Aspect 5(a): A Mission Driven by Biblical Theology (Revelation, God)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

For three decades now, the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention have united over their belief in the inspiration, inerrancy and sufficiency of Holy Scripture.[1] Unlike those (such as Schleiermacher or Freud) who see Scripture as a human construction void of any revelation, and unlike those (such as Barth or Lindbeck) who see Scripture merely as a witness to divine revelation, we confess that the Christian Scriptures are the very words of God. This we have made very clear. What we have not made clear, however, is whether we are committed to allowing our high view of Scripture, and the concomitant doctrines of historic Christianity, to determine and shape our ministry methodology.

Because the Christian Scriptures are indeed the very words of God, we want to mold our strategies and methods according to those words.[2] And while this might seem to be a yawningly obvious observation, we must pay careful attention in light of the fact that often we do not allow the Scriptures to drive our methods of evangelism, discipleship, church growth, and church planting. We find ourselves speaking loudly about inerrancy, while undermining that same conviction by our practices.

One of the significant challenges in upcoming years, therefore, is ensuring that we build a theologically-driven missiology in which Scripture and sound doctrine provide the starting point, the parameters, and the trajectory for our method and practice. “It has become apparent,” David Dockery writes, “that a firm theological foundation is important for faithful Gospel proclamation. Pastors, theologians, evangelists, and lay people must work harder at closing the gap between theology and the work of evangelism so that our theology is done for the church and our proclamation is grounded in biblically based theology.”[3] We must consciously, carefully, and consistently seek to understand the biblical narrative and its implications for church practice, and in particular for our missiological method. Building a theologically-driven missiology is hard work because (1) as our global, national, and cultural contexts change from era to era our missiology must be re-worked and re-written afresh; and (2) proof-texting does not suffice to handle such complexities faithfully. Many of the particular challenges that we face are not addressed explicitly by Scripture. Rather, we must call forth the deep-level principles in the Bible and allow them to speak with propriety and prescience to the issue at hand.

This is not to say that we may not learn from extra-biblical sources. Arthur Holmes is right: All truth is God’s truth! We benefit from reading widely in history, current affairs, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, marketing, and other disciplines. It is God who has given mankind the capacities to develop such disciplines and who allows us the great privilege and responsibility of using those for his glory. While Scripture alone provided knowledge of special doctrines (e.g. the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation by grace through faith alone), through our human faculties God has provided knowledge of other aspects of his good creation. God is the giver both of Scripture and of the created order, and the two are not in conflict with one another. When properly interpreted, they agree.[4] Therefore we do not ignore what we learn from extra-biblical sources, but we also must not allow anything other than biblical doctrine to have the driver’s seat in forming our method and practice.

Take, for example, the biblical doctrine of God, which is absolutely central to the life of the church but in some ways is overlooked in the mission of the church. The Scriptures describe how God does all that he does for the sake of his name, for his renown, for his glory. He created man for his glory (Is 43:7) and chose Israel for his glory (Is 49:3). He sent our Lord Jesus Christ so that the Gentiles would give him glory (Ro 15:8-9) and then vindicated his glory by making propitiation through his Son (Rom 3:23-26). He sent the Spirit to glorify the Son (Jn 16:14) and tells us to do all things for his glory (1 Cor 10:31). He will send his Son again to receive glory (2 Thess 1:9-10) and will fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory (Hab 2:14; Is 6:1-3). Indeed, all of this is so, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10).

God in all of his blazing glory stands at the center of the universe. He is the fountainhead of all truth, all goodness, and all beauty. And it is the increase of his glory that is God’s ultimate goal and man’s ultimate purpose.[5] An implication of this doctrine is that if our ultimate goal is to glorify God, we are set free from unbridled pragmatism. Ultimately, we seek to please God rather than to manipulate or coerce professions of faith, church growth, or church multiplication. We are directed away from the temptation to engage in evangelism and discipleship that subverts the gospel or the health of the church, and are free to proclaim the gospel God’s way and leave the results to God.

[1] Of course, not all Southern Baptist churches would affirm the inerrancy of the Scriptures. However, the majority of Southern Baptist churches do, and this is reflected in confessional statements such as the Baptist Faith & Message (2000).

[2] Thom Rainer makes this point in The Book of Church Growth in which he devotes one-third of the book to an exposition of the classical loci of systematic theology, explaining how those doctrines should drive our church growth strategies. The Book of Church Growth: History, Theology, and Principles (Nashville: B&H, 1993).

[3] David Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, 94.

[4] This is not to say that theologians and (natural or social) scientists never disagree. Often they do, but the disagreement is not found in any inherent conflict between Scripture and the natural world, but rather in theologians’ and scientists’ interpretations of the two. Either group might err and either group is therefore subject to correction. Because of our idolatry and the effects of the Fall, God’s special revelation provides “the lenses” through which we study the created order. See David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 259-94.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, in his The End for Which God Created the World, gives the most well-known and extended reflection upon this doctrine. Technically, The End is the first part of a two-part book by Edwards entitled Two Dissertations. See Two Dissertations, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8 (New Haven: Yale University, 1989). It should be noted, however, that although Edwards was a Calvinist, this doctrine is not one that should be trumpeted primarily or exclusively by those who are Calvinists.

On The GCR Declaration, Part 5

This is the fifth 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.

I am going to diverge from my practice thus far in this series by skipping Article IX and saving it for the final post. I think this makes sense because that article, which raises the question of denominational restructuring, has garnered the most attention. This post will address Articles VIII and X.

Article VIII: A Commitment to a Methodological Diversity That Is Biblically Informed

I have a confession: I’m somewhat surprised that more people are not talking about this article. Part of that is no doubt due to the exaggerated emphasis on Article IX, but I’m surprised nonetheless. As they say down in the swamps of Southeast Georgia, this article “opens up a can of worms”.

The first paragraph opens by noting, “There are essential and non-negotiable components of biblical ministry like proclamation, evangelism, service to others, prayer, and corporate worship. At the same time, we are convinced there is no specific style or method ordained by our God through which we must engage in these biblical ministries”. I think most Southern Baptists are in agreement with the first sentence, but the second sentence seems to make a claim that I’m convinced would make some Southern Baptists cringe.

I believe, perhaps incorrectly, that there are many Southern Baptists who think their particular “style or method”–I’ll just call them “preferences”–are God-ordained. Or at the very least, they should have been because everybody knows that healthy churches do things this way. This is perhaps because of the next thing the GCR Declaration says: “In the past, Southern Baptists were characterized by a remarkable uniformity in both style and substance”, though the document also correctly notes that those days are passed.

Things really are different than they used to be. RA’s, GA’s, and Acteens have been replaced with AWANAS. WMU has been replaced in many churches by more general women’s ministries. Brotherhood has been replaced by more general men’s ministries (though, by God’s grace, men’s fish-fries continue in many of the Baptist churches of the Deep South!). Many churches no longer view Sunday School–if they even have Sunday School–as the evangelistic “front door” of the church. Training Union/Discipleship Training has gone the way of the buffalo. The January Bible Studies and Doctrinal Studies are on the endangered species list. In a growing number of churches homecoming has gone into the retirement home, “revival” is something you pray for rather than schedule, and denominationally-published curricula are for churches too lazy to do their own homework and shop around for the best material.

For the record, I don’t endorse all of these trends-some of them even bother me (Discipleship Training remains a good idea in theory, LifeWay’s curricula are getting better all the time, and homecoming is a good way to remember a church’s gospel heritage). Furthermore, I realize that there are many churches that embrace every one of the programs/practices/traditions I described above. But the point I think the GCR Declaration is trying to make is that all of those practices are simply strategies, meaning they are negotiable, revisable, and yes, even expendable.

Younger pastors often face this temptation in a different way from their more experienced brethren. Instead of buying into the programmatic pragmatism that so permeates SBC culture, many of my generational peers are snotty and arrogant about new trends that they think are superior to the SBC, often for no other reason than that they were developed outside the SBC. This attitude is just as bad as the guy who thinks God only like Gaither songs and real evangelism only happens at the front door of someone’s house. All sides need to exercise a little more humility when it comes to the various ways we “do” church.

Here’s my position, stated as clearly as I know how: I don’t give a rip what strategies your church employs so long as you are doctrinally sound and none of your strategies clearly contradict Scripture. I may not lead my church to do what your church does-my instincts are very conservative and the only time I “think outside the box” is when I am devising new ways to convince my wife to let me buy more books. But I will pray that your church wins to Christ, baptizes, and disciples people that my church will never reach.

The second paragraph is simply an argument that our churches need to look at North America as a mission field in the same way that our missionaries look at Zimbabwe as a mission field. Being good missionaries means we will be adaptable and creative in our methods and strategies while remaining rigid and unflinching in our commitment to the sound doctrine.

It is a fact that Southern Gospel flies in some places and Christian “pop music” flies in others (though I’m not a big fan of either). It is a fact that church buildings are appealing in some contexts and unappealing (and even burdensome) in others. It is a fact that Sunday School works in some places and home groups work in others (both work in some places). It is a fact that knocking on doors is a good evangelism strategy in some contexts while servant evangelism is the best method in others. (I would argue that old-fashioned “relational evangelism” is the only strategy that “works” everywhere.) And it is a fact that the Bible gives absolutely no instructions about what type of dress is appropriate for corporate worship besides general guidelines about things like modesty, etc. (And I say this as a guy who wears a coat almost every Sunday.)

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that we should jettison preaching, evangelism, service, prayer, or corporate worship. I think our preaching should be bold, our evangelism should be fervent, our service should be selfless, our prayers should be kingdom-focused, and our corporate worship should be God-centered. What I am saying is that we won’t all do these things exactly the same way, and not only is that OK, but it is necessary if our priority really is reaching our culture rather than propagating our subculture.

Article X: A Commitment to Distinctively Christian Families

Having criticized Southern Baptists above, let me do some praising for a minute. To echo the GCR Declaration, Southern Baptists are in many ways, by God’s grace, a “counter-culture for the common good” when it comes to family matters. We still have a long way to go-some of our churches are still far too worldly when it comes to gender roles and family life. And we are not the only ones getting this right-many other conservative evangelicals share our conviction about marriage and family. But it is evidence of God’s grace that, as a Convention, Southern Baptists are willing to say what’s right, even when it’s not popular.

I think what the GCR Declaration says about these matters is very good. I would only add a handful of my own thoughts. First, I think it is important that we recognize that the Great Commission starts with our families. Our evangelism and discipleship must begin in the home, and churches must do a better job of helping Christian parents do this well.

Second, we must avoid the extremes. It is my personal opinion that Southern Baptists must eschew unhealthy tendencies like overly age-segregated ministries on the one hand and the “Family-Integrated Church” movement on the other. The former sells out to worldly priorities and too often farms parental evangelism and discipleship out to the church rather than the church equipping parents in their God-called responsibilities. The latter tries to redefine the very nature of the church, confuses 19th century cultural patriarchy with a biblical view of the family, and often embraces heterodox doctrines like theonomy. Both of these trends damage churches, the former by too-often separating families within the believing community and the latter by too-often confusing families with the believing community. We need balance.

Finally, we must do theological triage when it comes to debated matters like wives working outside the home, the number of children desired in a given family, non-abortifacient birth control, and schooling choices. Let’s be careful not to confuse our respective application of biblical principles with the principles themselves, lest we inappropriately someone else’s conscience.