Saturday, August 26, 2006

Looking for a New Nomenclature

It is a valid critique: A collection of labels in Southern Baptist life have been misapplied, sometimes recklessly and abusively. I consider the following to be among those terms:

  1. Liberal
  2. Conservative
  3. Moderate
  4. Landmark(er)(ism)
  5. Creedalist
  6. Evangelical
  7. Takeover
Not all of these labels have been used as an insult, but they have all been misused in some way.

I suggest the following weaknesses with these terms as often used. First, so little regard has been given to careful definition in the use of these terms that some of them may be unredeemable. Even for those of us who try to use the words with precision, the dilution caused by the recklessness of others can push a word beyond the point of no return.

Second, even if used precisely, these words do not address the full spectrum of issues now at play in the Southern Baptist Convention. Thus, two people may legitimately both be fundamentalists, and yet they may still find themselves aligned differently within the SBC. Why? Because other issues not related to fundamentalism may have asserted themselves, prompting realignment around different answers to new questions.

Third, fixation upon such schemas as liberal-conservative and the resulting oversimplification of Baptist belief have led people to sketch oversimplified visions for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. If one can plot a course of reconciliation of this one set of issues, it is thought, one can bring about the dawning of a newfound unity among Southern Baptists. I do not deny that such a day of unity is good or even possible, but I submit that conflicting visions for the future of our convention arise out of differences on many questions, not just one. The current predominant practice of labeling is unsatisfactory.

However, facile and naive suggestions that we might drop labels are untenable. It is no more possible to discuss theology without theological labels than to write the great American novel without using any nouns or adjectives. Some of the old labels will necessarily endure. We might wish to replace them, but find that there are no acceptable alternatives. Adding other labels will at least narrow the scope of these terms and provide some incentive for using them with greater accuracy.

So, here are some suggested labels for present-day use in the SBC:
Higher-Critics
This is probably what the most astute of us have meant by the term liberal. Higher-Critics are those who have adopted the higher-critical method of biblical studies. These are people who may question the integrity, stated authorship, and given dates of biblical books. They may question the veracity of biblical historical accounts, especially as related to miraculous events. They may be strongly influenced by a Wellhausian view of the development of the biblical text. Higher criticism is incompatible with what most Southern Baptists mean by inerrancy.


Inerrantists
Inerrantists, technically speaking, are those who affirm something like the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I do not know that this must neccesarily be the only definition of inerrancy—I suppose it is possible to craft what one believes to be a better definition. Yet such a definition must remain within the "common-sense" parameters of inerrancy: A rejection of claims that the Bible is in some way so primitive, culture-bound, textually corrupted, or philosophically biased as to contain inaccuracies in the text. Inerrancy allows for the recognition of different literary genres in the Bible and embraces sound hermeneutical principles in dealing with those genres. In common-sense terms, inerrancy and higher-criticism are counter-movements against one another.


Baptist Sectarians
Baptist Sectarians are those who believe that the various distinctive doctrines of the Baptist tradition are certain enough and important enough to warrant the deliberate and separate existence of Baptist churches. Although they may do so with varying levels of charity toward others, Baptist Sectarians affirm the superiority of Baptist doctrine (especially ecclesiology) over that of other religious traditions.


Baptist Ecumenicalists
Baptist Ecumenicalists are those who, while they affirm the various distinctive doctrines of the Baptist tradition, believe them to be tenuous enough or insignificant enough that they are subject to compromise in the pursuit of Christian unity. Not all Baptist Ecumenicalists are thoroughgoing in their ecumenism—even if the Baptist distinctives do not rise to the level of certainty and importance to warrant division in their view, they may regard other doctrines as being important enough to do so. So, for example, some may be willing to unite with Presbyterians, but not with Quakers. Others may be willing to unite with nondenominational evangelicals, but not with mainline protestants.


Academic Libertines
Academic Libertines are those who would, in effect, fold the idea of academic liberty into the Baptist distinctives. Academic liberty is the concept that some people who have achieved a certain level of academic achievement ought to be relatively free from (stifling) oversight with regard to the conclusions that they draw and teach within their field. An Academic Libertine may not agree with what a professor is teaching, but such a person would be reluctant to tie the continued employment of a denominational employee to adherence to a doctrinal standard. Indeed, many Academic Libertines would suggest that such a level of oversight is in some way incompatible with Baptist doctrine.


Accountabilitists
Accountabilitists are those who would insist that all denominational employees discharge their duties in accord with the doctrinal standards set by the congregations that ultimately employ the employees. Accountabilitists would argue that the liberty of the congregations to set those standards is absolute, and that the obligation of the employees to conform to the standard is unbounded.


Calvinists
I'm not going to bother to define this one. It has been done to death.


Non-Calvinists
Arminians would fit within this penumbra. Anti-Calvinists would fall here. Non-Arminian, Non-Anti-Calvinist Non-Calvinists would also fit in this group.


Disciplinarians
Disciplinarians are those who advocate a return to a stricter Baptist ecclesiology, generally marked by a call for a renewal of church discipline in Baptist churches.


Stoddardians
I really need a better term for this one. Stoddardian may be a little perjorative. Perhaps someone can help me find a better word. I mean by this term those who, like Solomon Stoddard, care little for efforts to secure, as much as possible, a regenerate church membership. Such folks may argue that access to the privileges of church membership (e.g. ordinances) are means to win the lost to Christ.


I am an inerrantist, sectarian, accountabilitist, non-Calvinist disciplinarian. How about you? And are these labels good ones?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A Personal Quirk about Job Titles

I don't like the title "Senior Pastor." I just refuse to be called that.

Senior
I'm the youngest member of our pastoral staff, so around here we certainly couldn't mean "older" if we included "senior" in my title. Neither do we mean "longest tenured." My youth minister has been at this church longer than I have, and my music minister has been in ministry in general longer than I have. Rather, the usage of "senior" in the phrase "senior pastor" indicates "top ranking" or "chief."
Pastor
Quite simply, "pastor" means "shepherd."
So, putting the two together, we find that "Senior Pastor" means "Top-Ranking Shepherd" or "Chief Shepherd."

Hmmm.....Chief Shepherd.....Chief Shepherd.....Where have I heard that before? Does that position really belong to me?

Just sign me...

Happy to be the junior pastor (under shepherd),
Bart

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The First Freedom Under Assault

Support of universal religious liberty is a Baptist distinctive. Baptists may disagree as to precisely what religious liberty means (and man, do we disagree about that sometimes), but all Baptists are supposed to despise coercion in matters of conscience.

A couple of recent news items form good case studies for us in this topic.

First, consider the exclusion of Focus on the Family from "Faith Day" with the Atlanta Braves. Dobson & Co. were apparently booted for nothing more than the fact that they agree with the Bible and the vast majority of every human being who has ever drawn breath about the subject of homosexuality. Is this a violation of Focus on the Family's religious liberty?

I don't think so. The Atlanta Braves are absolute idiots for doing it, especially right in the heart of the South. Their actions reflect, in my opinion, either a meanspirited bigotry toward Focus or a sniveling cowardice toward radical homosexual activists. Some commentators have revealed their own bitterness in their response. I'm 100% with Focus on the Family on this. But I do not believe that anyone's religious liberty has been violated here.

The Atlanta Braves are a private enterprise. It is their prerogative to invite Focus on the Family or to disinvite them. It is my prerogative to shun them for their obvious liberalism.

Second, consider the strange reaction to one church's convictions about the role of women in church. The pastor of that church also sits on the city council in Watertown, NY. I'm not sure that it is wise for a pastor to serve on the city council, but it certainly is not unethical. The fact that the city mayor has commented as mayor criticizing this church for its beliefs is indeed, in my opinion, a violation of this church's and this pastor's right to religious liberty. No level of the government ought to be passing judgment on this church's internal theology and practices.

What is the difference between the two cases? One is the action of a free and independent corporation; the other is the action of a government official. In my view, that makes all the difference in the world.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Pick-and-Choose Inclusivism

Does anyone else notice that the loudest voices calling for inclusiveness in the SBC today only call for the inclusion of people like themselves? Here's a brief and incomplete history of those with whom the SBC has parted company over the years. Those of you who are super-astute in Baptist history will have to forgive my omissions and consolidations as an effort to be concise:

  1. The Northern Baptist Convention (presently, the American Baptist Churches)
  2. The Primitive/Hardshell/Anti-mission Baptists
  3. The Associational/Landmark Baptists
  4. The Independent/Fundamentalist Baptists
  5. The Modernistic/CBF Baptists
Wade Burleson and other left-sympathizing Southern Baptists call for our reconciliation with the Modernistic/CBF Baptists. For them, this issue and only this issue is the defining mark and epitome of forgiveness, Christian unity, hot-hearted missionary sentiment for the entire world, etc. For them, all theological issues except the core doctrines of the gospel must be set aside if they pose any obstruction to reunity with this group.

But what about the other groups? Why is there no heart for reconciliation with them? If this movement toward reconciliation really represents a desire for Christian unity and not just a sympathy toward liberalism, then why no constructive suggestion, plan, expression of support, or call for repentance offered toward those Baptists and other Christians who are to the RIGHT of Southern Baptists?

Indeed, why is there no encouraging comment toward the amazing and unprecedented recent efforts of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention toward reconciliation with the BMA? Talk about a "deafening silence"! In fact, the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention has not, entirely, been a movement that has brought about exclusion. It has demonstrably brought about healing with some of the Associational/Landmark Baptists and some of the Independent/Fundamentalist Baptists. These groups, of course, are objects of scorn and derision from the very people who pride themselves upon being "inclusive" and "forgiving" in their dealings with other Christians.

The message from those who have made Landmarkism and conservatism their whipping boys is not so difficult to discern: Let us reconcile with everyone except those who dare to differ at some point that our new "inclusivists" actually hold dear.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Let's Go Forward, Not Back to the Past

Some substantive response to Wade Burleson's most controversial post to date is in order at this time. Many will, of course, undertake this task, as blogger extraodinaire Nathan Finn has already done for us. He has done an excellent job, as will others. But that doesn't mean that I won't respond, too.

First, it is important to note that Winfred Moore, Daniel Vestal, Richard Jackson, Charles Wade, Clyde Glazener, et al, have never been excluded from the Southern Baptist Convention. Their churches have not been voted out of the convention. If they are not within the Southern Baptist Convention, it is only because they have left by their own free choices. Whoever among them has not made that choice still has every privilege accorded to member churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, including the right to select any of these men to serve as messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention.

So, what has happened to these men? They have vocally, stridently, virulently, caustically advocated a plan for the organization and operation of the Southern Baptist Convention and related entities. Their plan has not gained the support of the broader membership of the Southern Baptist Convention. They have lost several votes. The Southern Baptist Convention has repeatedly refused to implement their vision for the SBC.

And what is that vision? It is not hard to know, because when these men did not get their way, they implemented their vision in other organizations. We can look at their organizations and see precisely what was their plan.

First, they have gutted the Cooperative Program. The Baptist General Convention of Texas keeps almost 80% of Cooperative Program funds entrusted to them. 80% for the Baptist Building in Dallas; 20% for the rest of the world.

Second, they have abolished accountability for the recipients of Cooperative Program funding. In 1991 Baylor University changed its charter to prevent Texas Baptist churches from ever being able to hold the university accountable. Baylor still receives CP funding from the BGCT. A whole suite of universities followed suit. They still receive funding from the CBF crowd. Many of the affiliated educational institutions connected with the CBF are mere departments within schools that are not even Baptist. The plan of these men is to send money with no strings attached. Apparently, their view of religious liberty includes the notion that certain people have an absolute right to a paycheck, and those donating the money have the liberty to continue to pay them. You may complain about heresy taught at schools, so long as a "there, there" from some denominational bureaucrat will silence you...so long as you don't actually dare to try to do anything about it.

Third, they have established a system that is as narrow and discriminatory as any in the world. They weep for Russell Dilday while they chase Robert Sloan out of town. A recent gathering of Baptist colleges and universities included a discussion along the lines of "Since we know that we will not under any circumstances be hiring graduates of the six Southern Baptist seminaries, where are we going to find our religion professors now?" A friend, a recent SWBTS graduate who would not be theologically out of place in the BGCT, was present and greatly disheartened by the event. The SBC welcomes these institutions to set up displays in the exhibit hall at the SBC annual meeting, but these men will not allow SWBTS to set up a display at the BGCT annual meeting. Open theists we welcome with open arms; inerrantists need not apply. [The portion of this statement now struck through has been shown to be incorrect in the ensuing comments. I apologize for the inaccuracy. The remainder of the paragraph (and the article) stands unrefuted.]

The men Burleson listed, every last one of them, are not only supporters of this system; they are the architects of it.

What has happened to these men in the past twenty-seven years is as simple as this: The Southern Baptist Convention has said "No" to their misshapen vision for the future of the SBC. They have not been kicked out; they merely haven't been put in charge. Their vision is not our vision. Their vision is entirely, 100% incompatible with our vision.

Now, it is their right, upon discovering this incompatibility, to leave and start their own institution. They faced the same choice that we all face when we find we are in the minority in our churches, associations, or conventions. You can choose to go along with the majority, or you can choose to leave and do your own thing. I've personally been on the losing side of several questions in Southern Baptist life down through the years. This year's presidential election was among them. I lost. But it was a fair election. And I'm not leaving the Southern Baptist Convention over it. And if I did, my leaving would be my decision, and nobody anywhere would have forced me out by voting their conscience in Greensboro.

In fact, my church is still (for the fleeting moment) a member of the BGCT. I think it extremely likely that we're leaving. Soon. But as we go, let me make it clear that nobody is forcing me out. My views are entirely unwelcome in the BGCT and will enjoy no more success than Charles Wade's views have enjoyed in the SBC, but God has not endowed me with an inalienable right to win votes in the BGCT. The votes in the BGCT have been fair votes. I lost. And we've lost on enough things of enough importance for long enough that we're going elsewhere. But we're going of our own free will, and nobody has forced us out of anything.

In the same way, the list of people that Wade Burleson has iterated is a list of people who have chosen to go a different direction than the Southern Baptist Convention has freely and fairly chosen. I refuse to feel guilty for voting my conscience. I refuse to be made responsible for their free choices.

Therefore, in honoring what these men themselves have freely, publicly, vehemently, and with unkind and inflammatory words for others chosen for their own futures:

May God bless these men in their ministries...

Elsewhere.

Friday, August 18, 2006

I Rest My Case

Wade Burleson is apparently completely in support of the conservative resurgence, with the exception of the part that had to do with the conservative resurgence.

Poll Results

I'm going to count the massive non-response as people who have never (or at least not anytime recently) heard a sermon preached against drinking.

Would I be accurate in characterizing our little fracas currently ongoing in the SBC as a disagreement between:

  • Those who never preach about their opposition to alcohol as a recreational beverage, and
  • Those who never preach about their mere opposition to drunkenness
????

And therefore, we are deadlocked in vitriolic battle over that which is important enough for us to spit and fume over in our blogs, but not important enough to mention from the pulpit????

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Our First Praisegod Barebones Poll

You know, most of my posts are dissertation-length treatises on something-or-other. This time, I'm going to put up a question and listen for a while.

When was the last time you heard anyone preach in a Southern Baptist church against drinking?

Monday, August 14, 2006

(Maybe) The Best POST-Modern Study on the Ekklesia, Fourth Response to Reisinger, Ekklesia

During one of my mental strolls through John G. Reisinger's essay Ekklesia, I happened to be sitting next to my beloved three-year-old Jim, who was watching Disney's film adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic, Alice in Wonderland. I started feeling a little sympathy with Alice and her turmoil with the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat. Like her, I too was sitting here looking straight at a "cat" that John Reisinger just can't bring himself to see.

Reisinger's fourth installment represents—epitomizes really—one of my grave fears for the modern church. I have often said that the Southern Baptist rejection of Landmark ecclesiology, valuable correction that is was, has unfortunately led to a movement to replace Landmark ecclesiology with no ecclesiology at all. I offer Reisinger's essay as exhibit A.

Reisinger's Rejected Syllogism

This segment of the essay begins with Reisinger's characterization of whoever he opposes (and at times the sweeping generalizations and wholesale condemnations make it really difficult to determine precisely who that might be) as proponents of a logical syllogism. Let's have a look at it:

The first premise confirms for us that Reisinger has at least read Jesus' statement in Matthew 16:18 before dismissing it as completely irrelevant:
ASSUMPTION NUMBER ONE: Jesus established a church on this earth and promised that this church would prevail in all ages.
Yes, Bro. Reisinger, I guess I'll have to raise my hand and identify myself as one of the adherents of this point of view. I don't know that I would call it an assumption. In my mind, an assumption is a logical leap that you make due to a lack of evidence. Sometimes we have to do that. I acknowledge that I do make assumptions quite often. But it is hard for me to characterize this particular belief as an assumption.

I believe that Jesus established a church. "Upon this rock I will build my church..." So, if language has meaning, then I'm making no wild-eyed assumption to conclude that Jesus did indeed establish a church on this earth. Further on, "and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it," may not necessarily indicate that the church will prevail in all ages, but it does necessarily mean that the church will prevail ultimately. That's what Jesus said. If I'm in trouble with Reisinger for taking Jesus too seriously, then I'm prepared to live with that.

Now, in rhetoric that has become far too similar when reading Reisinger, I find out what I must necessarily endorse (according to Reisinger) if I will dare to cling to these ideas. Because I believe that Jesus established a church and promised that it will prevail, I have absolutely no choice but to endorse "a sectarian and separatist attitude characterized by external legalism and tyrannical leadership."

Accept what Reisinger thinks that the New Testament teaches about the church, and you've found that wonderful balance that puts you at harmony with mankind and all nature. But come to the conclusion that the New Testament teaches one iota more than what Reisinger sees, and suddenly you are the Pol Pot of ecclesiology!

So, to parse a little bit here:
sectarian
I assume that Reisinger means by this word something like "denominational" rather than some of the other meanings of the word. If so, I must admit that I am sectarian. I am a Baptist, and anyone who would identify themselves with any denomination are, by definition, sectarian. Sectarian, if Reisinger uses it as I think, is the opposite of ecumenical. I'm certainly no card-carrying member of the World Council of Churches, so I imagine that it is a fair description of me. I imagine that Reisinger is also sectarian.
separatist
Separatist like Roger Williams, John Smythe, Thomas Helwys, William Kiffin, etc.? Yep, that's me. To avoid being a separatist, by the way, you're going to have to accede to being Catholic. I'm guessing that Reisinger is also separatist.
external legalism
OK, now he's lost me. If I believe that Jesus established a church and promised that it would prevail—if I endorse the bare facts of Matthew 16:18—then somehow I have absolutely no choice but to be a legalist? Huh???? But then, I imagine that this is the ridiculously sloppy use of "legalism" that people throw around in arguments these days as a substitute for having to think. In such cases, a legalist is anyone who insists upon anything more than what I insist upon. How does it force me to be a legalist simply to believe that Christ has an opinion about how churches ought to organize and function? How does it force me to be a legalist if I think that the New Testament has something to say about a church's operation and nature? Unless I'm making those things the basis of salvation, I'm not really a legalist, am I? At least not in any use of the word that rises above the base plane of epithets and insults.
tyrannical leadership
Now I'm really confused. I strongly believe that the New Testament encourages us toward congregationalism. So, I'm an example of someone firmly in support of this so-called "assumption" but who vigorously opposes tyranny in church. My own leadership style is to work to build consensus. All I can conclude is that, with regard to this particular point, Reisinger just plain doesn't know what he is talking about.
Shall we continue down the syllogism?

Reisinger's second premise (which, you understand, consists entirely of words that he taking out of a few mouths and putting into the mouths of all who do not believe precisely as he does) speculates as to the significance of the first premise:
ASSUMPTION NUMBER TWO: We can only expect God's blessing when we organize and operate our local church exactly like this 'true New Testament role model church.'
I hold premise number one, but I do not agree with this second premise. I guess that is going to cause Reisinger to shake his finger at me, because he's told me that I do not have his permission to do this—to agree with premise one while disagreeing with premise two.
It is impossible to make the first assumption without also making the second one. You cannot believe that the N.T. Scriptures reveal an institutional role model for church order as clearly as it teaches justification by faith without being forced to believe that we have all of the essential details of that model in our particular local church. Once this is believed you have no choice but to claim divine authority for every detail of your particular system since God Himself 'revealed that system in His inspired Word.' Likewise, you must then treat all who disagree with you as rebels that 'reject God's authority' because they 'refuse to bow to God's true church polity.'
Well, we really need to spend a little time with this paragraph.

It is possible to believe that Jesus instituted a church and that the New Testament teaches us some specific things about how it ought to run without necessarily:
  • Believing that every last little decision of church business is spelled out in the New Testament.
  • Asserting that every point of ecclesiology in the New Testament is as clear as justification by faith. (By the way, Reisinger seems perfectly willing to endorse the idea that Jesus didn't die for everyone—a concept absent entirely from the New Testament—but on matters of ecclesiology all that is not as clear as justification by faith must be ignored entirely, according to Reisinger.)
  • Claiming divine authority for every detail of what you do at church.
  • Rejecting all Christian connection with those who disagree.
If Reisinger was including this entire system of thought in the first premise, then he should have done two things. First, he should have said so plainly rather than performing this little bait-and-switch routine that peppers this entire series of essays. Second, he should have acknolwedged in all honesty that a great many people see more ecclesiology in the New Testament than he does, yet without going to the extreme that he has depicted. But he doesn't do those things, and as a result he has not composed a dialogue with reasonable people; he has composed a diatribe against whatever extreme one might concoct that will be easiest to knock down.

For the record, I believe that God blesses and uses imperfect people and imperfect churches. If He did not, He would not be using or blessing anyone. Look at my earlier posts on church validity, and you'll see a previous fleshing-out of my views. You'll see how I've dealt with some of the same specific examples (Edwards, Whitefield, etc.) that Reisinger has given, and therefore I have proven false his attempts to push all who disagree with him to extremes. I have no problem believing that such-and-such-church has departed from New Testament ecclesiology and yet is being used by God. God used Baalam's jackass—I figure He'll use whomever He likes according to what suits His purpose. God's blessing or using someone is not tantamount to God's endorsement of whatever error may be in their lives or in their churches. Yet does this fact make it of no value to try to strive for the churchly ideals given in the New Testament?

Reisinger says that my convictions must necessarily lead me to believe that
WE alone are the only people that really believe and follow all that the New Testament Scriptures teach about the church.
But that's just patently false. I can believe that we are closest to the New Testament teaching, yet flawed ourselves. Why can't I believe that? And the result of that belief is, hopefully, an appropriate humility about who we are that does not sacrifice commitment to the truth and endorse a minimalist approach to the Bible in order to achieve that humility.

Minimalist Hermeneutics and the Quest for the Cat

By the way, here's how I would define a minimalist approach to the Bible. The minimalist searches the Bible for the unavoidable teachings of the New Testament. All else becomes relatively unimportant. Those who try to speak about other things in the Bible are stirring up trouble, according to the minimalist. But there are a couple of problems with minimalism. First, it winds up discarding the vast majority of scripture. Most of the New Testament addresses points of doctrine that leave some questions unanswered. Yet didn't God give us these writings for some reason?

To tell you the truth, I'm not 100% committed to every detail of any eschatological position. I think that the Bible leaves some questions open regarding eschatology. Yet I also think it is error to say that no clear eschatological teaching exists in the Bible. My trouble making out all of the details of the doctrine does not mean that the doctrine isn't there. I think it is wrong for me to ignore eschatology simply because it is hard to understand. Maybe God wants me to try to understand even the things that are hard for me to understand? Isn't that at least possible? What's wrong with grappling with these things and assuming that there are treasures in God's Word for the discovering?

Yet Reisinger's minimalist approach to ecclesiology tells us that the Bible gives us a few "general principles" rather than "absolutes." He suggests pretty strongly that, if you see more absolutes than he does, you must necessarily think that you have found absolutes for everything. But consider again the field of ecclesiology. I think there are quite a few absolutes in that doctrine. Jesus is absolutely coming back. Christians will absolutely spend eternity in Heaven. Satan absolutely loses. God absolutely will be glorified. The lost will absolutely go to Hell for eternity. Yet, I also think that there are quite a few areas without absolutes. I'm not absolutely certain as to the precise identity of the 144,000 witnesses, although I have some ideas. I'm committed to trying to study and learn as time goes on. I will not throw that part of the Bible away simply because it is difficult. But I know that it is possible&;mdash;indeed, the normal course of affairs for Christians—to find several absolute truths in an area of doctrine while at the same time affirming areas not yet understood.

Here's another one for you: I'm absolutely certain that believer's baptism is the New Testament teaching, yet I'll gladly admit that I scratch my head when I read about "baptism for the dead" in Corinth. I'm absolutely certain that I'm secure in my election (a word I refuse to abdicate only to five-pointers) as a Christian, yet Hebrews 6 puzzles me. I could go on, but I won't. But in spite of all of these unclear things, I refuse to let my deficiencies as an interpreter of the New Testament to push me into a minimalist hermeneutic where I disregard the portions of a doctrine that I do understand merely because there are portions that I do not understand.

And there are parts of ecclesiology that I do understand. And they are taught in the New Testament. And they do constitute, to some degree, a New Testament model for the institution of local congregations...

THERE IS INDEED A CAT... and the fact that I am not entirely acquainted with every detail of the workings of his central nervous system does not mean that he does not exist.

Other Issues

And as a staunch believer in religious liberty, I am offended to the root of my soul at Reisinger's arrogant and uncalled-for allegations that my beliefs somehow contain "necessary implications" that must inexorably drive me to persecute others for their faith. How dare you, sir! Read Roger Williams's theory of the two tables of the law, and then retract that ridiculous accusation immediately.

(A brief pause to let the author's blood pressure come back down)

Reisinger suggests that the pursuit of the "true New Testament church" will always lead to a stark cleavage between "officers" and "laity." On the other hand, I agree with McBeth that the Baptist movement was birthed out of the quest for the true church—the very thing that Reisinger is repudiating here—and yet Baptists were the eradicators of these distinctions and the proud proponents of congregationalism. How can this be brought into accord with Reisinger's allegations? It can't.

Reisinger makes the point (again) that the New Testament does not give us much information about the process of joining a local church. I agree with Reisinger that the modern situation differs at many points with the New Testament situation. Yet Reisinger has painted this distinction too starkly. In fact, all of his numbered assertions are in error.

First, Reisinger tells us that "It is impossible to conceive that a person in the apostolic age could be a true believer in Christ and not also be a living part of the ekklesia of Christ in his area." Well, Reisinger is just plainly in error here. The man excluded from the church at Corinth, the one who was "delivered to Satan" in the expectation that his "spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" looks pretty clearly to me like a "true believer in Christ" who was not a "living part of the ekklesia of Christ in his area." Maybe Reisinger has dreamed up some never-before-contemplated-in-all-of-the-history-of-Christian-study theory of what was going on in Corinth. Maybe his theory is right (how can I say until I have heard it?). But at least he ought to allow that it is not "impossible" to believe what nearly every Christian who has ever lived has indeed beleived—that the New Testament church excluded people for disciplinary reasons who were nonetheless (at least up to that point, depending upon your system of thought) real Christians.

Second, Reisinger tells us that "It is also impossible to conceive that any believer in the apostolic age had either the option or the problem of choosing between two or more kinds of churches that he could join." Hmmm.... Well, what about the folks receiving 1 John and having to decide whether to stick with the "true church" or leave with those who went out from it? It sounds to me like there were two entities in that town claiming to be the church and posing for Christians the option and the problem of choosing between two or more kinds of churches that they could join. Also, who were the "Nicolaitans"? Haven't the vast majority of commentators regarded these folks as a schismatic church? Indeed, all of the talk in Revelation's letters to the churches regarding Jezebel, the Nicolaitans, and even the Synagogue of Satan (for some commentators) gives the picture of a New Testament church riddled with schism and posing lots of options for New Testament believers as to which "church" to join.

Reisinger is correct to note that the modern situation is not precisely the same as that of the New Testament world. Obviously, the denominational situation that we face today is, as Reisinger asserts, a development of later times. But the modern anomaly is not that we live in a day of intensified dogmatism but that we are far more tolerant and unified denominationally today than at any previous point in the history of Christianity. In the New Testament era, all but those who remained connected to the "true church" (as reckoned by those in power) were anathematized and condemned. So things continued throughout the Patristic age (Donatists, Montanists, etc.), the Medieval period (Catharii, Albigensians, etc.), the Reformation period (Anabaptists, Hugenots, Baptists, etc.), and many places in the world today. In modern Christianity, especially as influenced by American Christians, we have developed the charity to regard differing strains of Christian belief as flawed assemblies of at least some true believers with whom we may enjoy at least some level of fellowship and cooperation. I do not offer this contrast as a critique the New Testament churches—the severity of the issues they confronted were of greater magnitude than some of those that we face. But it is correct to note that the modern situation is different at some points than the New Testament situation. However, I do not believe that those differences are so great as to make biblical concepts of ecclesiology irrelevant to the present-day church.

Well...I could go on like this for quite a while. Perhaps it would be good to cease my paragraph-by-paragraph sequential dialogue with Reisinger and make an overall analysis

The Root of the Problem

Reisinger's minimalist hermeneutic is ultimately a symptom of a sort of religious multiculturalism. Reisinger sees that ecclesiology consists (in his opinion) of "much logic and some Bible texts." In other words, not only are there Bible texts, but there is interpretation of those texts in order to construct a systematic doctrine. Each point of view (the episcopal, the presbyterian, and the congregationalist approaches, for example) is constructing an argument based upon the biblical text.

Here's where the multiculturalism kicks in. The key feature of multiculturalism is its refusal to evaluate. Reisinger, seeing that there are various arguments being made from the biblical text, refuses to allow that these arguments are subject to an evaluative process that might objectively establish one to be a more faithful reflection of New Testament reality than the others. Reisinger says that there is no ecclesiological standard—no one institutional model—in the New Testament. It almost sounds as though Reisinger is suggesting that different churches in the New Testament were organized according to a variety of models, as though Jerusalem were pseudo-episcopal because of the presence of the apostles there while Thessalonica, not having a resident apostle, was organized according to a different model.

Yet the fact is that our ecclesiological differences in the body of Christ cannot be explained by such an analysis. It is not that Roman Cathoilcs are advocating the Jerusalem model while Baptists are advocating the Antiochene model while Presbyterians are advocating the Thessalonian model. All of these groups are arguing from the same passages describing the same churches, not emphasizing one church against another, one New Testament book against another. Although one might be able to imagine a variety of ecclesiological forms in operation at a variety of New Testament churches, it is utterly incomprehensible to suggest that, for example, the Jerusalem church in Acts 15 was simultaneously operating according to a handful of mutually contradictory schemes of church polity. The competing claims for how a particular church in the New Testament at a particular moment in time was operating cannot all simultaneously be equally valid.

Thus, this multiculutral approach requires a sort of minimalism that states either that none of these systems were in operation in the New Testament church or that ecclesiology is really not that important regardless of which system is the more faithful mirror of the New Testament model. The former line of reasoning mirrors the conclusion of liberal higher-critics, who projected Darwinian biological theory onto the institutional development of the church and assumed that churches did not bother to address ecclesiology until the very end of the first century or even later. The latter line of reasoning provides appeal for people with a wide variety of agendas.

Like multiculturalism, Reisinger's essay proceeds from the assumption that theology (at least with regard to ecclesiology) is bad because it is divisive. Reisinger has not said point-blank that "Theology divides, but Jesus unites," but what else can one read into constant statements that the danger of ecclesiology is separatism or sectarianism or bigotry? Multiculturalism assumes that one must choose between truth and community. Multiculturalism further assumes that, in making that choice, community is vastly more important than truth. If there is no truth, then everyone can coexist in their differences because any critique of those differences is no longer possible.

Wade Burleson has claimed that Reisinger has written "The Best Modern Study on the Ekklesia (Church)." I think that it is much more accurate to describe this as the best post-modern study on the ekklesia. The underlying theme of the series is that there is very little, if any, absolute truth in ecclesiology; therefore, all that remains are competing metanarratives that are equally valid or invalid. What churches ought to do with regard to ecclesiology, according to Reisinger, is organize in whatever way works best for them without bothering to look for any model in the New Testament.

But I must offer two negative observations about this approach:
  1. Reisinger has reserved this minimalist approach for his ecclesiology, but he has adopted a much different hermeneutic in other areas of theology. Regarding soteriology, for example, Reisinger seems happily contented with doctrines that consist of much logic unsupported by biblical texts (be sure to check out his three-part series on Limited Atonement), but just not with ecclesiology.
  2. Reisinger's multiculturalist embrace of unity rather than union is difficult to sustain from the New Testament. Reisinger argues that the universal church is the only real sense of the church, that those who think that they discern true churches and false churches are in error, and that denominational differences are reflective merely of pragmatic differences rather than truth and error in the interpretation of the New Testament. Yet, somehow, Reisinger is content with the denominational splintering of Christianity today. Does this not leave us with some sense that schism is permissible in the body of Christ over personal idiosyncracies? If I believed as Reisinger does—that my congregationalism, local church autonomy, regenerate church membership, and all the implications of those beliefs are merely personal preferences rather than biblical mandates—then I would be compelled to seek the consolidation of my church with a dozen other churches in Farmersville.

Avenues of Appeal for Reisinger's Views

Although Reisinger's essay does not appeal to me, I can understand why it would appeal to many people today.
  1. It holds appeal for postmodernists. As I have already argued, Reisinger's line of reasoning is pure postmodernism. The more that you have been influenced by postmodernism, the more likely you are to resonate with this study.
  2. It holds appeal for ecumenicalists. Although, as I have observed, Reisinger has stopped short of advocating ecumenism, astute ecumenicals will recognize that Reisinger's philosophy of the church provides an excellent basis for ecumenical union. Furthermore, some will be very happy with the precise extent of Reisinger's ecumenism—a cobbling together of a sort of evangelical catholicism.
  3. It holds appeal for people who regard ecclesiology as something that gets in the way of other agendas that they are pursuing. Christianity realigns from time to time. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention has had moments when it was aligning according to ecclesiology, missiology, or soteriology. In the 1850s, missiology was the issue around which people built alliances. In the 1900s-1950s, missiology determined affiliations (ABA, SBC, etc.). Today, some segments of the SBC are realigning around soteriological views. The recent events at Bethlehem Baptist Church and Henderson Hills Baptist Church reflect a trend in which Calvinistic Baptists feel more connected to Calvinistic non-Baptists than to non-Calvinistic Baptists. Ecclesiology poses a major obstacle to this realignment; therefore, those pursuing such a realignment will delight in an approach that minimizes the importance of practical ecclesiology.
Probably there are other avenues of appeal that I have not imagined. Also, not everyone in these categories will automatically endorse Reisinger's views. Fortunately, a great many Calvinistic Baptists and other Christians still see some content and some importance in biblical ecclesiology. As do I.

My next post on this topic will complete this series. Thank you for your patience.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Our Meeting House Desecrated

This morning we arrived at the church to find the building chalked up with anti-Christian slogans. This wasn't gang graffiti; it was cynical, anti-church, semi-Marxist hate-speech. Gems like "Sunday is the fit conclusion to an ill-spent week" and other bitter, hateful screeds.

I told our church (among a lot of other things), "People can desecrate our meeting house, but they can never desecrate the church without our consent and cooperation."

Seven years here, and eighteen years of ministry, and I've never seen anything like this.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Is the Dallas Morning News reading Praisegod Barebones?

None of you really reacted to my earlier post on Christian e-mail hoaxes. If you had, you could boast of being one step ahead of the Dallas Morning News, who has just gone to press with this article on the same topic.

Yes, I know...I'm such a trendsetter!

By the way, other than this I'm not publishing anything today. I'm worn out. Besides, if Jeff Richard Young can take the weekend off, then so can I, by golly!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A good post about the Christianphobic Left in the US

This article is worth reading—a great display of common sense in the Dallas Morning News.

Tomorrow is one of those BIG FUNERALS for me (we're expecting to need to put people into overflow rooms), and I will not be blogging tonight. Expect the next installment of my Reisinger critique no sooner than Saturday.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

A Theology of the Sin of Drunkenness

Pardon me for intercalating another topic into my response to Reisinger. I'll complete that series in the near future.

Since Greensboro, Southern Baptists have been all astir over the question of beverage alcohol. I am a teetotaler, and I am comfortable with preaching total abstinence. I will say that a commitment to the inerrancy and sufficiency of the New Testament will lead you to ask serious questions about this issue, but for me those questions have been answered. I write as someone who has, in the past, held grave reservations about the traditional Southern Baptist position on alcohol, but who has come back to the view I was taught in childhood.

In fact, I almost was not ordained because of this issue. My ordination council asked me what my thoughts were about alcohol. I told them that I could not make a biblical case for the consumption of alcohol to be a sin, but that I believed the avoidance of drunkenness to be the biblical standard for Christian behavior. Although I have never consumed any alcoholic beverage in my life, for a time I was "soft" on the question of drinking alcohol. And I was so convinced of the truth of my position that I was willing to put my ordination at jeopardy rather than to compromise what I believed to be the biblical message.

I heard several arguments for the sinfulness of consuming alcohol, but they did not convince me. Many of these arguments still do not convince me today. I think it may be important for those who advocate abstinence to acknowledge some of the problems with two of these arguments:

  1. The it-is-bad-for-your-health argument. Some tried to change my mind by telling me of the brain cells destroyed by a single drink. "The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit," they said, "and it is a sin to destroy the temple." Well, folks, my temple is destroying itself no matter what I do. I've got bad knees, and every step I take destroys part of my temple. My doctor just got off the phone lecturing me about my cholesterol. I think that I probably am getting too much UVA (or is it UVB) for the health of my skin. And if anything is bad for my health, it is being a pastor. The late nights, stress, constant invitations to eat, etc., are doing horrific things to my temple, yet I know that they are God's will. I've never known anyone to use this argument consistently, and I think we would all be better off if everyone would just lay it aside. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 is about spiritual pollution of the body, not about physical preservation of the body. I'm glad to say that the ablest defenders of the Southern Baptist position have not resorted to this line of argumentation
  2. The it-will-hurt-your-witness-or-cause-your-brother-to-stumble argument. I believe that there is some validity to this argument. Think about people like the recently-gone-home Ted Stone, recovered from substance abuse. Certainly to sit down at a meal with Ted and pop the cork out of a bottle of wine would be offensive and unChristian. But in its general application, I have a reservation about this approach. I'm not sure I even know how to articulate it, but I'll try. Most of the people who consider it morally scandalous to consume an alcoholic beverage are people who hold that view because we have taught it to them. Churches like ours were the champions of the Prohibition movement, and prior to the Temperance and Prohibition movements, I find it difficult to document any societal taboos against the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Isn't it an inconsistent logical argument for us to create the situation in which a behavior is scandalous and then use that situation as the primary justification for the initial prohibition? That's a circular argument, isn't it? I think that the burden of proof upon folks like myself is to articulate some biblical argument against drinking modern beverage alcohol in-and-of-itself, apart from its possible effects upon other believers.
So, I reject these arguments, but I nonetheless preach total abstinence from alcohol. Why?

Let me sketch out a line of thinking first, and then I'll try to support it:
  1. Nobody anywhere can (with a straight face) deny that the Bible strongly condemns all intoxication.
  2. Yet at least some degree of drunkenness starts, from everything I read, with the very first drink of a modern alcoholic beverage.
  3. Therefore, even if I can only say that the Bible forbids drunkenness, that is sufficient to keep me from drinking.

Defense

The Bible condemns all intoxication
This entry is going to be long enough. Unless somebody out there seriously wants to dispute this point, I'm not going to bother with presenting the lengthy and conclusive biblical case against drunkenness.

I am very glad to note that even all of those who have opposed the Greensboro resolution have acknowledged the strong, unambiguous biblical condemnation of any intoxication.
Any modern alcoholic beverage causes intoxication with the first drink
I will not subject you to lengthy historical surveys of the development of fermentation, which you can find elsewhere. I'll just point you to a few items of consideration.
  1. With alcoholic intoxication, the very first things to go are the things that are most important to the Bible.

    Wikipedia defines drunkenness as "the state of being intoxicated with ethyl alcohol to a sufficient degree to impair mental and motor functioning. Common symptoms may include impaired speech, loss of balance, and other effects." According to another Wikipedia article on the effects of alcohol, this kind of drunkenness does not occur until one achieves a blood-alcohol-content (BAC) of 0.1%. But I think it is fair to ask whether the biblical standard for drunkenness is really this low. Is slurred speech or a staggering gait really what the Bible is worried about?

    It seems to me that the Bible's greatest judgment against drunkenness is the way that it impairs the decision-making abilities (moral and otherwise) of the person who is drunk. Look at any chart of the effects of alcohol, and you will find that these things, the things that are most important to the Christian, are the very first things to go.
  2. One drink of modern alcohol is enough to impair your moral judgment.

    But how many drinks does it take for that kind of impairment to start? By the time the BAC reaches 0.03%, a person's moral judgment has been definitely affected enough to be measurable scientifically (see the Wikipedia article on the effects of alcohol). But moral judgment is an item that is difficult to measure scientifically. How bad must it be before a research project can ferret out changes in your moral judgment? Some impairment of judgment occurs at much lower levels than 0.03%. From all I can tell, having done a little research, researchers believe that your moral judgment begins to be impaired with the very first drink.

    Some will scoff at this, so just let me point out that I am deriving none of my research from pro-abstinence sources. Wikipedia is not exactly a hotbed of Baptist fundamentalism. The Federal Aviation Administration has made it a crime for me to operate an aircraft if I've had any alcohol at all within the previous eight hours. In their eyes, I'm too drunk to fly after the very first drink. And they are worried about the effects upon coordination and spatial orientation—factors impaired long after my moral judgment is in trouble.
  3. The effect of this sin of drunkenness is often more sin, occasionally with long-lasting consequences.

    Allow me to present as witnesses the millions of teenaged boys who for generations have known that the best way to bed a young woman is to get her to drink alcohol. I could go on, but I won't.


But why, someone will ask, doesn't the Bible simply condemn the drinking of alcohol? It is a good question, and here are some candidates for answers.

  1. The biblical condemnation of drunkenness gives us a platform for preaching against the recreational utilization of all intoxicating substances. If the Bible merely condemned wine, what would we say about marijuana? crack? inhalants?
  2. The status of the biblical text allows us to affirm the medicinal benefits of intoxicating substances. Wine is a blessing. So is opium. But both wine and opium can be a curse as well when they are used as recreational intoxicants.
  3. Folks tell me that ancient wine was not nearly as potent as modern wine is. I haven't researched that question enough to know how much merit is there. Assuming that 0.01% BAC is more than enough to cause some level of impairment in moral decision-making, I wonder how much ancient wine it would take to reach that level? If it would take more than one or two drinks, maybe that is a good explanation of why you could drink in biblical times without danger of becoming drunk. Again, I need to do more research here, but I'm exploring the rhetorical options.


If you differ with my 0.01% level, I'm curious to hear from those agitating for a different view, at what BAC do you think the sin of drunkenness begins? How many drinks are you advocating to be OK for a serious Christian?
Conclusion
So, I'm not building a hedge around the law here. I just find reasonable evidence to support the idea that many people are drunk in some sense of the word after the first drink. I find no biblical justification for "a little drunk is OK as long as you aren't a lot drunk." Drunk equals wrong. Period. Paragraph.

People will tell you that the number of drinks to cause a certain level of impairment differs from person to person. Maybe I could take two drinks and not be impaired at all. How would I find out? Get drunk a few times and see how much it takes? But surely it is not God's will for me to sin now as research for a plan to avoid sinning in the future!

And if I were conducting this research, how would I know when I was first drunk? Are the early stages of drunkenness even readily perceptible to the drinker, or isn't one of those early effects a kind of euphoria that causes you not to really notice so much that you are getting drunk? The FAA tells us pilots about a similar insidious effect related to hypoxia—one of the symptoms is a diminished ability to recognize the other symptoms.

So, the only solid plan I can conceive of to avoid drunkenness is not to drink at all. I have heard a lot of negative criticism of my position, but I have yet to hear anyone articulate another serious plan (e.g. "Everyone can have a 16oz glass of wine, because that will keep them below 0.05%, which we take to be the threshhold of sinful drunkenness") that gives Christian folks the ability, if they intend to drink, to drink with perfect confidence that they will not at all become drunk. I've placed a high burden-of-proof on my side of the argument, so I do not hesitate to place this high burden-of-proof on folks on the other side. Show us any other way that a person can have confidence that he will not at all ever get drunk.

I mean, that is important to all of us, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Leader-Servanthood and Servant-Leadership: Third Response to Reisinger, Ekklesia

As far as the general principles stated in Reisinger's third article, I find very little with which I disagree. I believe that Christ is the Lord of the church, and that the only goal of any system of church polity is to enact Christ's will. I am unapologetically a Baptist. I believe in congregationalism. I believe in church progress by consensus. Let us do the hard work of seeing the disciples come to affirm the movement of the Holy Spirit. One thing all must agree about the New Testament is the remarkable way it describes the congregational consensus of the New Testament churches. Acts 15 always amazes me...that the Pharisaical objectors apparently came behind the solution endorsed by the "committee" of apostles and elders. The "total democracy" section may be aimed at folks who see the church like I do, but I've decided not to take it that way. Total democracy is a horrible way to have a church—church is a theocracy, and Christ is in charge. I may believe that the majority of real, Spirit-led believers is better at finding God's will than one man or five men will be, but I will never believe that the majority is better at running the church than Christ is.

I think that many people are missing the real question behind the "elder wars" in Baptist life today. Who cares how many elders there are in a church? The real question is how many kinds of elders are there in the New Testament. Isn't it pretty hard to make a New Testament case for elders who aren't also pastors and overseers? But I digress...

There's a place or two where I think Reisinger might be hinting at something that I couldn't affirm, but all-in-all I like number 3. We need leaders who serve and servants who lead. May God give us more of them.

Monday, August 7, 2006

A Non-Sacerdotal Institution: A Second Response to Reisinger, Ekklesia

John G. Reisinger's second installment in his series on the ekklesia is largely well-researched and well-presented. With Reisinger I wholeheartedly affirm:

  1. The existence of the universal church.
  2. The sole authority of Christ, and consequently the absence of any authority in the church except that delegated by Christ
  3. The imperative for every Christian to be a part of a local church
  4. The incomplete nature of New Testament instructions regarding the organization and operations of the local church (does the NT give us qualifications for the custodian? decision-making procedures like we find in Robert's Rules of Order?)
  5. The propriety of churches making decisions based upon "sheer pragmatism" so long as those decisions do not encroach upon items that are addressed in the New Testament.
  6. The impropriety of attempting to make the New Testament say more than it actually does say about any topic.
  7. The crisis in understanding the nature of the true church provoked by the Reformation
  8. The inconsistency of the Reformers' position regarding the nature of the church
  9. The error of the Roman Catholic view of church authority
  10. The error of the Landmark Baptist position regarding the true church.
  11. The greater importance of the interpersonal nature of the church as opposed to the institutional and organizational aspects of the church.
Yet I differ with Reisinger in the following:
  1. I must protest Reisinger's penchant for false dichotomies. In more than one place, Reisinger suggests that the only two viable positions are the Roman Catholic position and Reisinger's position. So, either agree with Reisinger or the Pope...take your pick! Yet reality is not quite that cut-and-dried and a great many people have articulated mediating positions.
  2. Also, I diasgree with Reisinger's use of the Roman Catholic Church in this installment. The other view is wrong because it is Roman. As I've already stated, Reisinger is far too quick to call something Roman, but even where he may be right, his connection of something with Roman Catholic doctrine does not constitute an ipso facto case against its validity. Allow me to scandalize Reisinger by admitting that, on some points of doctrine, I agree with the Roman Catholics. Silly me, I think that a proposition of Christian doctrine is right if it is biblical and wrong if it is unbiblical, regardless of who affirms it or who denies it.
  3. In another false dichotomy, Reisinger asks, "Do the NTS emphasis [sic] union with Christ via the indwelling Holy Spirit, which all agree is true of all Christians, or does it emphasize membership in a local congregation of professing Christians?" Well, I affirm that the New Testament emphasizes union with Christ via the indwelling Holy Spirit, which is true of all Christians. I also emphasize that the New Testament emphasizes membership in a local congregation of professing Christians. What Reisinger has utterly and completely failed to do is show why I have to choose between one or the other.
  4. Reisinger asks, "Where is there a single instance in the NTS of any individual being examined and then joining "a local church?" And the clear answer is, "Nowhere." Yet, there is clear record in the New Testament of individuals being excluded from the local church. Thus, there is in the New Testament such a thing as a member of the universal church who is not eligible to be a member of the local church. If I wanted to play Reisinger's game, I could try to paint him into a corner as well: If there is only one definition for the church, then does exclusion from the local congregation necessarily mean exclusion from the universal church? Hmmm....let's see....who teaches that....could it be....the Roman Catholics?! But Reisinger has not said that, and it would not be fair to put words into his mouth in order to make him be "consistent."
  5. I vehemently disagree with Reisinger's assertation that there is no biblical basis for selecting pastors, ordaining ministers, examining candidates for church membership, etc. The fact that the presentation of the biblical evidence may not have convinced Reisinger is no excuse for pretending that it does not exist. For example, to address the central point of Reisinger's series, do Acts 9:26-27 and Acts 19:1-7 say nothing to us about prospective members being examined before being allowed to "join the disciples"?
  6. Reisinger makes more of the difference between himself as those with the "true church syndrome" than is really there. Although one might conclude from this series that Reisinger does not believe in any such thing as a true church or a false church, I cannot believe that he really thinks that. Surely he affirms that Jesus means something when he speaks of "removing the lampstand" of the Ephesian church in Revelation 2. Surely he regards, for example, the Mormons as a false church. So, both Reisinger and those whom he would criticize believe in true churches and false churches. Surely Reisinger's opponents all also believe that there is some limit to the specificity of New Testament ecclesiology. Their limits are different from Reisinger's limits, but the difference is just that other people draw the line at a different place than he does. He wishes to be a minimalist—to say as little from the New Testament as possible on this topic. I see more than he does in the New Testament. So, Reisinger's implication that he and those who differ from him are in two separate categories of thought is not tenable; we are just two varieties of the same thing—two points on the same continuum.
  7. It seems to me that one can affirm some level of church authority without asserting the local church as the "vicar of Christ." After all, Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18-20 hardly seem intelligible apart from some concept of authority excercised by Christ exclusively through the church. Is there not some middle position between asserting the church as Christ's substitute and divorcing the church entirely from the authority and action of Christ in the world? It seems to me that one must acknowledge Christ's divine choice to work through the church in a way that He does not work outside the church. To do so is not necessarily to endorse the unbounded authority of local churches.
  8. Although some level of comparison between Landmark Baptists and Roman Catholicism is probably appropriate, it is highly inaccurate to compare Landmark Baptists with a system of thought that denies the right of believers to interpret the Bible apart from interpretations imposed by a church. Landmark Baptists believe that every member of a Landmark Baptist church will freely come to the same conclusions that they have in their independent study of the Bible. We may disagree with them, but we leave behind honest dialogue when we suggest that Landmarkism is comparable in this sense to Roman Catholicism.
  9. Although Reisinger has correctly noted that the "one another" duties of believers commanded in the Bible are universal in application and not restricted to a local congregation, perhaps a better analysis would examine the duties of pastors/elders/overseers. Each of these, as undershepherds, has a more restrictive field of duty and authority. What is that sphere of influence and responsibility? It is the local church.
  10. Reisinger's use of William Carey and Hudson Taylor is not true to history. A great many Baptists who hold different views than Reisinger have been able to affirm both the legitimacy of the local church as the sender of missionaries and the right of such churches to work through cooperative structures to accomplish this task. Reisinger is correct that some Baptists have rejected the work of the Baptist Missionary Society and similar structures, to be fair he must acknowledge that a great many Baptists have managed both to disagree with Reisinger and affirm Carey, Taylor, and cooperative missions.
So, my most prominent observation among these is that Reisinger has forced an illegitimate dichotomy. It is possible to have a church that is institutional without abandoning its organic nature. It is possible to have a church that holds authority without it being sacerdotal.

More to come.

Friday, August 4, 2006

Why Do We Park on a Driveway but Drive on a Parkway? First Response to Reisinger, Ekklesia

John G. Reisinger's theological series on the New Testament ekklesia has won some renown this year, having been commended to Baptist thinkers by none other than Wade Burleson, who has dared to go so far as to call it The Best Modern Study on the Ekklesia (Church). All of you will, no doubt, be shocked to discover that I disagree.

I will say that it thrills me to know that Southern Baptists are discussion the nature of the church. I thank Bro. Reisinger for his obvious love for the doctrine of the church. I also thank him for writing material that has achieved widespread enough distribution to provoke much-needed debate. Nevertheless, Reisinger's thoughts are not nearly as bulletproof as he suggests. I believe that there are some serious flaws embedded in this series.

Exegeting Ekklesia

And we might as well start at the top. How do you have a five-part study entitled Ekklesia that never bothers to do any exegesis of the actual use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament? I mean...seriously...how can such a study even qualify as a serious study on the nature of the church, much less "the best modern study" on the subject?

There is a brief exegetical study of the use of kaleo in the New Testament, but ekklesia is completely ignored. Why? Because Reisinger is a Calvinist, and he has chosen to develop his ecclesiology as a philosophical extension of his soteriology. So, we exegete the word for election and then use that to define ekklesia without bothering to mention any of the occurrances of ekklesia in the New Testament.

If Reisinger had bothered to look at how the New Testament uses the word ekklesia, he would have discovered:
  • The word ekklesia appears in the New Testament an awful lot in the plural form. Reisinger makes a really big deal of the fact that the phrase "body of Christ" never appears in the New Testament in the plural. Why won't he give his readers the full story and let them know that the New Testament is chock full of instances of ekklesia in the plural. Here are a few:
    • Acts 15:41
    • Acts 16:5
    • Romans 16:4
    • Romans 16:16
    • 1 Corinthians 7:17
    • 1 Corinthians 11:16
    • 1 Corinthians 14:33
    • 1 Corinthians 14:34
    • 1 Corinthians 16:1
    • 1 Corinthians 16:19
    • 2 Corinthians 8:1
    • 2 Corinthians 8:18
    • 2 Corinthians 8:19
    • 2 Corinthians 8:23
    • 2 Corinthians 8:24
    • 2 Corinthians 11:8
    • 2 Corinthians 8:28
    • 2 Corinthians 12:13
    • Galatians 1:2
    • Galatians 1:22
    • 1 Thessalonians 2:14
    • 2 Thessalonians 1:4
    • Revelation 1:4
    • Revelation 1:11
    • Revelation 1:20
    • Revelation 2:7
    • Revelation 2:11
    • Revelation 2:17
    • Revelation 2:23
    • Revelation 2:29
    • Revelation 3:6
    • Revelation 3:13
    • Revelation 3:22
    • Revelation 22:16
  • When Jesus first announced his intention to build an ekklesia, He said that he was building it upon the basis of a human response, not a divine choice. Really, how do you write what is purportedly "the best modern study of the church" without even interacting at all with Matthew 16:18? Reisinger claims that the basis of the church is election. I would not completely dissociate election from the meaning of the church, but Reisinger has made it the basis of the church to the exclusion of all else. Reisinger emphasizes that addition to the church is the action of Christ, not the result of human action. Yet Jesus explicitly stated that He would build His church around something related to his episode with Peter at Caesarea Philippi. Unless you are Roman Catholic, most interpreters connect Jesus' statement with Peter's public profession of faith in Christ, as do I.
  • The majority of references to ekklesia in the New Testament are clearly references to an entity associated with geographic space. Reisinger acknowledges that such references sometimes occur in the New Testament, but he leaves the impression that they are the exception rather than the rule. Numerically, the overwhelming evidence reveals that the universal use of ekklesia—the basis of Reisinger's entire theory of the church—is the exception while the local use is the predominant use in the New Testament.

Defining Ekklesia

Reisinger labors hard to suggest that he is breaking away from the old debates between those who emphasize the invisible/universal church and those who emphasize the local/visible church—Reisinger suggests that he is offering some sort of a third way to think of church. Actually, he winds up simply affirming the invisible/universal church as the primary meaning of the New Testament term ekklesia, although in other words.

Reisinger indicates that he has arrived at his view because he, unlike the rest of us, is willing to deal plainly and simply with what the Greek noun ekklesia undisputably means. And what is that? Why, ekklesia means "called out ones," and the "calling" in view there is none other than the "effectual calling" proclaimed by Calvinism, ergo the ekklesia virtually always refers to the complete body of the elect. The logic, to hear Reisinger deliver it, seems invincible.

Actually....not.

What does the title of my essay have to do with Reisinger's treatise? No doubt you are familiar with the little riddle that I have posed: "Why do we park on a driveway but drive in a parkway?" It is one of those clever little observations designed to poke fun at the English language. But actually, this humorous question highlights a feature not just of English, but of all languages. It is an important principle to keep in mind while translating: A word is more than the sum of its parts.

Words are the basic units of language. They are entities unto themselves. Sub-parts of words are often important clues to the meaning of a word, but a word is never under obligation to mean exactly what its parts "add up to." Studying roots and learning the meaning of component parts can often be helpful. Sometimes the components of a word will lead you directly and simply to the word's meaning. Sometimes they will mislead you to a wrong meaning. Usually, they will sort of point you in the right direction, but you have to learn from context or a definition what the word actually means. For example, what is a keyboard? Is it that board on the wall with the pegs for hanging pieces of metal that will unlock locks? Or is it the set of buttons on a computer that allow you to type? The component parts could point you in either direction. You know what a keyboard is because...well...because you know what a keyboard is.

For a translator, identifying the component parts of a word are a helpful clue to knowing what that word means, but it is far more helpful to know how actual people alive at the time employed the word in everyday speech.

And that bring us back to ekklesia.

The component parts of ekklesia are indeed, as Reisinger asserts, ek meaning "out" and klesia ultimately from a word meaning "to call" (kaleo).

But in the moment when Jesus employed this word to describe the institution that he was founding, not a single person in the Greek-speaking universe would have associated this word with the idea of "calling out." Jesus didn't coin a new term; He borrowed one that was already in prominent use.

There is room for debate about how to translate the word ekklesia in the New Testament, but outside the New Testament the best translation clearly would be something like "town hall meeting." Ekklesia was a political term. The ekklesia was a foundational part of every Greek city. It was the meeting at which every citizen of the city got to vote on matters of civic governance. If you really want to know what the word means, step out of the theological world, where (as Reisinger correctly observes) people try to bend the terminology to fit their favorite ideology, and take a look at what secular historians and linguists, people with no theological axe to grind, say about the meaning of the word. Here is one example, but there are others. Google Demos and ekklesia and see what you get.

I think that "called out ones" probably leads us generally in the right direction, but as with the vast majority of words in any language, the meaning of the component parts is a starting point that leads us in the right direction, not a destination that secures our arrival there. Citizenship in a city was not easy to come by in the Greco-Roman world. The Greek citizens who could vote in the assembly certainly were the chosen few. Ekklesia communicated clearly that citizenship in the Greek city was selective, and only the citizens were chosen to attend the assembly. The components of the word are clearly related to its meaning.

But, contra Reisinger, the word ekklesia clearly had a very heavily institutional meaning when Jesus chose it to describe what He was founding. Reisinger has tied the meaning of the term strictly to the doctrine of election. Yet, if Jesus had merely intended to refer to the elect, he could simply have employed the word eklektos, the actual word translated "the elect" in the New Testament. But Jesus did not use this term, choosing instead to borrow the political term ekklesia from the voting assembly of the Greek city.

But Reisinger doesn't address these facts. Therefore his definition of ekklesia is not fully-orbed.

Conclusion

In this much, Reisinger is absolutely correct: How you define the church could affect your position on a whole range of issues. Yet Reisinger's actual ecclesiological practice, to the degree that I can ascertain it, is pretty similar to mine. The practical difference between the two of us is that he relegates almost all practical ecclesiology to the whim of personal preference, while I believe that the New Testament actually has something to say about the organization and operation of local churches. In a culture that loves to follow the whims of personal preference, his views are likely to appeal to many. Nevertheless, I trust that many others will dare to search the New Testament for some instruction regarding how we are to organize and function, confident that the founder of the Church would not leave us completely bereft of any leadership as to what it should look like and what it ought to do.

Postscript

I've been pretty straightforward in this article. Let me make something clear: Reisinger has every freedom to hold his own views about the nature of the church. Life is far too short for me to go about trying to "refute" everyone who holds a different ecclesiology than I hold. But Reisinger has chosen to put his views up on the Internet, and people have chosen to read his views. At least one of those people has asked me to respond to Reisinger. This was not a critic of his, but someone significantly persuaded by his views. The church (however you define it) will benefit from a free and open discussion of these matters. If I have spoken stridently, please take it not as disrespect of my brother in Christ but as passion for these ideas.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

A Spurious Complaint

Anyone who has been following the situation up at Henderson Hills Baptist Church up in Oklahoma should be certain to read Nathan Finn's concise and well-written post debunking this whole crazy nonsense that HHBC's autonomy has somehow been violated.