Have we forgotten how to cooperate, and why we cooperate?

Bill Harrell, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, was recently featured in an article in The (Georgia) Christian Index. During the interview, he was asked to identify some of the problems facing today’s Southern Baptists. He said there are “two important issues to solve in our convention. First, concerning worship style, we must decide what identifies us as Southern Baptists. – Second, we must deal with Calvinism.”

Bill Curtis

After talking personally with Bill about his remarks, I am convinced that he loves God, his church, and the SBC. He clarified for me that he is burdened by how these two issues may impact local congregations; a concern I also share. As I reflect on my brother’s comments within the current climate of the Southern Baptist Convention, I must admit that I am very concerned about our future. I am concerned that we may have forgotten how to cooperate and why we are cooperating.

I am a committed Southern Baptist. I was a participant in the latter stages of the conservative resurgence, and I thank God for our convention’s commitment to inerrancy and the exclusivity of the gospel as communicated in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. I’m grateful for the men who have been used of God to lead us through this strategic time in Southern Baptist life, and I’m thankful for the opportunity I have had to be a participant in the process. My generation of pastors, who share my views on scripture, would never have enjoyed the opportunity for a conservative theological education or the scope of ministry opportunities that we have enjoyed had it not been for the conservative resurgence.

But as I look across the current SBC landscape, I see a convention that is struggling with a lack of focus. We stood united while we struggled for the heart and soul of our convention – the inerrancy of scripture. We refused to let our differences in worship styles and methodologies hinder us from the task at hand: reforming our convention. Similarly, we refused to be uncooperative during those years because of theological issues that were debatable within the scope of the Baptist Faith and Message. After all, we were striving “for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). There were still conversations by premillenialists about the timing of the rapture and by theologians and pastors over the unsolvable tension between sovereign election and human responsibility, but these disputes took a back seat to the cause of inerrancy. We stood side-by-side in defense of our conviction that scripture is totally true and trustworthy. And it was, and still is, a worthwhile cause.

Today, the battle for the inerrancy of scripture in Southern Baptist life is largely behind us. We adopted the 2000 BF&M as our theological guide for cooperating with one another to fulfill the Great Commission. Now, however, some throughout our convention seem intent on waging a battle on new fronts, which pit generations and traditions against one another in a battle of preferences, and which seek to limit theological fellowship on debatable issues within the scope of the 2000 BF&M.

I have watched these sentiments develop in recent years, both in my home state of South Carolina, and throughout the SBC. I have seen these issues begin to divide good men who labored together during the resurgence; men whom I respect. And I am heartbroken by what I am seeing. Individuals on different sides of a variety of issues continue to fire rhetorical salvos at one another, with little apparent regard for the current effectiveness of our evangelistic strategies. The ultimate result of this behavior will not be greater denominational purity – it will be missed evangelistic opportunity.

Despite our temptation to major on the minors, I’m absolutely convinced that we all know the biggest problem facing Southern Baptists: the reality that there are so many lost people in the world and so few of us are doing anything about it. I’m sure Bill Harrell would agree.
As chairman of trustees for the North American Mission Board, let me take a moment to review some indicators of the severity of our problem in North America:

? SBC baptisms are at their lowest levels in 12 years;

? 73 percent of SBC churches are plateaued or declining;

? 11,740 SBC churches reported zero or one baptism in 2005;

? 55 percent of SBC churches baptized no youth between the ages of 12-17 in 2004;

? From 1991-2004, the number of unchurched adults in America increased from 39 million to 79 million;

? Every county in North America is at least 50 percent unchurched (statistics available from NAMB).

It is my understanding that the conservative resurgence was undertaken, ultimately, so that we could have confidence that our agencies and seminaries would equip pastors and churches to fulfill the Great Commission. And in a resulting spirit of unity, we could tackle our biggest problem.

Therefore, I’m calling upon all Southern Baptists – pastors, agency leaders, and laypeople – to consider adopting the following framework for our continued cooperation in evangelism. I offer these suggestions in a spirit of humility and with the sincere desire that our convention successfully refocus on the priority of the Great Commission”

Respect the worship styles of churches that affirm the 2000 BF&M. There is no question that we are experiencing a seismic shift in 21st century worship methodology and ministry philosophy in America. It can be seen in all facets of religious life, including Southern Baptist churches. The 2000 BF&M defines the church in the following way:

“A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation, each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. “

Nowhere in this statement are worship styles or methodologies mentioned. In The Christian Index article, Bill Harrell made several telling comments about worship styles. He said that “concerning the matter of worship style, we must decide what identifies us as Southern Baptists.” He added later, “We are never going to be homogeneous, never have been, but there are some lines we should never cross as Southern Baptists. -There must be something distinctive about us or we will lose our identity.” There is something distinctive about us: We are autonomous Southern Baptist churches who have chosen to labor together to accomplish the Great Commission.

I would submit that the decision about worship style and ministry methodology is a personal preference issue to be decided by the local church. By not addressing these issues in the 2000 BF&M, Southern Baptists have already decided not to make worship styles and methodologies a condition of cooperation. I think this is very wise, and I support the right of any SBC church to be as traditional or contemporary in its methodology as it chooses to be. But I will not ignore any longer those who claim that their worship style, traditional or contemporary, is the only valid mode of worship.

Respect the theology of those who affirm the 2000 BF&M. As I noted earlier, the conservative resurgence mobilized tens of thousands of Southern Baptists to reaffirm our commitment to the inerrancy of scripture and the mandate of the Great Commission. However, it appears that some within our convention cannot be content unless they are waging a theological battle on some front. Make no mistake, we must be on guard against false teachers “who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1).

Today, one of the most popular targets is evangelistic Calvinism. Despite the fact that the 2000 BF&M accommodates evangelistic Calvinism, there are some who are trying to identify it as heresy. Regardless of these claims, made by Bill Harrell and others, evangelistic Calvinism does not fall into this category.

The 2000 BF&M has this to say about sovereign election:

“Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.”

No matter what people may try to read into this statement, reformed theology is not defined as being outside the scope of our Southern Baptist theology. As a result, anyone who rebukes a brother over the degree to which he affirms evangelistic Calvinism is imposing a standard for fellowship not consistent with the 2000 BF&M.

While most pastors and theologians have very clear personal positions on this subject, and often enjoy discussing and debating them, we should not cease cooperation because of them. Once again, I would submit that the decision about evangelistic Calvinism is an issue to be decided by the local church. There is room within our Southern Baptist family for those who are in different places along the spectrum of the five points of evangelistic Calvinism.

Reject the divisive rhetoric in our convention. Today, seemingly more than at any time since the end of the conservative resurgence, there is the emergence of harmful, and potentially destructive, rhetoric. The willingness of some SBC leaders and pastors to criticize, label, ridicule, and shun fellow Southern Baptists over the issues I’ve addressed in this article is astounding to me. The article in The Christian Index provides two examples of this kind of rhetoric. In reference to contemporary worship methodologies, Bill Harrell said, “I am afraid that the contemporary church movement gets people into a casual mindset, which can lead to a casual mindset toward spiritual things, toward God. People who have lowered the bar to attract the world, who have embraced a non-confrontational approach where sin is concerned in order to attract the world, have become so much like the world that they are losing their witness to the world.” Apart from the fact that this argument is flawed, it does demonstrate the kind of harmful rhetoric that is emerging in our convention. The charge that contemporary worship/methods equal casual Christianity is both unjustified and unacceptable.

The second example is equally disconcerting. Harrell stated, “I have solid Christian friends, some of them pastors who are Calvinists, but I think they are wrong about the tenets of five-point Calvinism. In my opinion, too much of the New Testament must be ignored or radically interpreted to embrace the five points of Calvinism.”

As I stated earlier, I can cooperate with anyone who affirms the 2000 BF&M, regardless of where he may fall along the spectrum of evangelistic Calvinism. I can do this because this issue should not be a condition for cooperation for Southern Baptists. For Bill to state that he disagrees with evangelistic Calvinism on biblical grounds is perfectly acceptable to me. But for him to assert that those who affirm one of the many varieties of evangelistic Calvinism “ignore or radically interpret” the New Testament is the kind of unacceptable rhetoric that impedes cooperation in fulfilling the Great Commission.

Refocus on the biggest problem facing Southern Baptists. Our biggest problem is the overwhelming number of lost people and our failure to do very much about it. The suggestions I’ve offered in this article, if applied, have the potential to bring us together again for the purpose of evangelism and missions. They will allow us to value our Southern Baptist heritage, while at the same time permitting us to try new, creative, and innovative things to reach people for Christ. I, for one, am making the conscious decision to use whatever influence I may have in my church, my state, my agency, and my convention to refocus on the priority of the Great Commission. I will not criticize, be uncooperative, or break fellowship with any supporter of the 2000 BF&M because of preferences in worship styles or methodologies. I will accept the different positions held in Southern Baptist life related to evangelistic Calvinism, neither celebrating nor vilifying proponents of any 2000 BF&M-affirming view. We may all be unclear about the mysteries of sovereign election, but we should be very clear about the mandate of the Great Commission. Therefore, I will choose to focus my attentions on the promotion of the expository preaching of an inerrant Bible, for the winning of souls and the growing of Christ-followers.

Are there other needs in our convention? Of course, the answer is yes. Both Bill Harrell and I agree that Southern Baptists should be working hard to support the Cooperative Program, deploy missionaries, and assist churches with evangelism and discipleship. At the North American Mission Board, our missionaries, staff, and trustees are working hard to accomplish these things. However, there is still an important choice to be made. Will we value one another’s contributions to the kingdom, regardless of our differences, or will we be distracted from our primary purpose?

Cooperating despite our differences has been an integral part of our Southern Baptist heritage since the time of Charleston and Sandy Creek. Perhaps it is time for a new generation of Southern Baptists to remember how to cooperate and why we are cooperating. Perhaps it is time for our SBC leaders to lead us to cooperate anew for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. I urge the precious people of the Southern Baptist Convention to join me in adopting the framework I have recommended, so that we can refocus on our task of fulfilling the Great Commission as cooperating Southern Baptists.

This entry was posted in Archives.
Article by: Bill Curtis, chairman of trustees of the North American Mission Board and pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church, Florence, SC