Friday, February 23, 2007

Are We Going to Build Bridges or Burn Them? (Part 1)

By now it should be obvious to anyone familiar with the Southern Baptist Convention that we are a diverse group. People from a variety of races, ethnicities, and languages make up our convention. Our churches range in size from a few people to several thousand people. We have churches in sparsely populated rural areas, small towns, suburban neighborhoods, inner cities, and cosmopolitan city centers. Our churches meet in small frame buildings, brick edifices with steeples and stained glass, cathedrals of stone, modernistic prefabricated structures, schools, movie theaters, individual homes, and almost anyplace else where people can gather. In our churches we sing hymns, contemporary praise songs, musically complex anthems, Southern gospel songs, ancient psalms, and many other styles of music accompanied by piano and organ, rock-n-roll band, orchestra, 5-piece country or bluegrass band, recorded music, and even a cappella. Our pastors wear suits, polo shirts and khakis, Hawaiian flowery shirts, jeans, even t-shirts and shorts. We have pastors with multiple doctorates, pastors who did not finish high school, and everything in between. Our churches have Sunday school and home cell groups, RAs/GAs/Acteens/Mission Friends, AWANA, and TeamKID. We reach out to others through weekly visitation, GROW, FAITH, relational evangelism, revival meetings, community service ministries, VBS, seeker-sensitive worship services, the NET, and many other programs, or even without a program.

It's not only in areas of style, methodology, or programming that we are diverse. We are also quite diverse in doctrine and theology. While we have a shared doctrinal core as articulated in the Baptist Faith & Message (and we have some disagreements over that), on other issues Southern Baptists have a wide range of beliefs. We have Calvinists and Arminians, cessasionists and continualists, every type of millennialist as well as some preterists, KJV-only folks and those who read The Message, those who believe the Bible allows drinking alcohol in moderation and those who believe the Bible demands total abstinence, those who engage the culture and those who try to separate from the culture, complementarians and egalitarians, Landmarkers and ecumenists, and so forth. On most of these issues Southern Baptists can be found at the extremes as well as all points in between.

While many of us view such diversity as an essential part of the unity to which Jesus calls His people, others are uncomfortable with or even suspicious of the diversity that now exists within the SBC. Many of them view changes in style, methods, or programming as compromising with the world. Some believe the church should be a refuge from the surrounding culture or simply wish to recreate the world they grew up in. Others believe that theological diversity inevitably results in syncretism or theological liberalism. However, some degree of diversity is unavoidable. We live in a society comprised of various subcultures; to reach people in all of these subcultures requires us to have cultural diversity within our churches. And like it or not, the SBC is going to have to tolerate a degree of theological diversity within its ranks if we are going to continue to play a vibrant role in God's redemptive mission. The Bible is not absolutely clear on every single point of doctrine. Because the Bible comes to us across wide barriers of time, culture, and language there are things within it that we cannot understand with certainty. Regarding such things, it is not uncommon for people who affirm the truthfulness, inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture to use sound exegetical and hermeneutical principles and come up with different interpretations of these issues.

We can respond to the diversity within the SBC in one of two ways. We can build bridges to join with those who differ from us in matters of style, methodology, and even theology (within the bounds of the BFM), or we can burn bridges with those who differ from us in these areas. People on both sides sincerely believe they are being faithful to the cause of Christ. Within the leadership of the SBC are advocates both approaches.

In Part 2 I will focus on some of the leaders in our convention who are in favor of building bridges.


Paul Burleson said...


Absolutely superb. I'm reminded again why you're one of my favorite bloggers. :) Seriously, this is a must read for all the SBC. Keep it coming and I'll keep reading.

Alycelee said...

I'll be watching and doing my part to build at the same time :)