Monday, July 16, 2007

Denominational Interference

I am always encouraged by SBC denominational employees who remember and appreciate the fact that they are servants of the churches. They exude a humble spirit and avoid giving any impression that they think Southern Baptists are accountable to them or in any way under their authority. Such denominational servants can be a blessing to churches and pastors by supplying information and access to resources to help congregations fulfill their callings.

When a denominational employee forgets who serves whom and acts as if local churches are inferior to convention structures or agencies, then that which can potentially be good becomes bad. And when the good goes bad it is the worst. Unfortunately, pastors sometimes must remind some denominational employees that they work for the churches we serve and should comport themselves accordingly.

When a denominational worker forgets this, he can come across as officious, condescending and even dictatorial in his attitude toward a local church. That kind of spirit is not only offensive it is deadly to the kind of cooperation that Southern Baptists are searching for in this post-denominational era.

Last Friday I received a note that tells of the kind of denominational interference that erodes trust and a spirit of cooperation. I am quoting part of this letter with permission from the author and staff member of the local church involved.
I am writing to inform you about something that is taking place here in ______. Today I received a phone call from [a staff member of my church].... He informed me that he had received a phone call today from a state convention worker who is concerned about our calling of a new senior Pastor. It seems that after learning his name, they did some research and wanted to let us know (as if we did not know already) that, "He is a five point Calvinist" and he "would hurt our evagelistic efforts."
That state official has been informed that he is not to interfere in the inner workings of this church any further. He has lost credibility with that congregation. He has also contributed to the kind of fear-mongering that plagues too many sectors of the SBC today.

I am grateful that this church saw through his attempt to act like a bishop and impose his (very faulty and prejudiced) views on them. In a polite but firm way, they "put him in his place." If he stays there, both church and denomination will be better off. If he begins to get bishopric fever again, then he should be required to take a remedial course in Baptist ecclesiology. Hopefully, his fellow denominational employees will remind him of of his place so that other local churches will not have to.

But, if he or any other denominational official seeks to interfere with or disrupt the inner workings of a local church he should be held accontable and reminded that he is the church's servant and not vice versa.

25 comments:

Perry McCall said...

Wow. How often has this happened without the local Church being offended? My guess is that it is beginning to happen often and the local churches consider it a good thing.

Tom said...

Perry:

I suspect that this kind of thing has happened for a while, though the issue of Calvinism is no doubt motivating a whole new kind of interference as that demonstrated in this case. The good news is that fewer and fewer churches are at the mercy of those using this kind of tactic, due to the ready acceibility of information. Hopefully, churches will educate themselves on the issues involved and not simply take the opinion of any official who seeks to interfere in their inner workings.

Terry Delaney said...

I think what amazes me so much about this situation is the logical leap that one makes when assuming evangelism will suffer a quick death in a church who is callng a "5-pointer." As a young, soteriological Calvinist minister, I have found that once I accepted the validity of such doctrines, evangelism became so much sweeter and necessary. The pressure was no longer in my method or presentation. All I had to do now was be faithful to God and present the good news and let God's Holy Spirit do the rest. I pray for unity despite the doctrinal differences.

Jeff Fuller said...

"...he 'would hurt our evagelistic efforts.'"

I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the number of reformed evangelists I know -- people who regularly and consistently share the gospel with people they meet throughout their daily lives.

It isn't Calvinism that spoils evangelistic effort, it is apathy. Apathy knows no doctrinal stance. May we be reminded to abide in Christ.

Eric M Schumacher said...

I am thankful to pastor in Iowa, where the Executive Director-Treasurer of our state convention is emphatic about the convention being the servant of the churches.

Darby Livingston said...

The idea that Calvinism hinders evangelism is refuted by the fact that the greatest multiplying churches in America are Calvinist. How long must local churches be subjected to such willful ignorance? I'm very thankful for my associational and state staff (Indiana) because they have been truly supportive of our church plant and our other endeavors. My state executive director even wrote a wonderful endorsement for my marriage book that is written from a Calvinist, Christian Hedonist perspective. I'm not sure where he personally stands on the issue. I appreciate the humility and pray others enjoy such a relationship!

Delete Me said...

OK, if I may say a counter-point to fuel the discussion.

Suppose the issue wasn't Calvinism but something heretical, such as the candidate was anti-Trinitarian, or was "truly" hyper-Calvinist, or such? Wouldn't a concerned brother-in-Christ want to contact the church to give them a heads up (assuming that the church did not know this during the search process)?

Maybe that was what this state convention brother was doing. Not that he was overstepping his bounds or usurping his authority over the local church, but in his view, he may be viewing Calvinism as heresy and felt compelled to warn the local church about this dangerous, heretical theology.

And this brings up a second: what doctrines would warrant a denominational representative to, not necessarily step-in, but caution or advise a church? Would it be those listed in the BF&M?

GeneMBridges said...

And people wonder why Calvinists get snippy! Ever notice that on the one hand, we're constantly told that Calvinists are allegedly dishonestly infiltrating churches yet on the other if we say anything in response, we're "mean" (or some other such appellation?

Further, remember what Dr. Caner had to say about Calvinism leading to Presbyterianism? Wasn't it Dr. Vines sermon that linked Calvinism to Presbyterianism and infant baptism (as if the former leads directly to the latter)? We're there people supporting Resolution 5 last year that tried to do the same sort of thing, as if not advocating their view on teatotalling leads to Presbyterianism? Isn't it ironic that the ones claiming that Calvinism leads to Presbyterianism are employing Presbyterian and Episcopalian eccelesiological principles, since, by definition, those polities allow the session/presbytery/bishopric/parish authorities to interfere in local churches? File this away for future reference, for when any of these objections are raised again, there is now concrete proof that it is not we who are out of step with Baptist ecclesiology.

I'd also add that this sort of thing goes on elsewhere for other reasons, so it is NOT a solely Calvinist-nonCalvinist issue. There are associations out there who will require member churches to eschew any ministers not on an "approved list" with the association, and not just over Calvinism.

Suppose the issue wasn't Calvinism but something heretical, such as the candidate was anti-Trinitarian, or was "truly" hyper-Calvinist, or such? Wouldn't a concerned brother-in-Christ want to contact the church to give them a heads up (assuming that the church did not know this during the search process)?

I'd say that God gives the people the kind of leaders they want. If their hearts are apostate, they'll likely be sent an apostate minister, just as Saul was given out of God's anger, yet to get them to yearn for a better King (David), and, in the North after the schism with the South, God says He gave them kings out of His wrath as punishment for their idolatry.

That said, a church is supposed to have a church covenant and a confession, and they should be able to take care of these things on their own by using their confession. Present it to the candidate and ask him for a detailed confession of his own faith and compare them.

I'd also add that it is not illicit, if there are those locally who know folks outside the walls of their church to ask for input from others about any candidate. It's called checking references. The duty lies not with the state convention leadership, but the local church.

False teachers are to be marked out too. An anti-trinitarian, for example, should have already been marked out by his seminary and other churches.

hisbygrace said...

As Mark Dever rightly says on his 9 Marks site, the responsibility for discipline matters and matters of doctrine ultimately lies with the local congregation. Are we approaching an era in the SBC where denominational employees dictate to a local church who they can or cannot call as pastor? Do they warn churches who are about to call a "purpose driven" pastor?...there are folks in the SBC who don't care much for that agenda either...I hope I'm wrong, but it seems that with each passing year we are getting closer and closer to a time when Calvinistic Southern Baptists will politely (or unpolitely) be asked to withdraw from association.

Martin Graham said...

I'm sorry to say that I think the SBC has gotten too big for it's britches. But to me, it's extremely hard to have an organization like the SBC and it not at some point get bishopric (to use Dr. Ascol's word). Unlike the church in this post, I fear there are a lot of weaker churches out there that allow the SBC to come in and reign at will.

I know many reformed guys are fighting for reform in the SBC, and I commend that effort. I really do. But, as I see it, there is just too much power mongering in the SBC at the leadership level. There needs to be a HUGE shaking of this power tree to remind the folks at the top that are too comfortable with themselves that Christ reigns through the local church, not a para-church organization like the SBC and its affiliates. And yes, the SBC is a PARA-CHURCH organization, and not the church. That might be taboo to say, but lets be honest and call it what it is.

Tom Bryant said...

Jeff is correct, it is not calvinism that wrecks evangelism. It is apathy.

Has anyone talked to this person's supervisor?

Joel Rainey said...

Tom,
Just today I chaired an ordination council, and while questioning the candidate regarding soteriology, I sensed that he leaned heavily toward Reformed views. So I asked him bluntly "are you desribing yourself as Reformed," and he answered "yes, I believe that would be accurate."
On that note, I immediately turned to the Senior Pastor, under whose authority I was conducting the interview, and asked "is this OK with you and your church?" Upon his affirmation, I continued with the next set of questions.

As a DOM, I sometimes encounter beliefs and practices in our 56 churches that I am personally uncomfortable with. But you are absolutely correct when you say that our job is that of "handmaid" to the local church. Perhaps this individual should have first asked "would your church be comfortable having a Calvinist as its pastor?" and upon receiving an affirmative ansewr, he should have immediately shut his mouth.

The legitimacy of state conventions and associations depends solely on answering one question: are we giving worthy aid to our churches, and helping equip and resource them to do what God has called them to do? Apart from this function, we have no reason to exist, and those who forget such things and seek to interfere or "control" what happens in a local church should be shown the door! Thanks Tom, for reminding us of this cherished principle!

Bob Cleveland said...

I wonder if this thought might apply to an SBC entity employee who says "... how every baptist church ought to be built; without a center aisle".

Martin said...

"He is a five point Calvinist" and he "would hurt our evagelistic efforts."

==Looking at George Whitefield I can certainly see how being a five point Calvinist affects evangelism. However contrary to that historically, and theologically, uninformed staff member five point Calvinism does not hurt evangelism. I am amazed at how unBiblical and unhistorical some Southern Baptists can be. Btw, I am Southern Baptist.

Martin.

Rev. said...

What about denominational interference *after* a church has called a pastor?!? There are many men who have been called by local congregations to serve as pastors with the churches knowing the doctrinal convictions of these men. However, once many DOMs and/or state officials find out about these convictions, they begin to work against the men who have been called by the congregations to serve them. This is why many young pastors have left the SBC.

Jeff Fuller said...

Martin wrote: "Looking at George Whitefield I can certainly see how being a five point Calvinist affects evangelism."

Rev. Whitefield was a Calvinistic Methodist, but his writings sure sound like a reformed baptist to me!

From the Calvinistic Methodists confession of 1823, here is how they viewed evangelism:

"The call of the gospel contains a general proclamation of glad tidings to lost sinners, through Jesus Christ (a), and sets before them strong encouragements to return unto him for their eternal salvation (b). Where this call is effectual, the power of God works through it in a gracious (c), irresistible (d), and saving (e) manner, to quicken those who were dead in sin (f), to cast down imaginations in the minds of men (g), to deliver them from the power of darkness and translate them into the kingdom of his dear Son (h), to make them willing in the day of his power (I), and guide them into all truth (j). Moreover all those, to whom the gospel is the power of God to bring them to him in the day of grace, will be brought at last to eternal glory, through our Lord Jesus Christ (k)."

Makes me want to hit the streets this very moment!

Chris said...

Where is local church autonomy taught in the New Testament?

Chris Jordan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Jordan said...

Chris you asked about “local church autonomy taught in the New Testament”

There are much smarter and studied men than I on this blog that will answer, but I would start with these verses:

"Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock." I Peter 5:1-3

This is strong about the local elders responsibility over the local church, not a denomination.

"When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed." Acts 14:23

Having the appointed elders commended to the Lord, instead of the denomination is important here.

It is apparent that it was not a denomination, but local elders that were responsible for the local congregation.

· It was the local church that selected the deacons in Acts 6
· It was a local church that appointed Barnabas and Paul as missionaries in Acts 13
· It was a local church that must exercise church discipline in Matthew 18

And there are many more evidences of a church responsible for itself. Now local church autonomy does not mean that a church has the liberty to act and teach in any way it desires and still remain associated. If a church in a local association and/or state convention is acting or teaching in a way that is considered outside the accepted agreed upon doctrines, then I believe an association/state convention (which is the collection of churches, not the employees of the convention), have the right to remove that church from the association. This does not take away that church’s autonomy, but keeps the association with like-minded believers.

That leads us to ask, “What are the basic beliefs that a local church has to agree upon to be associated together?” That is the million dollar question! And unless this is clearly defined and understood, it leads to denominational employees to feel obligated to step in and “warn” of the dangers of doctrines they personally do not agree with!

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Tom,

I am troubled by this recent interference as well. I appreciate the publicity you have provided.

I have a related question that I ask with no desire to be tricky or smart. Do you similarly evaluate instances of a church being disassociated for ordaining women or calling a female pastor? If not, why not?

Grace and peace,

Emily

Lee said...

This is nothing new. At the Baptist college I attended, in the ministerial association, it was pretty well known which state convention and associational personnel would use their influence to get you a "choice" pulpit. There was also a heirarchy of wannabees who knew how to stroke a few egos to become their favorites. I've served in churches in four different state conventions, and I've seen this happen frequently. More recently, I've seen state and associational staff interfere based on their loyalty to a particular denominational political pespective.

There are two things that bother me about this. First of all, unless a state convention or associational staff member is asked to provide a reference, they have no business doing so. The idea that input from a denominational staffer is necessary to prevent churches from calling heretics or infidels smacks of arrogance and superiority. Don't tell me a church search committee isn't sharp enough to determine the qualifications and theology of their short list of candidates. Second, this is about power and control. The idea that someone on the denominational level can interfere and get "their guy" in a particular church should be abhorrent to Baptists.

For some reason, it seems to irk some people these days that there are 5 point Calvinists, and tongue speaking Charismatics, who belong to, and identify with, Southern Baptist congregations. The idea of independent, autonomous churches that don't all fit into a single, narrow doctrinal mode really causes some people to get bent out of shape, doesn't it?

WesinTex said...

Emily Hunter McGowin wrote:

"I have a related question that I ask with no desire to be tricky or smart. Do you similarly evaluate instances of a church being disassociated for ordaining women or calling a female pastor? If not, why not?"

I will not pretent to answer for Dr. Ascol, and I beg your pardon if you deem me out of line by responding to your post. However, I do have an experience that relates to the issue and your question.

Some years ago I was a part of an association which removed one of its leading churches from its membership over the issue of ordaining a woman to "shepherd" (their word) one of their missions. After several meetings with the church pastor and deacons, the Missions Development Committee and the Credentials Committee recommended to the Executive Board that the church be removed on grounds of unsound doctrine and unbiblical practices. It was not an easy decision, but one we believed was biblical.

During the process we focused on Scripture while the church continued to focus on local church autonomy. Though I appreciate the doctrine of autonomy, it does not provide for a church to believe and practice whatever they wish, and continue to remain in fellowship with the assocation (or for that matter, state or national convention). If I remember my Baptist polity correctly, these bodies too, are autonomous and free to establish membership parameters. The Association had a long histroy of conservative (not fundamentalist necessarily) theology so the church knew they were outside the established parameters.

BTW, the Association was brought into this by the church itself when they asked for financial assistance for the mission.

I do not agree with a denominational employee calling a church such as in this string. I do believe, however, that our polity allows for each body to establish grounds for membership and dismissal.

Tom said...

Emily:

As Wes has pointed out, not only is each church autonomous, but each association and state convention is autonomous, as well. That is, they can set the standards for membership in their associations. I fully support that.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Thank you for your thoughts, gentlemen. I appreciate it very much.

d-mc said...

now THAT is some good preachun'