On Southern Baptist Rivalries and the Need for Revival

[C]omplete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Phil. 2:2–3 ESV).

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on May 7, 2014.]

I have decided to blog about a topic that has frustrated me for many years. My friends—and not a few seminary students—will testify that I talk about this subject fairly regularly. This issue is the reason I mentally disengage from the SBC every July 1 and reengage around April 1, just in time to prepare for the SBC annual meeting. It is the reason I hardly ever read any blog posts related to the SBC and completely avoid several websites that seem to exist for the sole purpose of fostering controversy (my tolerance level for trolls is pretty low). To me, and I think to many others, Southern Baptists seem plagued with a spirit of unhealthy rivalry.


Let me give you some real-life case studies that exemplify the sort of rivalries which concern me. The names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Case Study 1: A particular gentleman is the finalist to be the new president of a SBC agency. He is widely respected by everyone who knows him. The president of another agency seeks to undermine the process behind the scenes because the new president-to-be is not a close personal ally of his. This has happened a lot, not only in national agencies, but also in state conventions.

Case Study 2: An associational director of missions is meeting with a group of pastors in a Deep South state. He tells all the pastors that they need to go the SBC Annual Meeting and vote against the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force’s Report. When asked by a pastor what the GCR is all about, the DOM tells them that the seminary presidents are trying to take over the SBC and that it is up to the pastors to save the convention from the “fat cats” at the seminaries. In this case, religious politics mirror secular politics: alleged centralized control by suspicious elites at the expense of the virtuous ordinary citizens.

Case Study 3: A group of younger ministers are discussing the Great Commission Resurgence. Almost all of them voice their desire that state Baptist conventions be significantly downsized and send nearly all of their Cooperative Program receipts to the Executive Committee. Some express a desire to “blow up” the state conventions completely. Interestingly, the “fat cat” reference is used again, but this time is directed at state convention employees who want to control the dollars while promulgating outdated programs and not realizing that the real influence is in the national agencies. Of course, since most of these younger ministers have never been to a state convention meeting, they aren’t exactly experts on the work of state conventions.

Case Study 4: A leading pastor in the SBC is having a conversation with another pastor. The leading pastor signed the “Traditional Statement” and he thinks the other pastor should as well. The second pastor, though not a Calvinist, raises concerns about the potential political ramifications of the Traditional Statement. The first pastor responds that the Traditional Statement is necessary because the Calvinists control half the seminaries, LifeWay, and the mission boards. He further suggests the Calvinists must be silenced or “we” will lose the convention. Based upon the wide sweep of agencies mentioned, the leading pastor obviously has a pretty expansive definition of Calvinism.

Case Study 5: A group of Calvinists are involved in a group email discussion. They are complaining about some unkind public comments that certain non-Calvinists have made recently. One of the participants in the discussion suggests that the non-Calvinists are just mad because the Calvinists are winning. He has no doubt that orthodoxy—by which he means Calvinism—will be ultimately be vindicated when spiritual renewal comes to the SBC. This fellow represents at least one Calvinist who is thinking in terms of a denominational competition with winners and losers.

These case studies are just a smattering of stories I could tell, but I really don’t want to be too specific. Frankly, I don’t think that would be helpful. Instead, I want to point out an issue that I think most engaged Southern Baptists are aware of and, hopefully, concerned about—the selfish rivalries in the convention. Almost every debate, discussion, or controversy among us ultimately boils down to matters of power and influence. Everyone wants to see “their people” positioned so that they can be in the proverbial driver’s seat. They also want to see the “other guys” have a limited voice in convention affairs. You cannot convince me that this attitude glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am thankful for President Fred Luter, Ronnie Floyd, and others who have been calling upon Southern Baptists to pray for revival. We sure need it! But make no mistake, my friends: authentic revival is accompanied by repentance and results in transformation. To be clear, revival probably doesn’t mean all of our divisions and rivalries will disappear completely. As a friend pointed out to me recently, there is a fine line between sinful rivalry and the sort of brotherly competition that is centered upon vision for the future. In a mostly democratic denomination, some competition is inevitable. However, should the Lord grant us spiritual awakening, my hope is that our competitions would be kept in perspective rather than devolving into the selfish rivalries that so often seem to be present in our denominational life.

The question facing Southern Baptists today is whether or not we are willing to repent of our carnal rivalries. Do we really want to see things change? Do we really want to work together for the sake of gospel advance? Or, do we really just want “our side” to win and have more power and influence? Sometimes I wonder. Yet, I choose to remain hopeful. My prayer for this year’s SBC is that we really will see the beginnings of a spiritual awakening among our people. One sure sign of authentic revival will be the waning of the sinful rivalries among us. Join me in praying that the Lord will bring us to repentance, renew in us a genuine love for one another, and allow us to be more faithful in proclaiming Christ here, there, and everywhere.

(Image credit)


Insider Movements and Theological Method

This past week, I posted a book notice about Doug Coleman’s fine new book, A Theological Analysis of the Insider’s Movement.[1] Because the book notice prompted some vigorous discussion, I thought it might be helpful to post an excerpt from an essay I am writing on theological method. In the essay, I try to show how significant one’s theological method is for ministry and mission in general. In the excerpted portion, below, I try to show how a healthy theological method could help correct some of the missteps of IM proponents.

“In recent days, missiologists and missionaries have become aware of ‘Insider Movements,’ which represent a new phenomenon and a new strategy in Muslim evangelism.[2] Insider Movements (IM) are movements within the Muslim world in which Muslim background believers choose to remain within Islam as a means of reaching Muslims. Some of them acknowledge Christ as their Savior only privately. IM proponents argue that this type of contextualization allows the convert to overcome significant barriers in order to incarnate like Jesus and Paul. Further, they argue that Christ does not require a convert to change his cultural identity or religion, and that the convert is free to reinterpret passages of the Qur’an so that he doesn’t have to renounce it as a whole. In addition, many IM proponents seem to see Islam as similar to OT Judaism and therefore not inherently opposed to the gospel.

We believe that IM strategy is fundamentally flawed for various reasons, but for now we will seek to show why theological method matters in adjudicating this issue. As we see it, the fundamental methodological flaw in many IM advocate’s strategy is their starting point-the existential reality of a Muslim background believer. IM proponents appear to begin with the lived existential tensions of being a convert in a Muslim context. In such environments, there are many barriers, including the strong aversion to “changing religions,” which is tantamount in those cultures to changing ones ethnic, national, and familial identity. Further these environments are also persecution-heavy, a convert faces the very real possibility of losing his job and family and perhaps even his life. Proceeding from such a difficult starting point, some IM proponents find a way to those converts. In order to do so, some IM proponents hold to an overly privatized and reductionist view of salvation in which a person gives mental assent to Christ as Savior, but does not fully embrace or implement the doctrines of repentance and Lordship. Second, some IM proponents do not recognize the importance of the redeemed community for the working out of one’s salvation (although others, such as Kevin Higgins, strongly emphasize the role of believing communities meeting together separate from the mosque for the purpose of Christian community and discipleship). Third many IM advocates misunderstand Islam, which exists as a religion custom-built to subvert and overthrow Trinitarian Christianity. Its Aryan Jesus and its doctrines of tawhid and shirk make clear that the worst possible sin for a Muslim is to believe in the Christian doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation. In sum, these three doctrinal missteps occurred in part because of a flawed theological starting point-the existential reality of Muslim converts.

We argue that if IM proponents began with the entire canon of Scripture as their starting point, and took into account what can be learned from church history, they would arrive at a different conclusion while still caring deeply for, and being sensitive to, the existential burdens and challenges facing converts in a Muslim context. In taking into account the entire biblical teaching, we respond to the first misstep by offering the biblical teaching concerning Christ’s Lordship (Col. 1:13-23) and the necessity of human repentance (2 Pet 3:9; Lk 14:25-33). Indeed, believers in any global religious context must turn their backs on false saviors; they must repudiate tribal gods and witch doctors; they must reject their belief that the Qur’an is God’s revelation and that Muhammad is his prophet; they must cease to worship in spirit temples and ancestral shrines; they must turn their back on the worship of sex, money, power, and other metaphorical idols. This is a fundamental tenet of Christianity. We respond to the second misstep by offering a robust ecclesiology in which we are not only saved from our sins, but are saved for discipleship in the context of the believing community, a community that clearly distinguishes itself from other communities of worship. Indeed, God’s church is a sign of the kingdom and an instrument of the kingdom in a way that individual converts never can be (especially if those converts are still identifying themselves as Muslims and attending mosque services). The body of Christ, working together, bears robust and powerful witness to Christ. We respond to the third misstep by offering the biblical teaching on idolatry (Rom 1:14-32), in which Islam must be viewed as idolatrous and antithetical to Trinitarian Christianity and to the doctrines of grace.

One should note that the persecuted believers of the New Testament faced a similar situation in which they worshiped in the midst of rival religions. In particular, they found themselves in direct opposition to the cult of Caesar. Instead of blending in with the cult, they found appropriate ways to make clear their allegiance to Christ. They baptized, gathered together for worship, and refused to recognize Caesar as a god. Theirs was a faith which was forged the midst of strong Christian churches which clearly distinguished themselves from rival religious communities, such as the cult of Caesar. Although the (commendable) aim of IM proponents is to help new converts maintain familial and communal connections, IM unintentionally undermines the role of the church in nurturing faith, building community, and bearing witness to the kingdom, and it undermines the robust nature of the doctrine of salvation, which includes Lordship, repentance, and discipleship.

In summary, a healthy theological method recognizes the entire biblical canon and brings its full teaching to bear on any situation; further it allows the canon to be provide the framework and parameters in which we craft our ministry strategies, methods, and literature, rather than allowing a lived existential scenario to provide the framework and parameters.”

[1] For an exemplary biblical-theological assessment of the issues surrounding Insider Movements, see Doug Coleman, A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology, in the EMS Dissertation Series (WICU, 2011).

[2] For two insider descriptions of IM, see Kevin Higgins, “The Key to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts,” IJFM 21 (Winter 2004): 155, and Rebecca Lewis, “Promoting Movements to Christ within Natural Communities,” IJFM 24 (Summer 2007): 75. IM advocates note that some IM believers have indeed been killed for their bold witness.

Aspect 5(c): A Mission Driven by Biblical Theology (Salvation, Church, End Times)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

In the biblical doctrine of salvation, we learn that salvation is the Lord’s. It is God’s work from beginning to end (Ps 3:8; Jonah 2:9; Heb 12:2). As God elects and calls, man repents and places faith in Christ. Man is converted as God regenerates him, renewing his inner man, and imparting eternal life to him. Together, conversion and regeneration shed light upon the fact that a saved man now has union with Christ. This salvation is wrought by Christ’s work on the cross, whereby man may be justified and sanctified. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. The doctrine of salvation is full-orbed, and we must work hard to form evangelism and discipleship practices that recognize all of the salvific process. Of the many implications that this doctrine holds for our ministry practice, here are two of the most significant.

One implication is that we must call men to repent and not merely to give mental assent to the gospel. On the international mission field, this means that our testimonies, story-sets, and discipleship material do not excise the notion of repentance out of the gospel (under the guise of contextualization). This means that men must turn their backs on false saviors; they must repudiate tribal gods and witch doctors, reject their belief that the Qur’an is God’s revelation and that Muhammad is his prophet, and cease to worship in spirit temples and ancestral shrines. In our home context, it means that men must turn their back on the worship of sex, money, and power. They must not give ultimate allegiance to things that are not ultimate, whether their idolatry be centered on a nation, a political party, a job, or a hobby.

Another implication is that we must beware of “magical” or “mechanistic” views of salvation. We must make clear that salvation is not mere mental assent, mere verbal profession of faith, or mere repetition of a prayer of salvation. If a person holds to such a reductionist view of salvation, he will have a wrong goal: the maximum number of people who have prayed a prayer or made a verbal profession. Further, he likely will have given false assurance of salvation to men who are not saved, and a false testimony to the church and the broader community. Finally, he will likely create methods of evangelism that are reductionist to the extreme and harmful to the progress of the gospel and the planting of healthy churches.

In the biblical doctrine of the church, we learn that the church is the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Spirit. It is one, holy, universal, and apostolic. A healthy local church is marked by the right preaching of the gospel, right administration of the ordinances, and a commitment to discipleship and discipline. It is composed of regenerate members who are committed to one another. These members practice their spiritual gifts, and bear fruit together, in spiritual interdependence for the furtherance of the gospel. God’s program for extending his kingdom centers on the local church.

One implication of this doctrine is that our convention will want to be careful not to allow its institutions and agencies to override the primacy of the local church. Seminaries, mission boards, and agencies are not mentioned in the Scriptures. They are man-made, and exist solely for the purpose of furthering the ministry of our churches. Good parachurch organizations exist to serve the local church. Bad parachurch organizations usurp the place of the local church. Another implication is that we should be careful who we count as a church “member.” Southern Baptists count 16 million people as members of their churches, yet millions of them are non-attenders. Some of them cannot even be found. We must restore meaningful membership. Baptist churches have sacrificed the center of their ecclesiology if many (or most?) of the members of their churches do not even evidence certain minimal marks of regeneration (such as a desire to worship with the church of which they are a “member”).[1] A third implication is that we should be careful what we count as a “church.” Our international workers in particular must wrestle with this issue.[2] When giving account to the convention, they must be scrupulous in reporting how many churches they have planted. The convention, in turn, must make clear that their CP and Lottie Moon giving is not premised upon a certain number of churches planted annually.

The doctrine of the end times has personal, national, and cosmic aspects. In the Scriptures, we find a personal aspect, as they teach us that it is appointed to man once to die, and then the judgment. After death, he will receive either reward or condemnation (Lk 16:19-31). We also find a national aspect, as we learn that the end will not come until the Messiah has won for himself worshippers from among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev 5, 7). This ingathering of the nations is not an appendix tacked on to the main body of Christian doctrine; rather, it is at the heart of God’s redemptive plan. Finally, the Scriptures also tell us of a cosmic aspect of the end times, as Peter tells us to “look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13). In this new universe, there will be no pain or tears as we live amidst the glory of the Triune God (Rev 21, 22).

Personal eschatology is both comforting and unsettling. It is a comfort, indeed a great joy, to know that we will dwell with our Lord eternally. It is a difficult and unsettling doctrine, however, because we know that there are countless millions who have never heard the gospel and whose destiny apart from Christ is torment. This doctrine is indeed so unsettling that many have either rejected this biblical doctrine or dismissed it from mind in order to ease the conscience. However, we must not reject or dismiss it, but rather take it to heart, allowing it to drive us to build Great Commission churches who will take the gospel to our neighbors, our communities, our nation, and indeed to the nations.

[1] See Paige Patterson’s remarks on ecclesiological renewal in “My Vision of the Twenty-First Century SBC,” Review and Expositor 88 (1991), 37-55, and John Hammett’s argument that regenerate membership is the center of Baptist ecclesiology in Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 81-108. Particularly helpful are Mark Dever’s numerous treatments of ecclesiological issues (including meaningful membership) which evidence theological depth and breadth, as well as guidance on handling the practical aspects of those issues. See Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), and Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005). Finally, see “On Regenerate Church Membership and Church Member Restoration,” (June 2008), a resolution from the June 2008 SBC. http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/amResolution.asp?ID=1189.

[2] Multiple challenges present themselves on the mission field. How does one know when a group of believers counts as a church? When does a Bible study become a church? An excellent treatment of these questions is J. Atkinson, “House Church: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Analysis of Selected Aspects of Wolfgang Simson’s Ecclesiology from a Southern Baptist Perspective,” Th. M. thesis, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2006.