Tuesday, April 3, 2007

J. R. Graves: Radical Ecumenist?

Strange as it may sound, J. R. Graves was, in some ways, more committed to Christian Unity than any Baptist I know. Some time back, a discussion over at Les Puryear's blog drove me to the SWBTS archives to research Graves's views regarding Free Will Baptists. The question intrigued me because a Free Will Baptist Church meets all of Graves's published criteria for being a true church, yet I sincerely wondered whether Graves would have acknowledged the Free Will Baptist churches as valid churches, knowing how strictly he drew that line. I found the answer to my question in the 1890 revision of Graves's book The Trilemma. Here's the short answer: Graves rejected the Free Will Baptists not because of their doctrine, but because he adjudged them guilty of fracturing the unity of the church. According to Graves, when Benjamin Randall led the Free Will Baptists into exodus from affiliation with other Baptists, the wrongfulness of that schismatic action invalidated his church and all of the churches that followed him. Having pondered Graves's point, I raise four questions about Christian Unity:

  1. What exactly is Christian Unity if one believes in local church autonomy? Roman Catholics have no problem defining unity—those churches that know their place in the structure and stay within it are in unity. But what does unity mean among autonomous local churches? Does disagreement equal a lack of unity? If so, then we do not have unity within our local autonomous church—there are lots of opinions here. Must we adopt a quasi-Catholic approach (as it seems to me we might be tempted to do) and conjecture that partnership within our structure (the SBC) equals unity? Personally, I think this stretches the role of the convention far beyond propriety or the intention of the founders. The SBC is not (or ought not to be) a "structure" in any ecclesiological sense. It is a voluntary partnership. Christian Unity and intercongregational cooperation are not entirely unrelated subjects, but I do not beleive that they are identical subjects. Does Christian Unity amount to something akin to the "Full Faith and Credit" clause of the U. S. Constitution (the part of the Constitution requiring each state to respect the legal judgments of the other states)? In other words, does Christian Unity amount to recognizing the baptisms, ordinations, exclusions, etc., of sister churches as valid? By his actions more than his writings, Graves seems to have held this view (it seems to me). What think ye? What does Christian Unity look like among autonomous congregations?
  2. If the violation of Christian Unity is a sin (and I believe that it is), then what is the consequence of that sin? This will seem counter-intuitive to many, but I believe that the biblical witness is clear. Titus 3:10 commands us to "reject a factious man after a first and second warning." The verb paraiteomai (reject) is a multi-faceted word, but here it almost certainly has the meaning to "shun" such a person. Thus, the New Testament consequence for the sin of fomenting schism is…schism! The Bible commands us to separate from people who provoke separation. Inevitably, this means that it is possible to refuse to be in unity with someone, and for your refusal to be the other person's fault.
  3. If Second Baptist Church, Somewhere, Alabama is a split from First Baptist Church, Somewhere, Alabama, then how can we claim that those congregations are in unity? Even if both affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention, with the Alabama Baptist State Convention, and with a local association, at the local church level they are out of fellowship. It seems to me that modern forms of ecumenism want to pretend that such schismatic actions do not matter and have no consequences. Indeed, one confronts the assumption that major denominational differences, not just schism among fellow congregants, can co-exist with Christian Unity. If schism is a grievous sin, then we must address the possibility that a high percentage of our Southern Baptist churches are on-the-outs with the Lord for their sin of schism. Perhaps they are even false churches? My gut doesn't even want to consider that possibility, but my mind tells me that we must at least consider it, even if only to consider and reject it for good cause. I fault J. R. Graves for not taking seriously enough this question. On the other hand, I credit J. R. Graves with having the honesty to concede that no amount of friendly handshaking among Christians who insist upon organizational separation (by that I mean at the local church level) can realistically amount to Jesus' intentions when He prayed for the unity of the body. His approach precipitated such messy situations as his and R. B. C. Howell's competing claims as to which was the real First Baptist Church of Nashville; nevertheless, such pickiness does take seriously the matter of church schism. Perhaps this is why J. R. Graves, in spite of all of his contentiousness, never attempted to lead anyone out of the Southern Baptist Convention—he was committed to Christian Unity.
  4. If schism is a sin, then what is the path to recovery and restitution? The answer is repentance. Those who have fractured the body of Christ by insisting upon infant baptism need to repent of that sin. Reconciliation will then be possible. Those who have foisted popes upon the people of Christ need to repent of that sin. Reconciliation will then be possible. Those who have splintered congregations over styles of music need to repent. Those who have built denominations around pseudo-charisms and splintered the body of Christ need to repent. When schismatics repent, reconciliation is possible. If we, as Baptists, could be just as biblical in another kind of church, then we need to repent, too. We would then need to repent of being Baptists, for then our existence as Baptists would be nothing but needless division in the body of Christ. Of course, Baptist sectarian that I am, I believe that we must be Baptist to be biblical. Indeed, although it matters not very much to me whether they choose to use that word, I believe that the very repentance that is needed is for all Christians to become conservative Baptists. Then, we will have Christian Unity.


gary ledbetter said...

It's a very timely topic. I agree with you that the schismatics are the ones who are demonstrably faithless to the revealed word of God. The idea that the mainstream, as in the case of the 16th-century Romanists should be the ones accused of schism is startling--that might also apply to other schisms that have led through the years to our current Southern Baptist Convention.

It makes me wonder about our split with what are now American Baptists. We have cooperated some since 1845 but now the schism is perpetuated by the doctrinal "diversity" of their fellowship. Were we schismatic at first, and now they are but for a different reason?

Within a church there will always be disagreements of perspective based on generation, social status, preferences, etc. I do not believe these disagreements are schismatic. I believe our impatience with the differences in others is schismatic, and sin. Col. 3:12-15 seems pertinent here. Personal patience and forgiveness are not contingent on others' coming around to our view. It should be our default position. To be peevish, selfish, or unforgiving is sin within the body of Christ.

At the other hand, Paul had no patience with immoral behavior or strange doctrine. In those cases, I know who the schismatic is.

Unity within the SBC should be focused around an understanding of what the gospel is and our corporate efforts to share it everywhere.

The gospel is more than John 3:16.

Our missions/evangelism efforts are an inadequate unifyer by themselves.

Those two parts to our unity explain why neither Bible churches nor UCC churches are Southern Baptist-ish churches.


David Rogers said...


I agree wholeheartedly with what you say here:

"The SBC is not (or ought not to be) a "structure" in any ecclesiological sense. It is a voluntary partnership. Christian Unity and intercongregational cooperation are not entirely unrelated subjects, but I do not beleive that they are identical subjects."

I wish more people would have the understanding to recognize this.

I also think, if I understand you correctly, that I agree with you that Graves was not entirely consistent in not taking seriously enough the possibility that even a high percentage of Southern Baptist churches were also guilty of schism. However, I don't see an even stricter position towards alleged "schismatics" as the answer.

When you fall into the position of "You started it!" -- "No, I didn't, you are the one who divided first of all by doing such-and-such", etc., etc., I think you are on fertile ground for pettiness and self-righteousness, which, if I understand anything, do not seem to be comfortable companions of true biblical unity.

I think a better path toward consistency in unity might be, without sacrificing the importance of sound doctrine, to meditate seriously on Romans 14 and its implications in our relationships with other professing believers.

Also, (if you don't mind me promoting my own blog here) my most recent post on Ministerial Ethics and the City Church gives what I consider to be some practical steps toward seeing visible unity without giving up the concept of congregational autonomy.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Wow. I haven't looked at Trilemma in quite awhile, but had to pull it out just to take a look. It looks like, on a quick run through of his chapter on the "Anti-missionary" Baptists, that Graves takes much the same position on them as with the FWB. On the other hand, J. S. Newman quotes Rufus C. Burleson as saying there was nothing wrong with Primitive Baptist baptism: "...our Primitive or 'Hardshell' brethren have never rejected any ordinance or doctrine of the Baptist Church, as founded by Christ and the apostles..." (Baptist and Reflector, April 28, 1892, as quoted in "The Baptists in All Ages" by Elders J. S. Newman and Ariel West, 1940).

selahV said...

HELLO GARY: I agree, this is a timely topic. You said, "Unity within the SBC should be focused around an understanding of what the gospel is and our corporate efforts to share it everywhere."

Therein lies the problem.

I did not know so many churches within our convention held to different doctrines till just this summer. Where have I been for 30 years?

From all I'm reading, there are those within our convention who seek to make everyone in the convention agree to believe just like they believe doctrinally. And doctrine is central to an "understanding of what the gospel is". I've even read multiple papers on how diverse we are in spreading the gospel. And our seminaries don't even agree on what the gospel really is or how a person is saved. Or am I wrong here? Are we all in agreement on what the gospel means? Or is one person's Good News another person's Bad News? selahV

selahV said...

Bart: repentance is exactly what is needed. And then we must die daily to the self which we gave license to run amuck in our spiritual temples. For to clean our hearts of one sin and leave it empty and open to another will bring worse than before if I recall the principle of the Lord, correctly. selahV

gary ledbetter said...


Respectfully, I'd suggest you may be reading the wrong things. I don't see anyone trying to make everyone believe just as he does. I also don't see the seminaries divided regarding the nature of the gospel.

Yes, mission board and seminary leaders are staking out interpretive matters they consider important to their assigned task but this does not compel anyone to change his mind. Right or wrong, it only defines the make up of that agencies staff.

Seminary presidents and faculty members also differ somewhat on matters that most agree are interpretive, Calvinism being the most prominent example. As far as the doctrinal confusion present in our moderate wing (open theism, universalism, etc.), it's just not present among our SBC seminary employees.

Am I wrong in sensing an element of pessimism or disgust in whatever it is you've been reading. I certainly see it in some of what I read but it is emphatically not the complete (sometimes not even honest) story.

SelahGary (sorry, I couldn't resist)

Bart Barber said...


Great comments. Some ideas ought to be prima facie grounds for schism (i.e. heretical ideas). A pretty interesting and provocative history book might be in the works: Whose Fault Was It? Assigning Blame for All the Schisms of Christian History.

If any Christian group out there issues fatwas, that would get you one. :-)

R. L. Vaughn said...

Brother Bart, I apologize for my posting this here, but didn't see a way to e-mail you. From looking online I determined you've already written the Bogard schism dissertation (found it on UMI). Would be interested in hearing about it from the horse's mouth so to speak. If you'd like to e-mail me you may at rl_vaughn -at- yahoo.com

I once hear C. N. Glover say that tithing was a major issue in the split/schism.

David Rogers said...


Just a heads up that I have referenced you and this post here over at Love Each Stone.