A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 2: Revelation)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

For three decades now, the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention have united over their belief in the inspiration of Holy Scripture. Unlike those, such as Freud or Russell, who see the Scriptures as human constructions devoid of supernatural revelation, we believe that Scripture is given supernaturally by God. Indeed, it is the very breath of God (2 Tim 3:16). And differing from those, such as Barth or Brunner, who see the Scriptures as a merely human witness to divine revelation, we believe that Scripture is ipsissma verba Dei, the very words of God.

If the Christian Scriptures are indeed the very words of God, then we will want to mold our strategies and methods according to the words of God. And while this might seem to be a yawningly obvious observation, we must pay careful attention in light of the fact that we often do not allow the Scriptures to drive our methods of evangelism, discipleship, church growth, and church planting. Our tendency is to shout very loudly about inerrancy, while undermining that same conviction by our practices.

Instead, we must consciously, carefully, and consistently seek to understand the Grand Biblical Narrative and its implications for church practice, and in particular for our missiological method. This 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 for every generation; and (2) proof-texting will not do. 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. In fact, it pleases God for us to use the full faculties of reason and observation as we minister. We ought to read widely in history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, marketing, and other disciplines. It is God who created us with the capacities for reason and imagination and who allows us the great privilege and responsibility of using those for his glory. Theologians have spoken of God’s “two books,” the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. In the Book of Scripture, God has provided us a special knowledge of, for example, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation by grace through faith alone, while in the Book of Nature he has provided us a general knowledge of man and the rest of the created order.

God is the author of both books, and they are not in conflict with one another. When properly interpreted, they agree. How, then, might a missiologist view such disciplines as history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and marketing? Of what use are such disciplines? How are they positioned in light of Christian Scripture?

Among the ways that they might be helpful, here are five:

First, they may be helpful in recognizing God’s existence and some of his attributes (Rom 1). We may make ontological, teleological, cosmological, and moral arguments for the existence of one God, based upon what we may learn in philosophy, anthropology, or sociology.

Second, they may be helpful for fleshing out, or applying, biblical theology. For example, the disciplines of cultural anthropology and sociology are helpful in fleshing out the doctrine of man and man’s relationship to God, himself, others, and the rest of the created order. The psychological and pedagogical disciplines are helpful in teaching us about learning styles and the process of changing a person’s view of the world and life.

Third, they may be helpful in illustrating biblical theology. We often are able to illustrate such concepts as God’s love and fatherhood, or man’s sin and its consequences, through the use of insights gleaned from anthropology and sociology.

Fourth, they may be helpful in subverting false theologies. We may use philosophy and the social sciences to defend the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel, in response to those who would attack us. Further, we may use them to, in Schaeffer’s words, “take the roof off” of opposing salvific systems, showing them to be false saviors, lacking in logical coherence, empirical adequacy, and existential viability.

Fifth, they may be helpful in understanding those to whom we proclaim the gospel. Reading widely in history and current affairs, for example, helps us to understand the civilizational, cultural, and social contexts of those to whom we minister.

This, then, is a very limited exploration of how the doctrine of revelation comes to bear upon the church’s practice. In riveting missiological practice to the doctrine of revelation, we must beware of at least two dangers. The first is to allow the insights gleaned from general revelation (in particular, anthropology, sociology, and business marketing) to take the driver’s seat in missiology. The second danger, however, is to give theology the driver’s seat and demand that no other discipline be allowed a seat. To do so, I believe, is to reject the great gift that God has given us in allowing us to study and interact with His good world. game download

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