A Thought or Two about Resolution #6 (Part 1)

A while back I had the privilege of preaching at 1st Baptist Church of Kearney, Missouri, which so happens to have been the home church of Jesse James. Jesse was a member in good standing when he led the first daylight bank robbery in Liberty, Missouri, a town about ten miles away. The church minutes record that deliberations to discipline Jesse were complicated by the concern that he might burn down the building. Everyone in the community knew Jesse was staying at his mother’s farm (she was a Sunday school teacher at the time), so two deacons were selected to go to confront him according to the guidelines of Matthew 18. The minutes of the next business meeting report that, for one reason or another, the deacons never could find the time to visit the notorious bandit. Then the minutes report that Jesse himself arrived at the meeting, and wishing to cause no embarrassment to the congregation, requested his name be removed from the roll. The church obliged.

By passing resolution #6, this year’s SBC convention admitted that Southern Baptists have failed to obey New Testament principles concerning church accountability. The decline of accountability and discipline in SBC life is well documented. However, a foundational ecclesiastical principle is that the body of Christ is composed of individual members who are truly integrated with one another (see 1 Cor 12). When put into practice, this principle is a beautiful manifestation of the love of Christ for his Church. Each member, when he unites with a congregation, makes himself accountable to that local body, and he is to care for the welfare of every member as he would care for himself.

So what went wrong? How did such a powerful truth disappear from the collective consciousness of Baptists? How did accountability come to be viewed merely as discipline-or more often than not-degenerate into mere punishment? Some very good studies explore these questions in better detail than I can give them in this blog (see Gregory A. Wills, “Southern Baptists and Church Discipline”), but I want to focus on just one factor: the tendency to select the wrong candidates for discipline. In other words, in times past too often discipline was exercised in a vindictive and arbitrary manner. We need to recover what was good about the practice of our forbearers while at the same time try to avoid their mistakes.

The Bible focuses on two types of members that are to be reproved by the congregation, but Baptist churches unfortunately have focused too often on a third. Public discipline should be reserved for (1) the indifferent and (2) the obstinate, but many times it was directed at (3) the weak.

The indifferent member is the one who stops showing any interest in Christ and the things of God. He demonstrates his apathy by his lack of attendance or support; he is spiritually lazy (2 Thess 3:6-15). It is not unusual for a traditional Baptist Church to have a church roll four or five times larger than its actual active membership. The Bible never gives comfort to the indifferent (just take a look at the Book of Hebrews) and neither should we.

The obstinate member is the second type of professing believer who the Bible directs us to call into account. This is the person who either is involved in flagrant sin, seriously disrupts the life of the church, or advocates clearly heretical beliefs. He (or she) disregards attempts by believers to be reconciled, has no desire to repent, and in fact digs in his (or her) heels (1 Cor 5; 1 Tim 1:20; Titus 3:9-11). The New Testament requires the local church to act in such cases (Matt 18:15-17).

However, more often than not, discipline was not directed at the backslider or the hard headed, but at those who stumbled. There is a world of difference between the one who is “stiff necked” and rebellious and the one who is overtaken in a fault (Gal. 6:1-3). The church is instructed to give attention to both, but in very different ways. Too often the targets of discipline have been unwed teenage mothers or those struggling to overcome an old life of drug or alcohol abuse. In these instances, discipline was not exercised so much as it was wielded. Too often discipline became a weapon.

Spiritual struggles and stutter-steps are not signs that one is unsaved. Just the opposite; it is one of the surest signs of spiritual vitality. Ask anyone who ministers to those who have been saved from a variety of addictive behaviors. They will tell you the old cliché, “Only live fish struggle to swim upstream; dead fish float with the current.” Spiritual battles indicate spiritual life. I’m not as concerned about the eternal destiny of those beleaguered with temptation as I am with the member who doesn’t give a rip.

Accountability is always in order; discipline is not. So we must be discerning about when and when not to discipline. We do not want to be like a church in northeast Arkansas with which I am familiar. The minutes from one of its business meetings of long ago tell how the congregation debated whether or not watching a square dance was grounds to be “churched.” Not dancing, mind you, but just seeing others dance. The church concluded that this indeed was sufficient cause and duly kicked out the guilty parties.

In no small measure, an important element in the successful reimplementation of the principle of accountability and the practice of church discipline will be whether we teach our people how to distinguish between those who demonstrate a lack of concern or open rebellion from those who stumble on the journey.

An Open Letter to Young Southern Baptists

Today we are publishing a guest post by Dr. Chuck Lawless, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Lawless has pastored Southern Baptist churches in Ohio and is the author of several books, including Membership Matters and Discipled Warriors. In addition to his duties at Southern, he also serves as president of The Lawless Group, a church consulting firm. You can read his blog at Biblical Church Growth, where this material was originally published earlier today. We are grateful to Dr. Lawless for granting us permission to reprint his encouraging “open letter” at Between the Times.

An Open Letter to Young Southern Baptists

I have always used my blog to address issues related to biblical church growth, and I have intentionally spoken to evangelicals in general rather than my own Southern Baptist denomination. For this post, though, I am changing my pattern.

Over twenty-five years ago, I began serving as pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Ohio. I was young and energetic – ready to take on the world, but knowing far too little about the denomination in which I served. I am grateful for a few older Southern Baptists who encouraged me to get involved, including inviting me to attend my first Southern Baptist Convention (1985-the largest and perhaps most controversial Convention ever).

I find it hard to admit, but I am now becoming one of the older Southern Baptists. In that role, I offer these encouragements to younger Southern Baptists.

Know that many of us realize that we have much room for improvement.
We grieve when we see our baptismal numbers, and we know that our record of making disciples is not good. Many of us are praying for a Great Commission resurgence. We are also concerned that too few of you believe that attending the SBC is important. We fear that many of you will simply drop out of denominational life. Please know that we are not ignorant of the issues that concern you in a denomination that you believe is increasingly irrelevant.

Do review the history of this denomination.
We have much work to do as a denomination, but we have also experienced God’s blessing. More missionaries are serving on the mission field. More students are attending seminaries affiliated with the SBC. Your generation has the potential to be a great blessing. Remember, though, that others sacrificed much to lead this denomination to a renewed commitment to the Word. These leaders deserve respect, and we ignore their passion for continued doctrinal integrity only at our peril. To be Southern Baptist is still a commitment to the Word, to biblical doctrine, and to a unique way to support North American and international missions.

Do not give up on the SBC.
Despite our denominational malaise, what we do together remains stronger than what most of our churches can do alone. We need you as part of this team. We need your churches to be involved. We need your creativity and your passion. We need your honest input when meetings are boring and discussions seem irrelevant to the task of the gospel. We need your unique commitment to reaching the world for Christ. You, your church, and the SBC lose if you simply walk away without patiently trying to make a difference.

Continue to support the Cooperative Program even while you seek your role in the denomination.
Tell us your concerns, but do not pull away from the Cooperative Program that supports more than 10,000 missionaries in North America and around the world. Help us to address issues that all of us recognize as significant, but continue CP giving that reduces the seminary tuition of thousands of students. Talk to us when you see current structures and processes as outdated, but remember that many good people and programs are still dependent on your Cooperative Program giving. Be kingdom-minded enough to give even when the immediate benefits for you and your church are not always obvious.

Stay focused on the entirety of the Great Commission.
I am grateful for young pastors who want to strengthen churches that are weak, and I applaud efforts to make membership meaningful again in SBC churches. My concern is that we will focus so much on fixing troubled churches that evangelism remains neglected. Do refocus our churches on strong discipleship, but never allow evangelism to be a “back burner” task. When God begins to change lives through our ministries, some of our other concerns may not seem so important.

Pray humbly for Southern Baptist Convention leaders.
From pastoring a local church to leading a denominational agency, the tasks involved in SBC life are not easy. No one can please all sixteen million Southern Baptists, each one with an opinion to express and a willingness to articulate it (whether or not he has actually been involved in his local church). The Internet has provided a means to critique others, even without first speaking with the brother involved. I confess that I have spent too much time reading posts and too little time praying for those who lead us. That omission will be corrected beginning today.

Young Southern Baptist, I believe in you. I want you involved in SBC life, trusting that you affirm our clear stand on the Word of God, choose to live a God-honoring life, and are committed to the Great Commission. Be both patient and persistent with us, modeling humility for us in all that you do. All of us want to see God do a mighty work through this denomination.game angry racer

Theologically-Driven Missiology, Part 1: A Southern Baptist Moment

Perhaps the most significant issue facing evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, today is a disconnect between doctrine and practice, between theology and missiology. Our tendency is to affirm Christian Scripture as being inspired by God and without error, and then to ignore Christian Scripture in forming our strategies and methods. It is as if we are saying that “what” we believe about God is important, but “how” we practice is not. We think that we can “bank on” inerrancy and then do whatever we’d like.

In a recent paper, “Will We Correct the ‘Edinburgh Error’?-Future Mission in Historical Perspective,” David Hesselgrave laments the current disconnect between theology and missiology, and traces it back to the Edinburgh conference of 1910. At that conference, Chairman John R. Mott and other organizers made the decision to restrict the conference discussion to matters of strategy and policy, ruling out discussion of doctrinal issues.

For Mott, the issue of doctrine was “divisive,” and thus to be avoided, but for Hesselgrave, doctrine is the life-blood of the church and her mission. The Edinburgh planners “should have insisted on including doctrinal discussion both when planning and when guiding conference proceedings.” And again, “I believe that only on very rare occasions and with more precautions than were evident in 1910 do representatives of mission agencies have the prerogative of ruling divine revelation out of order in order to pursue their own objectives, however noble.

Hesselgrave is right and his paper’s thesis, while focused on missiology, is easily applicable to other disciplines and areas of church practice-including preaching, evangelism, church growth, church planting, contextualization, and pastoral counseling.

It is the contention of this post, and the others to follow in this series, that we must avoid such a disconnect between doctrine and practice, between theology and missiology. We must build a theologically-driven missiology, one in which doctrine and practice are riveted together.

This missiology will be in conversation with the social sciences, which are useful as humble handmaidens for the gospel. However its starting point, trajectory, and parameters are determined by Christian Scripture. Problems arise when this is not the case. A faulty doctrine of God will lead us to a wrong definition of “success.” A poor hermeneutic will lead to an aberrant understanding of God’s mission and of our mission. A faulty soteriology neuters our attempts at evangelism and discipleship. And so forth and so on.

In the posts that follow this one, I will take the classical loci of Christian theology and give examples of how each one may be brought to bear upon the church’s practice in general, and upon missiology in particular. An examination of the doctrines of revelation, God, Christ, the Spirit, Creation, Man, the Church, and the End Times bear fruit for the church’s practice, and are fruitful for reflection in connection with all aspects of the church’s mission.

David Hesselgrave is correct that evangelicals, who are defined by their belief in the Divine inspiration of Christian Scripture, often contradict that very belief by ignoring it in matters of practice. We proclaim the inspiration of Scripture while at the same time undermining it in our strategies and methods. Southern Baptists are not exempt from this ironic state of affairs, and it is our charge under the Lord to work against this trend. We must consciously, carefully, and consistently proceed in such a manner that theology takes the “driver’s seat” in our missiology.

If we will do so, there is no limit to the way that we will be able to bring glory to our God. God will not have to plow around us in order to advance His kingdom. Instead, He will be able to employ the great resources He has given us-ecclesiological, financial, missional-toward that same end.

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[Note: The excerpts from David Hesselgrave are taken from an unpublished version of his essay, “Will We Correct the ‘Edinburgh Error’?-Future Mission in Historical Perspective.”]_gamesmmo online mobilonline for mobile