Many sons of the prophets have taken to pronouncing the impending doom of the Southern Baptist Convention. Pointing to falling baptismal rates, rising ages, and static churches, we have summoned the intervention of the successful to rescue the perishing and care for the dying. As the summoned practitioners meet in special session this week, the patients fight it out in the waiting room about the deliberations until we receive the prognosis and path of treatment. A possible merger of the IMB and NAMB, a possible partnership with Acts 29, or a restructuring of the Cooperative Program have all been prescribed as the solution to what ails us from the Web MD of Baptist blogdom. Not to be pedantic, but I would encourage us to look to the Great Physician for the proper diagnosis before we give the prognosis based on a self-diagnosis.
Standing before Jesus, Peter makes his confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then responds with a gnomic principle, “Upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matthew 16:16, 18). I will make two presumptions. 1) We agree that the rock to which Jesus refers is Peter’s confession, and not Peter himself. 2) The existence of local churches is irreplaceably important to Christ. This leads me to deduce that, if the Southern Baptist Convention is indeed destined for the doom pronounced by the aforementioned prophets, it is not ultimately due to irrelevance, but to unfaithfulness. As the SBC stands on the brink of another time of transition, I would encourage us to remember two things.
First, let us not become so consumed with baptismal numbers that we forget that when all is said and done, baptism is not the goal, conversion is. Though baptism is our method of measurement for the effectiveness of our outreach, we must be careful that the method of measurement does not become the goal itself. In other words, if we increase baptisms without increasing conversions, we have settled for a lesser gospel, and indeed, a false gospel. A true biblical confession will involve baptism, but if we are not careful, we will separate baptism from a true confession.
The second truth we must bear in mind from this text is that the success of the futuristic, not -yet-existent universal church cannot be separated from the success of the present day local church. The activity of God is primarily seen in the local church. Not that God is dependent upon such, but God has ordained such. I pray that as we seek to return our focus to the Great Commission, that in doing so, our focus will return to the local church over and above the development of our own kingdom. Our investment to the Kingdom of God is an investment that is made in, with, and through the local church. When Jesus said His church will be built upon the rock of Peter’s confession, based on the rest of the New Testament witness, He certainly involved the building of the eternal church through the local church.
Of course, the promise of Jesus is that, given the proper confession of His people and the power of His word, the church will not be overpowered. So, need we fear the death of the Southern Baptist Convention? No, for life is a byproduct of Christ’s promise of the success of the local church built upon the confession of her members. Let us not fear the death of our beloved Convention, for upon it the Kingdom of God does not reside.
Rather, let us fear the loss of the New Testament confession of Christ as our Lord within the local churches. If we maintain the preeminence of the local church and a proper confession, our churches will flourish. If our churches flourish, our Convention will flourish. If we have healthy churches, we will have a healthy Convention. It is one thing to know the symptoms of the sickness. It is quite another to know the path to wellness. The Convention may be able to describe the symptoms, but they are incapable of producing the cure. As the Task Force deliberates today, let us pray for their focus not to be upon the programmatic and structural success of the Convention. Let us pray for their hearts to be focused upon the local churches and how they can be encouraged to maintain a healthy confession of Christ as Lord. For in Him alone is there life abundant.
This post was originally published on my own blog over three years ago. It was published in the midst of a controversy within my state regarding baptism and church membership, but the truth it contains is as applicable today as then.
My grandfather, Glen Wesley Smith, was an alcoholic. Thankfully, God saves alcoholics, and on Mother’s Day, 1950, He saved my grandfather, and called him to preach, which my grandfather faithfully did from the following Sunday until his retirement in 1983. Even after retirement, he served as interim pastor at the First Baptist Church in Poteau, Oklahoma, where he grew up. He passed away in 1989.
Among the great treasures he passed down to me is a large satchel, filled to overflowing with sermons he typed himself. I probably have close to a thousand of these typed sermons, along with a couple of well-marked Bibles. Frome time to time, I like to thumb through these yellowed pages. It often makes for great study, and, as I don’t really have clear memories of my grandfather in the pulpit, they serve as a way for me to visualize him there, preaching the Word.
Before the outset of this post let me say that this piece is not meant to criticize Acts 29. They have the right to organize the planting of churches as they feel they are led by the Lord. This post is to show the clear irreconcilable difference in ecclesiology between Acts 29 and the Baptist Faith and Message when it comes to church governance. It is also intended to show why a church planter cannot honestly accept support from the North American Mission Board and Acts 29 while affirming both ecclesiastical statements as they both drastically differ. I have no animosity towards Acts 29 and wish them God’s best in wisdom and guidance.
I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.
What Does Jesus Mean?
In one sense, these are not particularly easy passages to interpret. What will one construe of the two different words petros and petra in the passage from chapter 16, and consequently, does this have to do more with Simon Peter personally, with his confession of faith, with the community of confessors in like manner, or with the person of Christ? What, precisely, are the “keys of the kingdom of heaven”? Are there any limitations or specific contexts in mind with regard to the “binding” and “loosing” language of these passages? What does it mean to speak of one who is ubiquitous and omnipresent as being “there in [the] midst” of some group of people?
I was informed last week that the North American Mission Board has suspended the practice of serving the Lord’s Supper at its Worldchangers camps. This is a move for which I would like to commend NAMB. I believe it is a bad practice for the Supper to be practiced outside of the local gathering for at least three reasons.
First, the Supper is an ordinance that is to be practiced by believers. As a pastor, when I administer the Supper to my congregation, I emphasize this. As my students participated in the Tuesday evening service, the Supper was served to 3 of my students who had not accepted Christ. Therefore, they participated in an ordinance that was not intended for them and that, in contradiction to what their pastor has taught.
Second, the Supper is an ordinance which is restricted from those who are under church discipline. The church at Corinth had been infiltrated by pagan practices and immoral lifestyles. The Supper plays a prominent role in the book of 1 Corinthians, especially for the practice of church discipline. By administering the Lord’s Supper, Worldchangers runs the risk of serving the Supper to someone who may be under church discipline. If the first danger undermines the authority of the pastor of the local church, this one undermines the authority of the local church itself.
Third, it is a direct disregard for the Baptist Faith and Message. The primary definition of the church in Article VI says in part “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ.” The students that gather at youth camps or missions endeavors are not covenanted together. The practice of covenant belongs to the local church, and not to a mission board, youth camp, or any other organization outside of the church.
I am pleased that NAMB has suspended this practice and believe that they have made a decision to honor the local congregation, respect the leadership of the pastor, and show agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message. I see far too many detriments to the practice of the Supper outside of the local congregation, and no benefit.