Saturday, June 30, 2007

God in the fire

I am on my way back home to Cape Coral, Florida, after the Founders Conference in Owasso, Oklahoma. But I simply must tell this story and can't wait until I get back on Monday.

On Thursday afternoon, around 4 PM Central time, we received a phone call from my friend and brother, Don Reisinger. He said, "Pastor, we don't want to alarm you, but thought you should know, a serious fire is burning in Northwest Cape Coral, and is getting dangerously close to your home. It is over 500 acres in size. Evacuations in your area have been ordered. Helicopters are dumping water on houses that are in danger, including yours. We are praying."

We spoke a little more about God's faithfulness and absolute sovereignty over the weather and he encouraged me to remember what I believe.

Donna and I got on the internet and starting watching and reading news reports about the fire. Instead of 500 acres, it was now being reported as 1200. The main road leading to our home was closed down to traffic. Firefighters and forestry workers from surrounding cities were joining the fight.

Donna and I cancelled a dinner meeting we had with dear friends and prayed together. By God's grace we were able to confess that the Lord is good in all His ways, and that there would be no reason to doubt His wisdom, goodness and power if our house burned to the ground. We asked Him to protect the firemen, our neighbors and the animals in danger.

Bill Vanhelden is the Fire Chief of Cape Coral. He is a friend and a faithful Christian brother. I knew he would be praying while enduring the greatest challenge of his career. We prayed for him specifically.

After talking with our children, we decided not to start the 30 hour trip home immediately. Though we knew there was nothing we could do, even if we were there, knowing that we were so far away added to our sense of loneliness and helplessness. We spoke with several fellow members of Grace Baptist Church who had tried to drive to our house but were stopped by officials. One got through and told us the house was OK around 4:45 PM.

There is a way to walk to our house through some wooded areas behind our neighbors' houses. Had I been there, I would have taken that route. Another resourceful friend and church member, David Stamps, figured that out as well, and made his way to my neighbor's home across the street from us. He called us at 4:55 PM and told us that our neighbor, who stayed in his house, would help water our house and yard if the fire drew closer. My house was between his and the rapidly progressing NW front of the fire.

So many brothers and sisters from our church family offered to help walk through the wooded area to our house to grab pictures and important papers for us. We seriously considered those offers but decided that the risk was not worth it, and resolved to leave it all with the Lord without any further effort to save anything or check on the house.

By 6:15, the fire was over 2000 acres big. It ultimately grew from 85 to 24oo acres in 4 hours, becoming the largest wildfire in Cape Coral history. At 6:25, I spoke with my neighbor who told me that everything looked good at that point, and that there was a "huge cloud" hanging right over our heads, but that there was "no sign of rain anywhere." I told him we were going to pray for rain, and we did.

Our whole family attended the Founders Conference this year and we entered the worship center at Bethel Baptist Church right at 6:30 PM. Around 7:00, my brother Bill, who was moderating the meeting, led the congregation to pray for the Lord's mercy to be displayed in the fire in Cape Coral. He asked the Lord to rule over the weather and protect our house and our neighbor's.

Around 8PM, near the end of the service that night, my wife spoke by cell phone to Barb Reisinger back in Cape Coral. Barb reported that she had just heard from a church member who lives within a few miles of us that a "huge burst of rain" had fallen about 45 minutes ago and stopped the fire. I relayed that word to Bill at the end of the service and the congregation erupted in clapping, praising God for His kindness in this.

Later that night, I read news reports and checked my phone records in order to reconstruct the time-line on these events. Around 7:00 PM Central time, we prayed in Owasso. Around 8:00-8:10 Eastern time the rain began to fall on the western front of the fire in Cape Coral. To the best of my ability to determine it, God answered those prayers in Owasso--and no doubt many others from many places, including Cape Coral--within minutes of their being voiced.

Friends told us they had never seen such a deluge of water in such a short amount of time. It poured for 10 minutes, then stopped as suddenly as it started. One of our young adults called later that night, having gone to our house to check on it and said that our yard and house was "soaked."

Cape Coral and all SW Florida has been the midst of the worst drought we have experienced in 100 years. This fire was by far the largest our city has ever seen. It was a rapidly moving fire, sparks traveling up to a quarter mile to ignite other areas under heavy winds. Hundreds of people worked around the clock to fight this fire on the ground and from the air. Our local newspaper offered this commentary in commendation of those workers:
Fighting a brush fire of this size that spread from 85 acres to 2,000 in about four hours, wasn’t about dumping millions of gallons of water on it. Water didn't put this fire out. Plows did.
I thank God for the forestry service's expertise in cutting fire breaks with their plows. But plows didn't put this fire out. God did. This is a story about the kindness and power of our great God. Had the fire burned our house down, it would still be such a story, but perhaps shrouded in more mystery for a season. Romans 8:28 is always true, when houses are spared and when they burn to the ground. So is Romans 8:32.

Thanks for your prayers. Join us in expressing thanks and praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been very merciful to us in these events.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

BP reports Baptist Organization inflating numbers

It's true. Baptist Press published this article exposing the inflation of membership statistics by the denomination...the CBF denomination, that is. I wonder if we will ever see a story like this that focuses on integrity a little closer to home?

2007 Founders Conference

"God's Truth Abideth Still: Confronting Postmodernism," is the theme of this year's Founders Conference meeting at Bethel Baptist Church in Owasso, Oklahoma. We have heard some wonderful preaching as well as two excellent presentations on the theme by David Wells. Tonight he spoke on "Preaching the Cross in the Modern World." It is far and away the best theological assessment of evangelism that I have heard in more than 10 years. It is certainly the best exegesis of modern western culture in light of the biblical message of the cross that I have ever heard. You can read a very thorough report of his message from Timmy Brister. Frank Turk also has given a helpful outline of the talk.

This is a message that you should listen to with some friends who are genuinely concerned about biblical evangelism. You will want to hear it and hear it again and digest it together with others who want to be authentic and intentional in making the crucified Savior known to people who do not believe they have any need of Him.

One of the most important elements of a conference like is something that cannot be scripted, and that is, the spirit of it. By God's grace through the years the Founders Conference has been marked by a wonderful spirit of fellowship and encouragement. This year is no exception.

If God brings it to mind, please pray that the final sessions on Thursday and Friday will know the blessing of God on them as we have experienced it over the first two days. As an encouragement to pray, read Joe Thorn's insightful comments on what the proliferation of solid conferences in the last several years might be suggesting.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Amazing Grace Over Florida--new blog

A new blog has been set up to track the Florida Baptist Truth Project ("Amazing Grace over Florida") for the next several weeks.

It launches today with a call for prayer and fasting. Read more about it and join the conversation here. Updates will be given there periodically on the progress of of this effort.

I am in Oklahoma for the Founders Conference this week and will not be blogging much. Be sure to check out Timmy Brister's blog. He will be live-blogging the conference.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Florida Baptist Truth Project: Send Amazing Grace to Florida Baptist Pastors

As I reported last week, Dr. John Sullivan, Executive Director of the Florida Baptist Convention, recently mailed out Dr. Jerry Vines' sermons entitled, "Baptist Battles," to every Southern Baptist pastor in Florida. Included in that series is an error-filled message entitled, "A Baptist and His Election: Calvinism."

Many pastors and other concerned Baptists have contacted me to express their displeasure over this action. Several have suggested that, in the interest of unity and fairness, the Executive Director should mail out material that presents the other side of the issues that Dr. Vines addresses. As the pastor of a cooperating Florida Baptist Convention church, I certainly agree with that suggestion. But as one who has witnessed this kind of misrepresentation from denominational leaders over the last 25 years, I am under no delusions that this will happen.

While no cooperative program money was spent to send out Dr. Vines' sermons, Dr. Sullivan reportedly was able to finance the mailing with the help of Eddie McClelland, President of Florida Baptist Financial Services. According to the article linked above, Mr. McClelland said that he was asked to raise money for this project. Dr. Sullivan, he said, asked him for a gift. He was unaware of the exact nature of the project. According to the article, he said, "I did not know it was political. Our agency doesn't get involved in politics. We serve all Florida Baptists."

I have been in contact with several Florida Baptist pastors (as well as many Southern Baptist pastors outside the state of Florida) who are very disappointed that those CDs were mailed from our state offices. A similar gaffe was made last year by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Their Executive Director apologized once he realized how inappropriate that action was.

At the suggestion of my brother, Bill, I have made a special arrangement with the producers of the Amazing Grace DVD to secure and distribute copies of this tool to the very pastors who received the "Baptist Battles" CDs. Subtitled, "The History and Theology of Calvinism," this two-disk DVD presentation contains more than 4 hours of professionally produced interviews, quotes and explanations of the issues surrounding the doctrines of grace. Among those interviewed are Dr. Tom Nettles, the most prominent historical theologian among Southern Baptists today. Also, Pastors Walt Chantry, Walter Bowie and yours truly contribute to the DVD. For a sample clip, go here.

It will only cost $20,000 to get a copy of this powerful presentation into the hands of every Southern Baptist pastor in Florida. A special fund has been established by Founders Ministries for this very purpose. Let me encourage you to contribute to this project, as you are able and are led by the Lord, to help give Florida Baptist pastors the other side of the story--the side that was seriously caricatured by Dr. Vines' sermon.

You can send your tax exempt contributions to:

Founders Ministries
PO Box 150931
Cape Coral, Florida 33915
ATTN: Florida Baptist Truth Project

You may also contribute online by using the button below.
Riverbend Church of Ormond Beach, Florida, under the leadership of Dr. Roy Hargrave, has offered to match up to $5000 that is given by July 8. That means that your gift can be doubled if you give in the next two weeks.

In addition to supporting this effort by giving, I am asking that over the next several weeks you commit to fast and pray that the Lord will use this project to renew and rekindle a deep love for His Word and the Gospel of Jesus Christ not only in the churches of Florida but beyond them throughout the whole Southern Baptist Convention. Specifically, from June 24 through July 31, pray that those who receive this DVD would honestly watch it and open their hearts and minds to the truths from God's Word that it presents. Please encourage or lead your church to join in this prayer effort, as well.

Let me reiterate the purpose of this effort. The historic Southern Baptist understanding of salvation was blatantly misrepresented in the sermon sent out to Florida Baptist churches by our state Execuive Director. A growing number of pastors and churches in Florida believe the Bible teaches exactly that historic perspective. Thus, we and our churches were severely and widely misrepresented and the truth that we proclaim was caricatured to our fellow pastors and sister churches by our own state convention leadership. In an attempt to right this wrong, we are asking for all who love the doctrines of God's sovereign grace and are weary of seeing them distorted beyond recognition by Southern Baptist leaders to join with us in making the Amazing Grace DVD available to Florida Baptist pastors and churches.

We have no interest in division or in being contentious. We do have an interest in truth. We believe what we believe because we think the Bible teaches it. We understand that not everyone shares our convictions. But we desire of ourselves and ask of others, not to misrepresent the views of their brothers and sisters with whom they disagree on these vitally important issues.

For the cause of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, please pray that His truth will prevail and that we will all be humbled before it.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

SBC-SA Wrap up: the good, the bad, and the confusing

The Southern Baptist Convention has much within it to commend, much to lament and somethings that are just plain confusing. The recent meeting in San Antonio confirmed this assessment in various ways.

The Good
The spirit at the convention was less rancorous than some expected and was helpfully free from much of the bravado that has marked recent years. This is due, in large part, to the spirit exhibited by the President. I was very grateful for that.

Who cannot rejoice at the work of faithful gospel laborers around the world? Those who spoke from the platform as well as those with whom I spoke privately left me very encouraged that many within the family of Southern Baptists are vitally concerned about getting the Gospel to every people group in the world. The International Mission Board has its problems--many of which have been aired openly over the last 18 months--but it is still a tremendously useful agent in helping local churches send missionaries around the world.

Southern Baptists have some of the greatest seminaries in the world within our ranks. When I compare what and how and by whom today's students are being taught in seminaries like Southern and Southeastern I am filled with thanksgiving for the upgrade in theological education that we have witnessed since I attended seminary. Some of the books that I had to read on my own time and to the chagrin of some of my professors are required reading for modern students. In addition, the cost of seminary training in our SBC institutions is amazingly low when compared to other schools. We should rejoice over that.

The Bad
Bureaucracy still rules the day too often and in too many places in SBC life. Timothy George's prophetic warning more than 2 decades ago is being proven before our eyes: "The exchange of one set of bureaucrats for another does not a reformation make." The mentality that we should all just go along in order to get along will not pass muster any longer. Nor will current leaders be effective simply by saying to Southern Baptists, "Trust us. Just trust us." Those interested enough in the SBC to attend the annual meetings do trust the leadership, but they also expect accountability and humility from our leaders. Defensiveness, intimidation, demagoguery, paternalism and condescending attitudes do not play as well today as they did a generation ago (and they didn't play all that well even then).

It is evident both by the schedule and by some of those who spoke from the platform that there really is not a genuine desire for substantive debate and dialogue even on important issues that come before the convention. President Frank Page did a great job moderating the meeting. His spirit was contagiously sweet and more than once he went the extra mile to assure that messengers were treated with respect. But there simply is not enough time allocated for messengers to debate the issues that are brought before the convention. More than once the committee on the order of business recommended that we move the schedule forward because we did not need the full time that had been allotted for certain reports. However, debate was also cut short on more than one occasion when the issues before us warranted more time.

Southern Baptists need the kind of leadership that will take a hard look at what we are doing and how we are doing it, and be willing to make some radical proposals to counteract the bureaucratic mindset that too often sets in when organizations grow large. I know that we experienced some reorganization in 1995 but we are past due for fresh look at our denominational structure, agencies and institutions.

The Confusing
I don't know how to answer those who ask me why the convention passed a resolution on global warming while refusing to consider on on integrity in church membership. Some of the suggestions offered by readers of this blog in a previous post have real merit. But, I do not have a definitive answer. (Tony Kummer has extracted the video recording of the effort to get my resolution to the floor of the convention.)

Here is the way that I see it and how I have tried to explain my perspective on this matter to several people and in a variety of forums. If it is accurate to say that the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists give little or no indication of ever having been born of God's Spirit then we are in real trouble. Serious trouble. Life-threatening trouble. If well over half of those we welcome into our churches through evangelism and other means are unconverted then we are obviously not doing church in accordance with the New Testament. If the majority of our members are unconverted, then there is no other problem that we face that is more important than addressing this situation. There is no other item on our agenda that deserves more attention and concern than this. If we fail to address this, it does not matter what else we may attempt, we are allowing a cancer to grow that will destroy local churches. In fact, it has already done so, and is continuing its deadly rampage as you read this. I regularly talk to pastors and members who bear the brunt of such spiritual devastation. They have watched their churches repeatedly deny Christ in attitude and action all-the-while being regarded as good churches by SBC standards.

I have spoken with more than a few SBC leaders and pastors who have admitted to me privately that my assessment of this situation is accurate. They have agreed that we have no issue larger than this confronting us at this time. Some disagree with my approach to addressing the problem straight on and calling attention to it as I have tried to do by way of introducting a resolution to the convention. I have no problem with that kind of thinking. What does bewilder me, however, is how someone can agree with that assessment and be willing to do nothing or to promote other agendas in ways that suggest that those items are of extreme--even grave--importance.

I fear that if we do not win the battle for our churches becoming healthy then every gain we experienced in the battle for the Bible will be lost in a generation. What kind of churches spawned and allowed liberalism to take root in our agencies and institutions? Poorly ordered ones whose memberships were largely (by all indications) unconverted. What kind of churches predominate the landscape of the SBC today? Poorly ordered ones whose memberships remain largely unconverted.

The great 19th century Southern Baptist Theologian, John Dagg, made this observation in his Manual of Church Order: when disciplines leaves a church, Christ goes with it. If that is true, what does it say about the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist Churches? Even many so-called "flagship churches?"

While we have much for which to be thankful in the corner of Zion known as the SBC, we have much to lament and fear. And we have many reasons to feel desperate--desperate for reformation and revival. May our Lord be pleased to grant it to us.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

SBC-SA #6-Radio interview with Mike Corley

Tomorrow, Thursday, June 14, I am scheduled to be on Mike Corley's radio show for an interview about the failure of my resolution to make it to the floor of the convention and the upcoming conference on Southern Baptists and Calvinism. Mike is a great host and it should be an interesting broadcast. The program starts at noon, Central time. I am not sure exactly when I will join the broadcast, but it should be sometime shortly after that. You can listen to it here.

SBC-SA #5 - Resolution Committee Refused to Recommend Integrity in Church Membership

Every number has a story. That has been a recurring theme of the Southern Baptist Convention this year in San Antonio. We have heard speaker after speaker as well as numerous video presentations make this point. Some of them have been very moving stories of individuals and people groups who have either recently been reached by the Gospel or stand in need of being reached.

This morning, the Resolution Committee and messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention took actions that confirmed that theme--every number has a story. Sadly, the numbers involved tell a sad, sad story.

The Resolutions Committee refused to submit my resolution on integrity in church membership to the convention for vote. As promised, I brought a motion to overrule that decision. It takes a 2/3 majority to overrule that committee. President Page gave me an opportunity to read my resolution on the floor of convention. The debate was for the most part healthy and appropriately spirited. It was very respectful.

My appeal for allowing the convention to consider this resolution was that we had just passed a resolution calling for corporate repentance and "every number has a story." I read the statistics again from our Annual Church Profiles. I emphasized the fact even in the most generous analysis only 37% of our members even care enough to attend a worship gathering once a week. I have addressed the shame of this statistic repeatedly and will not belabor the point again here.

The chairman of the Resolutions Committee, Gerald Harris, responded to my appeal by saying that the committee thought it inappropriate to bring my resolution before the body because they feared it would infringe on the auntomy of local churches. We should not try to tell churches what to do, he said. Well, anyone who read my resolution and the resolutions that were passed this year and other years will recognize that this argument holds no water. However, it is a tremendous advance over last year's response from the chairman that, if churches took my resolution seriously we would lose our most promising prospects for evangelism!

The convention failed to overturn the committee and therefore my resolution never formally came before them for a vote. Several people--of various theological persuasions--came up to me afterwards to express appreciation for the attempt and dismay over the failure of the committee and convention to allow the resolution to be considered. While I am disappointed by these events and, quite honestly, surprised, I am in no way despondent! Think about it, for two years in a row a resolution calling for integrity in church membership has been read on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention. We have discussed these matters. What the discussion has exposed is just how spiritually sick we are. While I don't like the fact that we are spiritually ill, I rejoice that this is being made increasingly apparent. Until we admit we have a problem, we will never seek to address it. In other words, until we see our sin, we will never repent of our sin.

I am encouraged because this conversation will continue for another year and, as promised, I will, by God's grace, be in Indianapolis next year to submit the same resolution. The passing of my resolution is not the goal. The goal is the recovery of the Gospel and reformation of local churches. If the events surrounding the efforts to get this resolution before the SBC can contribute to that by shining the light on how desperately sick we are, then praise God!

SBC-SA #4-Radio interview with Calling for Truth

Yesterday I was interviewed by Kevin Boling and Paul Dean on their radio program, Calling for Truth. We discussed the SBC meeting, my resolution on integrity in church membership, and the announcement of the conference on Southern Baptists and Calvinism. You can listen to the broadcast here.

SBC-SA #3

The Founders Breakfast was wonderful this morning. Voddie Baucham did a great job preaching from Revelation 3 on "Southern Baptists at Sardis." EDIT: Andrew Lindsey (not Nathan White, as I originally and erroneously indicated) has written a good report on the message. We will the audio file available as soon as possible.

There were some interesting developments during the convention today. Tomorrow the Resolution Committee will bring its report to the convention. If my resolution does not make it out of committee, I will attempt to bring it up from the floor.

When I get an opportunity, I will give an update.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A conference on Southern Baptists and Calvinism

Today at the Founders Breakfast in San Antonio, I announced an upcoming conference on "Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism." The conference is being jointly sponsored by Founders Minstries and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is scheduled for November 26-28 at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina.

Details will be made public over the next few weeks. The reason for making the announcement now is to encourage people to hold the dates and begin making plans for what promises to be a historic gathering for Southern Baptists.

The purpose of this conference is to bring together Southern Baptists of various theological commitments in order to hear pointed presentations and dialogue about what is arguably the most important theological movement among us today. It is certainly one of the most controversial movements on the scene. Some people seem to despise those doctrines that have historically been denominated Calvinism. Others greatly fear them. Some caricature them beyond recognition.

Among the proponents of Calvinism there are some who seem to be more interested in winning theological debates than in advancing the Kingdom of God by preaching Jesus Christ. Others allow their commitment to God's sovereignty in salvation to excuse their lack of evangelistic passion or to justify a pugilistic spirit.

It is time for Southern Baptists to come together to discuss openly and honestly these particular doctrines of grace that once were the theological consensus among our forebears and is now becoming more prominent among us again. The organizers of this historic gathering envision sessions addressing the strengths and weaknesses of both Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic positions on salvation. The presentations will be exegetical, theological, apologetic, passionate and pastoral. Our desire is for the issues to be addressed in what I call a ruthlessly biblical manner. Such an approach will be neither rude nor superficial. Rather, if our goals are met, they will be energetic, thoughtful and humble and all who participate will walk away with a deeper respect for arguments both for and against the Reformed understanding of salvation. More importantly, we hope that all will recognize more clearly the glory of God displayed in the salvation that He has provided for sinners in the person and work of His Son. That is something which both Calvinists and non-Calvinists need in increasing supplies.

Please join me in praying that the Lord will use this opportunity to strengthen the fellowship and spiritual health of His people known as Southern Baptists. I believe that both are within reach.

Stay tuned for forthcoming details.

Monday, June 11, 2007

SBC-SA #2

Today, Dr. Jerry Johnson, President of Criswell College in Dallas, Texas, hosted Drs. Danny Akin and Mark Coppenger in what was billed as a "Debate on Calvinism." It was tape for Dr. Johnson's radio program and broadcast from the Criswell booth in the exhibit area. About 100 people stood around to listen. As you would expect, both men were very gracious and conciliatory as the 5 points of Calvinism were discussed. In fact, they actually agree on 4 of the 5 points and their disagreement on the atonement hardly overrules the vast agreement that they have on that important subject. It was a great display of how to discuss theological issues that are far too often the occasion of dismissive discourse.

Tomorrow, at the Founders Fellowship Breakfast, I plan to make a major announcement that will be of great interest to the readers of this blog and all who care about the health and direction of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I will post the announcement here, as soon as I have opportunity.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

SBC-SA, #1

We arrived in San Antonio this evening after a wonderful time of worship and fellowship with Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas. Voddie Baucham, one of their elders and the speaker for the Founders Fellowship Breakfast on Tuesday morning, preached from Mark 9 in the time of worship and it was a joy to meet and share a meal with that church body. The Lord is doing great things in this new church plant and they are already thinking (after a little more that one year) about their next church planting effort.

I caught most of Charles Colson's message at the Pastors' Conference tonight. He told a story about meeting with several prominent pastors and 2 well-known theologians. During his presentation to them about concerns over cultural decay it dawned on him that they may not be tracking with his line of thinking. So, he stopped and asked them to answer the question, "What is Christianity?" After a long and awkward pause, a few answers were put forth, including some Bible verses, loving God and loving others, the Ten Commandments, etc. But none in the group suggested that Christianity is the way of life and view of the world that comes from knowing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

His story illustrates what I am convinced is the greatest problem facing American evangelicals today: we have largely lost what it means to be Christian. If you have read this blog very long you probably have read my contention that we can no loger assume that evangelicals agree on the nature of the Gospel, conversion and the church. We need to be willing to ask and answer biblically the questions, what is the Gospel, what is a Christian (and how does one become one) and what is a church. Failure to get these right will mean the loss of biblical Christianity.

The highlight of the convention experience so far was receiving a little booklet with the messenger registration packet. Buidling Bridges, by David Dockery and Timothy George is being given to every messenger. If memory serves me, it is in essence the presentations that they made at the Baptist Identity Conference earlier this year at Union University. Colson wrote the foreword and Thom Rainer wrote a preface, summarizing points from his talk at the same conference. It is healthy information for Southern Baptists and I hope it gets a wide readership not only in Alamo city but throughout the whole SBC.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Denominational integrity and controversy in the Florida Baptist Convention

On Thursday, May 29, I received a phone call from Ryan Helms, pastor of New Zion Baptist Church near Bonifay, Florida. Ryan is a faithful bi-vocational pastor who has labored for 6 years shepherding this rural congregation with expositional preaching and loving pastoral care. As one of the church's members told me recently, because of their deep love for their pastor, they would follow him anywhere he led them as long as it was according to the Word of God.

Ryan called me to tell me about a meeting that had taken place a week earlier in the Holmes Baptist Association in northern Florida and to ask me if there was division in our local Baptist association. In April, the Director of Missions of Holmes Association (in which Ryan's church participates), arranged for staff from the Florida Baptist Convention to lead a conference for their associational officers to learn how to use the church planting training for small church revitalization. The conference was to be limited in scope and exclusively for the associational leadership. The concern was to promote church health through church planting training. It was scheduled for May 22.

Shortly after arranging this conference, the DOM resigned his position in order to go plant a church in the midwest. The pastor of First Baptist Church of Bonifay had become upset with this DOM due to his perception of the DOM's Calvinistic convictions. FBC announced that they were pulling their financial support from the association after Paul left because the association "lacked purpose." Three weeks before the scheduled church health conference, Kent Lampp, the acting moderator received an email from Rick Lawrence, Director of Church Planting Department for the Florida Convention, informing him that he must invite the pastor of the FBC to attend the May 22 meeting, despite the previous explanation that the meeting was to be small and exclusively for associational officers. After some emails back and forth, Kent invited the staff of FBC to attend.

Two days before the meeting, the moderator was informed that Cecil Seagle was also going to attend the meeting. Mr. Seagle is Director of the Missions Division and South Florida Urban Impact Ministries for the Florida Baptist Convention. When the May 22 meeting came around, Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Seagle were accompanied by Jim Robinette, the Director of Church Planning and Revitalization Department for the Florida Convention.

These 3 executives from the state convention met with 6 ministers (two of whom were accompanied by their wives), including the pastor and staff member from FBC, Bonifay. The meeting, according to Pastor Helms, never addressed the announced topic. Nothing on church health. Nothing on church planting training. Rather, as copious notes from that meeting state,
Florida Baptist Convention staff had communicated that this meeting would be about small church health. Paul Fries (former DOM for HBA), had requested that key staff be taken through the church planting training and use it as small church renewal. Attendees had no idea that associational division would be a topic of discussion. The meeting began as a purpose development for the Holmes Baptist Association. This was discussed up to the dinner.
These notes were taken during the meeting and six of those in attendance reviewed them and revised them for accuracy after the meeting. All six have declared them to be a very careful and accurate recounting of what happened that night. You can download a pdf of the complete notes here. I am making them public with permission from Rev. and Mrs. Kent Lampp-Moderator of Holmes Baptist Association, Rev. Eddie Eaton-Missions Director of HBA, Rev. and Mrs. Ryan Begue-Director of Evangelism, HBA, Rev. Ryan N. Helms-Director of Discipleship, HBA.

Those notes indicate that the meeting quickly devolved into a session given over to concerns about Calvinism and those who hold to the doctrines of grace, particularly in the state of Florida. Once I got a copy of these notes, and verified that six participants had all agreed that they are a very accurate representation of what was said at that meeting, I called Cecil Seagle at the Florida Convention offices on June 4 and again on June 6. He returned my call on the afternoon of the 6th.

The reason I called him is because the six witnesses from the Holmes Association said that Mr. Seagle expressed concerns about me in particular after he took over the meeting to speak against the evils and dangers of Calvinism in the SBC. According to these six--5 of whom are not Calvinists!--Mr. Seagle referred to the "Founder's Club" and my blog and the influence we are having. Particularly, the notes indicate, I am responsible for seriously dividing my local Baptist association over the issues of the doctrines of grace.

That accusation was very alarming to me and my fellow elders, since we have been under the impression that Grace Baptist Church has a very harmonious relationship with the Royal Palm Baptist Association. Before calling Mr. Seagle we met with Everett Rafferty, the DOM for the RPBA and asked him to speak to this charge. He said (and he gave me permission to quote him), "There is not a shred of truth to it." Everett said that we have one of the most unified associations in the state and that my theology has never been a problem in the association.

I was prepared to report this to Mr. Seagle when we spoke, but he denied ever having made that accusation. He said that Ryan Helms completely misrepresented what happened in the May 22 meeting and that he was at that meeting at the direction of Dr. John Sullivan, his boss. He assured me that he had never had a conversation about me or my theology, that he was not "anti-Tom Ascol," or "anti-Calvinism." In fact, he told me that he did not see how anyone could read the Bible without recognizing that Calvinism has a great deal of truth in it. This surprised me, due to what the notes said, and what others have reported about Mr. Seagles' views on this matter over the years. Nevertheless, I am always willing to give a man the benefit of the doubt. So, I asked Mr. Seagle how we should account for the discrepancy between his report and what was written in the notes of the meeting. He portrayed it simply as a difference of opinion between him and Ryan Helms.

Of course, as I reminded him, that is not an accurate portrayal of this impasse. What we have is the testimony of 6 witnesses that contradict his own testimony. He indicated that the number of witnesses did not give him any reason to back off of his denials.

I have since learned that, at the request of the associational leadership, Pastor Helms called Mr. Seagle before I spoke to him, and asked Mr. Seagle to apologize to the Holmes Association for several specific things, including slandering the former DOM, Paul Fries, being deceptive about the purpose of the meeting and attempting to lead the association in a discussion on disciplining Calvnists. Mr. Seagle believes he owes no apology to the association.

I understand that today Dr. Sullivan told leadership in that association that he stands by Mr. Seagle and does not believe that he did anything wrong. He has stated that as far as he is concerned the matter is over.

This whole series of events is tragic for several reasons. I will only outline them here. But it does not take much biblical wisdom or Baptist conviction to fill out the details.

1. The May 22 meeting gives the appearance of being a set up by the state convention. It was announced to be about church health, but became a meeting about Calvinism and associational divisiveness. It looks like the meeting was hijacked by those whose job it is to serve the churches that had invited them to meet in the first place. This is a severe violation of Baptist polity and is an assault on the autonomy of local churches.

2. According to the six witnesses, a denominational employee, who works for them and their churches, attempted to intimidate them with accusations about people and theological positions. One of the people mentioned was the much-loved former DOM, Paul Fries. The pastors did not accept it when his character was called into question, something which, from all appearances, Mr. Seagle did not anticipate.

3. The discrepancy between Mr. Seagle's version of what happened at the meeting and that of the six witnesses raises serious issues of integrity. If the state office attempts to sweep this under the rug for the sake of friendships or a supposed "peace" or "unity," the consequences will be devastating. Such a coverup will undermine the kind of trust that is absolutely essential if a convention of churches is to move forward in cooperation. This truth will not be difficult to ascertain. It is done every day in courtrooms across our nation. Simply get the principal parties together, let them each testify and see where the preponderance of evidence leads. Where inaccuracy is discovered, correct it. Where sin or deception is discovered, rebuke it. But do not turn a blind eye toward all of this and announce that it is over. That would be a collosal failure of leadership and dishonoring to the God of truth. Followers of Jesus are to be lovers of truth. Let's pursue it together and if it is discovered that some who are among us are standing against the truth, then, as brothers, let's seek to correct and restore them.

This issue is not about Calvinism. It is about integrity at every level of our denominational structure. Here is what I hope will NOT happen:

1. Attempting to turn this into a Ryan Helms vs. Cecil Seagle misunderstanding. There are 6 witnesses who testify to the accuracy of the notes of the May 22 meeting. Mr. Seagle says that he is not guilty of the things that those notes indicate he did and said. Dr. Sullivan, who was not at the meeting, has indicated that he is standing by Mr. Seagle and that the matter is closed. It is not closed. Florida Baptists deserve to know if their servants, whose salaries they pay, are undermining the autonomy of local Baptist churches in the way that the Holmes Association notes indicate.

2. Attempting to turn this into a disagreement over Calvinism. Though what Mr. Seagle reportedly did and said has serious implications about the Florida Baptist Convention's attitude toward those pastors and churches in the state that believe the doctrines of grace, that is not the issue. The issue is all about Baptist polity and, more importantly, integrity at every level of our denominational structure in the state. It is worth noting that 5 of the supporters of the notes of that May 22 meeting are not Calvinists! The issue raised by these events transcend our doctrinal differences at this point.

Here is what I hope WILL happen:

1. That Dr. Sullivan will call for a meeting of principal parties in this controversy and, face-to-face, faciliate a search for the truth of what really happened in the May 22 meeting. My prayer is that anyone who is misrespresenting truth will be humbled and so confident in the Gospel that he or she will repent and demonstrate the power of God in the lives of His people.

2. That the state convention leadership will take this opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to our long-cherished Baptist polity of local church autonomy and commitment to integrity among all its staff.

3. That the Holmes Baptist Association will have its hope and confidence restored in the Florida Baptist Convention.

4. That all Florida Baptists will be motivated to pray for our churches and state denominational servants, that the Lord will enable us to move forward in evangelizing our great state with its residents and guests from around the world.

Pray that the Lord will overrule these events to bring about good to His people and glory to His name, and that repentance and forgiveness will prevail in the fractured relationships between those involved.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Florida Pastors sent anti-Calvinist propaganda

Just before leaving the state of Florida on my way to Texas for the Southern Baptist Convention next week, our family stopped to visit dear friends who live in the panhandle. As we shared dinner in their home with another pastor and his family, I was informed of a "care package" that arrived today in the mailboxes of pastors throughout the state.

It seems that Dr. John Sullivan, the Executive Director of the Florida Baptist Convention, has mailed a set of Jerry Vines' sermons entitled, "Baptist Battles," to ever pastor in the Florida Baptist Convention. These are sermons that Dr. Vines preached at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, GA last year. One of those messages is entitled, "Calvinism, A Baptist and His Election." I reviewed that sermon not long after it was preached.

I ended my assessment of that mistake-laden message with these words:
One final observation: Dr. Vines' message screams for a response from denominational leaders who never hesitate to issue warnings to Southern Baptist Calvinists whom they label "Calvinazis" and charge with being more willing to fly across the country to debate Calvinism than to cross the street to witness to a lost person. Wouldn't it make sense that those who issue such warnings should feel some compulsion to issue them in both directions? Will this kind of complete misrepresentation of the theological heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention and the theological convictions of thousands of Southern Baptist pastors be given a pass by denominational leadership? If recent history is any indicator, that is exactly what we can expect.
Little did I know. Not only has the denominational leadership of my own state convention given Dr. Vines a pass on this sermon, they have used God's money to send it to every Southern Baptist in the state!

This mailing comes on the heels of a very egregious attempt last week by a state convention executive to intimidate pastors in a local association in our state over the issue of Calvinism--a matter into which I have been drawn and that I am in the midst of personally investigating in hopes of seeing it resolved. So far I have been unsuccessful in getting this person to return my phone call. At least one pastor who has spoken with people in the denominational state office about this affair has been disappointed in the response.

I don't know what is going on in Jacksonville, but I hope to find out. This much is clear: the mailing of Dr. Vines' sermon on Calvinism is a clear indication that the Executive Director of the Florida Baptist Convention has an agenda to demonize the ministers and churches in our state who believe what the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention believed regarding the grace of God in salvation. This is a serious matter. Very serious.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sermon Jams

Relevant Revolution has set up a website full of "sermon jams"--audio sermons that have sound tracks laid down with them to provide easier access to a younger generation.

The purpose statement of Relevant Revolution says:
This ministry is designed to provide a medium which tactfully delivers biblical sermons that are relevant for the current generation. Our desire is to promote a reverence and passion for the supremacy of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom and our focus is on the foundational truths of the Christian faith. We emphasize unity on the essentials truths, liberty on the non-essentials and love in everything. We also believe strongly in the idea that unity does not equal uniformity because there is diversity in the Kingdom of Christ. The verse we have picked to represent this ministry is Romans 10:14 which states "But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"
I have listened to a couple of the offerings and think these guys are probably on to something that could be very useful in evangelizing teenagers and young adults. I can assure you this, you have never heard Alistair Begg, John Piper, S.M. Lockridge or Ravi Zacharias sound like this before!

There are other resources on the website that I would not necessarily recommend, but if you can download a few sermon jams by the guys above and get them on a young person's ipod, you will have done a good thing in helping to gain a hearing for the Word of God among some who otherwise might never listen to a recorded sermon.