Thursday, May 31, 2012

Calvinism Conference Questions, Part 3

This is the third post in this series.

The Kentucky Baptist Convention will host a Calvinism Conference in August. Speakers include David Dockery, Steve Lemke, Frank Page, and Hershael York. It looks FASCINATING to me. Color me intrigued.

Paul Chitwood, KBC's Executive Director, is the mastermind behind this conference. He has agreed to participate in a Q&A session here on my blog regarding this conference. His answers will post sometime next week, probably. In the meantime, before you see his answers, I've decided (with his permission) to post some of the more pertinent and vexing questions and let my readers have at them in advance of Chitwood's reply. I'll stretch this process out among multiple posts.

3. Among the denominations from which Southern Baptists are divided are at least some denominations for which the cause of division is Calvinism (I'm thinking in particular of the Free Will Baptists). One of the five points of Calvinism—Perseverance—has been a part of our Southern Baptist statement of faith for as long as we've had statements of faith. Is Perseverance the most important of the five points of Calvinism? If not, why should we divide over this point of Calvinism but over none of the other four? If Southern Baptists should cooperate despite differences over Calvinism, then should we seek union with Free Will Baptists?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Calvinism Conference Questions, Part 2

This is the second post in this series.

The Kentucky Baptist Convention will host a Calvinism Conference in August. Speakers include David Dockery, Steve Lemke, Frank Page, and Hershael York. It looks FASCINATING to me. Color me intrigued.

Paul Chitwood, KBC's Executive Director, is the mastermind behind this conference. He has agreed to participate in a Q&A session here on my blog regarding this conference. His answers will post sometime next week, probably. In the meantime, before you see his answers, I've decided (with his permission) to post some of the more pertinent and vexing questions and let my readers have at them in advance of Chitwood's reply. I'll stretch this process out among multiple posts.

2. Southern Baptists have separated from other denominations over issues ranging from the authority of the pope to the proper day of worship. Is Calvinism an issue worthy of denominational division? If not, what is the difference between Calvinistic soteriology and, for example, the mode or meaning of baptism that makes one a rightful cause of division and the other not?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Calvinism Conference Questions, Part 1

The Kentucky Baptist Convention will host a Calvinism Conference in August. Speakers include David Dockery, Steve Lemke, Frank Page, and Hershael York. It looks FASCINATING to me. Color me intrigued.

Paul Chitwood, KBC's Executive Director, is the mastermind behind this conference. He has agreed to participate in a Q&A session here on my blog regarding this conference. His answers will post sometime next week, probably. In the meantime, before you see his answers, I've decided (with his permission) to post some of the more pertinent and vexing questions and let my readers have at them in advance of Chitwood's reply. I'll stretch this process out among multiple posts.

1. Calvinism, Arminianism, and other options are all around four hundred years old. At least some of the key ideas go back fifteen hundred years to the time of Augustine and Pelagius. Calvinism and Arminianism have affected Baptist life for the entirety of the modern Baptist period. Several conferences in the past decade have addressed the question of Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention. What can this conference address or contribute that hasn't already been addressed or contributed?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Going 'Round Spreading Rumors: Dr. Eric Hankins Running for Second Vice President

Picture of Dr. Eric Hankins

I shouldn't spread rumors, but I'm a Southern Baptist, so I find it hard to resist the temptation.

I haven't found out who the nominator will be, but rumor has it that Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor of First Baptist Church, Oxford, MS, will be nominated for Second Vice President at the SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

Eric's Ph.D. is from SWBTS. He and I once had an Eschatology seminar together. Good guy.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I've Thought About Making This Motion

I don't know that I will, but I've contemplated making the following motion at our annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention:

I move that the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention direct the Executive Committee to acknowledge that the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention can direct the Executive Committee.

Here's my rationale:

  1. I wanted to phrase the motion in a manner not connected with any other controversial topic. The question of the Executive Committee's autonomy or lack thereof arose informally during the Great Commission Resurgence conversation a few years ago. At that moment, it was probably not possible for most Southern Baptists to disconnect any discussion of our polity at this point from whether they supported or opposed the GCR. The motion I've crafted, coming at this particular time, would not wind up being connected with any controversial topic in the SBC, I don't think. The motion is entirely self-referential.

  2. It's a disputed question that ought to be answered. When those GCR discussions were ongoing, I spoke with leading experts in Southern Baptist polity who either came down on different sides of this question or confessed that they weren't certain of the correct answer. It seems to me that this is a serious organizational question for our convention and that it ought to be settled outside of the heat of any particular battle. The relationship between the convention and its Executive Committee is a matter with significant implications

  3. The Executive Committee is different from the entities affiliated with the SBC. We know that the convention messengers cannot direct the IMB, NAMB, Guidestone, Lifeway, the ERLC, or any of our six seminaries. The messengers select trustees to govern these agencies, but it then cannot send directions to those trustees. This barrier between the SBC and entities probably eventually gets around to frustrating everyone at one time or another, but it exists with good reason.

    It exists for good historical reasons. Consider the case of Southern Seminary. The SBC explicitly wanted nothing to do with starting a seminary. Four private individual Southern Baptists launched Southern, together with some grassroots support. The institutional SBC established a formal relationship with Southern only later. The same is true for Southwestern Seminary. These institutions came into being independently of convention action, and one could imagine hypothetical scenarios in which one or all or our entities could outlast the convention. Separate governance enables these institutions, in dire circumstances (the SBC dissolves?), to exist on their own. We can contemplate that they might do so because the missions of these individual entities can be distinguished from the mission of the convention as a whole.

    It exists for good legal reasons. The legal liability of Lifeway, for example, cannot legally be imputed to the International Mission Board. If a person were successful at securing an enormous plaintiff's judgment against Lifeway, the entire work of the convention could not be sunk thereby. This is an important factor to consider in our increasingly hostile environment.

    And yet, although these are good reasons why the convention should not be able to direct our entities, there are good reasons why our relationship with the Executive Committee should be different.

    1. Unlike the entities, the purpose of the Executive Committee cannot be distinguished from the purpose of the convention. If the SBC were to pass out of existence, there would be no purpose for the Executive Committee to exist.

    2. Unlike the entities, the Executive Committee is empowered to act in the convention's place. The Executive Committee can, in an amazing variety of ways, act AS the convention ad interim. No other entity is able to do this. Accompanying this extraordinary power ought to be extra accountability. If the Executive Committee will be authorized to act in our stead, it must be subject to our direction. Otherwise, as soon as the closing gavel were to fall on one of our annual meetings, the Executive Committee could, if it so desired, act with the authority of the messengers to do precisely the opposite of what the messengers have explicitly stated.

    3. I'm not sure that the convention has any assets that the Executive Committee doesn't have. If that is the case, then it's hard to see how there can be much in the legal structure of the convention that would need drastic legal protection from liabilities that the Executive Committee might incur. The Executive Committee manages the Cooperative Program. The only employees that the convention has are employees of the Executive Committee, as far as I know.

I might not offer this motion. I haven't decided. Part of me would be content for the 2012 annual meeting to focus on the election of Fred Luter and to delve into little else. But whether I offer the motion or not, I am curious to have a discussion with you, my readers, about the concept.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sacred Vows and the Sinner's Prayer

First, a little background for this post:

Generally from within the ranks of neo-Calvinism, a growing body of criticism has been emerging regarding evangelistic means that have been widespread among Southern Baptists. The use of the altar-call invitation has been one of the activities challenged by this critique. The use of a "sinner's prayer" is another challenged activity.

Consider, for example, this clip from the preaching of David Platt:

From the opposite perspective, take a moment to hear the words of Steve Gaines:

Also, I commend to you the analysis of Malcolm Yarnell, offered in his blog post, Is It Biblical to Ask Jesus into Your Heart?

And now, having oriented you to the debate, I offer my opinion. I think it might be helpful for us to draw an analogy to marriage vows as a good way to understand "The Sinner's Prayer."

I think we'd have to admit that both marriage vows and the sinner's prayer suffer from a great deal of abuse these days. The abusers are not the pastors, by and large, although there exists a class of mail-order-ordination "ministers" for whom the vows are simply a magic incantation to make people married and there exists a class of preachers out there who simply get people to repeat a prayer by rote in order to inflate their numbers. The existence of these folks entirely granted, the predominant abusers of marriage vows are the people reciting them, not the people officiating them. Their subsequent lives demonstrate that they were not sincere in what they said at the marriage altar. Likewise, the subsequent lives of many people who mouth a sinner's prayer gives ample evidence that they were not at all sincere in what they claimed to have been praying.

Another similarity is the fact that the Bible gives us neither the text of a set of wedding vows nor the text of a specific sinner's prayer. The substantive core of both is in the Bible—both the idea that marriage is a covenantal relationship solemnized by a sacred vow and the idea that conversion is associated with something that someone says in connection with an appeal to God are biblical concepts. The specific text of a marriage vow or a sinner's prayer, however, does not appear in scripture.

Now, what ought we to do about this problem with wedding vows? I don't hear many people suggesting that the solution would be to do away with wedding vows altogether or to minimize their role in the celebration of weddings. Rather, the better solution is to pay more attention to the vows rather than less. We should make certain that the vows of Christian marriage have been worded carefully, that they represent well all that Christian marriage entails, and that each participant makes his or her vows as someone who has been informed fully about the meaning of those vows as he or she gives assent to them. Can two people be married in God's eyes without exchanging vows? I suppose. Why would they want to be?

Likewise, it is foolishness to cast away the idea of a prayer formally stating repentance from sin, formally requesting forgiveness in the blood of Christ, formally appealing to God for a cleansed conscience, and formally declaring one's allegiance to the Lordship of Christ. Can a person be saved apart from having received specific guidance to pray that sort of a prayer? I think so. The thief on the cross comes to mind. Prayer can take a lot of forms. God is able to discern repentance and faith apart from our expressions of it. Verbal declarations of the Lordship of Christ come in bewildering variety. But why would one wish avoid praying such a prayer as a part of receiving Christ?

In both cases, it is true that some substantive something happening within the people is the substantive reality being celebrated, and not some incantational effect of the words. In both cases it is true that many are making a travesty of the phenomenon by their insincerity. In both cases, however, the vow and the prayer are opportunities to plumb the depths of the inward commitment and to solemnize it. We may be failing to realize the opportunity as well as we might, but that does not mean that we should dismiss it altogether.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

More Thoughts About Heart-Language

In January I posted on this blog asking the question "Is Insistence Upon Heart Languages Biblical?" Today, in the midst of a week spent mostly in the research of a short list of 9 UUPGs while we at FBC Farmersville attempt to locate the group we plan to adopt, I have a further question along the same lines.

One of the UUPGs that we're researching is in Mexico. The IMB lists it as a GSEC 0 people group. This means that they know of no gospel resources—no Bibles, no tracts, no Jesus film…nothing—available in that indigenous language. To present the gospel in that language would require starting from scratch. It would be a herculean task.

Performing further research on other web sites, I discovered that the native tongue in question has been classified as an endangered language. Linguists fear that this tongue will soon pass entirely out of use unless something happens to preserve it. The major reason why this language is endangered is the domineering pressure of the Spanish language within the community.

With all of this in mind, and in light of my previous post (which you should read if you haven't), I ask these questions:

  1. Shouldn't we be rooting for this endangered language to become an extinct, dead language?
  2. If language is the primary boundary separating this people group from others, is that a legitimate boundary if the language is dying and is almost dead? Why should missionaries make more of the linguistic boundary than do the people of the people group themselves?

  3. Since there is an untold wealth of gospel material available in Spanish, absolutely no gospel materials available in this target language, and such near hegemony of the Spanish language among this group, wouldn't it be a criminal waste of time and resources to expend any money or time on the development of native-language materials for this group if that money and time could be used to bring the gospel to them in Spanish?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Monochurches, Not Megachurches, Are the Problem

Item 1: Andy Stanley, Pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA, recently preached his sermon "When Gracie Met Truthy," in which he strongly left the impression that he does not consider homosexual practice to be a sin on the level with adultery (which he also, apparently, construes somewhat more narrowly than Jesus did). Stanley's message unmistakably suggests that open homosexuality is compatible with both membership and leadership at North Point. Note: There is no way to link directly to this sermon, but "When Gracie Met Truthy" is sermon number 5 in the series "Christian" and is merely one click away from the first message in the series, which is available here. Hat-tip to Peter Lumpkins, whose blog was the first I saw bringing this to the world's attention.

Item 2: In response to Stanley, Dr. Albert Mohler posted on his blog yesterday an article (rightfully) criticizing Stanley's message. Mohler gave his essay the provocative title, "Is the Megachurch the New Liberalism?" Mohler's is a solid and helpful treatment of the issues raised by Stanley's sermon.

Item 3: In response to Mohler's response, Rick Warren challenged Mohler, not to much to defend Stanley as to reject the analysis that Stanley's waywardness is about megachurches rather than being about something else. Warren was incensed that thousands of other megachurches are implicated by Mohler's essay.

Stanley's sermon makes me sick. The capitulation under pressure to normalize the homosexual heresy makes me sad. His clear use of a Christological passage to do so is what I find most offensive—people aren't content merely to sin; they have to blaspheme along with it by pretending that Jesus Himself would campaigning against Proposition 8, although the books of the New Testament, and really all of the Christian scriptures, condemn homosexuality as an abomination.

So, Stanley's sermon makes me sick. Mohler's response does not offend me at all. But I do think that his analysis is a bit off the mark…not quite precise enough…when he connects Stanley's error with the megachurch phenomenon. The problem isn't the megachurch. Rather, it is (to coin a word) the monochurch.

The prefix "mega-" comes from Greek and indicates about the size of something that it is large. The prefix "mono-" also comes from Greek and indicates about the relationships of something that it is alone.

Now, Stanley's North Point Community Church certainly is a megachurch. It has five campuses and averages more than 24,000 people in weekly attendance, according to Wikipedia (therefore, it must be true). This is a behemoth-church. It is very large.

Stanley's church is also a monochurch. It has no denominational affiliation. It has no formal relationship with any other sibling churches. It is accountable to no one. I'm writing today to suggest that Stanley's radical non-denominationalism, rather than the size of his church, is the problem most responsible for the error of his ways.

To be fair to Mohler's essay, he clearly is not indicting every megachurch, and when he talks about megachurches he rather obviously has in mind not merely a size threshold but also a cultural and historical phenomenon. Missed is the opportunity, however, to identify the factors that make the difference between the megachurch as a force for good in the world (for example, the Conservative Resurgence) and the megachurch as a force for evil in the world (for example, Andy Stanley on this subject or Joel Osteen in general). Whatever the exhaustive analysis of those factors might be, I think that healthy affiliation with sister churches in a denomination is important among them.

Baptists prize local church autonomy. I am among them, and I am zealous about this point. Denominational accountability can survive quite well without the denomination's owning the title to the church property or retaining the legal ability to oust a pastor. I'm calling for nothing nearly so draconian. Rather, what churches need is a clear standard of faith and order upon which valued peer relationships with sister churches has been predicated. The transgression of boundaries results in the loss of the relationships. Nothing more, and nothing less. The loss of these relationships is a powerful indication to the members of a congregation that something momentous has changed in the theology of the church and is a powerful deterrent, even if it seems to have very little worldly power behind it. Local church autonomy is, in essence, the belief that churches admonishing wayward churches should do so as peers rather than as alleged superiors and with spiritual weapons alone rather than with recourse to coercive material weapons of law or warfare.

It remains to be seen how well the Southern Baptist Convention can provide this needed influence for orthodoxy. We have a great statement of faith, but our structure does not make it, or anything else, a clear standard of faith and order serving as the foundation of our relationships with one another. My state convention, on the other hand, is a confessional fellowship of churches. A church can only enter and remain within the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention by affirming the Baptist Faith & Message. The Southern Baptist Convention needs to be ordered in the same way, restricting membership in the convention to those churches that share a common set of basic beliefs.

The Myth of the Chreasters

You know what a Chreaster is, right, because that's an old one? A Chreaster is a person who only shows up at church on Christmas and Easter. Chr-Easter. Get it?

The theory is that some sizable population of church-going folks only show up on those two Sundays, neglecting the congregation for the remaining 50 weeks out of each year. Is that accurate?

For years I presumed the truth of the Chreaster theory and bemoaned the scourge of it. It has to be true, doesn't it, because our buildings are packed full on those two days in ways that they aren't full the remainder of the year, aren't they? All those extra people have to come from somewhere. The Chreaster theory just has to be true, doesn't it?

So I thought, but then something happened: Then I looked around one Easter to try to identify the individual Chreasters one-by-one.

And I hardly found ANY.

The Chreaster theory oversimplifies a much more nuanced truth. By the way, a lot of the pontification over SBC attendance statistics oversimplify the SAME nuanced truth. The simple fact, whether we like it or not, is that we have a lot of people who are regular churchgoers for whom "regular" means something other than "weekly."

For example, consider a church member who is a nurse at a local hospital. Her work schedule doesn't require her to be at the hospital every Sunday, but it does require her to be at work on one or two Sundays each month, depending on the month. She attends Sunday services regularly, but she's not here every week.

Or, consider the divorced single father with a split custody arrangement for his children. He has them every other weekend. On weekends when he doesn't have the kids, he's depressed and doesn't come himself. On weekends when he has his children, he never misses.

Of course, a large number of people are under-committed, but committed nonetheless, to church attendance. They come so long as something else (fatigue, sporting events, etc.) doesn't get in the way. Let's presume that they have LOTS of things in their lives to get in the way (which is often the case), so they miss two out of three Sundays, but about every third Sunday they are in attendance like clockwork.

Certainly in many of these cases these are believers who need to be encouraged to attend more frequently. We want people at FBC Farmersville to attend every week—multiple times every week. But would you seek to discipline out a believer for attending just biweekly? Monthly? On what scriptural basis would you do so? Has a person truly forsaken the assembly if he's there twice every month without fail? Does the New Testament somewhere command each individual believer to attend corporate worship at least once a week?

Don't get me wrong: I'm not happy with anybody's church attendance until it is weekly or better. I think that people who attend at least once every week are stronger as disciples and will fare better in their faith. Statistics will back me up on that one. And yet, the guy who shows up with his family once every month is hardly a Chreaster and would not be in violation of the FBC Farmersville covenant.

So, why the big attendance spike on Christmas and Easter? Because all of those people, whether it's "their week" or not, are going to be in church on those two Sundays. I think that Christmas and Easter are two times of year when you get a more accurate sense of how many people your congregation actually contains. Yes, the numbers are overstated by some factor, but the "normal" weekly attendance figures are understated by (I think) a larger factor.

These special Sundays are an important opportunity for your church, and the debunking of the Chreaster myth helps us to know how to use them. Rather than presuming that we're talking to a building full to the rafters with gospel-inoculated pagans on those days, maybe it is a good idea to spend one of those Sundays from time to time winsomely acknowledging that you have most of the family there on that day and reminding them of what an encouragement they are to one another when they all show up. What would you say in the living room of a member who is faithfully attending every other week in order to get him to come every week? Maybe that's an effective message for Christmas and Easter.