Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Are We Going to Build Bridges or Burn Them? (Part 2)

In Part 1 I began this series by listing some of the various types of diversity found within the Southern Baptist Convention. We are a very diverse people demographically, in style and methodology, and even in certain areas of doctrine. Many Southern Baptists see this diversity as a strength, showing the world that even though we differ in many ways we can come together in unity because of Jesus. They espouse building bridges to connect these diverse people and groups in fellowship and cooperation for the sake of missions and evangelism. Other Southern Baptists believe such diversity---in style, methodology, and especially in doctrine---is a threat to our Baptist identity and heritage. They advocate separating from those who differ from them in one or more of these respects, a path that I refer to as bridge burning. In this post I want to focus on three Southern Baptist leaders who support building bridges---Thom Rainer, Morris Chapman, and Bill Curtis.

My use of the bridge metaphor is based on an article written by Lifeway president Thom Rainer after he spoke at the Baptist Identity Conference at Union University. In this article, Rainer mentions a number of the doctrines over which Southern Baptists disagree and basically says we should have fellowship and cooperate with one another in spite of our disagreement on these issues:

I am a part of a denomination that has many tracks but few bridges. And if we don’t start building some bridges quickly, God’s hand of blessing may move beyond us...

I spoke last week at the Baptist Identity Conference at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. From an outsider’s perspective, one might conclude that the crowd was like-minded. After all, it was a gathering of mostly Southern Baptists.

But I knew better. Present were five-point Calvinists and others who would not affirm all five points. Also in attendance were cessationists and non-cessationists, people with differing views of women in ministry, bloggers, and print-media writers. There were some who thought leaving "Baptist" out of a church’s name was wrong; and there were others had already taken the denominational label out of their church’s name. The views on eschatology held by the attendees were many.

It was a diverse group of Southern Baptists indeed.

I spoke to many people before and after my formal presentation. One person commented to me, "Dr. Rainer, I better leave you before people start wondering why we are speaking with each other." Admittedly, his comment was meant to be humorous. But it did have a sting of truth in it. The labels had already been applied. The sides had been chosen. And you had better be careful about the side you chose or the people with whom you associated.

I reject that line of thinking.

As far as I knew, everyone at that conference was my brother or sister in Christ. As far as I knew, everyone was a Bible believer. I refuse to let labels keep me from building bridges...

I understand the risk I am taking by writing these words. But silence is not an option. I must be about building bridges...Though I am a fallible and sinful person, I will seek God’s power to stay true to the following:

1. I stand firm on the inerrant Word of God. I support without reservation the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

2. Though I may disagree with some on secondary and tertiary issues, I will not let those points of disagreement tear down bridges of relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ.

3. I will seek to join with those who will work together on the common causes of missions, evangelism and the health of the local church.

4. I will seek God’s will in prayer before I write or speak a word of disagreement against another brother or sister in Christ or even a non-Christian. I will seek to see the plank in my own eye before pointing out the splinter in another person’s eye. I will follow the truths of Matthew 18 when I feel that I need to confront a brother or sister in Christ.

5. I will spend more time rejoicing in the Lord (Phil 4:4).

6. I will seek God’s power to have a more gentle and Christlike spirit (Phil 4:5).

7. I will pray that the lost and the unchurched world will know me by my Christlike love.

Such is my commitment.

If God so leads, I invite you to join me in building bridges.

Another SBC leader who would like to see more bridge building in the SBC is Executive Committee president Morris Chapman. One several occasions, most recently at the Executive Committee meeting February 19, Chapman has made it clear that, while we must always remain vigilant against those who would seek to undermine or deny the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, the time has come for Southern Baptists to stop fighting and cooperate for the sake of the Kingdom. He issued a clarion call for all Southern Baptist conservatives to come together in his message "The Fundamentals of Cooperating Conservatives," delivered at the 2004 Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis:
We must never cease to be vigilant against heresy. This is always the task of faithful Christians. However, crusades cannot last forever. Again and again we have debated vigorously that the conservative resurgence was theological, not political; that our objective was doctrinal purity, not political control.

If this is true, the crusade phase of the conservative resurgence has passed. The stated goals have been achieved. The battle has been won. Now there are other tasks at hand. We cannot linger at the base camp of biblical authority. We are a people who not only believe the Book; we are compelled to live by the Book. Biblical concepts such as surrender, sacrifice, righteousness, and holiness must consume our hearts and minds. We must plant churches on almost every corner of every block in this nation. And we must take the gospel to the ends of the earth. This is our biblical mandate. This is our commission.

In the spring of 1990 after it was announced I would be nominated for president of the Convention, I pledged to Southern Baptists that I would “enlarge the tent, lengthen the cords, and strengthen the stakes,” those same words stated in Isaiah 54:2

My promise was to all Southern Baptists who believe in the absolute authority of God’s Word. Then as now, there were those who rejected biblical fidelity and have excluded themselves from the historic convictions of Southern Baptists. They have excluded themselves from the pledge I made...

A mistake of some fundamentalist movements in the past has been the belief of the adherents that to be right with doctrine is to be right with the Lord. True righteousness was too easily discarded in favor of a type of dogmatism that was stifling and demoralizing to other Christians. In other words, right doctrine was equated to righteous living. They are not one and the same...

It is the sin of Pharisaism when good people, whose theology and ministry are above reproach, are slandered, discredited, or ostracized simply because they refuse to blindly follow particular political posturing. Innuendos, unfounded rumors, sly winks and nods are as deadly as an assassin’s bullet and usually as ungodly.

Could Southern Baptists fall into the error of Pharisaism? Could we ever, while priding ourselves on orthodox beliefs, be out of fellowship with the Living God and the true saints of God? The threat is real. I am concerned…now that we have affirmed by vigorous endeavor that Southern Baptists are people of the Book, that we will develop a censorious, exclusivistic, intolerant spirit. If this occurs, we will be the poorer for it. It will not only result in narrower participation in denominational life, a shallower pool of wisdom and giftedness in our enterprises, and a shrinking impact upon the world, but we will be in the unenviable position of being right on doctrine but wrong with God.
NAMB trustee chairman Bill Curtis is another prominent SBC leader who understands the importance of building bridges. In an interview with South Carolina pastor Chadwick Ivester, Curtis encourages Southern Baptists to unite together within the boundaries of the BFM 2000 and cooperate for the sake of missions and evangelism [material in brackets is mine]:
As it stands, there seems to be two major groups in the SBC, and they view this situation differently. Group A fears the contemporary worship movement and the increasing number of pastors who are Reformed [or those who have a private prayer language or who believe the Bible does not require total abstinence from alcohol or who believe...]. Group B fears a further "narrowing" of the convention based upon personal preferences and generational methodologies. What you have is two different groups looking at the same issues from totally different sides. And that’s where, for Southern Baptists, a choice must be made: Are we going to make preference issues a test of fellowship within our convention? Or are we going to say, "No, we have a document which serves as a statement of our collective beliefs called the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. We’re going to let that be the document that helps us define who we are. And when there are opposing positions which can exist within the confines of that document, we’re not going to break fellowship over those issues but move ahead together to fulfill our primary mission as a convention—fulfilling the Great Commission." ...

In the long term, however, our ability to sustain that missionary effort will be dependent upon the degree to which we, as a people, can work together. My concern is with the potential fallout from a further narrowing the SBC tent. The choice to limit cooperation even further will affect our capacity to support missionaries and to fulfill the Great Commission as a convention.
Thom Rainer, Morris Chapman, and Bill Curtis speak for many Southern Baptists when they call on us to join together in spite of our differences in style, methodology, and doctrine. They believe that cooperation in missions and evangelism is important enough that we should focus more on those things that unite us (missions & evangelism, the BFM) than on those things that divide us (worship styles, methodology, or specific interpretations on issues such as the sign gifts, eschatology, and soteriology). This does not mean that these men, and others who favor a bridge building approach, are soft on doctrine. I would be highly surprised if these men did not have strong positions on each of these contentious issues. However, they understand that, while all doctrine is important, there is a difference between essential doctrines and nonessential doctrines. They recognize that there is a difference between issues where the Bible is absolutely clear and those where the Bible is less clear. And they understand that the primary reason the SBC exists is not to define what Baptists believe on every single issue, but to facilitate cooperation among autonomous churches so that we can more effectively and efficiently take the gospel of Jesus Christ to all peoples.

In Part 3 I will look at some SBC leaders who, in my opinion, seek to lead us down the path of burning bridges with those who differ from the supposed majority view of Southern Baptists on a number of issues not addressed in the Baptist Faith & Message.


Kevin Bussey said...

I like what all three have to say. I like hearing from you again too!

Shawn said...

Enjoyed reading your blog, Thanks ;)

Lee said...

I think we need to keep in mind, when we think about burning or building bridges, that the BFM can be revised and changed at the initiation of any single sitting convention, and it has been done before. As we speak, the makeup of the SBC is changing. We should be very, very careful before lighting any matches...

Lee said...

O.K. Tim. I'm looking forward to Part 3.

It is interesting that you included Morris Chapman in your list of Southern Baptist leaders who want to build bridges. Being somewhat older than you, I had opportunity to observe Dr. Chapman's first, oh, fifteen years or so, as Executive Director of the SBC. He's not always been a bridge builder. For a long time, he was the front man for the real power behind the conservative resurgence, and did whatever they wanted him to do. I'd say there are a lot of burned bridges along his path. The wind is now blowing in a different direction and I think Dr. Chapman's eloquent words might be a reflection of the fact that he's taken notice of this. In all the time he's been at the executive board, I can't think of a single thing Southern Baptists have done at his initiative. He's just followed orders from others.

Tim Sweatman said...


I appreciate your perspective. I readily admit that I have little direct knowledge of everything that went on during the Conservative Resurgence. Like many younger Southern Baptists, I generally agree that some changes needed to happen in the SBC but believe some things went too far. I'm not sure what role Morris Chapman played in these events. My characterization of him as a bridge builder is based on public and private statements he has made over the past few years.