Sunday, December 17, 2006

Splinting Theological Triage

Dr. Albert Mohler's commentary "A Call for Theological Triage" (see here) is a fine, thoughtful, timely piece of writing. I agree with every word. I do not agree with every way that it has been applied by others. I observe three ways that this article has been used improperly IMHO:

  1. It has been misquoted and misapplied by those who need to go back and read it more carefully. We all ought to make sure that we understand what each tier represents. Also, we ought to acknowledge that only Mohler's third tier is designed to contain doctrines that ought not to be matters of division within the SBC.
  2. It has been heralded as a solution, when actually it is only a description of the problem. Don't get me wrong: It is a great description of the problem. The tension in the SBC today is, essentially, a difference over what belongs in "tier two" and what belongs in "tier three." But knowing that this is the nature of the conflict does not provide any help whatsoever in deciding what belongs in what tier. I don't think Dr. Mohler was even offering this as such.
  3. It has been elevated to a level of precision that it does not deserve. In medicine, "triage" is a pretty blunt tool, generally reserved for catastrophic situations. In the course of day-to-day business, medical professionals like to take their time to assess and treat every case individually. In the same way, Mohler's three-category approach, while accurate, is very general.
I think that this concept, accurate and appropriate as it was in its initial offering, has been broken by misuse and misapplication. I would like to apply a splint and put it back out there.

First, let us recognize that these three categories describe ranges on a continuum. For example: I am
  1. A Christian.
  2. A Protestant (sorry, Bro. Graves).
  3. A Free-Church Protestant.
  4. A Congregationalist.
  5. A Baptist.
  6. A Missionary Baptist.
  7. A Southern Baptist.
  8. A Southern Baptist Inerrantist.
  9. A Southern Baptist Inerrantist A Posteriori Cessationist.
  10. A Southern Baptist Inerrantist A Posteriori Cessationist Premillennialist.
Obviously, this list represents more than just three tiers!

It is, I think, fairly easy to see that the first item belongs to tier one and the last item belongs to tier three. Everything down through 'A Baptist" definitely falls into tier two as employed by Dr. Mohler. But what about the rest of the list? What is the difference between a "Southern Baptist" and another "Missionary Baptist" of a different stripe? Do those differences belong in tier two or tier three? Ought those differences to preclude cooperation? I'll propose my answer later.

For right now, let us simply agree that the whole situation is vastly more complex than three categories can exhaustively describe.

The Tier in Question

Tier one is pretty airtight. Nevertheless, there are complexities and nuances even within it. Some things in tier one you must affirm to be a Christian. Others you merely must not deny. I was not thoroughly acquainted with the doctrine of the Trinity when I received Christ at the tender age of five, but once I became acquainted with it, I affirmed it.

Tier three is vast and multifaceted, but I think we all know what to do with adiaphora.

Tier two is the tier in question.

Mohler defines tier two descriptively, not prescriptively. These second-level issues are those which "will create significant boundaries between believers." That, ladies and gentlemen, is the voice of history rather than theology. How do we know which issues are the ones that will create significant boundaries between believers? We look to see which ones have created significant boundaries between believers.

Yet (in spite of how much I obviously love history) I'm not sure history is a good place to look for the answers here. Things change. Issues that were historically important have a way of fading into relative obscurity. New issues arise that the churches must address without the benefit of precise historical precedent.

Here are two examples:

In the seventeenth century, Baptists were all a twitter about "laying on of hands." This had nothing to do with ordination. Many (most?) Baptists allowed for the practice of laying hands upon a newly baptized convert to pray for Holy Spirit guidance for that believer in the life of the church. Some Baptists not only allowed for this practice; they required it. Congregations split over this practice. Denominations formed around this practice. It was, in the seventeenth century, definitely a tier-two issue.

Today, only boring old academics (and a few adherents to an obscure surviving sect) even know that the controversy existed. Most decidedly tier-three.

Today, Baptists face the various manifestations and daughter movements of the Pentecostal movement. This movement began around a century ago. Spiritual gifts were a tier-three issue in the seventeenth century. The Pentecostal movement has made this a tier-two issue in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (even though some of our readers will differ as to which parts of this movement belong in tier two or tier three, I think all of our readership will concur that the subject as a whole has components or implications that are unavoidably tier-two).

So, this second tier grows, shrinks, and otherwise readjusts as Christian history marches onward. I think that we are in the midst of just such a realignment today. And neither Dr. Mohler nor anyone else has given us any formulaic criteria by which we may predict where the boundary between these two tiers will land when we are done.

Better Than Tiers: Cooperative Expediency

Here's how I view the whole idea of cooperative parameters:

First, I am a strong believer in the primacy of the local church. I am much more concerned about intracongregational unity than intercongregational unity. It seems to me that the former is much more difficult to achieve than the latter and that the absence of the former is much more damaging to the body of Christ. Associations and conventions are, in my view, only slightly above the level of being a vendor to the local church. In no way do I regard the Southern Baptist Convention as a church.

The existence of the Southern Baptist Convention is not necessary. My church can preach the gospel, disciple believers, pursue missions, and do every necessary function of a church while remaining an entirely independent congregation. Furthermore, without one iota of institutional connection with any other church, my church can exist in Christian unity with other churches and other believers. Consequently, what the SBC does or does not do has no bearing, in my mind, on the concept of unity in Christ or the validity of my church.

Second, I approach SBC decisions with a sort of pragmatism. I believe that affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention helps my church to perform its tasks more effectively. The SBC is not necessary, but it is helpful. The SBC is not a church; it is a tool for churches. What doctrinal constraints ought we to have in the SBC? Those that make the SBC a better tool. Those that improve its effectiveness. Those that are cooperatively expedient.

Theological laxity is a danger to the effectiveness of the tool. If our institutions stray from orthodoxy, they will begin to harm our churches rather than to help them (e.g., by supplying them with pastors who do not believe the Bible). Also, if our institutions become seedbeds for the promotion or distribution of minority views, there is the danger of offending and driving away the majority of churches that provide support for the institutions.

Theological micromanagement is also a danger to the effectiveness of the tool. If the theological requirements for employment become too severe, churches may find that their pool of eligible denominational employees is so small that the SBC cannot employ enough quality employees to provide value to the ministry of churches. A seminary that cannot find and hire qualified professors is of little utility to anyone. A mission board without missionaries is less effective than an independent congregation.

Finding the right spot to mitigate these two dangers is an exercise in constant adjustment. The whole enterprise involves constant theological thinking, yet the final arbitrer is a sort of pragmatism. Often it boils down to political pragmatism.

In Southern Baptist life, the great complicating factor is the fact that the vast majority of people involved will not participate in the formal decision-making process. Most of the churches are unrepresented. Denominational employees are much more likely to participate. Thus, the inherent trend is toward laxity rather than micromanagement. We live in an exceptional age that has witnessed a strong push away from laxity. That age will not last forever. Some view the current troubles as a rescue of the convention from micromanagement. Others view it as the beginning of an inexorable return to laxity.

Dr. Mohler avoided specifics in his "Theological Triage" paper. Because of his position, he needed to do so. Lacking any position, I might as well go ahead and be specific.

Baptism is the ultimate tier-two issue. We ought to have our beliefs about baptism nailed down pretty concretely. I think that the IMB regulation really needs work, but in no way can I say that any serious aspect of the doctrine of baptism is a tier-three issue.

"Private prayer language" is a manifestation of the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave movement. Using Dr. Mohler's framework, this certainly is an issue that has created significant boundaries between believers. New denominations have arisen. Countless congregations have split. History suggests that this movement belongs in tier two. People will differ over the idea of including every aspect of the movement in tier two. I'm not sure that I include every aspect of the movement in tier two. But the alleged "gift of tongues" has been the core of this movement, and anything having to do with that concept clearly belongs in tier two, IMHO.

Using my framework, I think that the SBC is more useful to my church when it holds clear views on baptism. I also think that it is more valuable to my church when it remains clearly outside the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave movement. We are outside that movement, and we have no desire to subsidize it.

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