By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Reflections on the Daviess-McLean Decision
In Part 1, I shared my perceptions (from admittedly incomplete knowledge) about the decision of Daviess-McLean Baptist Association (DMBA) to deny the membership request from Pleasant Valley Community Church (PVCC). The main point was that although theological issues were involved in the decision because of the strongly Calvinistic doctrine of PVCC, the decision appears to have been based more on attitudinal issues by PVCC that the member churches of DMBC felt could be divisive. Here are some brief reflections on my understanding of the significance of the association’s decision to deny membership to PVCC, and the implications of this action for other churches and associations as we move forward.
(1) The local church is the center of (earthly) authority in Baptist polity. Local church autonomy is a distinctive Baptist belief (as I have discussed). The local churches in Daviess-McLean Baptist Association were perfectly within their rights to deny membership to Pleasant Valley Community Church. This determination was made not by associational officials, but by duly authorized messengers from the member churches of DMBA. They were voting as representatives of their own local church, not as representatives of the association as a whole. At the same time, DMBA has no authority to force PVCC to change their doctrine or practice. PVCC can worship as they choose, believe as they choose, and do church as they choose. The biblical foundation of church autonomy, of course, is the priority given to local churches in the New Testament. However, theologically it reflects that through the priesthood of believers (another Baptist distinctive), each member seeks the will of God, the headship of Jesus Christ, and the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and represents that divine leadership in voting on decisions in the church. This collective reflection of the will of God is much more reliable than putting this decision solely in the hands of a few fallible authoritarian leaders. This is a wonderful and marvelous thing that inflexible top-down hierarchical denominations like Catholics and Presbyterians “desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12, KJV).
(2) Doctrine matters. The Daviess-McLean Baptist Association decision has underscored the fact that doctrine really does matter. Birds of a feather flock together. Churches that are in agreement in faith and practice tend to be more unified and harmonious. In this case, while acknowledging that the theology of PVCC was not heretical, and not going into specific detail about their theological concerns, the association did “recognize that it [PVCC’s theology] is vastly different than the majority of churches within the DMBA,” and thus would be potentially divisive. This decision is a powerful antidote to the strong pluralistic, ecumenical forces in our day that threaten to dull the doctrinal distinctives of evangelical Christians and denominations to be merged into an amorphous lowest common denominator which does not truly represent anyone’s real beliefs.
(3) Those who want to be accepted should make themselves acceptable. It is befitting for those seeking acceptance from others to try to minimize any possible hindrances to acceptance. It was PVCC seeking membership in DMBA, not vice versa. The onus of responsibility was thus on PVCC to demonstrate their cooperativeness and fit with DMBA and demonstrate their worthiness to join DMBA, not vice versa. Without knowing most of the details of this situation, it is evident from the overwhelming 104-9 vote of DMBA that PVCC did not take common sense steps to connect in positive ways with the association. PVCC did demonstrate that they valued and sought interaction with other faraway groups in such as the Acts 29 Network based in Seattle, Washington than they did fellowship with Southern Baptist churches in their own area. And when interaction did take place between PVCC and the local churches in DMBA, it evidently was not predominantly a positive experience. The Credential Committee’s findings noted that PVCC had not given evidence that it “would be sympathetic with the purpose and work of the body of the DMBA,” and noted that PVCC had practiced “an overall lack of the key elements of cooperation found in patience, humility, kindness, compassion and gentleness.” It clearly appeared to be these perceived uncooperative and somewhat arrogant attitudinal problems that “ultimately” led to the denial of PVCC from DMBA. This was a preventable tragedy, but PVCC (perhaps in part because of the inexperienced leadership and/or a doctrinaire inflexibility) must bear much of the responsibility for their own rejection.
(4) This DMBA decision has a very limited impact on PVCC. The main impact of this decision is that messengers from PVCC cannot vote in the annual session of DMBA. I don’t think that being denied this minor privilege is going to cripple the ministry of PVCC. The DMBA’s decision does not bar PVCC from attending DMBA meetings. It does not delimit PVCC from attending DMBA training events, such as Sunday School training or Vacation Bible School training, if PVCC had any interest in these. It does not prohibit PVCC from membership in the Kentucky Baptist Convention or the SBC. It does not bar PVCC from participating in the evangelistic or missions efforts of DMBA (if PVCC’s theology did not prevent the church from desiring to do so). It does not prohibit PVCC from sending their youth or children to camps sponsored by the DMBA. It does not prevent PVCC from inviting other DMBA pastors to speak in their church for revivals (if PVCC’s doctrine does not prohibit themselves from having revivals) or in other worship services. It does not prevent PVCC from partnering on projects with individual DMBA churches. It does not prohibit PVCC from contributing money to DMBA or its related ministries. If PVCC were genuinely interested in demonstrating their cooperative spirit to DMBA, doing any or all of these things (and doing so in a sweet spirit) would go a long way in changing the perception of the churches in the association that PVCC has an uncooperative spirit. Again, the point is that one should not make more of this decision than the minor impact it has on PVCC.
(5) Sometimes unity requires division. As I noted in an earlier series of articles about the fault lines that divide Southern Baptists, there is a point at which it does not appear fruitful for two groups to continue walking together. More unity is found by dividing into two groups rather than continuing irritating each other by constantly arguing and bickering with each other in the same group. I described this as the “in Adam” option – unity through division (that is, taking human fallenness into consideration, divisions like this are inevitable). This was true of Southern Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and it may yet (and the odds are, it will) cause further such divisions over the issue of Calvinism (as SBC Executive Committee CEO Frank Page noted in a recent SBC Today interview) and/or along other fault lines in Southern Baptist life (as I have noted). For example, if churches like PVCC continue finding more commonality with groups such as Acts 29 or the Founders group prior to and over against local associations – networking with them, going to their meetings, seeking their counsel, etc., as Pastor Edwards’ interview on the Acts 29 website indicates – it is inevitable that these alternative groups like Acts 29 and Founders will functionally become an association to themselves, start breaking down into statewide and regional fellowships, and eventually split into another denomination. If narrow doctrinal agreement is required for fellowship, these sorts of splits are inevitable in the SBC in the interest of unity and harmony.
(6) True unity requires toleration of a greater range of differences. I believe that the Lord’s ideal for his churches is not that they splinter and divide, but that they “dwell together in unity” (Ps. 133:1). This is what I have called the “in Christ” option – unity through diversity. For such a broader unity to be a reality, it is necessary that believers (and churches) be more tolerant and forgiving of each other. It requires that we must be content to agree on major points and agree to disagree on other points. It means in this case, for example, that PVCC not describe widely accepted Baptist patterns of church governance as “unbiblical.” Had Edwards just said in the interview that PVCC sought to discover the church polity that they felt the Bible affirmed, that would have been fine. But to condemn the polity of others as “unbiblical” does not build unity. Again, the DMBA finding that PVCC demonstrated “an overall lack of the key elements of cooperation found in patience, humility, kindness, compassion and gentleness” indicates that DMBA did not consider PVCC willing to demonstrate the tolerant attitudes demanded of true unity.
Unfortunately, the association’s written findings were rather vague both in regard to the specific doctrinal issues which were problematic and in listing specific examples of the attitudinal issues which they found problematic. However, DMBA’s overwhelming 104-9 vote suggests that PVCC wasn’t even close to being acceptable. This was evidently not a hard decision for the association.
However, to achieve unity in a broader spectrum of churches, we must tolerate a wider range of differences. We must respect the autonomy of each local church, and respect the right of that church to be different in some ways. We must not insist that our perspective is the only biblical perspective on operational issues that are not clearly required in Scripture. We must have some flexibility in doctrinal issues, as long as they are not clearly unbiblical. We must strive to improve our communication and the attitudes we express in working with fellow believers to avoid repeated experiences such as this one in other associations.