Over the past decade, Southern Baptists have witnessed major efforts to reform our denomination in at least the ten specific areas addressed in this essay. Part Three addresses reform areas nine and ten.
Southern Baptists have traditionally favored a style of decision-making once described by Adrian Rogers as “pastor led, deacon served, committee operated and congregationally affirmed.”[i] Historically, this form of polity has been celebrated by Southern Baptists for its commitment to the biblical witness as well as its fairness to every member of the Body. Historian Joseph Belcher wrote of Thomas Jefferson that he “considered Baptist church government the only form of pure democracy which then existed in the world, and had concluded that it would be the best plan of government for the American colonies.”[ii]
Today, this form of polity is under attack, most often by those who favor an approach closer to that of classical Presbyterianism. In one such assault, Dr. James MacDonald wrote: “congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ.”[iii] In fairness, MacDonald apologized for this outrageous statement, albeit four years later when he was about to address the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest denomination in America to embrace congregational polity, which is most certainly not Satanic in origin.
Perhaps the greatest irony in this debate between polity that is congregational and polity which is elder led/rule (a nebulous distinction if there ever was one) is that while the abuse of congregational polity sometimes allows the bullying of the minister by the congregation, the abuse of elder rule polity sometimes allows the bullying of the congregation by the minister. While space does not permit a full discussion of this phenomenon here, if you are seeking evidence of a tendency toward heavy-handed elder rule discipline by ministers of a certain theological persuasion, all you have to do is Google the names Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler and C. J. Mahaney. You will observe on full display the excesses of a shepherding movement employing an almost cult-like personal submission to the unquestioned authority of the pastor. By contrast, congregational polity views the role of the pastor as “leading under” rather than “lording over.” Let us pray that the many tears of abused church members will wash away this foolish and dangerous reform.
Various time-honored Southern Baptist positions have also been subject to reform.
a) Drinking. First, our traditional position encouraging abstinence from alcohol is dismissed by many leaders of the Young, Restless and Reformed movement. Mark Driscoll has written: “My Bible study convicted me of my sin of abstinence from alcohol.”[iv] Of course, one need not look outside the SBC for a Calvinist who clearly approves of the use of beverage alcohol. Lead Pastor Dean Inserra of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, writes: “It is a cultural vestige of the geographic South, ahistorical to Christian tradition, and an unbiblical position to promote abstinence as the final position.”[v] Please note the official SBC position on alcohol is the one Pastor Inserra considers “unbiblical.” That this approach is growing in popularity should not surprise us in light of the resurgent Calvinism, since it happens to be the classic Presbyterian view.
b) Sprinkling. Second, within some Southern Baptist churches today, we find the position of accepting aspersion (sprinkling) as a legitimate mode of baptism, in spite of the fact that the Baptist Faith and Message clearly defines immersion as the proper mode: “Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (BFM 2000, Article VII)
One example would be the Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas. Although this Southern Baptist Church does not practice aspersion, it nevertheless accepts into its membership Christians from other denominations who have never been scripturally baptized by immersion, thus creating a class of sprinkled Southern Baptists. Their official policy states the following: “While we practice a baptism by immersion at the Village Church, we do not require the mode of immersion for membership. If a person was sprinkled or immersed (or a possible other mode) after conversion, he or she has met our requirement for membership.”[vi]
Other churches have also followed suit and permit members who have never been biblically baptized by the mode of immersion. That this approach is growing in popularity should not surprise us in light of the resurgent Calvinism, since sprinkling happens to be the classic Presbyterian view.
c) Invitations. Third, the use of evangelistic altar calls and especially the praying of a “Sinner’s Prayer” has fallen into disfavor today among reformists. Their view is that of the late Leonard Ravenhill, who often claimed that the sinner’s prayer had sent more people to hell than all the bars in America. While no one advocates a false profession, it is an occupational hazard when any preacher calls men to repent and believe, that some will do so falsely. The prayer itself is not to blame, but rather the impenitent heart. Likewise, many preachers today are reticent to extend evangelistic invitations, lest walking the aisle be viewed as men coming to God rather than God coming to men. This rejection of invitations should not surprise us in light of the resurgent Calvinism, since it is the classic Presbyterian approach.
Having explored at some length the reform decade of 2006-2015 in Southern Baptist life, including ten very specific reform measures, one is hard pressed to name a single major contribution that can be attributed to this shift. Certainly things have changed, but they have not changed for the better. We are reaching fewer people. We are giving less money. Baptisms are down. Annual church reporting is neglected. Attendance at meetings has waned. Our culture is more confused than ever about our convictions. Most of all, we lack transparency and trust—with leadership shielding us from relevant facts for a decade and a half.[vii]
The closest thing we have to a success is the fact that we may be planting more churches. However, as we have seen, it is not at all clear that these churches are promoting either the polity form practiced or the salvation doctrine espoused by the majority of SBC churches. Are Southern Baptists using outside Calvinist dollars to plant our churches? Or are Calvinist outsiders using Southern Baptist dollars to plant their churches? Save your breath if you wish to scold me for my lack of kingdom-mindedness! Just as I am under no obligation to pay the bills of another denomination, neither am I required to bankroll the “Presbyterianizing” of the next generation of churches in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Perhaps the best way to conclude is simply to take a step back and ask ourselves: “Why have we been imitating Presbyterians and young Calvinist evangelicals?” Have they truly been more successful than Southern Baptists in reaching people? Or have they merely been more successful in persuading vast numbers of young Southern Baptists to embrace their theology? If their results are no better than ours, then this reform decade has been an experiment in foolish and counter-productive imitation. Let us stop pretending to be something we are not. Let us finally drop out of Reform School. And let us get back to being Southern Baptists once again.
[i] Rogers, Adrian. Kingdom Authority. Broadman & Holman: Nashville, 2002, pp. 169-188.
[ii] Belcher, Jospeh. Religious Denominations of the United States. John E. Potter: Philadelphia, 1856, p. 184.
[iii] MacDonald, James. Congregational Government is From Satan. Jamesmacdonald.com. June 10, 2011.
[iv] Driscoll, Mark. The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out without Selling Out. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2004, p. 146.
[v] Lumpkins, Peter. “Alcohol Today, Alcohol Tomorrow: Are Southern Baptists Any Closer to Agreement?” SBC Tomorrow, September 18, 2014.
[vi] The Village Church. “Baptism at The Village.” thevillagechurch.net. PDF, p. 10.
[vii] “GCR Recordings to be Closed 15 Years.” Baptist Press. June 8, 2010.