Underlying all the recent kerfuffle over Norm Miller, Ed Stetzer, “treason,” and who said this and who said that, was a discussion between Rick Patrick and myself over the value of denominational loyalty within the SBC. Let’s leave the “treason” comment to the side here. I have no interest in pursuing that any further. Rick’s post Ten Traits of a Southern Baptist president over at SBC Today, however, got me to thinking again about an issue that, from my perspective, may well be one of the most significant issues facing us in the SBC today (no pun intended): the relative degree of loyalty we ought to show to the SBC and to the Body of Christ at large. From another post Rick wrote several months ago, he believes this issue may indeed be more deeply rooted and critical to different approaches within the SBC than the Calvinism debates. Though I am on the other side of Rick with regard to the approach we ought to take, I agree with his assessment of the importance and relevance of this issue.
With regard to what Rick said in his post, he is certainly entitled to his opinion, and SBC Today is certainly entitled to publish it. I have no problem with that. And many of the traits Rick mentions are traits that I agree would be good for an SBC president to have. It is trait number one on his list, however, that points to what appears to me to be a major sticking point and dividing line within our convention of churches:
1. DENOMINATIONAL LOYALTY: His loyalties are with the SBC, not with the broader evangelical community.
Let me make perfectly clear from the start that I do not have any problem with the idea of denominational loyalty in and of itself. Indeed, common sense presupposes that an organizational leader ought to an enthusiastic supporter of the programs and distinctives of the organization in which he/she exercises that leadership. What causes me concern, and, indeed, sadness, when I see the visceral response of some, is the idea that loyalty to the SBC somehow precludes or is in tension with loyalty to the broader Body of Christ.
Over the years, I have written on this topic (or sub-topics related to it) perhaps more than any other on the various blogs in which I have participated. It is an issue I feel strongly about, not just because I have a personal agenda, but because I feel, from my understanding of Scripture, this is one of the main issues we as Southern Baptists need to work on.
As I see it, our bottom-line loyalty as gospel-centered Christians of any denomination ought to lie with the Body of Christ at large. To the degree our understanding of the term evangelical coincides with a biblical focus on and commitment to the gospel, I have no problem in saying that this loyalty should be directed specifically toward evangelical Christians. Since, unfortunately, however, the term evangelical itself has become enmeshed in controversy, and there is much confusion related to its use, I think perhaps it is best to say that this group is comprised of all those who we consider to have saving faith, and with whom, on the basis of our understanding of Scripture, we might expect to spend eternity in heaven. Though I certainly agree with those who would want to stress that the implications of the gospel extend beyond just our eternal state, I believe this is a good way to specify those whom I am talking about here.
Although our bottom-line loyalty ought to lie with this broader group, I do not believe this precludes our active participation in and enthusiastic support of the projects of certain subgroups of the Body of Christ, such as associations, conventions, denominations, or even so-called parachurch organizations. But, as I see it, these subgroups do not have validity or value in and of themselves. They each exist as tools for us as members of the broader Body of Christ to more effectively channel our time, efforts, and resources into the fulfillment of the task that our Lord has given to the Church at large: the Great Commission. Indeed, though, as a means to be more effective and efficient in the task to which He has called us, we may choose to focus our ministry efforts and resources largely through one particular subgroup or set of projects, we are ultimately not in competition with, but in partnership with, all those who, together with us, are called to the fulfillment of this same task. At the bottom line, we are not on different teams competing against each other, but are all members of the same team: the Body of Christ.
As Paul told the believers in Corinth, as members of the Body of Christ, we cannot say that we do not need each other. “The body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body.” “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” I am aware that, traditionally, this passage has been used primarily to teach unity and mutual dependence within the local congregation. And I believe that is indeed a valid application of the principle that Paul was teaching. However, I also believe that, when Paul uses the metaphor of the Body, he is not referring only to the local church but to the Universal Church as well.
If anything, the context of 1 Corinthians should lead us to question the mere existence of denominations within the Body of Christ. In chapter 3, Paul specifically mentions those who form factions, or subgroups, around the leadership of certain individuals in the Body of Christ, such as Apollos, or Cephas (Peter), or Paul himself. Personally, I do not think this passage necessarily precludes denominations, but it certainly precludes denominationalism, (i.e. a party spirit that sees the importance of one’s own subgroup as superior to that of other subgroups within the Body, rather than seeing all us as fellow players on the same team).
None of this means that denominational distinctives have no value or that we should just sweep our doctrinal differences with fellow evangelicals under the rug. But it does have to do with the mindset we adopt when we discuss these differences. They are in-house discussions. At the bottom-line, we are brothers and sisters in Christ with our fellow evangelicals, and that should mean more than just saying “brother” or “sister” as a polite gesture. Jesus said that, just as He laid down His life for us, we too ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.
My hope for a prospective candidate for the presidency of the SBC is that he would take this approach. My hope for all of us, as members of SBC-affiliated churches, is that we would take this approach. My hope for all of us in the Body of Christ is that more and more we would recognize each other, and honor and love each other, for being just that: fellow members of the Body of Christ.
Indeed, for me, this is not just a stimulating theological debate. It is a matter of heartfelt conviction. I do not merely suggest that you think carefully through these issues. I urge you to search the Scripture and search your heart on this matter. I sincerely believe this is one of the key issues on the heart of our Savior today. And I hope and pray that more and more of those within the Southern Baptist Convention will come to understand and enthusiastically embrace our bottom-line loyalty to the Body of Christ.
*For an excellent discussion on Christian unity and denominations, read the following article by Sydney Anglican John Woodhouse (and, for further context, the other two articles he mentions and links to in the first paragraph):