Saturday, July 30, 2011

"Tertiary" Does Not Mean "Unimportant"

The much-ballyhooed and over-discussed topic of theological triage has received as much attention in Southern Baptist blogging as any other topic in the past five years. In the preponderance of treatments that I have read (and I've read a lot of them) the most popular "for example" listed in the category of tertiary doctrines has had to do with the particulars of eschatology. I agree that a person's opinion of the sequencing of rapture, millennium, judgment, etc., belongs in the category of doctrines for which diverse opinions can and should easily coexist within a particular church. This is indeed a tertiary issue.

And yet, I fear that some people equate "tertiary" with "unimportant." As though, the tertiary issues are those on which preachers shouldn't preach, the convinced shouldn't advocate, believers shouldn't trust, and scholars shouldn't bother to publish. God forbid! "Theological triage" is hopefully not unrelated to the importance of particular doctrines, but neither does that particular man-made schema even allege that it is a means by which to measure the importance of doctrines.

This is nowhere more evident than as it regards pretribulational, premillennial eschatology. One's millennial position, one's understanding of the Great Tribulation, and associated doctrinal questions like the acceptance or rejection of dispensationalism can have far-reaching impact upon a believer's entire system of theology.

We do well to remember that the Bible is not a textbook of Systematic Theology. In saying so, I do not mean to indicate that the Bible does not teach us Systematic Theology—in that sense it is not merely A textbook of Systematic Theology; it is THE textbook of Systematic Theology, for there is no good systematic theology that is not taught in the Bible. Rather, I am trying to indicate that the Bible does not come to us with chapters on Revelation, Epistemology, Theology, Anthropology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology, etc. The Bible comes to us with its various doctrines intricately and inextricably interwoven, often transpiring within the stories of people's lives. Whatever we might make of this, it at least means that the theological tenets of the Bible, whatever they are, are not easily separated into discrete categories. Any of them that is important makes the others important as well.

All of that was an introduction to the following link (if you didn't want wordy introductions, you came to the wrong site). Drs. Steve Lemke and David Allen have coordinated the efforts of several scholars to bring us The Return of Christ: A Premillennial Perspective. This excellent volume treats and advocates the pretribulational, premillennial understanding of eschatology. It is an important work on an important doctrine. I recommend that you read it.

Dr. Lemke has participated in a Q&A session that has been published at That interview is available here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Illegal Definitions of Legalism

There ought to be a law against defining legalism improperly and abusively. ;-)

In 1719 Scottish Presbyterianism erupted into open conflict over "The Marrow Controversy." At the center of the dispute was a 1645 treatise by Edward Fisher (1627-1655, authorship disputed) entitled The Marrow of Modern Divinity. The most influential members of the Church of Scotland decried Fisher's work as antinomianism (and gave the same treatment to the person and the theology of Thomas Boston, who had reprinted The Marrow of Modern Divinity in 1718). The Marrow of Modern Divinity is not an antinomian work (this is a tough mistake for any impartial reader to make—a refutation of antinomianism occupies roughly half of the book's subject matter). The book is important for its refutation of two nefarious foes to the gospel. It is important for the historical controversy that it occasioned in the 1710s. It is perhaps most persistently influential and important for having introduced to the English language the word "legalism."

Fisher defined legalism exceedingly well, contrasting it with the gospel.

Here is the difference [between legalism and the gospel]; the one saith, "Do this and live"; and the other saith, "Live, and do this"; the one saith, Do this for life; the other saith, Do this from life…

As Fisher so cogently indicated, the differences among the gospel, antinomianism, and legalism lie in the relationship between human doing and eternal life. The legalist believes that eternal life comes at least in part as a result of what a human being does. The antinomian denies that human behavior, or the obligation to meet particular standards of human behavior, is a result of eternal life.

Let me be clear: When you call someone a legalist, you are saying that they are lost. You are denying that such a person is a Christian. If you accuse someone of teaching legalism, you are accusing them of teaching another gospel, and you assign to them Paul's anathema (Galatians 1:8), so you are necessarily saying that they are not believers and that they are destined to Hell.

To accuse someone of being an antinomian or of teaching antinomianism is far less severe, although serious. The New Testament refutes those who make God's grace an occasion for sin (Romans 6:1-2). The New Testament is filled with behavioral prohibitions and commands, perhaps given nowhere else as poignantly as they appear in the list of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit—indeed, the entire chapter of Galatians 5 is an exquisite argument against antinomianism (Galatians 5:1-26). However, the proponent of antinomianism is never placed under anathema in the New Testament, nor is antinomianism condemned as a defect in the gospel. Instead of an anathema, the Bible censures antinomianism with Paul's "May it never be!"

NOTE: The New Testament does question the validity of the faith of anyone who lives in an antinomian fashion ("faith without works," James 2:14-26), but it is important to note that a great many theoretical antinomians have been people who, themselves, lived very pious lives. In other words, it is possible to live a life of holiness while believing that it is not very important to do so.

I have accused people before of teaching antinomianism, and I believe that antinomianism poses a serious risk to twenty-first-century American Christianity. Individual liberty, defiance in the face of authority, and the rejection of absolute truth being as prevalent as they are in our society at large, Christians who exist as a part of our society are uniquely vulnerable to antinomian teaching. Indeed, in our zeitgeist it is so much more acceptable to oppose legalism than it is to accuse someone of lawlessness (antinomianism) that Tullian Tchividjian has nonsensically tried to reclassify antinomianism as a kind of legalism just to be able to decry it with a clear conscience (see here). That error which we are unwilling even to denounce by name and on its own terms is the real danger of our time. Nevertheless, I recognize that I must be very careful in speaking of antinomianism, for to apply that label is to accuse a brother of being in serious disobedience against Christ. So much the more so must we be careful when dealing with matters of heresy like legalism.

Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to delve into specifics in order to carry the overall discussion forward. In years past, many Southern Baptists have regarded the use of playing cards as sinful. Southern Baptists were not alone in this conviction; Wheaton used to prohibit students from owning playing cards. My grandfather-in-law, in order to become a deacon at a Southern Baptist church, had to promise to stop playing Pinochle—he wasn't gambling, but he was using playing cards, and this was regarded as sinful by the church.

I think that the church was wrong. I do not believe that it is inherently sinful to employ playing cards (although I can think of sinful things that one could do with playing cards). I have played Spades, Hearts, Solitaire, and a number of other card games. I have never gambled. I do not believe that I have sinned in my card-playing.

Was this legalism, this prohibition of card-playing employed in so many Southern Baptist churches? No. It was error. It was wrongful. It was not legalism, however, unless some church somewhere was teaching that abstaining from card-playing produced, at least in part, eternal life, or that card-playing could undo or block eternal life (and I know of no church that taught any such thing). Whatever these churches' ecclesiology or doctrine of the Christian life, they were not engaging in legalism unless their soteriology had become fatally implicated.

Someone will object that Paul made grace the cause of sanctification as well as the cause of justification (Galatians 3:1-3). Certainly this is true, but in the card-playing example above (and in so many of the more puerile discussions about legalism that take place), the topic in view is not the cause of sanctification, but rather the content of sanctification. both old-timey non-card-playing Southern Baptists and new-fangled card-playing Southern Baptists agree that sanctification is caused by grace; one group believes that grace will bring you to abandon card-playing while the other believes that grace will leave your card-playing ways alone. Only one of these points of view can be correct, but neither one is an example of legalism.

This is an important point. We can charge the folks who required my grandfather-in-law to put away his Pinochle cards with something, but at the most it will be something as serious as antinomianism rather than a gospel heresy like legalism. We cannot call them legalists. We cannot call them Pharisees. The Pharisees really were legalists. They were lost. To call someone a Pharisee is to say that someone is not a Christian.

What can we say of the person who would accuse Wheaton of legalism during its card-banning years? Such a person is either theologically ignorant or he is deliberately elevating the charges as a rhetorical device. I'm familiar with rhetorical devices, but damnable heresy is too serious a charge to bandy about in order to enhance rhetoric.

Fisher's The Marrow of Modern Divinity took the form of a dialogue among Neophytus (a new Christian), Nomista (a legalist), Antinomista (an antinomian), and finally Evangelista (Neophytus's pastor), the protagonist who sets them all straight. Evangelista was a Calvinist, and I am not, but I nonetheless aspire to be like him, an Evangelista of my own, avoiding the dangers of both legalism and antinomianism.

So, here is the gospel of Jesus Christ: Your attempt to earn self-justification has already failed miserably. You haven't lived up to your own standard of right and wrong, so much the less God's standard. You've well-earned a spot in Hell. Jesus Christ, not content to leave you in that state, died to provide to you eternal life. All who are saved are saved not because of their behavior but in spite of it—from it. Having been rescued from himself and from the clutches of Satan, a Christian is free from the death-sentence of sin and is released from his slavery to sin. He is the recipient of the most extravagant gift of all human history, and as the unworthy recipient of such an astounding gift, he owes to Christ and His amazing love everything: his soul, his life, and his all. By the power of the grace of God he is made able to live according to a standard that was far beyond his reach before, and because his changed heart loves God and sees the great obligation to Christ that is now his, he wants to live according to that new standard of behavior.

We can believe together all of the preceding paragraph and yet be wrong in different ways about the content of God's standard for our behavior. As we dialogue about those differences, may we do so with accuracy and charity, as well as with resolve and conviction.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Unenumerated Categories of SBC Messengers

Baptist Press reports today the official messenger counts for SBC 2011 in Phoenix. They are, pretty much, what was reported back during the actual event, but demographic breakdowns now appear with the numbers, giving age categorizations and state-by-state analysis of the attendance.

The state bringing the most messengers to Phoenix was Tennessee. Perhaps that puzzles you. Why would a state so far away from Phoenix be the state contributing the largest number of messengers to the meeting? Are Tennesseans just the most loyal, faithful, and trustworthy Southern Baptists?

Well, maybe they are, but a more likely explanation is the fact that the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, one office of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Lifeway Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention are all headquartered in Tennessee. Tennessee accounted for a whopping 1 in 12 messengers in part because of the fact that a large number of employees from these entities—who are also mostly members from Nashville area churches—are required as a part of their jobs to come to the convention. The next three most represented states were Georgia (NAMB), Texas (SWBTS and Guidestone), and North Carolina (SEBTS). Together, these top four states represented 27% of the total messenger count.

Looking at these numbers gives me the opportunity to say something that I always said to my Baptist Heritage classes back when I was teaching. There are three categories of messengers present at each year's SBC Annual Meeting:

  1. Those whose job requires them to be there and pays for them to attend. Most of this category are the people who are employed by the denomination. Some number close to 100% of these people will be in attendance every year, many of them registered to vote.
  2. Those whose job, while it does not require them to be there, will pay for them to attend. That's me, partially (my church's SBC convention allowance is $500, which comes nowhere near paying for the full cost to attend). Mostly these are the full-time pastors (and their families) of larger SBC churches. A surprising number of these folks actually will not come to the convention, but this category will be amply represented at the meeting. This number will also include those who have been appointed to committees or who are otherwise serving the convention in such a manner that their expenses are being covered by the rest of us rather than by their home churches, and the preponderance of that subcategory will be in attendance.
  3. Those who have to pay out of their own pockets to attend. These are the majority of Southern Baptists and they represent an enormous number of Southern Baptist churches too small and too poor (or too penny-wise and pound-foolish) to pay for their pastor to attend. A very small percentage of these folks will attend, and they ought to receive a standing ovation at every year's convention. They love the SBC.

This is why we all ought to make every effort to attend SBC meetings when we can. When numbers dip, they disproportionately come out of categories two and three. The denominational employees of the SBC are fine, wonderful people. An enormous quantity of them were once exactly what you and I are now—faithful members and pastors of SBC churches who love the convention and served it well even before being hired by the SBC. But no matter how noble our denominational employees are, it is a mistake if we ever get to the point where the opinion of the denominational employees is the determining factor choosing the future of our convention. That's not our polity; that's Roman Catholic polity.

The harder it is for you to attend the SBC Annual Meetings, the more you ought to try to go and be a voice for the people like you who can't go every year.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Separation of Ministry and State

Baptists have embraced the biblical office of pastor/elder/overseer and the biblical office of deacon. The nature and function of those offices have varied widely down through the centuries among the Baptist multitude, along with some variance as to the qualifications and membership of those groups.

Generally speaking, however, Baptists have avoided clericalism. The officers of our churches are not seen by us as grace-dispensing sacerdotes et pontifices. We have no priestly class. Our pastors and deacons are, substantially and significantly, brothers among the congregation. Not shepherds, but under-shepherds; co-laborers rather than management. The result has been that, in Baptist life, the line between "clergy" and "laity" is not nearly as bright as it has been among some other Christians.

Southern Baptists have, over the past half-century, greatly multiplied the number and nature of "in-between" offices in the church. We now hire professional ministers to work with youth, children, recreation, religious education, senior adults, singles, families, and a whole host of other specializations. Are these staff members pastors? Some of them are, and are explicitly identified as such. Some of them are non-pastors, and are explicitly identified as such. Some exist in the murky mists of inference. Most of them exist in some state in-between "the congregation" and "the pastor." This phenomenon, yet unresolved, has enormous implications for Baptist ecclesiology.

Also, Baptists have, from time to time, emphasized the idea of vocation as a category much larger than "vocational ministry"—large enough to be rightfully inclusive of the expended talents of every faithful Christian believer. We expect our young adults, whether they are bound for employment in a local church, a local hospital, a local factory, or a local news bureau, to choose their respective "callings" in life in response to the direction of God and to embrace their work as unto the Lord.

These three factors—anti-clericalism/anti-sacerdotalism, an emphasis upon vocation as pertaining to all believers, and a multiplication of quasi-pastoral employment positions in local churches—converge perhaps the most poignantly in the field of Christian Counseling.

Giving counsel has long been considered a feature of the ministry of pastors/elders/overseers, particularly associated with the "pastor" portion of the office (it is instructive that, in contrast to the frequency of the term "pastoral counseling," one is hard pressed to find references to "episcopal counseling" or "presbyterial counseling"). Counseling has also flourished in the last century as a separate, secular discipline. In the middle are those pastors who have received, in addition to their pastoral counseling, secular training in psychotherapy or counseling-related disciplines and who offer what many would regard as an enhanced counseling ministry within the context of pastoral ministry. Also in the middle are those non-pastors who have received training as counselors and who work as staff members of local churches or in counseling ministries closely associated with local churches.

The existence of these ministries poses something of an under-recognized dilemma for Baptists in particular. Counseling, as a secular pursuit, is licensed by the state. Service as a pastor/elder/overseer is not. And this lack of governmental oversight with regard to pastors is no oversight (wordplay intended) on the government's part. Once upon a time, governments did license pastors, for many of the same reasons given for governmental oversight of counseling today (to protect people from inept, lecherous practitioners, etc.). The ministry of "religious professionals" came to be outside the reach of governmental licensure through the tireless effort and sacrifice of great Baptists like Isaac Backus. For our heroic forefathers, religious liberty necessarily entailed the separation of ministry and state. If the government can set and enforce standards for the qualifications of ministers or the practice of ministry, then we do in fact have a state church, whatever we may name it.

So, which is the case with counseling? Is it a ministry, or not? Certainly, there is a sense in which pediatric dentistry and forensic accounting and petrochemical geology can be ministries, but is counseling a church ministry? Is it the sort of thing that a pastor/elder/overseer can and should do? If it is not, what are the implications of that fact for the aggressive expansion of churches into this sort of endeavor? If it is, what are the implications of that fact for religious liberty and state licensure of counseling?

These are difficult questions. I write today not so much to pronounce a verdict as to call the trial to order and invite you, my readers, to make your opening statements.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Homosexuality: I Agree with Tom Elliff

Since the SBC Annual Meeting in Phoenix, AZ, a lengthy conversation has ensued regarding homosexuality. The conversation has been complex, muddled, and surprising. The contentious question of the cause and origin of homosexuality in human beings has been at the forefront of the conversation.

Thankful for all Southern Baptists and for our leaders who have consistently demonstrated both compassionate gospel concern for people engaging in homosexual activities and conscientious fidelity to the indisputable condemnation of homosexual sex acts repeated emphatically in the Bible, I offer you a simple and clear statement of what I believe on the subject. It comes from Dr. Tom Elliff, who appeared on the PBS Newshour on June 18, 1997. (transcript)

A brief excerpt appears below:

We [Southern Baptists] believe that homosexuality is a choice. We believe it's a very bad choice, with serious consequences.

Amen, Dr. Elliff. Amen. What you said that day can only be described as the truth.