Over the last few days, Jon Akin has offered a three-part response to a blog-post I wrote a couple of weeks ago. Jon’s series is called “A Defense of Christ-Centered Preaching: A Friendly Response to Eric Hankins,” and I thought I’d offer a three part reply. The subsequent posts will deal with the content of what he wrote, and there are several aspects of his argument that I will be challenging. But I want to begin by heading in a little different direction.
This first part has to do with Jon’s desire to offer a “friendly response,” an objective I feel Jon achieved with great effect. What you see in Jon’s tone and treatment is an obvious effort to avoid any gratuitous potshots while still speaking plainly and honestly about our areas of disagreement. This is a skill that is absolutely essential as we work through some of the tensions in our “life together” as Southern Baptists. In fact, I believe that Southern Baptists are actually more skilled at this than most. A fairly consistent criticism of us is that we are always fighting with each other about something, constantly wrangling over our disagreements. Certainly, anecdotes of church splits abound and the term “business meeting” hardly evokes feelings of warmth and good will. However, when you look at how other large denominations have fared over the years, it is clear that Southern Baptist have been able to come together around the truth in ways that others have not. We have managed, so far, to avoid the Scylla of divisive dogmatic fastidiousness and the Charybdis of death-dealing doctrinal faithlessness. The boundary between what counts as “essential” and “disputable” in matters of faith and practice has a subjective component that can only be approached through prayerful and careful debate. Rather than avoiding such debate, we must continue to embrace it, sharpening one another as we do so.
So, like any healthy but human (and, therefore, grace- and gospel-needy) family, Southern Baptists have to “hash things out.” Al Mohler made a great observation at the Baptist 21 meeting this summer in New Orleans that, like a good marriage, we don’t need to fight (which leads to someone being injured, losing, and walking away), but we do need to argue (which leads to resolution instead of resentment, better understanding of another’s point-of-view, and, ultimately, greater love for one another and for what is right). Married couples tend to agree on the essentials, or they wouldn’t be married in the first place. But they rarely share identical perspectives on the non-essentials. My sense is that most Southern Baptists really do agree on what is essential, and that provides a firm foundation for working through our disagreements without being disagreeable. Now, what counts as “fighting” and what counts as “arguing” is subjective as well, and guys like me, who “like the action,” need to remember that not everyone is having the same amount of fun as we are (I seem to recall a few occasions in doctoral seminars when my reviews of others‘ work that I considered to be “honest” were received with, well, yelling and stuff).
Therefore, I think Jon’s choice of the word “friendly” is just right. We are friends. We don’t know each other well, but we are co-laborers for Christ who stand in the same wonderful/wild, hopeful/fearful faith-tradition that, by God’s grace alone, still sees hundreds of thousands of people come to Christ every year. We disagree about some things that I believe are representative of some widespread disagreements in the Convention, and, like real friends, it does no good to pretend otherwise. Pretending for the sake of “peace” is actually prideful, selfish, and fear-based. Doing so reveals an unwillingness to risk one’s standing for the sake understanding, truth, and greater effectiveness together. When we engage one another honestly, we have to risk being wrong which would be embarrassing. So, we tend to withhold our true selves from one another either by not speaking honestly or by chucking rocks anonymously and from a safe distance, which is both sinful and at cross-purposes with the sanctification process that should always be unfolding in the body of Christ.
But Jon has chosen to be a friend in the best and most Christian sense of the word, and that’s the kind of friend I am looking for and the kind of friend I’d like to be. Last week, I was at the Mississippi Baptist Convention, and I was able to hang out with some of the guys involved in the One8 Church Planting Network here in our state, a network that helped me plant in Oxford a couple of years ago. George Ross, the network’s facilitator, and I are great friends. Although, like me, George is not a Calvinist, we do not see eye-to-eye on some of the issues (I believe his exact words to me upon reading the Traditional Statement were “I hate Article Two.”) But we agree on what is essential, I serve on the leadership team for the network, and, together, we are part of a process that is planting great, innovative Southern Baptist churches all over North Mississippi and beyond. George tweeted from the Mississippi Convention that he and I were wrestling each other for the last copy of The Gospel Project at the LifeWay booth. He and several others had a great time busting my chops, and, because I am smarter than all of them put together, I returned fire with great success. The truth is, we both disagree with each other on some points (I look forward to convincing George of the brilliance of Article Two), and we like each other very much at the same time. I have benefitted from their perspective on these matters, they have benefitted from mine, and we’ve all helped each other lighten up a little. If we’re going to move forward together, this is the way.
So, let me begin my response to Jon where I ought: Thanks, friend.