Dr. Malcolm Yarnell, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Director of the Oxford Study Program, Director of the Center for Theological Research, and Editor of the Southwestern Journal of Theology, at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was unable to attend the convention in Orlando. However, he voted in favor of the Great Commission with his feet while we were raising our ballots. He has graciously allowed me to post his article below. Enjoy, and feel free to interact with his thoughts.
A number of people expressed disappointment when I informed them of my planned absence from this year’s Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Orlando, Florida. Indeed, two different pastors offered to provide funds for my attendance. I am very grateful for their proposed largess, but alas there were other matters calling for my attention. Because of my nearly month-long responsibility to be away each summer with the Oxford Study Program of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I must limit my summer travel severely. If, that is, I am to enjoy any family time with my beautiful wife and our five children.
Ultimately, the choice came down to attending the Southern Baptist Convention in mid-June, on the one hand, or participating in a mission trip to the Ukraine in early June, on the other hand. The choice was originally difficult, for I am very interested, from a personal and vocational perspective, in seeing a genuine Great Commission resurgence among the free churches of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). God has called me to minister among these churches and I desire the best for them, and the best is found in fulfilling His commission by going to make disciples, baptizing and teaching (cf. Matthew 28:16-20).
There is little doubt among those of us who keep our eyes on the health of our local churches that we as a convention of churches are simply neither as fervent in our efforts nor as blessed in our fruitfulness as we once were. Discipleship–understood as submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every area of the Christian life, inclusive of evangelism, worship, church life, etc.–and its initial visible manifestation in baptism are suffering from a long-term malaise. I would like to see that turned around and am convinced that the best way forward is through a genuine Great Commission resurgence.
Because of this personal commitment to a Great Commission resurgence, I suppose it would have been best, from one vantage point, to attend the SBC meeting in Orlando, and cast my ballot for an amended version of what the GCR Task Force was proposing. As you may know, the GCR Task Force has generated much discussion among Southern Baptists over the last year. First prominently advocated in a resolution carefully written by Jeremy Green for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention in November 2008, then championed in a major way in April 2009 by Dr. Danny Akin of Southeastern Seminary, the idea of a Great Commission Resurgence resonated with many hearts in the Southern Baptist Convention. In June 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a motion for the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Johnny Hunt, to appoint a task force to study how Southern Baptists can work “more faithfully and effectively together in serving Christ through the Great Commission.”
The history of that task force during the period between June 2009 and June 2010 was marked by some speculation, sharp controversy, and increasing education in Southern Baptist polity. Ultimately, however, the specific recommendations made by the task force, except for the definitions used to describe church contributions to Southern Baptist causes, did not strike most of those involved as particularly controversial. Moreover, the evangelistic sentiments expressed by both proponents and opponents of various recommendations were often similar. Indeed, when reading widely diverse views of the Task Force’s work over the past year, I was struck by the unified desire of almost everybody involved to see a Great Commission resurgence. Any disagreement has been over the methods proposed by the Task Force rather than its actuality. From an historical perspective, however the responsible state and national agencies finally interpret the amended recommendations of the SBC in June 2010, stirring up sentiments for a Great Commission Resurgence will likely be the most important fruit of the Task Force’s work.
This brings me back to my earlier dilemma. Should I get involved (again) in Southern Baptist politics at the Southern Baptist Convention while serving as a messenger for my local church? Or should I go on a mission trip? Ultimately, I came under conviction that the most important action I could take in June 2010 for a Genuine Great Commission Resurgence would not be political but missionary in nature. Yes, I did contribute an essay or two to the debate, trying to remind us of the biblical and historical nature of a genuine Great Commission resurgence, but even those pieces were not terribly political in nature. And, yes, I still do believe in the necessity of sanctified political activity on the part of faithful Baptists in the convention. However, in June 2010, my presence was simply not needed in Orlando, Florida, but it was needed on the other side of the planet.
And I am so glad I chose to vote for a genuine Great Commission resurgence, not with a ballot but with my feet, from a long distance away! I was given opportunity to witness repeatedly to the gospel on the streets of Kiev and later in London, to preach before an established church and a church plant, to work with Dr. Keith Eitel and Mr. Art Savage in persuading an important civil leader to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior, and to witness the public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ through biblical baptism by several former Muslims from a Middle Eastern country. I was also pleased with the gracious response I received from the plenary lecture on theological foundations delivered to the president, faculty and students of the Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary in Lviv and Boryslov, and by the opportunity to discuss the nuances of Eastern Orthodox theology with an Eastern Orthodox priest as well as a dozen students from Southwestern Seminary. Finally, and perhaps most poignant of all these blessings, I witnessed my middle son, Matthew Garrett, minister to the children of Kiev and later disperse hundreds of gospel tracts to people he will likely never again see in this life, but hopefully will see in the next.
So, yes, I am all for a Great Commission resurgence! However, I am also convinced that sometimes, for some of us, ecclesiastical politics is best put aside, for the Lord has determined that His gospel would be active when we speak it (Romans 10). And I must speak the Word of God everywhere I can, whether among unbelievers in Ukraine or among unbelievers in the United States. It is only as we become more active in our verbal witness–to Jesus Christ as the God-man who died on the cross for the sins of all who will believe and rose again for our eternal life. It is only through the necessary activity of witnessing to Jesus Christ that we will see a genuine Great Commission resurgence. Let’s get started, Southern Baptists, here in the United States and around the world. Let’s vote with our feet and with our tongues, now that the ballots have fallen away from our hands.