attention. You may have your own plan, but here is mine:

  1. I will take some responsibility for a lack of commitment to the Cooperative Program. As a pastor, I assumed too much—that everyone would automatically know about and support the CP simply because the CP was a portion of our budget.
  2. I will choose five young church leaders and invest the time and energy necessary to introduce them strategically to the Cooperative Program. My plan is to begin with three seminary students and two local pastors.
  3. I will tell them how much the CP has contributed to my life. I am privileged to do what I do because Southern Baptists have given through the years.
  4. I will connect them with Convention leaders, state leaders, associational leaders, missionaries, church planters, and pastors who receive CP support. I want these five young leaders to see the CP as faces and ministries—not as a program.
  5. I will willingly hear and respond to any concerns and questions these young leaders may have. The Cooperative Program is not perfect, and young minds can help us strengthen it.
  6. I will not be defensive, but I will challenge these leaders to support the CP even while we work together to make it stronger.
  7. I will pray weekly for our Convention and state leaders responsible for promoting the Cooperative Program, as well as for the young leaders I am teaching.
  8. I will expect these leaders then to tell others about the Cooperative Program.

This proposal will not fix everything, but it is a starting point. It is something I can do to encourage support for the Cooperative Program. One to one. Person to person. Pastor to pastor. Face to face. Changed life to changed life, for the sake of those who have not heard the gospel.






Reflections on the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, Part 1

Danny Akin preaching the Convention sermon

Last week, Southern Baptists held their annual Convention in Houston, Texas. In general, I think it was a very good gathering. I returned to Wake Forest very hopeful about the direction Southern Baptists are heading, with one important exception (see below).

Every year, I try to offer some reflections on the SBC Annual Meeting from the perspective of one who is a scholar of Baptist Studies in general and a student of Southern Baptist life in particular. This will be the first of two posts to that end. What follows are my thoughts on the Convention. I will not offer any sort of systematic summary, but rather will focus on some of the happenings and themes that I wish to emphasize.

1. Declining Attendance. I will begin with the one negative, at least from my perspective. According to Baptist Press, approximately 5100 messengers were present for the Houston Convention. While I was not expecting 10,000 messengers, I’m quite surprised the attendance was so low. Consider the messenger counts (approximate) since 2005:

  • Nashville (2005) – 11,500
  • Greensboro (2006) – 11,500
  • San Antonio (2007) – 8600
  • Indianapolis (2008) – 7200
  • Louisville (2009) – 8700
  • Orlando (2010) – 11,000
  • Phoenix (2011) – 4800
  • New Orleans (2012) – 7800
  • Houston (2013) – 5100

We are clearly in the midst of a participation free-fall. From 2005–2007, we averaged 10,500 messengers. This is down considerably from the hottest days of The Controversy in the 1980s and 1990s, but still solid average attendance. From 2008–2010, we averaged just under 9,000 messengers. Keep in mind Orlando was especially well-attended because of the debate concerning the Great Commission Resurgence. From 2011–2013, we averaged 5900 messengers. Keep in mind that New Orleans was generally well-attended because of Fred Luter’s nomination for Convention president.

I will not take the time in this post to tease out the possible reasons for this trend or to offer any possible solutions. (Feel free to offers some in the comments, so long as you play nicely.) I simply want to point out what many observers already know: the number of meaningfully engaged Southern Baptists is shrinking at an even faster rate than our gradually declining membership numbers. We are on pace to average only 3000–3500 messengers in the next three or four years.

2. The Convention Sermon. If you will allow me to be a Southeastern “homer” for just a minute, one of the biggest highlights for me was hearing Danny Akin preach the Convention sermon. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; many of our finest preachers never have the chance to preach the Convention sermon. Akin preached a powerful message titled “Will Southern Baptists be Great Commission Baptists?” We posted the manuscript and video last week at Between the Times. I hope you’ve taken the time to read the manuscript or, even better, watch the sermon. A transcript will also be published in the SBC Annual from the Houston Convention.

Those of us who are part of the SEBTS family have heard Akin sound many of his sermon’s themes over the past seven or eight years, but it was a great encouragement to hear him make his case before the entire Convention. The response I heard was very positive, especially from everyday Southern Baptists who don’t pay much attention to social media. My prayer is that we will heed Akin’s words so that Great Commission Baptists isn’t just an alternate descriptor for a few of us, but is the vision owned by all Southern Baptists.

3. LifeWay and the North American Mission Board. I am supremely impressed with the leadership of Thom Rainer (LifeWay) and Kevin Ezell (NAMB). These men lead strategic ministries that are heading in a healthy direction. I’m especially encouraged when I hear younger Southern Baptists in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who are energized by initiatives and emphases such as The Gospel Project, Ministry Grid, Disaster Relief, and Send North America. Several younger messengers told me that the highlight of their Convention experience was attending the Send North America luncheon.

It wasn’t that long ago that many of my generational peers were suggesting that LifeWay was specializing in curricula and products that a decreasing number of churches cared about. I don’t hear that complaint much there days. And then there is NAMB. I’m delighted that NAMB has gone from being a mostly dysfunctional ministry just a few years ago to being the denominational ministry that tends to elicit the most excitement from younger ministers (and many older ones, too).

On Wednesday morning, I will publish a second post with my reflections on the Houston Convention.

(Image credit)