A good deal of discussion in Baptist life, even some on this site, has focused upon the role of elders in the church. How should those who hold this biblical office fulfill their role within the congregation, and how should they relate to the members of the church? Much of this discussion goes ultimately to the question of how the church is governed. Is it to be ruled by elders, or are the elders to lead, with the responsibility for making decisions remaining with the congregation as a whole? As Southern Baptists, we have clearly and, I believe, biblically, answered this question in our statement of faith.
In my most recent previous post on SBC Today, I discussed “The Unique Authority of the Local Congregations.” In the text of the original post itself, I mentioned my own uneasiness with Christ’s conferral of so much heavenly authority behind the actions of the local, gathered, covenanted church. In the ensuing comment thread, we discussed whether this local churchly authority could possibly supersede the authority of the New Testament or otherwise empower human believers to employ heavenly power to thwart heavenly aims.
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.