Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Here's a Christmas Blessing for You Southern Baptists

Jesus said:

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

So, if you are a Southern Baptist, you should feel really blessed after spending a little time in the comment stream of this Washington Post story.

You know, we've just got to firm our resolve against this kind of criticism. It is our calling to do what is right, not necessarily to do what is popular.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Something Neat Happened at Church Today

Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of FBC Farmersville's native sons, Dick Baker, when he slipped into the back row. Dick's beloved wife Ann passed away not long ago, and this is his first Christmas without her. He decided in the midst of this season to come back home today.

After I finished welcoming everyone, I went back to Dick and asked him whether he'd like to sing something for us. He replied, "I'd like to do whatever you want me to do." So, although the service was already full to overflowing, when next I stepped behind the pulpit I announced that Dick Baker was going to favor us with a song. He stepped up to the piano, and just like that, brought us something wonderful. It was eloquent, Christ-centered, and entirely appropriate both to the Sunday before Christmas and our Lord's Supper celebration. And he did that with about three minutes' notice.

So I'm here hoping that, should the Lord favor me to live that long, I will be the kind of person who still has something worthwhile to say before God's people at the drop of a hat.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Exciting VBS Idea

I know nothing about what they have achieved in the execution of the whole thing, but the most exciting concept that I've seen for 2008 Vacation Bible School is Group's Rome curriculum, subtitled "Paul and the Underground Church." I find it exhilarating to look at a curriculum for Vacation Bible School and see clearly that it might have something to do with the Bible.

BTW: Our first loyalty is to Lifeway. If all the VBS choices are equally uninspiring, we generally purchase Lifeway's curriculum for the year. But if somebody's curriculum offering stands out (Lifeway's or anybody else's), then we are willing to go with that.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Thoughts from a Man Who Can't Stop Thinking

My brain will not let go of those terrible few moments on Thursday afternoon when our car collided with Nicholas Scroggs. I drove back over to the scene today because there were questions rattling around in there that just needed answering. Maybe it's the weirdo Ph.D. in me: What do you do with a problem? You research it. Then you write about it.

Here goes therapy.

So, I went back to do my research today. I tracked down where he would have started his journey on foot. I followed the route up to where the path to the Interstate diverged from the path to the underpass and associated sidewalk—the safe route. I located his house, which was his destination. The safe way was clearly, undeniably, unmistakably, inexplicably the shortest way home. He went out of his way to go across the Interstate, apparently for no other reason than to go across the Interstate.

So much of this I just couldn't see while sitting on the side of the highway. But I went back to that vantage point as well. I picked out the spot where I'm pretty sure he started his run. I noted where I believe that the impact took place. Then that horrible spot where I sat and held his hand.

It's a morality play—that's what it is. And the gospel is right there underneath it. There's the beauty of man, created in the image of God. The last moments of Nicholas Scroggs were beautiful. Even juxtaposed against all of my terror and all of my frantic action, he could have been running for Olympic gold. His stride was perfect. That backpack trailing in the wind. In any other place, at any other time, under any other circumstances, we all would have stood to applaud the sheer athletic grace and beauty and youth and vigor that he displayed. How magnificent! For a moment, it almost felt like he belonged there and the cars were intruding.

That's part of what haunts me so much. The pure vitality of the life that ended with my involvement was on such glorious display right before me in those final moments. Juxtaposed against the horrible images that I see when I lie down at night, I also see his final vigorous moments when he was so alive.

He never saw me. He never looked my direction. There was no expression of fear or hesitation. I really don't think he ever knew.

Alongside the beauty of man, there's our temptation, our spirit of thrill-seeking rebellion, and our fatal flaw. I've tried to chalk this up to his being fourteen. But four, fourteen, or one-hundred-forty, we're all infected with the same virus. Temptation blinds us to consequences. A forty-year-old man has an affair and fails to think, "I could lose my marriage, my good relationship with my children, a lot of money" All he sees is the temptation. A fourteen-year-old boy wants the thrill of running across eight lanes of freeway and doesn't even see the grave risk that he will never again reach home. Grown people tank up on booze and get behind the wheel and it somehow never occurs to them that they just might kill somebody tonight. It's the same disease; the forty-year-old just doesn't have the energy to run across concrete for no reason at all. We struggle to understand, especially because he was a good boy and a smart boy. We're so puzzled to sort it all out because we're looking for some error that he made in his thinking. It wasn't his brain; it was his will.

As they call us in C. S. Lewis's fictional land of Narnia, we are truly sons of Adam. So, why did Nick Scroggs do what he did? Well, why do you do what you do? Why do I do what I do? Because we're broken. We will to do what even we know to be unwise, to be hurtful, to be wrong. We do it because we wanted to do it, and that's all the reason that we need.

And then the terrible consequences. They sneak up on you. You may not ever see them coming. And they don't just affect you. They put in danger the people you love, the folks traveling around you. Folks you don't even know, they hurt because of what you do. The victimless crime: I think it belongs with Sasquatch and the Abominable Snowman.

Finally, there's the loving person trying to encourage a friend to choose life. Nick had a good friend (I think he's remained unnamed in the media, and I'm not going to out him) who was walking with him that day. He refused to cross the Interstate with Nick. He tried to convince Nick to go down to the underpass with him and to join him in the journey safely home. He tried. But Nick's friend couldn't choose for Nick; Nick made his own decision.

Nick's friend and I, we've got to be feeling a lot of the same things right now. Nick's friend tried to persuade him to go another way. I tried to miss Nick, and almost succeeded. If that concrete barrier had been just two feet further to the left, I think that I could have gotten past him safely.

So often I'm on a cell phone or placating an unhappy child while driving. But I was 100% and entirely undistracted at that moment. What are the odds? If I'd been chatting away on a call or turned to pick up a thrown sippy-cup or driving along at some frantic and excessive speed, then I'd be second-guessing and feeling a lot of guilt right now. And thank God that I'm a teetotaling abstentionist—if I had had "just one beer" or "just one glass of wine" over lunch, I would carry with me to the grave the question of whether my so very slight impairment might have made the difference between life and death. As it was, by the grace of God, it was a moment when I was doing everything right.

If Nick's friend hadn't tried to talk him out of it—God forbid, if he'd been egging Nick on and daring him—then he would carry that burden all of his life. But he did try to talk him out of it and refused to go with him. And so, by the grace of God, we're surrounded by people saying over and over again, "You know that this wasn't your fault. There wasn't anything you could do about it." And we know that they're right.

But somehow, as I sat on the concrete of Interstate 30 and held Nick's lifeless hand, and as Nick's friend fell on the concrete and begged Nick to wake up, it not being our fault wasn't worth a bucket of spit. It wasn't about assigning blame; it was about tragedy and loss. Thank God, I know for certain from having witnessed it all that Nick never suffered. He was running, and then he was gone. I saw both. And all that was left was other people sitting around bewildered, trying to figure out why.

There you go. That's the way I see it. God's masterpieces tempted to do very dangerous and foolhardy things and meeting up with terrible consequences that too often destroy them and hurt everyone at ground zero. This is the story even of good people.

Are we doomed just to suffer with this condition? Knowing the Lord, I recognize the gospel in there. This story is exactly what the Bible says about us. It further says that God did an intervention. Jesus took the worst of our consequences upon Himself. He saves us and then sends us out to warn people away from the danger while we're walking with them. When they don't listen, even when we've done everything that we can, it hurts something awful. I don't even want to imagine what it feels like when we didn't do anything to stop it.

Not everyone involved in this story will be a Christian. Mine is just a little personal blog, but there might even be someone reading this who is not a Christian. Perhaps you see it differently. Please understand, I'm not trying to manipulate Nick's story and use him for anything at all. Far from it. But I just can't put it out of my mind. Sleep eludes me and solace cannot be found. Tracy has to grab me and snap me back into this reality pretty often, because I'm just insentient and lost back in the reliving of those terrible seconds, oblivious to whatever is going on around me right now. I'm thinking it through and writing about it because something's got to help, and maybe this is it.

And when I try to make sense of it all, I see the gospel there. Because I think that the Bible describes us pretty doggone well. God's got our number. And maybe, if we can all come to grips with that, we'll let Him help us.

I'm not feeling very eloquent tonight, and I need to try to sleep. And I'm scared to death to write about this because it would be so easy to hurt people when probing around in a wound looking for something. Please forgive me.

Friday, December 12, 2008

In Memory of Nicholas Scroggs

Beyond posting this link and thanking so many of you for your kindness over that past seventeen hours, I find myself utterly unable to say anything. Please pray for this boy's family.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Format for Praisegod Barebones

Starting January 1, I am implementing a change of direction for this blog, as follows.

Scheduled posts: Posts will be scheduled in advance by topic and author. I will publish the schedule semi-annually.

Guest authors: I will invite a select group of contributors to author the posts. Don't call me; I'll call you. ;-)

Delayed and moderated comments: After an author publishes a post, it will remain on the site without comment for one week. After that time, I will begin to release those comments that gain approval. The screening of comments will take place solely according to the following rules:

  • Comments that interact with the original post by contrasting it with the fully documented words of relevant historical sources will be permitted.
  • Comments that interact with the original post by presenting a well-reasoned critique of the logical development of the post's thesis will be permitted. Such comments should refer to specific wording of the original post as the basis of the critique. Where such critiques employ the material of other authors or other works by the same author, they should refer to specific wording and be fully documented.
  • Comments that interact with the original post by posing a question well-crafted to further the dialogue and bring forth more information will be permitted.
  • Foul and offensive language on the part of the comment author will not be permitted. Foul and offensive language will only be permitted in quotes of others if the inclusion of offensive material is necessary to the point being made. Anything that does not meet the tests of being substantive and well documented will not be permitted. This includes, among other things, spam.
  • If a comment is rejected, I may decide to make suggestions to its author as to how he or she might improve the comment (e.g., "You need to provide a citation for the quote that you give in paragraph two") and allow resubmission.

Here's my purpose: I'm trying to set up an online forum that approximates the experience of participating in a doctoral seminar. You need not have any academic degree to participate. Indeed, I see this as a way for people to experience something approximating the doctoral study experience without having to pay tuition or pass qualifying requirements. I want the blog to become a forum where people all come having actually prepared for a discussion that is well focused around a clearly defined topic. It is a rare and wonderful thing to enjoy dialogue among people who do indeed know what they are talking about. They may have different viewpoints, but when they share them they wind up sharing more than just opinion—they convey content.

For a while after January 1, at least, this will be the only format of material on this blog. I'm not committing to this format forever, because I don't believe that the "journal of personal opinion" function of a blog is completely without merit. I'm merely observing that there is no place in the entire Southern Baptist blog realm that creates the kind of careful, credible dialogue that I hope to achieve. The more "academic" blogs generally either allow a free-for-all in the comment stream or do not allow comments at all.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What Is the "Baptist Identity Movement"?

If I am a part of any "movement" in Southern Baptist life with regard to Baptist identity, it is detailed here. Anyone wishing to affirm, critique, or analyze any "Baptist Identity Movement" of which I am a part should do so in reference to that document.

Great Conversations in History, Installment #1

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Thanks of a Grateful Nation

The year 2003 was the last time that the seventh day of the month of December fell upon a Sunday. Gathered that day in the senior adult men's Sunday School class at First Baptist Church of Farmersville was a collection of wizened octogenarians. Before commencing the Bible study, the group took a moment on that Pearl Harbor Day to reminisce. "Where were you when you heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked?" asked the teacher.

"We had just come home from church," was one answer.

"We had gone to town," another replied.

When the conversation passed to Charles Waideilch, a lanky, normally quiet, transplanted Midwesterner, he replied, "I darn sure know where I was—I was standing in the middle of Hickam Field with a BAR pointed up in the air shooting at Japanese airplanes!" After years of attending Sunday School together, none of the men in the class had known until that moment that Charles had fought valiantly at Pearl Harbor.

Not many years later, Charles broke his hip. He went into rehab at the same time and in the same institution as another of our members. The other man was depressed and ready to quit, but Charles's optimism buoyed up not only himself but also his compatriot. Charles worked hard at rehab and was nearly back on his feet for good when a nasty infection set up in his other leg, eventually requiring its amputation. Again, back at the same rehab facility, Charles was fitted for a prosthetic and determined to walk again. He was nearly there when an uncommon intestinal bug sapped away his energy, and then finally his life.

Pearl Harbor Day is all but gone. How many people will even remember today the significance of the date. Anyway, we're not in the mood for reminders that evil in the world sometimes forces bloody conflict upon even the noblest and most peace-loving. Yet, for the moment, walking all around us are living reminders of both the bloody cost and the terrible necessity of military conflict. If only we will see them.

In the stairwell of Fleming Library (no longer a library) a bronze plaque commemorates those associated with SWBTS who served in the war. I passed it a thousand times before I even saw it. Silent, unpretentious, unnoticed—a metaphor of so many of the veterans who are our brothers and sisters in our congregation. They deserve the thanks of a grateful nation, but not only in the form of a flag conferred at their burial. They deserve the thanks of the living while they yet remain alive.

So tomorrow I'll go up to a Veteran's Retirement Home in Bonham, Texas. There I'll visit a member of our church who served under George Patton. And while I'm there, I'll be on the lookout for the "Pearl Harbor Survivor" cap that I saw the last time I was there, just to take a moment to say thanks.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Would You Support the Return of Prohibition?

Seventy-five years ago today, Utah ratified the Twenty-First Amendment to the United States Constitution, repealing the Eighteenth Amendment and its prohibition of alcohol in our nation.

(HT: Dallas Morning News)

Occasionally we have a good row in the Southern Baptist blogging world over alcohol, and it seems like it's just been too long. Don't you all miss it? So here goes.

A good many of those who have argued that the recreational consumption of intoxicating liquors ought to be a permissible avocation among Southern Baptists will offer the obligatory: "Now I don't drink myself, and I always counsel total abstinence as the wisest choice, but I just don't think that we can say that the Bible condemns recreational drinking of alcohol." Certainly it is a well-formed line of argumentation for the topic at hand, because a convention of churches shouldn't make rules without some biblical foundation.

A governmental authority, on the other hand, doesn't really need biblical authority to do anything. Government can, and often does, do things simply because they are "the wisest choice." For example, you can't smoke cigarettes in restaurants in Dallas. You can't run up to Walgreens and purchase morphine for home use. You can't drive your automobile down I-35E without wearing your seat belt. None of these laws have any justification whatsoever out of the Bible; they are simply an effort to force people to make "the wisest choice."

So, if we had the opportunity to bring back the Prohibition of alcohol, would you support it? If not, why not. And please try to use the very best in grammar and punctuation in your responses—the drug legalization lobby may want to quote you.

The Barber Plan for Peace

I know…I know…To some of you that title reads something like "The Michael Moore Plan for Objectivity in Filmmaking." It is one of the great prices paid when you take a stand in a debate that onlookers will tend to place the participants at the poles of the debate and will miss much of the nuance. Thus, compared to those who would sacrifice more on the altar of "Christian unity," I might appear (falsely) not to be interested in unity at all. Compared to those a bit more reluctant to enter a public debate, I might appear to enjoy contest more than collegiality.

Truth be told, I hate conflict. But sometimes conflict can be constructive. The conflict presently ongoing within the SBC concerning Calvinism is, in my estimation, more destructive than constructive. Of course, that call is a subjective one. What is constructive to the builder of the freeway is destructive to the resident of the house that used to sit there.

I should think that, at this point, my colors are clear. The house in the path of the proposed freeway is the SBC, and I live in it. I believe that the historical distinctive beliefs of Baptists are among the plain teachings of the Bible. I have enumerated those teachings (or, at least, those among them that I consider to be most vulnerable) elsewhere. I'm at work in my own congregation to strengthen our obedience to these principles. I believe that it will strengthen any church to obey the Bible at these points. To any degree that my voice can be heard in our convention, I wish to use it to champion these ideas.

Among those who share these distinctive convictions, both historically and in the present, have been both Calvinists and non-Calvinists. In our lesser moments (in my view), Particular (Calvinistic) and General (non-Calvinistic) Baptists have held one another at arms length, maintaining separate affiliations. In our brighter epochs, our emphases upon our ecclesiological commonalities have overshadowed our soteriological differences. The Southern Baptist Convention has served as an example of this phenomenon. This does not mean that the SBC cannot be plotted on a soteriological continuum. Either Hardshellism or Free-Willism have served as a strong motivation for congregations to depart the SBC. But the space that we have occupied on the soteriological spectrum has been far broader than the territory on either end of us.

I wonder whether our situation will long endure, or whether our "blessed arrangement" will prove to be little more than a "dream within a dream." Not being a Calvinist, I believe that some "points" of Calvinism overreach beyond the teachings of the Bible. At least one such point I would characterize not as a an overreach, but as a complete philosophical construction with no strong exegetical basis. So, strictly speaking, I regard Calvinism as an error. I do not, however, count it as anywhere nearly among the graver threats that we face. In fact, I believe that fighting about Calvinism poses a far greater threat to our convention than does Calvinism itself, per se.

I was going to inject here some smarmy comment about how "Some of my best friends are Calvinists." At the very moment that I was considering the comment, I received notice that Ligon Duncan has requested to be one of my Facebook friends (doubtless after weeks of careful research and consideration). So you see, not only do I have Calvinistic friends, but prominent Calvinists whom I have never even met are actually seeking me out for friendship! :-)

My new buddy-buddy status with Bro. Duncan notwithstanding, the tensions at this moment are high. Rather than speculate about what has widened, is widening, or will further widen the divide, let us take a moment to consider what specific things might narrow it.

We can emphasize some things that are more important and could serve to unite us. A really good example is a common commitment to recovering some concept of a congregation of scripturally baptized visible saints. Here is a powerful need among Southern Baptist churches, and one that unites many of the people involved in our most recent conversations. Our near-total loss of this distinctive is, in my opinion, the root disease behind many of our symptoms these days and one of the most pressing questions facing us at this moment.

The question of church membership has arisen tangentially in all of this discussion. Malcolm Yarnell has questioned whether Tom Ascol's church extends communion to someone who has not been baptized (i.e., a Presbyterian). Tom has not responded to this question, but it appears to me that Tom's detractors, Tom's supporters, and everyone in between has concluded that such is indeed the practice at Tom's church. Some think it is awful; some think it is laudatory. Most concede that it is contrary to the wording of the Baptist Faith & Message, although most concede that Tom's church would be far from the first or only Southern Baptist church to have such a policy (explicit or implicit) with regard to the Lord's Table.

Tom is not an employee of the Southern Baptist Convention nor of any of her entities. I don't see that he has anything to lose from just 'fessing up about whoever this guy is. His squirming and suggesting that Malcolm is using "innuendo" are helpful neither to Malcolm nor to him, in my estimation. One presumes that this person is a regular attender. Tom can take credit for refusing to extend church membership to this person apart from baptism (again, presuming a lot about the situation), and he can concede his differences with our statement of faith at this particular point.

And along the way, perhaps we could open up a conversation that relates to our quest for more meaningful church membership: What about all of these people who regularly attend a church but never join for some reason or another? Is it healthy or holy to skirt around on the periphery of a congregation without making a commitment? If people will not join my congregation, do I have some obligation to encourage them toward either yielding to the teachings of the scripture or moving on to somewhere else? There are quasi-members who function in every way like members but don't join. Then there are quasi-members who join but function in every way like people who aren't members. Doesn't one blur the meaning of membership as much as the other? I think that it does.

Tom Ascol has strongly implied that Malcolm's home church does not practice regenerate church membership. It is a claim that echoes the sentiments of Tom's associate, Timmy Brister, just in advance of the SBC annual meeting earlier this year. The pastor of Birchman is a dear friend, as is Malcolm. And I am a dear friend to myself. :-) But for both of our churches, I think we can all agree that the ratio of participation to membership indicates that we have been carried along by the same currents that have been steering most of the churches in our convention.

I do think that Malcolm and I (as well as my pastor-friend at Birchman) can accurately say that we were no part of developing this problem and have made some progress toward being a part of the solution. Malcolm is helping to develop a Covenant to help his church move forward in this important way. I am confident that 2009 will witness major strides in our progress here at FBC Farmersville. Part of the greatness that I see in Bob Pearle and Malcolm Yarnell and Bill Henard is that they are the kind of men capable of providing this kind of leadership to established churches.

And along the way, maybe we can open another conversation that relates to the quest for more meaningful church membership: How can we lead historic congregations and larger congregations to know a better concept of church membership? I'm thankful for the way that some of our church plants and some of our smaller churches have admirably tackled the church membership issue. Some of them, having done so, have grown to be large churches (a vindication, in my opinion, of the positive effect that this kind of reformation and revival can bring).

But what about the historic church that has drifted away from a robust concept of church membership, but is otherwise not "in trouble"? These are churches that are fiscally successful, have good infrastructure, are involved in evangelism and missions, hold to sound theology, have good worship, and are in so many ways model churches. But these key historic Baptist concepts of biblical church discipline and covenantal duties of membership have been lost somewhere along the way. These churches didn't lose their historic concepts of church membership in a week, and they aren't going to regain them in a week. Do we give up on these churches?

Certainly, attacking people who believe in regenerate church membership for belonging to these churches is not a helpful idea. What are we saying, that Malcolm Yarnell should take his ideas about biblical church membership out of his church, stop working to give good leadership there for a stronger direction in the future, and go to some safe and easy place of ministry and membership where he need not work to better his church? That's a surefire recipe to guarantee that none of our historic and larger churches ever improve their practice and theology of church membership. Anyone who really cares about seeing positive change in the SBC in this direction ought to refrain from such remarks.

Another area that can unite us is a commitment to revitalized personal and corporate evangelism.

We desperately need help in this area, because we all know that most Southern Baptists aren't sharing the gospel at all. Of course, the leaders sounding the alarm about Calvinistic threats to evangelistic prowess are not the folks who haven't shared the gospel with anyone else. And they would be among the first to concede that the SBC has serious problems in those areas, and that those problems have absolutely nothing to do with Calvinism. Perhaps, in their heartfelt passion for seeing evangelism grow within the SBC, although they know that Calvinism has had nothing to do with bringing us to the crisis that we face today, they worry that any theological move away from evangelistic urgency will be just enough to kill an already critical patient.

Calvinists can stop pretending that our problem in any way is that we offer the gospel of Christ too much, too emotionally, or in the wrong manner. 'Tis a weak gospel indeed that can be foiled by a couple of verses of "Just As I Am" and a preacher standing at the front of a room. Let us agree that, whoever is actually presenting the gospel, even if they are presenting it differently than we are, we will not tell them to stop. Even if you think that adjustments need to be made, the nadir of our evangelistic energies is not the time to be discouraging any zeal for the gospel.

On the other hand, we non-Calvinists can just stop saying that Calvinism necessarily makes a person or a church less evangelistic and/or less missions-oriented. Let's not be like a collection of slugs debating which of us is the slowest. None of us are bound for the Olympic track team, my friend. We're in desperate need of improvement in our commitments to sharing the gospel. I'm of the opinion that less self-loathing and more confidence in Christ will help us all in that respect. But I would call upon those of us who are not Calvinists not to attack Calvinists for supposedly being less evangelistic. For the vast majority of Southern Baptist believers, it is not within the realm of possibility to be any less evangelistic. Living your life without sharing the gospel with anyone is an absolute bottom below which nobody else can go.

Our missions movement is something we inherit from the Particular Baptists, not the General Baptists. Now I'll give you this: When I encounter Calvinists who quote lots of Gill and think very little of Fuller, then I confess that it makes me nervous. All of the other laudatory things that he did notwithstanding, John Gill's name cannot be associated with the spread of missiological vitality among Baptists. But so long as we're talking about Fuller and Carey and Spurgeon, the charge of being derogatory to evangelism and missions just doesn't apply in general to Calvinism.

But however Calvinistic Fuller and Carey and Spurgeon were, they were Baptists ahead of being Calvinists. Spurgeon's sermon on baptism rankled a lot of Calvinistic paedobaptists. It was out of the intimidation of knowing that he would face Carey's Baptist scrutiny that Adoniram Judson dug deeply into the New Testament and found there the immersion of believers only. I think that Tom Ascol's historiography is ideologically driven (in other words, I think it highly unlikely that his next book is going to be a friendly biography of Benjamin Randall), and I encourage him to use it more and more to show how Baptist-before-Calvinist has been an incredibly successful combination for the gospel.

I call us today to the same commitment. Let us be Christians before we are Baptists, but let us be Baptists before we are Calvinists or Arminians or whatever else.

One of the arguments that some Baptists have made in favor of the society method of missionary organization is that societies have more committed memberships. After all, the only people who will be members of the American Tract Society, for example, will be people committed enough to the idea of evangelistic tracts to have donated actual money toward a society to produce tracts. On the other hand, they have alleged that conventions accumulate members who are only interested perhaps in one aspect of the convention, yet gives them authority to direct ministries for which they have little or no vested interest.

Over the past couple of years in blogging, I've written a thing or two critical of various aspects of our Southern Baptist Convention. I've come out strongly against the syncretism inherent to the book, The Camel, which is a product of our International Mission Board. I've fired a volley across the bow of Lifeway Research (and didn't realize until today that they just might shoot back!). I've reviewed a dud of a "tell-all" book attacking NAMB. I've criticized some Executive Board decisions. I've written much in defense and support of our convention, but I've written some things in criticism as well.

But know this for certain. When FBC Farmersville goes out to do missions, we overwhelmingly go out to do it with and as Southern Baptists, and usually with IMB or NAMB involved in one way or another. Our missions giving goes to SBC causes, and the vast preponderance goes through the Cooperative Program. I never recommend a ministry-oriented person toward anything but an SBC seminary. And my retirement and my insurance premiums go straight to Guidestone.

When I speak of or to the Southern Baptist Convention, I do so as someone with a vested interest in it all. I'm committed to our common cooperative ministry. To all of those Southern Baptists who happen to be Calvinists, I am your brother and I want us to move forward together. Let us do so as convictional, evangelistic, enthusiastic Southern Baptists.

Be all the Calvinist that you wish; just be a Baptist first.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What's Happening at FBC Farmersville

This Summer, if our Lord tarries and is willing, my first decade at First Baptist Church of Farmersville will come to completion. FBC Farmersville has a history of long-tenured pastors, or, at least, longer than average. My two immediate predecessors were here for seven years and eight years, respectively. Passing the ten-year milestone will make this pastoral ministry the second-lengthiest in the church's 144-year history. If it pleases God for me to be here to celebrate our sesquicentennial in 2015, I will do so as the longest-tenured pastor in the congregation's history.

That could almost sound like bragging, so let me assure you that it is (a) a testimony to the grace of God, (b) a testimony to the lovingkindness and patience of this family of believers, and (c) a celebration of what I'm thankful for and not a boast in what I'm proud of on my part—God knows my heart. These people stuck with me through Ph.D. seminars and a dissertation, after all.

These next six months could well prove to be some of the most significant of the decade. After more than a year of dialogue and revisions, the congregation will see in January 2009 a proposed Constitution & Bylaws for FBC Farmersville. Once we have adopted it, I will gladly post it for anyone to see. But I do not grant any online community the privilege to see it before our church family has seen and approved it.

Coming hard on its heels will be our Church Membership Covenant. This one has passed the approval of the special committee that has been working to author it. I find that the influence of those on the committee has been very helpful to me. I authored all of the first drafts, but they brought to the table a goal to wind up with a document readable and understandable by children. As someone genuinely converted at nearly six years of age, I was sympathetic to the goal (even if unable to accomplish it without their help and prodding).

Although we will present the Constitution and the Covenant at different times, we will vote to approve them together. The Constitution & Bylaws refer to the Covenant, so were we to adopt it without the Covenant, we would be operating contrary to our Constitution & Bylaws from that point until the adoption of the Covenant.

Our deacons have joined with me in a project to develop a brief ministry plan for every household in our congregation. This will include both the households who actively participate now and those whom we have not seen for quite some time. I expect that every ministry plan will involve contact with the household, if possible. Here is my goal: To accomplish regenerate church membership at First Baptist Church of Farmersville without dropping a single household from the present membership roll. If they are lost, we want to present the gospel to them and have the privilege of witnessing their conversion and baptism. If they are backslidden, we want to see their love for the Lord and for the brethren rekindled. If they are active, we hope to encourage them all the more.

The goal is, of course, unattainable. Some of those folks go to church elsewhere. Some of them we will likely not be able to identify or find. Some of them will spurn our efforts to reach them. We're going to try anyway. And it is important to me for my people to know that it has never been my intention or the desire of my heart to effect any sort of "purge." If any wind up leaving our rolls, let it be because we were running after them to catch them for the Lord, not to chase them away.

If 50% of the people we contact tell us to go away and leave them alone, then we'll double in average attendance next year. But more importantly, I'll have the assurance of knowing that I've actually shepherded the flock over which God has made me an overseer.

I'm as enthusiastic about serving here as ever I have been. We've had a really difficult few years, marked by a few painful moral scandals among the church membership (the worst of which resulted in a sexual offender being sentenced to prison last month). Our attendance and baptisms have waned through this difficult season. Now I have every reason to hope that we have put this season behind us. Our baptisms since September have already doubled last year's ACP numbers, and far beyond. I baptized three adults in the last few weeks. We're seeing a heightened interest in evangelism to accompany the amazing improvements that our congregation has made in missions involvement in the past few years (from 0 mission trips ten years ago to 7 this year).

I've always wondered what it would feel like to have pastored a congregation for as long as a decade. The amazing thing is, it feels like I'm just getting started. It hasn't felt that way at every point along the road. Sometimes it has been quite difficult. But today, I can honestly say that it feels almost like the initial "honeymoon," only better, because we know that it is based upon a real understanding between church and pastor, and not some imaginary vision of one another soon to be exploded.

God's Provident Hand of Justice?

Today I received an address change notice. Jerry Corbaley is in Hawaii.

For contrast, I offer this beautiful panorama from Northern Oklahoma.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fighting About John 3:16

I had hoped to attend the John 3:16 conference, but the vagaries of court dockets prevented me from being able to schedule any firm out-of-town plans in that date range. As things now stand, the aftermath of the conference, which I've discovered this morning, may have turned out to be as interesting as the event itself. One thing we bloggers have created within SBC life is that our great events are now akin to Presidential debates—immediately after the event itself we all enter the spin room, and the public remembrance of what happened is shaped more by the post-event interpretation than by the event itself. As bloggers, we'll have to decide for ourselves whether we've improved the SBC by that development.

I find that the warmest spot of contention arises between two men whom I know and with whom I have cooperated: Dr. Malcolm Yarnell and Dr. Thomas Ascol. As many of you will recall, Dr. Ascol, Dr. Yarnell, and I cooperated in a last-minute partnership to accomplish a good resolution on Regenerate Church Membership at the 2008 SBC Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, IN. The last-minute partnership in Indianapolis was the culmination of several weeks of emailing one another to work out some means of cooperation on this matter. I do not offer myself as the best friend or leading expert on the beliefs or temperaments of either of these men. I freely confess that I know Malcolm better and love him more than I do Tom, although I suggest that the latter truth is merely the consequence of the former, and not the result of any disfavor I have toward Tom. So now you know my biases, and now you know the basis of my observations.

And here are my observations:

  1. Dr. Ascol and Dr. Yarnell affirm mutually incompatible ideas. If they offend one another, it is not because they are offensive people. Neither one, it seems to me, is trying to hound the other out of the SBC (some stupid comments from the sidelines to the contrary notwithstanding). But they are passionate thinkers thinking different things. I've watched close-at-hand while the both of them have shown their heart for Christian unity and harmonious fellowship. But although these men have the hearts of ecumenists, they have the minds of theologians. Unfortunately, most contemporary ecumenism boils down to ignoring the vast majority of other things that Christ said in an effort to obey His wishes for the unity of the church. These men want to be obedient to all of what Christ said, and therefore their differences in thought are their whiskers—possibly attractive at a distance, but scratchier the more firmly you hug.

    Their mutually incompatible ideas are more than four hundred years old. These scholars have embraced two different streams that flow into the Baptist river: the English Presbyterians on the one hand and the Continental Anabaptists on the other hand. OK, perhaps it is a bad metaphor to call them streams flowing into our river, because each continued to flow on its own, although each is legitimately a tributary to seventeenth-century Baptist thought.

    What's more, these are important ideas. Although Calvinism is not the gospel, it certainly touches upon the gospel and has implications for the gospel. Surely we'll all have to concede that the question "For whom did Christ die on the cross?" is at least an order of magnitude more important than "Those strange sounds that guy is making over there: Do you think that they are an utterance of the Holy Spirit, or just something that he made up?" The latter is not an unimportant question (especially to the guy who vehemently asserts that his made up something is an utterance of the Holy Spirit), but it is not nearly as important as the former.

    So, I think we dishonor these men and deceive others if we pretend that they just have a personality conflict or a disagreeable spirit or that they are just arguing over trivial, unimportant matters.

  2. Calvinism, in its essence, is offensive to those who are not Calvinists. Arminianism, in its essence, is offensive to those who are not Arminians. Both, in their essence, are offensive to those who are neither. So, should we really be that surprised that Dr. Ascol was offended by the John 3:16 conference or whatever else? If inclined to do so, I could take great offense at Dr. Ascol's most recent post around which so much of this controversy has centered:

    Terminology matters, so let me quickly assert that what I mean by "Calvinism" is exactly what the great Southern Baptist statesman, John Broadus, meant when he wrote,

    The people who sneer at what is called Calvinism might as well sneer at Mont Blanc. We are not in the least bound to defend all of Calvin's opinions or actions, but I do not see how any one who really understands the Greek of the Apostle Paul or the Latin of Calvin and Turretin can fail to see that these latter did but interpret and formulate substantially what the former teaches.

    What we are talking about is the sovereignty of God in salvation including unconditional election, total depravity of sinful nature, definite atonement of particular sinners by the death of Christ, the monergistic work of the Spirit in regeneration and the preserving grace of God operating in the life of every believer.

    Taken at its plain meaning, Dr. Ascol has asserted that anyone who is anything less than a five-pointer has rejected what is nothing more than Pauline theology. That's not only Dr. Yarnell, Dr. Vines, Dr. Allen, myself, but it is also, for example, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's Dr. Russ Moore (not so sure, last I checked, that Limited Atonement—"definite atonement of particular sinners by the death of Christ" in Calvinist-speak—is the plain and simple theology of the Apostle Paul).

    I do not believe that Dr. Ascol misspoke, because I sincerely believe that Dr. Ascol believes precisely that. He believes that Limited Atonement is biblical. Personally, I don't know how on earth he comes to that conclusion, but I believe that he does. Now, here's my choice: I can take offense that Tom would believe such a thing or would say such a thing, or I can shed all of this twenty-first-century victim mentality, grow up a bit, and reconcile myself to the fact that people just disagree about these things. People aren't trying to offend me; it is just that their ideas offer me the opportunity to take offense any time I so desire.

    But what if I don't so desire? I can give Dr. Ascol the right to articulate his beliefs clearly and accurately. I can acknowledge his right to gather around himself a group of people who agree with him and to enjoy fellowship with them. I can acknowledge his right and the right of his group to seek to promote their beliefs. And I can acknowledge that in doing so Dr. Ascol is not going out of his way to denigrate me. He's trying to promote his ideas. Where our ideas differ, a contest of ideas may well ensue. Ideas matter and are personal, so there will likely be some personal feelings involved. But Dr. Ascol does not advance his ideas in order to attack those who disagree. The attack upon those who disagree is merely a consequence of his passionate advocacy of his ideas.

  3. Consciously to affirm the reception to the Lord's Supper of one not immersed as a believer is to act in disagreement with The Baptist Faith & Message. Long before I was alive and long after I'm in Heaven (if Jesus tarries) people will continue to argue about which position on the extent of the Supper is the biblical position, but the wording of the BF&M is pretty clear. Not everyone has paid close enough attention to realize that fact, but there's little room for debate as to what the BF&M actually says. I think that Dr. Ascol realizes that, and that's why he's understandably keeping his cards pretty close to his vest about the policy of the church that he pastors.

  4. There's no way on earth that Malcolm Yarnell affirms Servetus's lapses from Christian orthodoxy. I think that this little twist is the height of irony, although it probably isn't that funny either to Dr. Ascol or to Dr. Yarnell. The false claim that people hurl willy-nilly against Dr. Yarnell is that he's a Landmarker…that he somehow equates "Baptist" with "Christian." This little terminology brew-ha-ha illustrates that Dr. Yarnell does not hold that point of view. You can be a Baptist and not be a Christian. Servetus, it appears, was one of those (and the category is a large one, my friends).

    So, it just strikes me as funny that Dr. Ascol, and not Dr. Yarnell, is the one equating "Baptist" with "Christian"—asserting that since Dr. Yarnell called Servetus a Baptist he must have been regarding him as an orthodox Christian. Pardon me for putting words into Dr. Yarnell's mouth, but it seems to me that he was saying that Servetus shouldn't have been a Baptist, but nevertheless was one. In other words, he should have been put out of the church for his heresy, but he shouldn't have been burned at the stake.

  5. I think that we all ought to leave room for mystery in our understanding of what happens when we are converted. I remain unconvinced by both Dort and the Remonstrants (because each strays, IMHO, from the plain teaching of the Bible). But each system does remind us of important biblical truths at certain points. As I have said before, I thank God for Calvinists, although I am not one. I love the many Calvinists I listed in that post, in the way that we can historically love someone whom we have never met. But in my love for them I acknowledge that the Bible leaves these many questions in some state of tension, and I choose to strive someday to understand what these great Calvinists-gone-by know now rather than slavishly devoting myself to what they thought that they knew when they were here.