Comments on ‘What Southern Baptists must do to slow their decline’
I have been reading various reports about ‘Hemorrhaging Faith’; here in Canada and in the United States. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada produced a report by that name last year. And the Southern Baptists have engaged in introspective navel gazing in response as statistics of declining membership etc catch up with the reality of their loss of spiritual vitality some time ago. Empirical statistics are always, at best, lagging indicators in a spiritual setting. Sometimes, they could be false indicators; as the leadership hierarchy roll out initiatives, which might inflate the numbers in a brief burst of ersatz spiritual fireworks.
I could give my own deep and comprehensive rendering of the problems. And I would probably be 90-95% correct. But my efforts would be of little use. This would be due partially to the fact that I would be perceived as an outsider in a variety of ways. Rebuke and reproach is only effective, at best, if the person addressed believes that one is, at heart, on their side; that the advice given is from someone who is genuinely interested in their welfare, apart from any personal benefit to the counselor. Loyal criticism from one’s own is always preferred. Outside criticism sends the guard goes up. The wagons are circled.
A particular problem with SBC members is that they demonstrate fierce denominational nationalism and pride; not the type of attitude that is prone to self-doubt and introspection. And I have been acquainted with this proud and unbecoming sectarianism, which is particularly unique to Southern Baptists and puzzling to outsiders; in Israel, America and back here. I see something of the same in Conventional Baptists in Canada. But that is another story.
An outsider might see the problems more clearly and blatantly. However, there is always the possibility of his own prejudiced and unbiblical perceptions blighting the analysis. Nevertheless, the outsider might serve to finger potential points of dissonance with True Christianity, which a genuine and honest hearer should at least give some rumination as to their verity.
The liabilities with insider analysis are manifold. The primary one is that it is difficult to see the whole forest when one is in the thick of it. If an insider is part of the problem, their perception is certain to be blighted. Existing loyalties compromise the willingness to give unvarnished truth.
Perhaps, the effectiveness of Southern Baptist Paul Washer lies in the fact that he had been outside of his country and subcultural enclave for several decades in Peru before returning with dismay. A similar dynamic applied to Francis Schaeffer in regard to Evangelical Christianity in general. Thus, such persons have the advantage of being outside insiders or inside outsiders.
The biggest obstacle may very well come from those purporting to worry about the spiritual state of the denomination. Such are prone to shut their ears to any real and deep correction, whether from outsiders, insiders, outside insiders or inside outsiders. An Evangelical-approved quote being bantered about in Evangelical circles is “If you’re not ready to face opposition for your obedience to God, you’re not ready to be used by God” (Craig Groeschel). The sad reality is that the greatest opposition to the things of God in this day, as in the day of Christ, is from the Evangelical Church itself and its hierarchy.
Until the situation becomes too ominous, such will not be sufficiently prostrated. The need is for the shepherds of the flock to wail “What are we doing wrong Lord” and throw everything on the table; even basic core beliefs. For, although the core beliefs might be essentially correct, one’s rendering of them might contain subtle errors that had mushroomed into highly detrimental impediments to the Gospel.
Personally, based on historical precedent, I expect that the SBC is in death spiral. Many, amongst themselves, will blame the direction of the general culture. And they will be partially true. But that truth will obscure the deep and abiding travesties that abound in conservative churches like the SBC, which they cannot see. Many find it strange that they, unlike their liberal theological adversaries, did not depart from the faith and yet suffer loss. My observation is that they did depart from the faith but on the opposite side of the ridge or road with the same general results.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Having read Jonathan Merritt’s take on his denomination’s decline; the one thing going for it is that his is not as facile an analysis as that from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (‘Hemorrhaging Faith’). His selection of the major problems is these:
- fighting vicious battles and expending major energy over matters of secondary or tertiary (minor) importance
- alignment of the SBC with Republican partisan politics
- hierarchalism – leadership unwillingness to tolerate questioning or dissent
These problems do exist in varying degrees, are significant and are common to the churches as outlined in Scriptures itself. The two latter faults stem from historical decisions and wrongful responses to prior problematic circumstances and developments. The first problem has been a perennial personality tic of the Battling Baptists since their inception in early 17th Century Britain. But I would disagree with Merritt as to what he considers minor and how he frames the issue about schisms.
Nevertheless, the excavation is not deep enough. These and a bevy of other problems are indications of deeper rot, a rot at the core, which requires transformation of souls than reformation within transformed souls.
However, when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come.1
According to Christ, those who become converted / regenerated will throughout the slow meander of their life conform to the mindset2 and conduct of God in Christ. One will reach conclusions on one’s own, without any discernible input from the churches that one attends or extra-Biblical documents one reads. Then, to both delight and dismay, he will discover that theologians from long ago had reached similar conclusions. There is delight because it confirms that one is in the Faith. “And they shall be all taught of God.”3 This is emphasized when one witnesses others, including theologians, who read the Scriptures and take away obviously wrong-headed and earth-bound interpretations. There is dismay because of a less than virtuous all-to-human desire to astonish the world with one’s own unique discoveries; which turns out not so unique.
But what happens when the congregation goes astray into deeply heterodoxical and heretical territory? What happens when ‘soul competence’ become a formula for cafeteria Christianity, the picking and choosing of what parts of Scriptures are agreeable to the congregants subjective faculties and tastes? The church thus counteracts this development of doctrinal chaos with creedalism and greater hierarchal control; increasing dependence upon an evolving priesthood of theologians to give proper interpretation to Scriptures; a formal and informal magisterium with confessions of faith and catechisms. It is worldly and earth-bound response, which will only exacerbate the issue. However, whenever it occurs throughout history, it indicates the temperature of spiritual vitality of the church, which engages in such human artifice. It also indicates that a high number of the congregants are not indeed converted / regenerated.
It happened in the early Hellenist church by the early 4th century as a stream of creeds sought to excise one major heresy from the orthodox faith after another. However, Christianity turns from living water, perennially nourishing the soul, into a litmus test of bullet points that one must subscribe to, in order to be acceptable to the choir. A remarkable and similar development and dynamic has occurred in Evangelicalism in the last half century as “no creed but the Bible” Evangelical Churches and denominations add a proliferation of articles of faith and other extra-biblical litmus tests.
Cafeteria Christianity is indicative of lack of faith in Christ. The person, who subjects Scriptures to their subjective faculties, has made his subjective faculty the ultimate authority; in essence, his god. Charles Templeton was an easily identifiable case in point because of his self-disclosures, by which he gives evidence that his reason was final arbiter. But reason is not the only subjective faculty by which a person may exalt as his Judge of all.
The underlying problem is the proliferation of the unconverted in the church assemblies. The human solution of hierarchalism merely exacerbates the problem. Solid and bold teaching of the fundamentals of the faith with hopes of conversion is the only true solution.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Diving into Partisan Politics
When Francis Schaeffer eked out his theological innovation of “co-belligerence” in order to justify co-operation against the ideological and sociopolitical threat of the secularist onslaught, there was personal trepidation that this would become a backdoor to becoming unequally yoked with unbelievers. Had Schaeffer continued to live past 1984, he might have navigated his concept within the bounds that he had initially set. But in the hands of lesser men in positions of Evangelical leadership, an enormity of corruption has been allowed to proliferate and hollow out the vitality and orthodoxy of Evangelicalism. The evils that have emanated are manifold and enormous, which even Jonathon Merritt is underestimating.
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord.4
However, the root cause of this detrimental development is fear and lack of faith in God’s protection and provision. Like the ancient Hebrew state of Judah, Evangelicalism has made alliance with the Egyptian conservative moralists in order to parry the Babylonian threat of the liberal secularists. They put more faith in horses and chariots; which in this case was seeking safety in democratic numbers and under the umbrella of political partisan strength.
The evils that have emanated are manifold and enormous, even existential, which even Jonathon Merritt is underestimating. And like the ancient Hebrews, the modern Egyptians give every indication of seeking to let go of their initial obligations to save their own skins or inconvenience; leaving a betrayed and stranded desolate spiritual whore to face the Babylonians alone.
The answer is not to withdraw back into Separatism and non-involvement and non-interaction with the larger society. God is the God of all Life. There is a nuanced approach to civic participation. We are not to attempt to coerce a kingdom of righteousness in this world. And yet we should become knowledgeable, wisely nuanced and transmit Christian perspectives with a view of demonstrating the wisdom and glory of the Kingdom of God.
It is for Evangelicals to dislodge their tongues from the anal canals of their Egyptian masters and reclaim their own distinct and clean voice after first learning what the Will and Wisdom of the Lord is, concerning political involvement.
Internal Schisms over Secondary/Tertiary Matters
I have heard of Baptist schisms in my youth that hinged on the style of pews and altars and resulted in congregational splits. I have known of more recent silliness over trivialities like painting over church walls that lack any reasonable resemblance to Scriptural concerns. Schism and squabbling is standard fare for the battling Baptists. But at least in recent times, the quality of the subject at hand has improved in substance a tad, even if not always making it to a concern over essentials.
Jonathan Merritt defines squabbles over Calvinism or the “sinner’s prayer” (which is associated with the “asking Christ into my heart” soteriological innovation) as minor issues. I would agree that Calvinism is not an essential. I would deem that those who make it so, to be on very dangerous heretical ground. For, such persons are adding ‘mental works’ to practicable faith in Christ in order to be saved. And in order for a ‘mental work’ to be worthy of God, one’s mental work must be perfect. In other words, one’s rendering of Calvinist thought must be pristinely perfect in order as a condition of Justification if one adds Calvinism as a necessary belief. Furthermore, unlike the Biblical anathema against a false understanding of the doctrine of Justification found in Galatians, there is no parallel explicit Biblical anathema against disbelief in the doctrine of the Sovereign God.
The Calvinist controversy will likely lead to a necessary split, just as it did in the early 17th Century. Calvinism doesn’t define the difference between the converted and unconverted. In other words, it is a matter of secondary importance, even if still important. And there are many dangers inherent in that difficult and complicated framework of understanding, which can lead to all manner of labyrinthine conundrums; even heterodoxies and heresies. One can be an expert on the intricacies of Calvinism and yet never have come to Christ; never had true living faith, defined as conducting oneself in accordance to the premises that one believes or confesses to believe. It tempts the adherent toward intellectualism. It tempts the adherent to exalt Sovereignty of God over the practicable need to come to faith in Christ. It seriously tempts all adherents with presumption.
Whether one accepts or rejects the Calvinist framework, the exercise in truly and genuinely ruminating on the assertions of the Sovereignty of God usually gives a deepening respect for the Word and for some, an astonished admiration for the sheer brilliance and wisdom of God.
If Calvinism need not define and differentiate the converted from the unconverted (soteriology); in pursuing church aims and missions (ecclesiology), it is very difficult to join the mindset of the Calvinist with the mindset of the non-Calvinist. The Calvinist deems Christ to be active, if invisibly, in control, largely apart from the Christian. The non-Calvinist deems the Church to be in control; or purportedly Christ largely through the Christian. And thus, you will have Bill Hybels proclaim that “the local church is the hope of the world”, whereas I have always thought that “Christ is the hope of the world”.
The non-Calvinist attitude tempts the non-Calvinist to conduct his personal and corporate church life with an ends justifies means mentality. It is true that one can be a non-Calvinist and yet seek to convert and disciple through strict and scrupulous Biblical principles and means. But the underlying theology doesn’t restrict the non-Calvinist. And therefore, non-Calvinism tends to lead to conversion by programs, Finney-like revivalist manipulation, Madison Avenue techniques (seeker friendly churches), the industrial strength Altar Call assembly line, the dumbing down of doctrine to lowest common denominator, and even worse travesties with their ensuing problematic, if not disastrous, consequences. This makes it very difficult for the Calvinist to stomach doing church with their non-Calvinist compatriots.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
I find it very difficult to understand how Jonathan Merritt can deem the “sinner’s prayer” and “asking Christ into my heart” controversies as minor issues. It underlies premises to an essential element of the Christian Gospel and Faith: How is one justified? It is vital that a person practicably trust in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrificial lifeblood and righteousness to make us legally right with God. The God of scrupulous righteousness and justice cannot do anything lawfully (i.e. regenerate, sanctify) to the individual until that individual accepts this Covenant. It is true that salvation involves more. However, it is also true that justification requires this understanding and practicably conducting oneself upon this understanding.
The problem with the “sinner’s prayer” and “asking Christ into my heart” is less one of contradiction than that of negligence. Some say the “sinner’s prayer” and “ask Christ into the heart” with this underlying understanding of Christ having paid it all. But evident in the 95% who apostatize after ‘coming to Christ’ in this manner, it is evident that those so-called converts had never accepted Christ on true Gospel terms; even if they were sincere. Their ‘conversion’ doesn’t take because God cannot lawfully and justly regenerate, change and sanctify these persons without the person signing off on the New Testament covenantal agreement. It is a lack of true knowledge because of bad instruction by the Evangelical leadership, who themselves might not be converted. So many of these genuinely seeking individuals do it over and over until they become skeptical, jaded, angry and violently hostile to the Christian faith. I DO NOT BLAME THEM!
This is not small potatoes. As I (and I have since discovered others) believe, the Altar Call mentality populates and corrupts the church with the unconverted in much the same way that baby baptism, conversion at the edge of the sword, automatic membership in the church by virtue of political citizenship has done to other church organizations.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Internal schisms and squabbling are a fact of life even for Christians. It is not necessarily the fact that the squabblers are unconverted; although it could very well be. For the converted, it is a matter of maturity, patience, wisdom, graciousness and FAITH. Doing discourse and reproof, without getting frustrated and angry with the apparent (or real) dishonesty or incompetence of one’s interlocutor, proves very difficult. And thus, this is what we must remember, especially self since I am utterly convinced of this but nevertheless forget in the heat of the moment.
With regard to our duties to others: we are only responsible to gently present as clearly and plainly as we are able to muster, what we perceive to be true. This is no guarantee that our interlocutor will understand or accept. It is not necessarily a judgment on the presenter that the interlocutor fails to grasp or concur. This is an advantage of a Calvinist over a non-Calvinist. The latter, (and I have seen this in another for myself), will think that they failed miserably or even worse, that maybe that they are wrong, because the interlocutor fails to convert.
In human interactions, there is this ego competition; quite apart from the issues at hand. We don’t like to be wrong. And we don’t like to be proved wrong publicly. By the presenter being overly insistent or heated, the interlocutor will object to his manner and probably close the ears to the content (and even justify self-deceptively that they should not listen/agree by virtue of the manner it is presented). Or in a person like myself, I will, as the receiver of an assertion or argument, seek to find every possible fault to that argument because I am looking for certainty in the assertion before adopting it.
That is why we should present gently; to neutralize those natural human inclinations. That is the basis of “the wisdom that comes from heaven”5 that presents gently. Thus, generally, it ought not to be expected that a person will concur at the heat of the discourse. And consider that if one’s interlocutor generally changes his/her mind without much due consideration in the heat of discourse, they might change their mind as a matter of whimsy to every wind of suggestion; being a John Bunyan’s Mr. Pliable.
I find that in a person like me, I can argue quite convincingly from my current position, (simply because I am a good sophist), but come back in days and weeks later and acknowledge the truth of my interlocutor. I usually have to disregard the usual “I told you so” nonsense and attitude by the victorious interlocutor. However, those with this “I told you so” propensity will dissuade others to change or acknowledge change of heart. One ought not to have to eat dung every time one changes one’s mind.
We underestimate all the impediments (from lack of intellectual competence, from existing personal experience prejudices, from social prejudices, from social concerns, from nefarious forces of the underworld, from self-interest, from fear and desires etc) by which all of us face in coming to the truth, whether the Gospel truth or on lesser matters. If one appreciates these difficulties, one ought to logically become more gracious. And one will more often pray for the intervention of God into the recesses of our interlocutor’s heart and mind.
The closer that a person practicably conforms to the truth, the fuller and productive (although not necessarily the happier) that that person’s life will be.6 There are natural consequences to our conformity to the true and the good. And thus, we should approach our assertions, arguments and counsel with the view, not of judgment, but of hopes that the welfare of our interlocutor should improve if we are right. There is therefore no call for moralist judgmentalism. Besides, behind that moralism is a self-serving regard for personal benefit if the other person would only just see it our way and act accordingly.
There is a long held theological position in Christendom, which I believe cannot be justified by Scriptures, reason or empirical evidence (historical or sociological). That theological innovation is called moral nativism. In Christianese, it is the belief that natural, unconverted men have been given knowledge of the moral law of God. I believe that we inherently have inescapable faculties for judgment. Empirical evidence is overwhelming. It is facet of the image of God that we inherit.
However, the content of that moral judgment faculty is not populated with the moral law of God, (which is in the deep recesses of every man that simply needs to be unlocked from the deliberate repression by human beings, according to some theologies). Humans do repress those truths and virtues that they do know. However, there is insufficient incontrovertible Scriptural basis (a.k.a. two or three incontrovertible Scriptural witnesses) to justify the claim of innate moral knowledge of right and wrong. I know. I have looked it up. There are far more Scriptural references to suggest that we are not naturally given such automatic moral knowledge. And certainly the historical record bears this up.
This is not a doctrine that I would insist a person immediately adopt. It would be very unpopular in Christian circles and ahistorical. But I believe that the evidence is overwhelming the moral nativism is incorrect (and came from Stoic sources and not Jewish. I would have you just reconsider the possibility for yourselves. (It is subject I intend to write a thesis about.)
My reasoning is this. Much of the moralism that takes place amongst Southern Baptists and other similar denominations is ideological nourished by this belief that our ethical adversaries know the truth but don’t do it. But what if they don’t innately know the truth? How does that change one’s perspective about our ethical adversaries?
There is a difference between being highly personally moral and being moralistic (and legalistic to boot – which is merely going beyond what the explicit Scriptures says). And the Southern Baptists have a justified reputation for being toxically moralist. One cannot read Falwell’s book without feeling that oppressive ungraciousness. (And unlike Pat Robertson, I do believe Falwell to be a converted Christian.) The popularity of Rob Bell, Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz) and other Emergents, leverages off the justified critiques of this existing moralist church subculture with such toxicity. Such Emergents and other Postmodernists, liberals, nihilists merely replace excessive law, beyond a scrupulous fidelity to Scriptural truth, with a lawless ‘love’; a love, which would send a child into a minefield with the best of good intentions. The Southern Baptists and their conservative ilk are a mirror image of this other camp. The truth lies in navigating between the two sides of the path.
1. John 16:13
2. Romans 12:2
3. John 6:45
4. Isaiah 31:1
5. James 3:17-18
6. 2 Peter 1:5-8