Aspect 6(b): A Mission Centered on the Gospel (spats, straw men, infighting)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Numerous spats center on method and practice. In such cases, it is wise to ask whether the practice at hand is based upon biblical command, apostolic precedent, or local tradition.[1] If it is based upon biblical command, then there is no question that it must be obeyed. If it is based on apostolic precedent, then it demands our attention but nonetheless is not a biblical injunction. We pay close and careful attention to apostolic practices, but some of those practices were contextual (such as taking missionary trips in wooden boats without electricity) and may be modified for today. If it is based on local (non-universal) traditions that have been handed down from believers in times past, we may respect those traditions, and seek to understand why they were formed and whether they might be helpful for us today, but we are not beholden to them.

One of the most lively and long-running of Baptist controversies centers on the issue of Calvinism. Entire forests have been chopped down to provide paper for Baptist pens to argue this issue. On the one hand, there are some Calvinists who would not work together for the gospel with a non-Calvinist, because a non-Calvinist “does not truly preach the gospel.” On the other hand, there are some non-Calvinists who caricature all Calvinists as hyper-Calvinists. Nearly everybody in Baptist life has an opinion on this issue, and many are willing to dispense jokes, caricatures, and sometimes even slander toward their opponents. It is our opinion that the areas of disagreement between Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists are usually not even secondary, but tertiary. Calvinists should be able to recognize that non-Calvinists are preaching “the gospel” even if they disagree on the particulars. Non-Calvinists should not dismiss all Calvinists as hyper-Calvinists because they are not. Historically, Southern Baptists have partnered together in spite of differences on this issue, precisely because it is not primary.

Distinguishing between essentials and non-essentials, and managing to keep fellowship and partnership without compromise, is not easy. We must pray for God’s wisdom in doing so. “We need to recognize,” writes David Dockery, “that in essentials of the Christian faith, there is no place for compromise. Faith and truth are primary issues, and we stand firm in those areas. Sometimes we confuse primary and secondary issues. In secondary issues and third-level and fourth-level issues, we need mostly love and grace as we learn to disagree agreeably. We want to learn to love one another in spite of differences and to learn from those with whom we differ.”[2] But distinguish we must. We cannot allow ourselves to be sidetracked, or worse, shipwrecked, because of unnecessarily heated or extended argument over particular issues. For the sake of the billions who have never heard the gospel, we must rid ourselves of fundamentalist infighting that distracts from, and contradicts, the proclamation of the gospel.

[1] By “apostolic precedent,” we mean those practice of the apostles that are described in the New Testament. Some apostolic precedent is to be imitated (e.g. church planting) while other apostolic practices are neutral and context-specific, not necessarily applying to us today (e.g. writing on parchment with large letters, taking our mission trips on wooden boats).

[2] Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, 144.