Well, that’s the ideal anyway.
Baptists who understand our polity and who have a healthy understanding of autonomy, soul competency, the priesthood of the believer, and the role, ministry, and amazing power of the Holy Spirit don’t bully. They don’t have to. They don’t want to. They are horrified at the prospect.
In reality, sometimes our ideals suffer. We have, in recent years, thrown out a couple of babies with bathwater we found yucky. We are fans of neither the liberal/moderate or the charismatic bathwater, and we’ve thrown them both out forcefully. But I’m afraid we’ve thrown some precious babies out with that bathwater and we need to wash those babies off and welcome them back in the house.
Words like soul competency, priesthood of the believer, and autonomy were once highly valued among Southern Baptists. Unfortunately, because they were used in a certain way (I believe an incorrect way) by the moderate/liberal faction during the shooting war of the Conservative Resurgence, many conservatives became suspicious of the concepts in general. We made a common mistake, throwing out the good with the bad and we left behind some things we ought not to have done.
The conservative resurgence was led by powerful men who were pastors of megachurches. They tended to have a high view of pastoral authority (not inherently inimical to soul competency or priesthood of the believer) and were reacting against the denigration of that concept by some within the moderate faction. As conservatives gained more power, the disenfranchised raised the banner of soul competency and priesthood of the believer to the point that conservative churches sometimes formed a negative reaction to these terms.
Then came the explosion of popularity of elder rule and elder leadership in Baptist churches, progeny of the Reformed movement that has rose among us in the 90s and the first decade of the new millennium (the Mohlerennium?). A common error of the opponents of Calvinism is the belief that Calvinists are monolithic. There’s hardly a point on which Calvinists agree – other than the sovereignty of God in salvation. But many within that movement have a very high idea of pastoral authority.
- One popular pastor (not SBC) told his church, “to question me is to sin.” I nearly lost my dentures when I saw that, and I don’t have dentures. I checked the quote. It was accurate.
- James McDonald (strangely, a speaker at our pastor’s conference this year), identified congregational church government as satanic in origin.
- I have had discussions with other Baptists on this blog who found the concepts of local church (and entity) autonomy and soul competency to be biblically suspect.
It is safe to say that many younger Southern Baptists, raised in the soil of the conservative SBC, and perhaps (based on anecdotal observation) some in the Reformed wing of the SBC, have heightened views of pastoral authority and leadership and perhaps less appreciation for these very old-fashioned Baptist concepts.
I am not Ed Stetzer or LifeWay. My evidence is anecdotal and observational, not scientific. But it is my belief that the Baptist distinctives of the past are either misunderstood or disfavored among many, especially many younger Southern Baptists today.
The ministry and work of the Spirit is also a key here, though I’m focusing on Baptist distinctives. Many Baptists have a stunted view of the work of the Spirit. We tend to focus on how “It’s up to me.” Failing to appreciate these ancient Baptist distinctives and lacking trust in the convicting and convincing work of the Spirit, we tend to rely on bullying, manipulation, and power politics that look like those in the world.
First, I need to define some of these terms. Of course, the truth of these definitions is often in the eye of the beholder.
Soul Competency is the view that each of us is personally accountable to God and need go through no human intermediary to come to God.I am not saved because of my family, my heritage, my upbringing or my involvement or membership in a church. Each of us must, and can, come directly to God through Jesus Christ for salvation. We need no priest, no intermediary, or intercessor except the One seated at God’s right hand. Each of us is also competent, under the guidance of the Spirit, to study the Word and learn of God. We have confessions of faith that state our common beliefs but do not have authoritative creeds as other denominations do.
It does not mean that each of us gets to decide for ourselves what is right, or that truth is subjective. It speaks to the fact that each of us has access to God through Christ and Christians each have the Spirit to empower us to understand the Word.
The Priesthood of Believers is built upon the foundation of soul competency and is the belief that we need no priest or intermediary but Christ. The church is important – crucial – to the sanctification of the believer, but there is no special category of human (clergy) through whom God’s blessing is dispensed. Leaders guide and help, but all the redeemed commune with God, interpret Scripture and minister in Christ’s name.
The OT priest had two primary duties. He engaged in the worship of God. We have the privilege of individually and boldly going before the throne of grace. The priest also interceded for others. As priests, our duty is to bring others to Christ.
This doctrine was perverted to imply that all views were equally valid or that each of us got to choose for ourselves how we would worship God. The priest had the privilege of worshiping God and interceding for others. But he had to do things God’s way. The priesthood of believers is not an excuse for “do as you please” living, but a precious doctrine that reminds us that we can go to God without human intermediaries and we can lead others to him.
Autonomy (and connectionalism) is an ecclesiological outgrowth of these principles. Local churches are autonomous – not under the authority or control of other churches or the denominational structure. We are a convention of “independent Baptist churches.”
- I am a member of an independent Baptist church. We choose to affiliate with the SBC and the BCI. Our church is not a “member” of the SBC. We are “in cooperation” with it.
- The SBC and the BCI are “connectional” – they affiliate and cooperate, but neither is in authority over the other.
- That’s why we send messengers, not delegates to our meetings. My church has no authority over the SBC (and the SBC has none over my church). We send independent messengers from our independent church to our independent convention.
In Real Life
The theoretical ideal does not always materialize. The GCR raised a lot of questions and more than a few hackles concerning the relationship of the SBC to state conventions. At the center of the maelstrom has been NAMB which has restructured the partnership agreements with states and changed pretty much everything about the way independent state conventions and their independent churches relate to the independent convention and its entities.
Here are some of the realities I see in SBC work today.
1) Money Matters.
I arrived in Iowa in 1991 and have been heavily involved in the BCI during that time. – convention president, on the admin committee under all 4 Execs, on the executive board over half of that time. We have been, for most of those years, a Baptist welfare state, funded by YOUR Cooperative Program dollars through HMB and then NAMB. Things have changed recently. Now, NAMB focuses on church planting almost exclusively – that is their new focus and priority. We have to pick up the costs for almost everything else.
This has both placed a greater burden on us and given us a greater freedom.
Here’s the fact: when you take the dollars, you give up some level of control. We had to make systemic and drastic changes in our convention not because of BCI initiative but because NAMB made policy changes. When you take the denominational money, you relinquish some of your autonomy and authority over your own program.
Please hear me. NAMB has been a generous ministry partner with Iowa, and anyone in Iowa who complains about NAMB is bordering on the petulant. They have blessed us with MILLIONS of dollars (tens of millions?) of ministry money through the years. I’m not complaining against NAMB. I’m recognizing the reality. When NAMB gives the money they also set the rules. There is usually some room for negotiation – they are not unreasonable. But they also have their policies and they are only going to bend so far.
If we want to do as we please, we are free to do so. But we cannot drink at the denominational well and then refuse their influence. That is NOT bullying. That is negotiation. It is partnership, give and take. Any effective executive in a new work state needs to know how to work WITH NAMB – standing strong, negotiating hard, but recognizing that we are on the SAME TEAM, not opposite sides.
2) Let’s ditch the cookie cutter.
Having just said that complaining about NAMB was petulant for an Iowan, let me say this. The problem with ANY national organization today seems to be the cookie cutter approach. Southern Baptists seem to love the one-size-fits-all approach. If it worked one place it will work everywhere! I remember when “FAITH” went national. What did people say? “If it worked for Bobby Welch in Daytona Beach it will work for you.” But it didn’t. A lot of churches tried FAITH and almost no one replicated Daytona’s success.
If Southern Baptists had been around in the days of Moses, there would have been a curriculum circulating, “How You Can Find Your Burning Bush.” Moses would have become a popular conference speaker traveling from oasis to oasis sharing his experience and telling people that they can have a similar experience if they just do what he did. This was one of the great lessons I learned from Henry Blackaby.
And here’s the thing – what works in Birmingham, Alabama, or Austin, Texas, isn’t likely to work in Sioux City, Iowa.
- In Drakes Branch, Virginia, (where I pastored in the 80s) drop-in visitation was expected. Here in Sioux City it’s not only not expected but it would be viewed as kind of weird. Why is the pastor at our door?
- “Revivals” are just about unheard of here.
- If you are going to minister here, especially as a “Southern Baptist”, you’d better invest in the community. They tend to think we are snake handlers or holy rollers so ministries like Disaster Relief and World Changers (before they decided to only minister in the Deep South a few years ago) were so important. They gave credibility here.
- The “do a survey, have a block party, start a church” approach hasn’t been all that effective here.
The cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all, we’ve-got-a-system-you-need-to-fit-in approach isn’t going to work. What works in the mountains of Virginia won’t likely work in New York City and a completely different approach is needed in the Heartland.
I am thrilled that NAMB is focusing on church planting. Amen. Hallelujah. Glory. But we need to realize that all strategy needs to be locally appropriate and contextualized. The outlines and policies may be set nationally by our entities, but specific strategies need to be created locally by boots on the ground.
I think that the burden is on new work conventions to devise locally effective plans and perhaps negotiate with our national SBC family and see if they will bend their strategy to be more locally effective. Let’s be willing to scrap the cookie cutter if someone shows that there is something better.
3) Baptists Don’t Bully.
This should probably be two posts – you know I don’t do that! But here’s the point of it all.
If you understand Baptist theology and polity, you do not bully others.
I know there are a few anti-Blackabeans out there (those who have failed to see the amazing wisdom of Henry Blackaby). That is not an unpardonable sin, but it comes close! (If it were not a crusade, I’d use an emoticon.) Henry taught me to trust the Holy Spirit.
If what you are doing is truly of God, the Spirit of God is your ally. He will convince and convict others and you need not pressure, manipulate, or engage in power politics. If what you are doing is NOT of God, do you really want to engage in fleshly tactics to accomplish your own will?
Trust the fact that the God who is at work in you will be at work in others. You need not use the tactics of the secular politician to accomplish the work of God.
- Proclaim the truth.
- Explain what you believe to be right.
- Identify what you believe to be wrong.
- Then trust the Spirit of God to accomplish the work of God in the hearts of the people of God.
What do you do if a group of Baptists does not do what you think they should do even after you have spoken your mind and explained what you think should be done?
- First of all, get used to it. That’s Baptist life.
- Realize that you do NOT have to get your way all the time. You can live a happy, meaningful and spiritually productive life even after you lose that vote!
- Accept that reasonable people can disagree with your viewpoint and approach on a topic.
- Emphathize! Try to see things from the other person’s point of view. Why does this matter to that person? Why does that person feel so strongly about it?
- Reject ALL hidden agendas. All of them. Hidden agendas are of the devil. He sneaks around. God’s people work out in the open without subterfuge, sneakiness, duplicity or artifice.
- Trust the Spirit of God. If you are right and God is on your side, HE will work. If you are wrong, it’s best that you don’t win, right? And if it’s just a matter of opinion, then a spirit-filled Christian will yield to the needs and wants of others, not seek his own.
- Grow up. Maturity means not getting upset when you don’t get your way.
- Focus on the things that really matter. Let’s face it, much of what we fight about isn’t fundamental or crucial. Keep the main thing the main thing and don’t get sidetracked by trying to win piddling battles on minor issues.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth: someone can love Jesus, love the Bible, and love the SBC and STILL disagree with you, whether you are an entity head or someone who disagrees with and dissents from an entity. Punishing dissent and disagreement is not only un-Christlike it is un-Baptist.
Trust that the Spirit who has worked in you will work in others. Honor the fact that others don’t have to agree with you. And refuse to bully. Refuse to push people to do what you want. Refuse to publicly humiliate, privately work to pressure or use any other tactics of manipulation to get your way.
It doesn’t honor God and it’s just not Baptist!