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What Are the Most Pressing Issues Facing the Southern Baptist Convention?

According to our header, SBC Witness is about “encouraging Southern Baptist cooperation and faithfulness.” The contributors to this blog believe these two things to be virtues that ought to be cultivated among the people called Baptist. If I may combine the two, one could argue that the reason we are a convention of autonomous churches rather than Independent Baptists is because we believe in the value of “faithful cooperation.”

Faithful cooperation is increasingly difficult to maintain in the SBC. While the convention enjoyed substantial theological unity in the mid-19th century, that was already beginning to change in the decades after the Civil War. The Landmark controversies, the decline of doctrinaire Calvinism, the rise of theological liberalism and later neo-orthodoxy, the hardening of fundamentalism, the bureaucratization of the convention, the Civil Rights movement, the ecumenical movement, the neo-evangelical movement, the gender revolution, rise of the New Religious Right, the charismatic movement, The Controversy, post-denominationalism, the seeker-sensitive movement, the emerging church movements, the so-called Reformed Resurgence, resurgent Landmarkism, Catholic Baptists, revivalism in all its forms–each of these movements, for better or worse and to varying degrees, has contributed to the diversity among contemporary Southern Baptists. And that diversity has often led to intra-denominational conflict.

So here we are in 2008. The SBC is a divided house, and that’s without even counting churches that for any number of reasons dually align with both Southern Baptists and moderate Baptist, African-American Baptist, Reformed Baptist, or missional groups. In recent years we have fought about more things than I care to think about. There have been statements and counter-statements, blogs and counter-blogs, conferences and counter-conferences, candidates and counter-candidates. The differences in the style and even theology of different SBC public personalities is at times pronounced. Some glory in all this diversity. Some fear we are too diverse. Others pronounce a pox on both houses. And for all our conservative resurging, moderate purging, Republican voting, and program promoting, we remain considerably more divided than most folks will publicly admit.

I am curious: what do you think is the most pressing issue facing the Southern Baptist Convention in 2008? What is that one thing that most precludes us from faithful cooperation? What is our biggest problem? Share your thoughts with us by dropping a comment. I am genuinely curious as to what “normal” Southern Baptists think are the greatest threats to the ongoing viability, let alone vitality, of the convention.

Before you comment, please do a couple of things. First, think before you post. Second, try to stick to the one most pressing issue–two issues at most. Third, remember that whatever you say is being read by a couple dozen other people, mostly the contributors and their wives, so try to be kind and Christ-like. Fourth, do not attack any personalities. Finally, if any of you dialog with each other in the comments, do so respectfully. We want this to be a place for mature Christian reflection, so we will not hesitate to delete nasty comments.

On Southern Baptist Seminaries and Seminaries for Southern Baptists: Thinking about Southern Baptist Identity

Yesterday I received the most recent edition of Southwestern News in the mail, the official magazine of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. As 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the Texas seminary, Southwestern has published a Centennial Edition of their periodical. It is a great collection of short articles and photographs that recount the rich history of SWBTS. Join me in wishing them one hundred more years of fruitful service, should the Lord tarry.

Thinking about Southwestern’s history has got me thinking about the nature of Southern Baptist identity, particularly as it pertains to cooperation. It may surprise you to know that Southwestern was not originally an official entity of the Southern Baptist Convention. Southwestern was originally birthed from the theological department at Baylor University, relocating to Fort Worth in 1910. Though Southwestern was founded by Southern Baptists and trained Southern Baptists for ministry, it was not until 1925 that the school formally came under the banner of the convention. New Orleans and Golden Gate seminaries, respectively, followed a similar route into the convention, while Southern, Southeastern, and Midwestern Seminaries were actually established by the convention at their inception. [Read more →]

William F. Buckley’s Advice for Christian Activists

William F. Buckley (1925-2008), who was perhaps the most well-known conservative in America over the last fifty years, passed away yesterday. He was 82. Like many political and ideological conservatives, I am a Buckley fan, though admittedly a latecomer to Buckley fan-dom; I am a bit too young to have known much about Buckley when he was active in public life. But I like what I do know. Check out the numerous summaries and assessments of Buckley’s life and contribution at National Review Online, the website of the influential conservative periodical that Buckley founded in 1955.

In memory of Buckley, Christianity Today has reprinted a 1995 interview that Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center conducted with Buckley. The topic was the role of Christian conservatives in politics. It was a major (and controversial) topic in 1995, just a year after Newt Gingrich and company captured control of Congress with no small assistance from the Christian Coalition. It remains a major (and controversial) topic in 2008 as Christian conservatives wrestle with the realities of the current political landscape. I commend the article to you.

David Dockery Reflects on the Life and Ministry of L. Russ Bush

L. Russ Bush: In Piam Memoriam

On Jan. 22, L. Russ Bush III (1944-2008), was ushered into glory. After an intense two-year battle with cancer, the Lord has called Russ home.

Russ Bush was a man who deeply loved Christ and honored His Word. I will always remember the young, dedicated philosophy professor who constantly challenged his students to do their very best.

For those who looked on from a distance, Russ Bush often seemed aloof and overly concerned with the minutia of philosophical arguments. Some thought of him as more interested in his subject matter than in his students. But for those who knew him well, this was hardly the case. His friends knew him as a soft spoken, genuinely kind, Southern gentleman, but most of all, we thought of Russ Bush as a committed Christ-follower.

Russ Bush was a faithful friend to many, a dedicated husband to Cindy and a person who deeply loved the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. His life and work were deeply rooted in "the faith, once for all delivered to all the saints" (Jude 3). He understood his calling in light of the apostolic exhortation to always be ready to provide a reason for the hope that shaped his life (1 Pet 3:15).

His lasting contribution will be the significant work on “Baptists and the Bible.” His commitment to the truthfulness and the authority of God's Word was a hallmark of all that he was and all that he did. He served as an editor over the past 20 years for the “New American Commentary.” Russ was honored by his colleagues across the evangelical world by electing him as president of Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. Moreover, the administration and board of trustees at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary have provided a lasting tribute with the naming of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at the seminary.

No one will ever fully know all that Russ Bush did to keep the doors of Southeastern Seminary open during the turbulent years of transition in the late 1980s and early 1990s in his capacity as chief academic officer of the seminary. Southern Baptists will always owe him a great debt for his service in this key role.

I was privileged to sit in his philosophy of religion class during my first year at Southwestern Seminary. It was there that I was introduced to one of the truly fine Southern Baptist thinkers for this generation.

For the past 30 years it has been an honor to call him my friend. We have worked together on various projects through the years. Russ was a constant source of encouragement for me and countless others.

For years I always looked forward to sharing a meal with him at the Southern Baptist Convention each year. While his life has seemingly ended before we were ready, we trust God's providence and rejoice that Russ's suffering has ceased. Moreover, we give thanks that he has entered the presence of our Lord, where I am sure that he heard the words "well done, good and faithful servant." My life, along with hundreds of others, has been blessed by knowing and learning from our dear friend. On this day, we give thanks for the life and work of L. Russ Bush III.

David S. Dockery, president
Union University

Vote 2008: Ranking the Issues

Not too long ago, my fellow SBC Witness contributor Nathan Akin wrote a provacative post titled Vote 2008: How Would You Vote if Both Candidates are Pro-Choice? In that post, Nathan made it clear that he could not, in good conscience, vote for a political candidate who is pro-abortion. That post generated some interesting comments, though regrettably not as many as it should have.

To piggyback on Nathan's earlier post, I want to raise a question: as we approach the 2008 primary season, how would you rank the issues? In other words, in your opinion what are the five or ten most important issues at stake in 2008, and in what order would you rank those issues? I ask this question assuming that none of us agree 100% with any political candidate, thus making it necessary for us to have some type of personal grid we use to assess candidates and make a reasoned decision.

Please note that this post is about political issues, not things like a candidate's character, religion, electability, etc. While those may be legitimate things to take into consideration, please focus specifically on how you rate the actual issues that are being debated by the candidates.

Andrew Fuller on Contemporary Progressive Baptists

Many progressive Baptists in the American South, who normally prefer to be called moderates, have argued for many years that the sine qua non of the Baptist tradition is religious freedom, particularly embodied in the right to private interpretation of spiritual matters. This aberrant view of Christian freedom, which is typically linked to a perversion of the priesthood of all believers and "soul competency," has been used to justify progressive views on a number of issues. A recent example will suffice.

Just this past month the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina excluded the Myers Park Baptist Church of Charlotte from convention membership (read about it here). Myers Park has been openly supportive of the homosexual agenda, and for years unrepentant homosexuals have been allowed into the church's membership and have served in leadership positions. The members of this church have argued that homosexuals should not be treated as spiritual outcasts, noting that Jesus accepted outcasts and loved all people. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that Jesus did so uncritically, which of course redefines the nature of the gospel itself. But Myers Park, like many progressive churches, argues that it should have the right to read Scripture in any manner they wish without fear of any recrimination from other Baptist churches. In other words, Myers Park is arguing that their private interpretation of Scripture is an inherent right that trumps any sense of inter-church accountability.

Since there is nothing new under the sun, it should surprise no one that the arguments used by progressive Baptists are not novel. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, there were Christians in England that similarly argued for the right of unfettered private interpretation. Andrew Fuller offered some thoughts on these moral and theological libertarians, and his words are just as relevant 200 years later. Please note I have retained the original spelling and fonts.

The right of private judgment in matters of religion appears to be THE RIGHT WHICH EVERY INDIVIDUAL HAS TO THINK AND TO AVOW HIS THOUGHTS ON THOSE SUBJECTS, WITHOUT BEING LIABLE TO ANY CIVIL INCONVENIENCE ON THAT ACCOUNT….But of late the subject has taken another turn, and men have pleaded not only an exemption from civil penalties on account of their religious principles, in which the very essence of persecution consists, but also that they are not subject to the control of a religious society with which they stand connected for any tenets which they may think proper to avow. The right of private judgment now frequently assumed, is a right in every individual who may become a member of a Christian church to think and avow his thoughts, be they what they may, without being subject to exclusion of admonition, or the ill opinion of his brethren, on that account. Any thing that is consistent with this is thought to be consistent to spiritual tyranny, and repugnant to that "liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free." But this appears to be highly extravagant, and is what no man can claim as a right. The following considerations are submitted to the reader.

First, The supposed right of the individual is contrary to the principles on which Christian churches were originally founded….Hence it appears that admonishing or excluding from the primitive church those who held pernicious errors was not reckoned to be subversive of the right of private judgment; and the churches being exhorted to such discipline by the apostles was exercising no dominion over their faith.

Secondly, Not only is this supposed right of private judgment inconsistent with apostolic practice, but it is also contrary to reason and the fitness of all things….A community must entirely renounce the name of a Christian church before it can act upon the principle here contended for; and those who entirely reject Christianity ought, nevertheless, to be admitted or retained in fellowship, if they choose it; seeing they have only exercised the right of private judgment!

To say that no person is better or worse in a moral view, whatever be his principles, is to say that principles themselves have no influence on the heart and life; and that amounts to the same thing as their being of no importance. But if so, all those scriptures which represent truth as a means of sanctification ought to be discarded; and all the labours of good men to discover truth, and of the apostles to disseminate it–yea, and those of the Son of God himself, who came into the world to bear witness to the truth–were totally in vain.

[From "An Inquiry into the Right of Private Judgment in Matters of Religion," in The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, vol. III, pp. 447-49.]

The Mission of Today’s Church

We at SBC Witness try to keep readers updated on new books related to Southern Baptists, but I have to confess we are a tad behind recently. Some interesting works have been published in the last few months, and some more are on the way. I hope to post about some of them in the next few days.

This post is dedicated to another great "newish" book from B&H Academic. The Mission of Today's Church: Baptist Leaders Look at Modern Faith Issues (B&H, 2007) is a collection of essays edited by theologian Stan Norman. The chapters include the following contributions:

"Ten Mandates for Southern Baptists" – Daniel L. Akin 

"Between Scylla and Charybdis: Reflections on the Baptist Way" – Charles S. Kelley

"The Church, Worship, and the Lord’s Supper" – David S. Dockery

"Three Views of the Church’s Mission in the Black Community" – James Jenkins

"Explaining the Gospel to Kids" – Charles L. Quarles

"The Missional Nature of the Church and the Future of Southern Baptist Convention Churches" – Ed Stetzer

"Together We Grow: Congregational Polity as a Means of Corporate Sanctification" – R. Stanton Norman

"Congregational Polity and Its Strategic Limitations" – Jerry Sutton

"Being Salt and Light in a Post-Christian Culture" – Barret Duke

"Cooperation among Southern Baptist Churches as Set Forth in Article 14 of the Baptist Faith and Message" - Jim Richards

"Toward a Theology of Cooperation" – Chad Owen Brand

"Salvation and the Sovereignty of God: The Great Commission a the Expression of the Divine Will" – Kenneth D. Keathley

This one is well worth taking a look at. I would also heartily recommend Norman's books More than Just a Name and The Baptist Way, both of which are also published by B&H (I have used the latter in my Baptist History and Identity classes).

Thanksgiving Miscellanies

Every year the President of the United States issues a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. The 2007 proclamation is available here.

In related news, I do not know what "makes" Thanksgiving for you, but two things (besides food and family/friends) do it for me. The first is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which I always enjoy watching (it comes on in five minutes!). The other is watching footage of American troops celebrating Thanksgiving overseas and sending greetings to loved ones back home. I cannot imagine what it is like to be in their position, and I truly appreciate the sacrifice they are making–even on Thanksgiving–to serve their country.

I hope everyone has a blessed Thanksgiving.

Chuck Lawless on his Love and Concern for Southern Baptists

Chuck Lawless is the dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a former pastor and has authored a number of books, including Membership Matters, Discipled Warriors, Serving in Your Church Prayer Ministry, and Eating the Elephant. Today Baptist Press has published an outstanding "First Person" by Dr. Lawless titled "Why I Love Southern Baptists … and Why I am Concerned." I think he is spot on. My prayer is that the SBC would enjoy a "gospel resurgence" in the next few years, which I am convinced will result in a renewed commitment to the Great Commission, a rediscovered biblical Baptist identity, an increase in the number of new converts we are baptizing, and a recovery of a disciplined regenerate church membership. 

Evan Lenow and John Piper — BFF?

As you may have seen, our own ethicist-in-chief Evan Lenow advocated the Betrothal view of divorce, which generated an interesting discussion between Evan, yours truly, and Charlie (Go Tigers!) Wallace. Well, Evan apparently has called out the big guns and persuaded his BFF, John Piper, to make the same argument. Read Piper's article (a response to David Instone-Brewer's controversial article in Christianity Today). I have to admit I'm impressed. I am putting in a phone call to my home boy John Stott tomorrow to get him to back me up on the exception clause …