I recently read Brad Whitt’s first person article in the in the March 3, 2011 edition of Baptist Courier and found it necessary to make some attempt to respond to his thoughts.
I too am young, Southern Baptist and perhaps as irrelevant as anyone in our convention can be. I pastor a small church and have only served in small churches. I cannot boast of over a hundred members being baptized in one year nor proclaim a massive resume of denominational achievements and positions. I am not a particularly good preacher, nor am I the son of a preacher. EVEN SO, I am a Southern Baptist boy, born in the faith but more importantly at the age of 13 by conviction was regenerated to become a member of a local Southern Baptist church. By calling, I am but a local under-shepherd charged with the task of pastoring the flock that is among me (1 Peter 5:1-5). I too pursued my education at Southeastern because I believe in the verse that drives that institution to use God’s Word to present every man equipped (2 Tim. 3:17).
Testimonies are not in question, theological convictions are one matter of concern. Should we have animosity toward those within our denomination who have more reformed convictions than we might share? The answer lies not in inflammatory language about reformed thinkers, but in a careful look at our historically tenuous union for the work of gospel. The convention that was formed in 1845 in the south as well as its predecessor bound together Baptists of all stripes theologically, including some who were Reformed or Particular Baptists, around core theological tenants which enabled them to be on mission together. Reform teachings first found expression in this country in the Philadelphia Confession of Faith 1749. This Confession became the key document of South Carolina’s first Association in Charleston by 1767. Reformed teaching has neither been denied nor affirmed by the SBC in recent days in order to allow for broad cooperation among those who agree in the essentials. Even so, some of our greatest SBC leaders including Adrian Rogers and Jerry Vines have had no problem in proclaiming as biblical rather reformed teachings like the total depravity of mankind (Romans 3:23), the purpose of God to save sinners unconditionally in spite of their works (Eph. 2:8-10), and the perseverance of those who are believers as believers until their natural death (1 Cor. 1:4-9; Philippians 2:12-13). An appropriate test for cooperation that seemingly has existed since New Testament day has been that of Ephesians 4:1-7. There unity is maintained without divergence on the essential things while grace is expressed as a personal freedom of the Spirit in the non-essentials. Such essentials have been stated so well by the Reformation leaders stating that “salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone as revealed in the Scriptures alone”.
Southern Baptist methodology is also in question. Do concerns about wearing a coat and tie, having a dynamic choir special and having a public invitation define or parody the real concern of those who are “young, restless, and reformed?” My experience of both those who claim that moniker and those who are “young, Southern Baptist, and … irrelevant” is to see God’s people become a biblically literate, Jesus loving, gospel-centered people. Even so there are dangerous lines that are developing amid all circles including the “young, restless, and reformed”. The missional church movement’s focus can seem to jettison traditions which do not facilitate a radically mission oriented church. Those desiring to spark a relative church movement place relevance to culture as important as faithfulness to the biblical text. We all should be concerned about such movements for relevancy or radical Christian living. Even so, these issues are not unique to the “young, restless, and reformed.” In any case, these issues are second or third order practical issues of style which should not be elevated to first order problems which could hamper cooperation.
Perhaps the key issue in Southern Baptist life currently is the admonition towards and proud declaration of sacrificial giving to the Cooperative Program. Can those who theologically agree with the SBC but give relatively little to the CP still have voice and sway in the convention? I am afraid that if our answer alienates those “young, restless, and reformed” or “young, Southern Baptist and… irrelevant” from supporting our Southern Baptist cooperative mission efforts our celebration will be short lived. Biblical Southern Baptist convictions outlined in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, a document with which any Reform minded believer as well as Baptists of other convictions could maintain agreement, must guide our cooperation. As far as the CP is concerned no doubt it is the best means any denomination has ever formulated to the end of preaching the gospel to the nations, however it is a means to an end. This much we must never forget as we lovingly encourage all our Baptist brothers by common convictions about Jesus to join arms with us in supporting this means to preaching His Good News. Even so, as a means to an end, the CP may need to be examined, evaluated and adjusted to better reflect our common convictions, but that means both the “young, restless, and reformed” and the “young, Southern Baptist and… irrelevant must have a seat at the discussion table.
Finally and very simply, does reform theology and methodology exist somewhere out of the bounds of what the Bible clearly teaches and what the Savior intends? Can Southern Baptist be Particular? To answer these questions negatively is destructive, divisive, and derisive. It is a claim cannot be maintained. Southern Baptists, like the Bereans of Acts 17:11 are a people of the book who should avoid general denunciations of theological and methodological systems, coming instead with an open Bible to show the merits or faults with any doctrine or practice from Scripture. Reform thinking and practice may be different, but Baptists have defended the claim of local church autonomy. From one church to the next we do not share the exact same methodology and the programs the convention develops come merely as a suggestion for use to the churches of the convention. Baptists do however demand that all we do be firmly grounded in the Scripture – the sufficient source for all our faith and practice.
In light of this conversation, then one conclusion seems apparent. Southern Baptist have an well conceived definition of who we are, a confession known as the Baptist Faith and Message. Its silence on Reform Theology and other doctrinal systems should inform us to be silent ourselves as we seek to cooperate with all those who can freely affirm this confession. Further, since our SBC and SCBC organizing documents stipulate nothing more than small contribution to the CP, we must affirm that a good Southern Baptist is confessional with no limitation on his ability to cooperate or voice his opinion due to his CP contribution. Cooperative ministry must be driven by our theological agreement whatever the cost so that we can glorify Christ by winning the lost where ever they reside.
Perhaps there is one final statement to discuss. In fact, can we agree with the statement which says, “There is no limit to what Southern Baptists could accomplish for the kingdom if we didn’t care who received the credit?” Inasmuch as believers attempt to fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations in the biblical way by preaching the gospel (Romans 10:14-17), does it matter who gets the credit or how we choose to go about it? My answer is yes, whether the laborers are “young, reformed and restless” or “young, Southern Baptist, and irrelevant” it is vital to remember that it is Jesus who is Lord of the harvest. (Matthew 9:37-38).