“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).
Israel, what a land! Full of beauty. And full of violence. Whether you are reading the Old Testament, the New Testament, or Haaretz, the daily news source of Israel, you will find both—beauty, violence, and the mysterious love of God.
In 2005, when I went with a group of Southern Seminary students on an evangelism trip to Northern Israel, this was my experience, too. The landscape and the people are beautiful, but everywhere you go, teenagers carry M-16’s and tour guides tell of bomb blasts.
In truth, I think the church of Jesus Christ is much like Israel. It was after all planted in Jewish soil, and, if you permit, Paul even describes the New Creation community as the new “Israel” (Gal 6:16). In church, our experience is probably not much different. Nowhere do we find greater beauty than in a local body of believers—the reconciliation of a marriage brought about by a faithful deacon, the repentance of a wayward son after a Sunday School prays for years, and the communion feast of the Lord’s Supper are just a few portraits of Spiritual beauty.
At the same time, there is no place where violence is more ugly. To our shame, cold shoulders, verbal accusations, and even fistfights are not uncommon among the people of God. Such provocations are not contained to the local church, either. They also take place in much larger and more public venues, as is the case with the recent document brought forward by Eric Hankins et al—“A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.”
Traditional and Historic Southern Baptists
The response to this statement has been varied, but to a man it has been passionate. In the fervor that this document has caused, Malcolm Yarnell, a signer of the document, called for Southern Baptists to pray and seek unity as it approaches this debate.
In his article “The grace of unity: a prayer for the Southern Baptist Convention,” Professor Yarnell gave a theologically-rich exposition of Psalm 133 and turned his attention toward the current debate swirling between Traditional Baptists and Historic Baptists.
After affirming the biblical veracity of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, he exhorts Southern Baptists saying, “My prayer is that . . . whether we identify ourselves with the mountains of either Calvinism or Traditionalism, that we will seek our unity only in Christ by the Spirit before the Father.” Such an earnest plea is well-intended and one hopes that through the heat produced by recent discussions there will result greater denominational purity. But one wonders?
If Professor Yarnell is serious about striving for unity in the convention, serious enough to call Southern Baptists to pray for unity—why, it must be asked, did he sign a document intended to strengthen the dividing wall that stands between traditionalists and Calvinists?
In his appeal for unity, he cites Ephesians 2 saying, “God intends for believers to manifest the unity of His Son, who reconciled humanity with humanity — Israel with the nations — through His cross, even as He thereby reconciled humanity with God (Ephesians 2).” And yet, the perceived intention and certain effect of the recent traditionalist statement seems to overturn any real attempt for Traditionalists to work with those who take a different stance on the doctrines of grace.
My Own Zion Experience
To parallel Professor Yarnell’s first convention experience with my own: In 2006, I showed up in Greensboro, NC, where the first denominational experience I ever had was the standing room only dialogue between Albert Mohler and Paige Patterson. For those who remember, that year saw a flurry of uncharitable comments flying around the Internet. However, since then with the unifying and courageous leadership of Johnny Hunt, Danny Akin, and others, it has been a thing of wonder to behold. In the last five years or so, Southern Baptists with different soteriological convictions have worked together to advance the Great Commission and promote missionary work that supercedes supralapsarianism. Truly, the Great Commission Resurgence has been a breath of fresh compared with the internecine discussion from 2005.
My fear, is that the document that has been advanced by Pastor Eric Hankins and signed by more than 300 leaders will only stifle the Great Commission efforts that have been gathering speed and gripping the hearts of a younger generation of Baptist pastors. I am leary that instead this year’s convention will be more about doctrinally entrenched warfare, instead of the spiritual warfare that is desperately needed.
Might we remember that we do not live in Zion anymore and unless we learn to work together, the Southern Baptist Convention will be as irrelevant as the ten Northern tribes of Israel that may have at one point in their history sang the songs of ascent. We need to look to Psalm 133 and we need to pray for unity, but we also need to look at ourselves.
A Right Doctrine Rightly Held
Unity will be achieved when we hold to the truth with conviction, but also when we don’t rub our convictions in the face of others. As a Northern evangelical who has gladly volunteered to be a Southern Baptist for reasons of Biblical fidelity and missionary endeavor, it is hard for me to understand how Baptists like Professor Yarnell can call for Christ-centered, Spirit-filled unity and then promote a document other than the agreed upon BFM 2000.
At the same time, it is unhelpful to press Calvinists and Traditionalists towards cooperation while still asserting the very doctrines that divide. It comes across as disingenuous, when someone like Yarnell affirms a general atonement and denies effectual calling in the same paragraph that calls for unity. There is a place for defending doctrine, for debating the order of regeneration and faith, but if we are going to work together, we must learn how to not offend one another unnecessarily.
In my estimation, Jonathan Akin is correct when he says of the statement advocating a traditional Baptist view of salvation, “I don’t know any Calvinist who is arguing for what this statement says they are.” While we must pray for unity, we must also learn to listen to one another (James 1:19-21).
At present, as a Calvinistic Baptist, I serve a traditional Baptist church in Indiana. During my three years here we have had our growing pains, but we have resolved to focus our ministries on evangelism, not a doctrine of election. Among our deacons today there is not one card-carrying Calvinist, and yet, each week and each month we manage to work together, being unified in the mission of reaching the lost and maturing the saints.
This is not to congratulate our church. We are a work in process and desperately need the grace of which Professor Yarnell spoke, the unity for which Jesus prayed. But I mention the evangelistic focus at our church, because it is a microcosm of what the Southern Baptist Convention has always been about—self-sacrifice for the sake of missions and evangelism. We will always do more together than apart, and that of necessity means agreeing to disagree on some matters.
This is not to deny the place for theological precision or doctrinal debate. Rather, it affirms both, and it believes that for all practical purposes the formulation of the BFM 2000 was and is sufficient for Calvinists and Traditionalists to work together to reach the ends of the earth.
Back in Israel
Indeed, we might need to take a lesson from the ends of the earth, maybe even the center of the earth. Back in Israel in 2005, there were two unforgettable incidents that marked my experience.
The first was sharing the gospel at a rock concert in Tel Aviv. As tens of thousands of young people gathered, we had the chance to pass out tracts, books, and Bibles. But that is not what I remember most. What I remember most was the brash Southern Baptist missionary who we met in the parking lot. What made this missionary so remarkable? Well, in the short time he was with us, he got into an argument with a local Israeli, got into a shouting match, and eventually punched the man in the head. Cooperative Program dollars at work, right?
Sadly, what happened was that the man lost his sense of purpose. He was seeking to win an argument instead of seeking to win the lost. I wonder if Southern Baptists who are advocating a new doctrinal statement on soteriology, are not doing the same thing?
The other remarkable feature of that mission trip was visiting a missionary in Tiberias who had worked the region for years. He told us about the one church that met in a warehouse on top of the hill in Tiberias. As to doctrine, there was far more diversity than any church planting manual would suggest. Within the church, there were disagreements over apostolic gifts, worship styles, and other points of doctrine.
And yet, in this church there was great unity. Why? Because they were a persecuted people. There was no other evangelical church to go to. In Tiberias, you either served Christ or you opposed Him. There was no in between. The net result was a church that had doctrinal diversity but strong unity—unity in central teachings of the faith and unity in a mission to reach the lost with the message of the gospel.
Oh, that we might have the same unity. Might we as Traditional and Calvinistic Southern Baptists labor together in prayer for unity, and may we be so bold as to take the first step in answering God’s prayer by embracing brothers who hold different positions, holding them up in prayer, going door-to-door witnessing with them, instead of drafting documents that will divide.