Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reflections on the Baptist Identity Conference, pt. 2

The recent Baptist Identity conference hosted by Union University has appropriately received a great deal of attention. As I mentioned previously, I came away greatly encouraged. Though I had to miss the presentations on Saturday (by Timothy George and Ed Stetzer, both of whom, I am told, did a great job), what I heard and observed gives me hope for the future. Not a giddy kind of wishful thinking, but a sober, longing-kind-of-hope. What took place there is an indication of what can happen and what ought to happen and what, I am convinced, a growing number of Southern Baptists genuinely long to happen within our denomination.

Beyond the value of each presentation individually and all of them collectively, the very fact that men from differing theological commitments (regarding Calvinism, for instance) and ecclesiological orientation (from "traditional" to "contemporary," for lack of better terms) could meet together, learn from each other and experience genuine fellowship around the Gospel was most encouraging. I spoke with several people who began their introduction with, "I am not a Calvinist" or "I am not Reformed" and then went on to extend genuine fellowship to me. The most notable of these conversations began with, "I read your blog regularly and do not agree with half of what you write." That wasn't said antagonistically but as a matter of self-disclosure, I think. The conversation that followed, however, focused significantly on the issue of reinstituting the principle of a regenerate church membership and church discipline in this brother's church. I was very encouraged with his commitment and plans to do so.

Here is my point. There was no pretense that everyone at the BID conference agreed on every important theological and ecclesilogical point. But there was an obvious agreement among participants concerning love for Christ and His church and that provided a basis for honest dialogue, including at points, strong disagreements. I find this very healthy. Brothers need to be willing and able to talk to one another about substantive issues without writing one another out of the kingdom and without misrepresenting those with whom we disagree. Paul recognized the possibility that not everyone in the church at Philippi would agree with his views even though he wrote as an apostle. But he did not reject them for that (as he did the heretics who were infiltrating the Galatian churches). Rather, he calmly and confidently wrote,
"Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you" (3:15). That humble, generous spirit characterized the conference and has set a standard for future Southern Baptist gatherings.

Another unexpected encouragement came in the form of admission that, by and large, the churches in the Southern Baptist Convention are in a real mess. They are spiritually unhealthy--even many of the ones that are held up as "flagship" churches. Several of the speakers specifically mentioned how we have lost the cherished Baptist principle of a regenerate church membership. This is a vitally important development. This problem has been with us for at least a couple of generations. Some people have been calling for the SBC to own up to it for decades, but without, apparently, gaining much traction. The refusal of the convention last year to vote on my resolution calling for integrity in church membership seemed to many to be an indicator of how resolute SBC leadership is to addressing this gargantuan problem. But at Union University last week, speaker after speaker addressed this issue. Two of the speakers told me privately that they supported the resolution last year and another stated the same thing publicly several weeks ago.

This bodes well for the future and not because we may get a resolution on regenerate church membership passed at the annual meeting. That might be nice, but, unless you are a state convention executive who selectively decides to make an exception, resolutions are not binding at all. Personally, I think that the failure of the resolution to make it to the floor last year may have better served the cause for which I submitted it than if it had simply passed. That cause is simply this: I want Southern Baptists to get honest about the obvious state of our churches! When 60% of your church never even shows up to worship with their fellow members it is time to weep. Yet, far from weeping, so much that has gone on in SBC life the last several years is more akin to strutting. Sometimes I ask myself, "What must this look like to heaven?" We have God's inerrant, infallible Word and have fought hard to maintain our corporate commitment to its authority. Yet, we regularly, blatantly, unrepentently ignore some of its most basic teachings, even when those very teachings are at the heart of our Baptist identity.

When respected denominational spokesmen and leaders begin not only to acknowledge the problem but call for it to be addressed, it is time to be hopeful. That is how I left the Baptist Identity conference. I am hopeful.

But, I am not naive. That is why I describe my hope as "sober." I will explain that more fully in my next and final installment of reflections.

15 comments:

Mike McIlwain said...

Tom,
I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment and am likewise holding onto a sober hope that things will change. We must continue to press on with doing what is right and trust God to change hearts and minds.

I, for one, am going to continue to work with you and others like those at the Baptist Identity conference who are pushing for a return to regenerate church membership.

I have a Pentecostal friend who only allows new members to join during an enrollment time each September. While I don't completely agree with how he is doing things in this area I am encouraged that there are others in other areas of Christianity who are starting to address this problem in their denominations as well.

Doug said...

I thought you called your hope "sober" because you were kissing up to the Florida Baptist Convention so you could be on the board or something.

I, too, even though not currently in an SBC church, am hopeful for the SBC churches.

Scott said...

Tom,

This is a little off subject but I want to thank the Lord for doing a work in the life of Gene Bridges and Dr. Danny Akin. I called Gene to talk about issues of closed communion which our church practices and the issue of baptism pertaining to the Supper. Gene is walking computer! He so blessed me in talking the Scriptures with me and Baptist history on Baptist distinctives. I love his writings but I enjoy alot more talking with him. This guy needs to be teaching at Seminary( Southern or Southeastern).
My wife would say he would be the only one to get more words in than I. I thank God for some of our blogs that we can discuss our Baptist distinctives and learn from each other from Scripture. I appreciate you and Nettles and guys like Gene Bridges who care deeply about Scripture and understanding our Baptist heritage. Again, the Lord has given Gene a brilliant mind !
Also, I praise God for Danny Akin. He was a great encouragement to me when God opened my eyes to the doctrines of grace and baptist distinctives.I also asked Dr. Akin about theological issues pertaining to the Supper and other doctrinal issues. Dr. Akin will disagree with you when he needs to but greatly encourages you as well. Sometimes I don't agree with Danny on things but there is no doubt that he is a blessing of encouragement to stand up for what is right. Not many guys will do that today in SBC positions because of the fear of men. Thanks Tom for your updates on the conference and your willingness to take time to help us younger Baptists !

Chris Bonts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sparrowhawk said...

Tom,
Like Mike above, I am in whole-heartedly agree with your assessment and zeal. But you know as well as I do that until Southern Baptists greatly reform (if not entirely eliminate) the "Sacrament of the Altar Call", where church membership is synonymous with walking the aisle, there may not be widespread change even if a resolution passes.

Brave - and few - are the churches that have a waiting period of 3-6 months in membership acceptance as Dever suggests in Deliberate Church.

Interested to know your thoughts: How do you change the mindset of not only staff but church body that associates invitation response with church membership?

Sparrow

Tom Bryant said...

Hello, my name is Tom and, although not reformed, I also read your blog. :) I agree with more than 50% though.

I was only able to listen to the talks and thought that if only our convention discussion and blogs were spoken and written with the same kind of unexpected humility, there might be more than just a "sober hope"

I think that until we recover the regenerate church member truth that it will not matter what we say about alcohol, prayer language or anything else. May God make it so.

Tom said...

Mike:

There is a growing number of folks like us who want to see this issue addresses lovingly, biblically and practically. Press on!

Doug:

Thanks for the laugh!

Scott:

I say "Amen" to your commendations of Gene Bridges and Danny Akin. Both are great guys.

Chris:

Thanks, brother!

Tom:

:-) I understand why folks feel compelled to introduce themselves to me that way, but I never want to make agreement on the doctrines of grace a test of fellowship. More than 50%, eh? That helps balance out the percentages of some other readers! I agree with you wholeheartedly about our need to prioritize our concerns in the SBC, and join you in your prayer.

Tom said...

Sparrowhawk:

The short answer is: "Teach! Teach! Teach!" The typical use of the altar call and acceptance of members is just assumed to be right by many folks because they have never been given good reason to question it. And there are many, many good reasons to raise questions. A pastor needs to be wiling to do that in a nonthreatening way, to challenge the assumptions that underlie the practices and help people think biblically about it.

I have stated publicly that I think that it is immoral for a pastor to do away with the altar call when it has been in place a long time, if he does so unilaterally and without teaching. Too many people associate it with evangelism, or with "opening the doors of the church" to non-members. Simply to remove it without explanation is to (mis)communicate that we are no longer interested in evangelism or church growth here. That is both foolish and harmful.

scripturesearcher said...

SCOTT and TOM ....


YOUR JUDGMENT OF CHRISTIAN CHARACTER IS COMMENDABLE.

Greg B said...

Dear Sparrowhawk:
I agree. I really detest the way most do an altar call, my pastor isn't rosy on it either, but he knows that the people don't understand why to or why not of altar calls. If we dropped it, we would seem to be hyper to most of the congregation.
To counter it, we use an easy to recongize "calling song" and most importantly, walking the aisle begins an interview by a educated deacon and later the pastor before one is voted in during a business meeting if all checks out.
I am prone to say toss it, my pastor is wiser and kinder.
Greg

GUNNY said...

The altar call is a volitile issue. I got rid of it at my last church and didn't suffer the backlash of it until 5.5 years later.

I was un-Baptist and was asked, "How is anyone gonna get saved?"

The fact that the church grew from about 20 people to about 150 in attendance, including baptisms and all that, was immaterial.

Altar Call = Evangelism
Altar Call = Love Jesus
Altar Call = Baptist

No Altar Call = uncaring, cold-hearted non-Baptist

That didn't end my stay, but it certainly was a rocky time.

At our new church plant, we started without one. But, getting rid of it ... MUCH easier said than done.

Or rather, getting rid of it with minimal strife is MUCH easier said than done.

AY said...

Soooo...what you are saying is that much of the same occured....you talked, talked, talked, and heard others "talk," but no actual physical plan was made up. And after hearing Frank Page's audio clip, I'm convinced he sounds more like he's running for U.S. President! Sounds like a man with a lot of rhetoric and no solutions.

Sounds like a waste of time.

I've about stopped hoping for the SBC. The only SBC guy making sense is Pastor Ken Silva of Apprising Ministries.

But hey, keep trying...I guess. As for me, I'm getting off the "SBC" title and just choosing to walk with Jesus. Maybe that's where the SBC should start.

Oh, and I am a calvinistic, reformed, Bible thummping Christian. Ha ha ha!

Chris Bonts said...

One of the easiest ways to handle this is to tone down the pleas to "walk the aisle" but make sure you give a very strong call to receive Christ. I was in a traditional church for several years. When I brought up the topic of the "altar call" folks got hot. The way I handled it was to continue to sing a worship song at the end of the service, refuse to present anyone that may have walked forward during the last song (instead having them seated and talking with them after the service), and using the end of the service to present new members that had completed the pastor interview and new member class.

In essence I removed the altar call as a practice, but did it in a way that did not trample the sensitivities of the many weaker brothers and sisters in my flock.

After making the subtle changes I waited for specific passages of Scripture to come up in my preaching schedule to address the issue. "The reason we do not tell someone they are saved the moment they walk an aisle is because we care about them and do not want to give them a false sense of security. We want to make sure they are trusting in Christ and not something else." Gradually our folks saw the wisdom in our approach and bought in to it, but they did it with no hostility.

JSBaptist said...

Gunny,

Why do you think 5.5 years later you suffered a backlash for removing the alter call?
What took so long?
What was the cause of this?

Thanks,
JSBaptist

johnMark said...

I have some questions along the same lines as far as using the "altar". Why ask people to come forward to pray, renew themselves, etc. at the altar?

Anyone?

Mark