Sunday, May 19, 2019

Do You Have an Abner Spirit or a Joab Spirit?

It was a time of civil war in Israel. King Saul and his oldest son, Jonathan, had died in battle. The people of David’s native tribe of Judah had proclaimed him the new king. The prophet Samuel had anointed David years earlier and had let it be known that God had rejected Saul. But those who were loyal to Saul had rallied around Saul’s son Ishbosheth and proclaimed him as king.

The rivalries were deeply seated. Those on David’s side, including his military captain, Joab, were convinced they were on the right side. They had been unjustly persecuted by Saul and his army for years. And now, they felt, justice was finally on their side. Now it was time for David, the slayer of his tens of thousands of Israel’s enemies, to take the throne.

But those on Ishbosheth’s side were just as convinced that they were in the right. Ishbosheth, they thought, as the son of God’s duly anointed and appointed king, Saul, was the legitimate heir to the throne. David’s army was nothing but an upstart band of renegades and rebels. His support base was centered in his home tribe of Judah and was not as widespread as that of Ishbosheth, who commanded the loyalty of the majority of the rest of the other eleven tribes.

There didn’t appear to be any sign of peace and reconciliation on the horizon. In a winner-take-all challenge match between twelve leading warriors of each army, they all ended up as losers, with each pair of warriors simultaneously killing each other. And then, Joab’s young, fleet-footed brother Asahel chased after Abner with the intent to kill him. But the older and wiser Abner, after pleading with Asahel to desist, ended up killing him instead, in self-defense.

It was in this scenario of escalating violence and resentment that Abner shouted out to Joab, “Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result? When will you call off your men from chasing their Israelite brothers?” (2 Samuel 2:26 NLT) 

For a brief moment, Abner appeared to have gotten through to Joab, and he agreed to a short-lived truce. But before long, both sides were back at it, and the long, bitter war once again raged on.

After some dicey personal matters came to light and words of disagreement were exchanged between him and Ishbosheth, though, Abner came to his senses and finally decided that enough was enough. He humbled himself, came to David, and offered terms of peace. He agreed to use his influence to convince all Israel to lay down their arms and support David as king. Finally, it appeared, there was a real opportunity for peace in the land. 

But Joab would have none of it. He secretly connived and laid a trap for Abner, and while his guard was down and he was not expecting it, he ruthlessly murdered him in revenge for his brother Asahel.

Joab convinced himself he was acting out of loyalty to David. But David was profoundly heartbroken and disappointed with Joab. “Don’t you realize that a great commander has fallen today in Israel?” he told Joab and the rest of his troops. “Tear your clothes and put on burlap. Mourn for Abner.”

There were still many twists and turns in the plot-line to be told before we come to the end of this sordid story, but David’s bitter wound stayed with him until the day he died. While giving his parting admonition to his son Solomon shortly before he died, David made a special point to include the following words:

“And there is something else. You know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me when he murdered my two army commanders, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether. He pretended that it was an act of war, but it was done in a time of peace, staining his belt and sandals with innocent blood. Do with him what you think best, but don’t let him grow old and go to his grave in peace.” (1 Kings 2:5–6 NLT)

Though perhaps some might find the illustration a bit extreme, I believe there are some interesting parallels between several elements of this story (which you can read about more fully in 2 Samuel 2–3) and the current atmosphere in the SBC—and to some extent in the broader evangelical world.

We also live in a time of combat and combatants. We have culture warriors. We have social justice warriors. And we have many on every side who claim to just be soldiers of the cross.

Everyone thinks they are on the right side. Just like Abner was convinced he was on the right side, and Joab was convinced he was on the right side, most of the warriors in our wars are sincerely convinced they are on the right side as well.

And don’t get me wrong. It is important to be on the right side. It is not a matter of indifference. Ultimately, from the perspective of redemption history, we learn that David and those who supported him were on the right side, and Saul and Ishbosheth and those who supported them were on the wrong side. 

It is good to have convictions. We are not called as soldiers of the cross to be wishy-washy in our convictions. Just as Paul told the Roman Christians who were grappling with divisive issues among them, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5 ESV)

But even though Abner was ultimately on the wrong side, and even though he was not without his own flaws, in this situation he had the right spirit. He was able to recognize the writing on the wall. And he was able to lay down his own impetuosity and stubbornness. But Joab, who was ultimately on the right side, had the wrong spirit—a petty, vindictive spirit. He was more dedicated to a cause and loyal to the human champions of that cause than he was to God and the ultimate welfare of His people Israel.

Hear me out well now. I am not saying that in the current discussions and conflict in the SBC (and American Evangelicalism at large) one side is Abner and the other side is Joab. I indeed have my own views on various of the issues up for discussion, and will almost certainly continue to defend these views here and there, but that is not what this post is about. I am not calling for anyone to compromise on their heartfelt convictions. What I am saying is that we may well be on the right side of a particular issue, but approach it with a Joab spirit. And a Joab spirit is not something that God can bless. It is poison. It is destructive. It is satanic.

What I am attempting to do here is to echo and apply the words of Abner in our current context and hope that maybe, just maybe, it will get through to someone who needs to hear it: “Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result? When will you call off your men from chasing their Israelite brothers?”

Saturday, April 20, 2019

A Review of A Wideness in God's Mercy, by Clark Pinnock


Pinnock, Clark H. A Wideness in God’s Mercy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

Clark Pinnock is a theologian, who, from his childhood upbringing in a liberal Baptist church in Canada, to his days as a convictional defender of biblical inerrancy at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, to his increasing involvement in left-wing political causes, and later reversal of his political positions (along with an increasing liberalization of his theological views), has passed through many stages in his theological pilgrimage. Once a five-point Calvinist and apologist for traditional evangelicalism, by the time of his death in 2010, he had embraced Arminian soteriology, open theism, annihilationism, and a view of Scripture that was somewhat less stringent than traditional inerrancy (without disowning the term “inerrancy”). Though almost voted out of the Evangelical Theology Society for his heterodox views (especially, in regard to open theism), he continued to identify himself as an evangelical. In addition to New Orleans, he taught, in subsequent years, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Regent College, and McMaster Divinity College. He earned his B.A. at the University of Toronto and his Ph.D. in New Testament at Manchester University under the supervision of F. F. Bruce. [1]
In A Wideness in God’s Mercy, Pinnock explores the middle-ground between evangelical exclusivism and religious pluralism. Although most would classify his view as inclusivist, it is hard to pin him down as embracing entirely any of the leading views on world religions—exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist. He organizes his argument around five main points, each one occupying a chapter in his book.
Chapter one presents his foundational point defending an optimistic stance on the ultimate salvation of a large percent of humanity. From the perspective of Pinnock, this optimism hinges on an objective reading of Scripture. A fairly extensive review of passages encompassing both the Old and New Testaments reveals God’s gracious intent to redeem a broad representation of humanity spanning different ethnicities and cultures. A central feature of Pinnock’s scriptural argument, often neglected by exclusivists, is the reference to a number of “pagan saints,” who, although outside the realm of God’s specific revelation of salvation through Christ, exhibit a faith response to the revelation they did receive. According to Pinnock, much of biblical interpretation through the centuries has been skewed by Augustinian restrictivism, which was not based on an objective reading of the text, but was, rather, a response to particular historical conditions.
In chapter two, Pinnock balances his initial thoughts regarding soteriological optimism with a scriptural defense of a high Christology, including both traditional trinitarian and incarnational understandings of Jesus. It is at this point Pinnock most clearly distances himself from the pluralism of theologians such as Hick and Knitter, insisting that an objective exegesis of Scripture rules out the view that Jesus is merely one manifestation among many of divine consciousness. At the same time, he expresses openness to the Vatican II emphasis on the possibility of people from different cultural and religious backgrounds relating to the same ontological Jesus through a plurality of epistemological paths.
In chapter three, Pinnock discusses what he calls subjective religion. According to his thesis, religion in general has the capacity for both good and evil. He posits an ethical criterion for judging the helpfulness or lack thereof of specific religious traditions and practices. While he never disowns his assertions on the necessity of Christ as the ultimate basis of salvation, he sees that world religions, in varying degrees, are used by God as vehicles for general revelation and prevenient grace. Relying heavily on the “pagan saint” motif presented in chapter one, he claims that people may relate to God on the basis of three different covenants: “the cosmic covenant established with Noah … the old covenant made with Abraham, and … the new covenant ratified by Jesus” (105). From Pinnock’s perspective, it is through the Noahic covenant that many (not all!) people respond in faith to the general revelation they receive, which is at times mediated through and nurtured by the particular religious tradition in which they are brought up.
In chapter four, Pinnock suggests that world religions are in a process of evolution. Behind this process, God is at work bringing all things to an ultimate eschatological destiny in which the finality of Christ is embraced by all. Key in Pinnock’s thoughts is the idea that God is not just interested in the redemption of human individuals, but also in the transformation and development of human culture. In the meantime, Christians play a key role in this process by means of honest and humble dialogue with adherents of other faiths, pointing out their inadequacies, while at the same time remaining open to learn from their insights. In order to effectively carry out this dialogue, the opposing pitfalls of relativism and fideism must be avoided.
In the fifth and final chapter, Pinnock brings to bear the observations made in previous chapters in an attempt to discern the ultimate fate of the unevangelized. While disavowing universalism (in the sense that all will eventually be saved), he presses the point that people are saved by faith itself (or “the direction of their heart”) rather than the theological content of their faith. Though not dogmatic on these points, Pinnock also manifests sympathy toward the twin ideas of annihilationism and the possibility of a postmortem encounter in which individuals who do not have an adequate opportunity to hear the gospel in this life are given that opportunity after death. His main answer to the charge that this view diminishes the urgency of missions is that the main motivation for missions should not be “individually oriented hellfire insurance” (177), but rather proclaiming the kingdom of God and the corresponding cultural transformation it brings.
Within the text, Pinnock is open about his stated purpose of writing primarily to conservative evangelicals, hoping to convince them of the weakness of the strict exclusivist position. In keeping with this, he attempts to give an exegetical defense from Scripture for the ideas he presents. Though not strictly inerrantist in his presentation (he says, for instance, on p. 89, “It appears that the Old Testament did not always capture the divine nature with full accuracy”), it is not primarily any lack of reverence for the sacred text that underlies his controversial views, but rather hermeneutical concerns.
Pinnock’s relatively high view of Scripture and exegetical insight allow him to make some forceful and convincing arguments against pluralism and universalism. The evangelical believer seeking help in answering the ideas of Hick and Knitter will benefit from a careful reading of Pinnock. It is regrettable that this same incisiveness does not keep him from hermeneutical sloppiness with regard to other questions.
It is important, for instance, to carefully divide between God’s lavish grace which he extends to people of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue and any hypothetical path to salvation outside of his designated plan of redemption through faith in Christ. Although, from a human perspective, it might well appear consonant with the grace and mercy of God to ensure an opportunity for everyone to either specifically accept or reject the offer of redemption through Christ, Scripture never guarantees this. Scripture does, however, proclaim there is none righteous, no not one, and none that seek after God (Rom 3:10–11), and, as such, all are held accountable for rejecting the light they have received. Whether God sovereignly sees to it that the saving message of the gospel makes it to all humanity, or just to those he chooses as the recipients of this message, he is no less just.
Though Pinnock references a significant amount of Scripture, his treatment of Scripture is somewhat one-sided. For instance, he mentions Eph 2:12, in which it states that Gentiles who were formerly separated from Christ had “no hope and were without God in the world” (90), but avoids its implications for his thesis. The same is true with regard to Acts 17:30, in which he emphasizes the part about God “overlooking the times of ignorance,” but not the implications of him now commanding “all men everywhere to repent” (101–02). He creatively reaches the conclusion that Deut 4:19 implies God’s permission for the nations to worship the sun, moon, and stars (101). He waters down the force of Acts 4:12, suggesting that “no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” is only to be taken in a comparative sense and not as an absolute (101). He does not even mention Rom 10:12–17, one of the clearest passages on the necessity of gospel proclamation for the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles.
Of all the ideas Pinnock presents, the one which poses the biggest challenge to the exclusivist position is that of “pagan saints” and their similarity, in several aspects, to many unevangelized people today. As this is a theme that is not often talked about in evangelical circles and the biblical data is somewhat ambiguous, Pinnock’s hypothesis calls for a careful analysis, taking into account the full scope of scriptural teaching. While it is true that Old Testament saints were redeemed on the basis on their faith, and the content of this faith was less specifically grounded in Christ than is the case with post-resurrection Christians, this does not mean there was no specific content to their faith nor that this content was not tied to Christ and his sacrificial atonement. From the protoevangelium of Gen 3:15 and the acceptable blood sacrifice of Abel to the law of Moses and the increasingly developed prophecies of the prophets of Israel, both those Old Testament saints who were born into the chosen people, as well as those who lived before the calling of Abraham, responded to the degree of revelation they had received, which, on many occasions, had specific content that looked forward to the sacrifice of Jesus.
Even several of the “pagan saints” referenced by Pinnock responded in faith to what might be classified as a mixture of general and special revelation. In some cases, this is more explicit, and, in others, there is not enough information to say for sure what degree of special revelation was received. However, the New Testament makes clear that all those who attain salvation, including both those who are members of the ethnic Israel as well as those who are not, do so on the basis of the death of Christ (Heb 11:40–12:2).
The New Testament also makes clear that, now that Christ has come, the responsibility for responding to special revelation is greater than before. Before the Athenians at Mars Hill, Paul announces in Acts 17:30 that a change in God’s dealing with the Gentiles has occurred. Those things he previously winked at, he no longer winks at. He now commands all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel—not just a general gospel of God’s goodwill toward those who sincerely seek after him, but the specific gospel of God’s provision of forgiveness of sin through the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (see also Rom 10:9–17).
Of the various “pagan saints” mentioned by Pinnock, only one of them, Cornelius, comes from a post-resurrection timeframe. Ironically enough, though this is one of the examples that Pinnock relies on most heavily to support his thesis, it is perhaps the one that most conclusively contradicts it. Contrary to what Pinnock claims, Acts 11:14 specifically says that Cornelius was saved after Peter proclaimed the gospel to him, not before. In other words, for him to be saved, it was necessary for Peter to preach the gospel to him. The clear implication is that, after the resurrection of Jesus, God will ensure that those who respond in faith to the revelation they have already received, be it general or special, will also be the recipients of sufficient special revelation to specifically repent and embrace the gospel of Jesus.
Short of further biblical light on this specific question, the model of Cornelius is the best guide we have of how God will deal with others in a similar situation in this present dispensation. Stories of modern-day Corneliuses, such as that of Sadhu Sundar Singh, the episodes narrated by Don Richardson in Eternity in Their Hearts, and increasingly common reports of partial special revelation received by many Muslims (and others) by way of dreams and visions tend to confirm this. While we will not know for sure on this side of heaven who will ultimately be there with us, nor the precise route they take in order to get there, we have good reason to believe that all those who respond positively to the revelation they receive in this dispensation will also have an opportunity to respond specifically to the gospel of Jesus in this present life. And, if they do not have this opportunity, it is because they did not respond in faith to the revelation they had already received.
Admittedly, the biblical evidence either in favor of or directly against the possibility of postmortem opportunities to respond to the gospel is scant. First Peter 3:18–20, the main passage cited by Pinnock in support of this idea, is universally regarded as one of the most difficult passages in all of the Bible. Taken in isolation, there are some reasons to speculate a possible postmortem encounter between Jesus and certain others. However, there is significant question as to whether the message preached by Jesus is one of judgment or an invitation to repentance and faith. Additionally, the “spirits” to whom this message is proclaimed are those from the time of Noah, not those from the post-resurrection time period. Anything beyond this is pure speculation.
On the other side of the question, passages such as Heb 9:27 and Luke 16:25–26 appear to indicate no second chances for repentance after death. While, admittedly, this idea is not stated as directly as it could be, the overall weight of biblical evidence seems to militate against postmortem opportunities for repentance. Ultimately, the answer is in God’s hands. However, this should not give cause for Christians to in any way attenuate the urgency for evangelism and missions.
In the end, it all boils down to the sovereignty of God. Those who respond positively to revelation, no matter the degree of specificity, are those God sovereignly draws to himself, and the rhyme and reason of his choices are known to him alone. Whether or not it is only an Augustinian control belief that leads one to come to such a conclusion (as Pinnock insinuates), each student of Scripture is responsible for reading and interpreting what it says on these matters as carefully and objectively as possible. It is my opinion, on the basis of my attempt at doing this, that Pinnock is wrong in his opposition to evangelical exclusivism.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Ministerial Ordination

* originally posted August 25, 2008, at sbcimpact.org

*Knowing this is a potentially controversial topic, I want to make clear right from the top that I am, by no means, dogmatic on this, and am totally open to gaining any further insight from Scripture any of you may have to offer on this.

I do not believe that ministerial ordination, as traditionally practiced in Baptist churches, has a biblical basis. I also believe that it can end up having an adverse effect on the advance of God’s Kingdom. I do believe, however, in publicly setting apart individuals called by God to a particular ministry, laying hands on them, praying for them, and commending them to that ministry. I believe this is biblical and has a generally positive effect on the advance of God’s Kingdom.

In traditional Baptist practice, there is a three-fold recognition of God’s call on the life of an individual and commendation to ministry: first, license to preach; next, ordination; and next, installation into a specific ministry role. I believe that what is symbolically communicated by such a practice flies in the face of the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. It props up the idea that “professional ministers” are, in one way or another, a class apart. Historically, it has its roots in the Roman Catholic concept that certain members of the Church, by virtue of their ordination (“holy orders”), have prerogatives and abilities to carry out certain spiritual tasks (“sacraments”) that others do not. Some historical justification for this is also at times adduced from the Old Testament practice of ordaining priests, insinuating that Christian ministry is essentially a continuation of the Old Testament priesthood.

I am not arguing against recognizing specific individuals and commending them to certain ministry tasks or roles such as those of elder, deacon, missionary, evangelist, teacher, etc. This is what is normally done in a ministry installation ceremony or missionary commissioning service. I believe that biblically, in the Body of Christ, each of us is “licensed” to preach and “ordained” to ministry, in a general sense, at the moment of our conversion. Most ministry roles or offices, however, are specific to local church contexts. I believe it is generally a good thing for those in modern “para-church” ministry roles to be subject to local church accountability as well. When someone is installed as the new pastor at a local church, they are accountable specifically to that local church for the exercise of that particular ministry. When someone is “ordained to gospel ministry,” however, the idea communicated is that they are recognized as legitimate, authentic “gospel ministers,” whether they have a specific role or office through which they carry out their ministry or not.

Scriptural Evidence

The following are the New Testament passages I have found that seem to speak one way or another to the question of ordination and/or ministry installation. I have included my own comments and observations on each passage…

In Matthew 10; Mark 3:13–19, 6:7–13; Luke 6:12–16, and 9:1–6, Jesus Himself personally commended the twelve apostles to specific ministry tasks as well as appointed them to the specific ministry role they were to carry out in the church. Judas was later disqualified from his appointment after his betrayal of Jesus and subsequent death. In Acts 1:15–26, we learn that Matthias was named to take his place through the process agreed upon by the other eleven. In Acts 6:1–7, seven men (commonly regarded as the first deacons) were chosen by the members of the Jerusalem church to oversee the daily distribution of food. The apostles prayed for them and laid their hands on them, apparently commending them publicly to this specific task. In Acts 13:1–3, Barnabas and Saul were prayed for, set apart with the laying on of hands, and sent off for the specific task to which the Holy Spirit had called them. In Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for the churches they had planted, praying and fasting for them, and committing them to the Lord. In Acts 15:40, Paul was “commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord,” together with Silas, as he set out on his second missionary journey. In Acts 20:28, Paul instructed the elders in the church at Ephesus: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” In v. 32, Paul also committed these same elders “to God and to the word of his grace.” A legitimate question can be asked at this point if the elders were elders exclusively of the church at Ephesus or also elders of the entire church of God throughout the world. While church history does indicate that there was a relationship of collegiality and mutual respect and recognition among church leaders in various locations, there is no reason to assume an official connectionalism between local churches or a trans-local leadership hierarchy at this time. In 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul writes to Timothy, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.” Also, in 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul writes something similar: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” It is unclear exactly what the context of this event was. However, it would appear that Paul knew that Timothy had at one time been commended to a specific ministry, which in 2 Timothy 4:5 he calls “the work of an evangelist.” Likewise, the specific context of 1 Timothy 5:22—“Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others”—is unclear, though it is possible, given the general context of the book, to link it to the appointment of elders. Finally, Titus 1:5 indicates that Titus was given the task by Paul of appointing elders in every town on the island of Crete. Nothing is said explicitly, however, as to whether or not this involved a public recognition and commendation of these men, setting them apart to this specific ministry.

Some Final Comments

It is evident that the action of laying on of hands was known and commonly practiced in New Testament churches. There were also special moments in which certain individuals were publicly recognized, prayed for, and commended to a specific ministry. However, there is nothing to indicate that the significance of such an action was the same as that conveyed in modern Baptist “ordination” ceremonies. There is no indication in the New Testament that anyone was ever publicly recognized and set apart for “at large” ministry. Whenever this occurred, it was always with regard either to a specific ministry responsibility linked to the direct accountability of a local church or to being commissioned for itinerant missionary or evangelistic ministry. 

At this point, although one may agree there is no specific New Testament justification for the practice of ministerial ordination, the question still remains: What harm does it cause? While I am reluctant to in any way cast stones at all those who in good faith and with very noble intentions carry out or submit to traditional Baptist ordination practices, I see the following potentially negative consequences for doing so:
  1. The idea is symbolically and falsely communicated that there are two separate spiritual classes within the Body of Christ: “clergy” and “laity.”
  2. The idea is also communicated of a professional ministry “club” or “guild,” for which the official initiation ceremony is ordination.
  3. Ordinary “lay people” are led to believe that there are certain tasks in the Body of Christ that should generally be reserved for “ordained clergy,” and are thus in many cases encouraged to remain passive and not put to use the spiritual gifts that God has given them.
  4. There is a potential conflict of interest with respect to discipline and ministry accountability between the congregation that initially ordains a minister and the congregation in which he later serves and/or becomes a member.
  5. Church leaders who fall into sin and are disqualified from specific ministry roles and tasks they previously occupied in a specific local church setting many times continue to maintain their “ministerial credentials” and take advantage of this circumstance to dupe those in other local churches who are unaware of their moral failure.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The World Is a Waffle

* originally posted Sept. 23, 2007, at sbcimpact.org

Many people approach evangelism and missions as if the world were a pancake. When you pour syrup on a pancake, it spreads out evenly and without having to cross any barriers eventually covers and saturates the entire pancake. When you pour syrup on a waffle, though, it first fills up each individual square one by one before it spreads square by square to cover and saturate the entire waffle.

In this illustration, we can say that the syrup is the gospel message itself. As evangelical Christians, we are committed to the immutability of the fundamentals of the gospel. Salvation by grace through faith on the basis of the forgiveness and reconciliation with our Heavenly Father gained through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross of Calvary is a non-negotiable. We are not interested in covering, as it were, the waffle of the world with spiritual honey or jam. We are committed to the proclamation of the gospel. Having made that clear, however, we must not forget that in order to extend the syrup of the gospel in such a way so that it fills each and every waffle square of the world, it will take different methods of spreading the gospel and perhaps even different containers that facilitate the use of these different methods

As Americans, and especially as Southern Baptists, we have not always been the best at putting this principle into practice. David Dockery, in his brilliant essay entitled A Call for Renewal, Consensus, and Cooperation: Reflections on the SBC since 1979 in the Building Bridges booklet distributed at the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio, observes:

The SBC world in which many of us were nurtured—Bible drills, GAs, RAs, Training Union, WMU, Brotherhood…, not to mention uniform Sunday School lessons, the Baptist hymnal, and similar worship patterns—no longer exists in every SBC church. For almost five decades Southern Baptists followed the same organizational patterns, the same programs, and the same Sunday School lessons. These practices were to Southern Baptists what the Latin Mass was to Roman Catholics. It provided all within the SBC a sense of continuity and security. This programmatic uniformity all hung together around a ubiquitous commitment to missions and evangelism, expressed in giving through the Cooperative Program and support for Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. It was absolutely ingenious. Throughout most of the 20th Century, being a Southern Baptist had a cultural and programmatic identity to it unlike anything else. This kind of intactness provided Southern Baptists with a denominational stability unmatched by any other denomination in the country. Martin Marty was not exaggerating when he said that Southern Baptists were the Roman Catholic Church of the South because its identity was so intact, its influence so pervasive, providing an umbrella over the entire culture in almost every dimension of life. We were a very practical people, with heart religion—carried out in rather uniform pragmatic and programmatic expressions.

Beyond this, as American evangelicals in general, we are great at inventing and marketing one-size-fits-all methods: the Four Spiritual Laws, the Jesus Film, Evangelism Explosion, FAITH, the EvangeCube… In and of themselves, none of these examples is a bad thing. Indeed, much gospel syrup has successfully reached many, many waffle squares of the world as a result of these methods. The problem comes whenever we begin to see any particular method as the panacea for the challenge of world evangelism and missions.

It is probably a pretty safe bet to say the majority of evangelical Christians today would not have any serious misgivings with this principle as I have enunciated it so far. The problem in many cases is one of successfully putting into practice what we recognize in our heads to be true. In international, cross-cultural missions, this principle has long been recognized, even if only intuitively.

In recent years, the missional movement in the United States and other Western countries has begun to speak of the need to practice this principle at home as well. If we are going to successfully penetrate the various people-group segments that exist even within our own society, cookie-cutter methods just won’t cut it anymore. It is for this reason that I believe in so-called niche marketing in our evangelistic approach and strategy. As Paul said, we must “become all things to all men so that by all possible means [we] might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). We must study and seek to understand other people’s cultural presuppositions. We must give diligent effort to not only proclaim the message of the gospel, but also to seriously listen to others in order to adequately answer the questions they are really asking. We must adapt our methods in many cases not only to different people groups and cultural contexts but also to different individuals within those groups. We must be radically incarnational, striving to be Jesus to them in a direct, personal, one-on-one manner.

At the same time, though, as we work towards truly making disciples of those to whom we proclaim the gospel, we must not neglect the crucial truth of the essential unity of the Body of Christ. We must learn to fellowship, and practice the one anothers of the New Testament with believers of different races, ages, social status, and cultural background. If not, we are in the end practicing a defective Christianity that is different from the message that Jesus and his original disciples taught.

I personally believe this truth has an important application in the way we relate to believers in other groups and denominations as well. I don’t have the direct quote—perhaps one of you can help me find it—but from what I understand, Count Zinzendorf taught that God has distributed a certain portion of his truth to each different denomination, and it is only as each one makes its own unique contribution to the fulfillment of the Great Commission that we will really see the full realization of his purpose on the earth.

I am not saying that doctrine does not matter. We should all be as diligent as possible to obey each and every one of Christ’s commands to us. However, we must at the same time remain humble enough to realize that God hasn’t given any one of us a monopoly on understanding and proper interpretation of the truth. I believe this is something of what Paul had in mind when he said, in Ephesians 3:10–11, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold (or multi-faceted, many colored) wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

One day, we will stand before the throne of the Lamb of God as “a great multitude that no one [can] count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). On that day, the syrup of the gospel will have reached each and every waffle square of the world. We will all be there in all our diversity, with all our idiosyncrasies, but yet marvelously one, all together in a beautifully designed tapestry of grace that God will have masterfully woven down through the corridors of time.

The Role of the American Church in World Missions

*originally posted Sept. 8, 2007, at sbcimpact.org

As a nation, we in the United States of America have undoubtedly been greatly blessed. Quite apart from the on-going discussion on the religious beliefs of the founding fathers, there is no denying the fact that from an evangelical perspective God has richly showered his grace and mercy upon us in many, many ways.

Down through our comparatively brief history, somewhat reminiscent of what the book of Acts tells us about the growth of the early church, “the word of the Lord [has] spread widely and [has grown] in power” (Acts 19:20). We have on various occasions seen outpourings of mighty spiritual revival. Towering spiritual giants such as Jonathan Edwards, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Graham (not to mention thousands of, no doubt, equally anointed men and women of God), have grown up on our shores and faithfully ministered the gifts God has given them in our midst. Great movements, ministries, and local churches have been birthed and come to be effectual channels of the manifold riches of God’s grace among us.

But “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). And even though, as Oskar Schindler lamented at the end of the film Schindler’s List, there is always reason to consider what we have not accomplished, and what more could have been done had we only been more faithful, in a very real way God has used the American church mightily to be a blessing to the nations. 

Following the lead of visionary men like Count Zinzendorf, William Carey, and Andrew Fuller in Europe, our evangelical forebears in America soon came to set the pace in terms of commitment in action towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission around the world. More specifically as Southern Baptists, our heritage in world missions gives us ample motive for gratitude and healthy pride. Only eternity will tell how many lives have been touched and how much strategic ground gained for the advance of the kingdom of God as a result of the faithfulness of Southern Baptists to the task God has given us, both on the part of the missionaries overseas, as well as the churches and members who through their prayers and sacrificial giving back home have faithfully held the ropes.

In the 21st century, however, we have reached a stage in the development of the world Christian movement in which, by many measures, the focus has been taken off of the church in the West (and more specifically the United States), and placed upon the surging and vibrant churches of the two-thirds world. Penn State University history professor Philip Jenkins has strikingly chronicled this astonishing development in his monumental books The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity.

Along with these changes in the world religious landscape, I believe that the role God is giving us as his church in America is also changing. On the home front, we have due reason to be alarmed about the moral decay and spiritual lethargy that appear to be overtaking us on all sides. At the same time, however, I cannot conceive how it could possibly be God’s will for us to entrench within our spiritual fortresses and shift into defense mode. Jesus’ prophecy that, as the church, the gates of hell would not prevail against us (Matthew 16:18), has been adequately demonstrated by others to refer to a church on the offensive that is called to invade the realm of the enemy, rather than merely hold the fort.

At the same time, I believe an equally dangerous sidetrack that we as the American church must avoid with regard to world missions is that of triumphalism. As Americans, in general, we are used to being number one. Indeed, we have come to be, if not by the grace of God, at least by his permissive will, the most powerful and wealthy nation in the history of the earth. As American Christians, it can be easy to fall into the temptation of regarding ourselves as God’s brightest and best. I am convinced, however, that a proper understanding of God’s Word will lead us to forcefully repudiate this idea with all of its implications (Luke 10:21; 1 Corinthians 1:26-28, 12:21-25). Rather, we must respond to these changes with an attitude of humility.

In certain aspects, God may well have chosen us as Americans to fulfill a special role in the advance of his kingdom at particular moments of salvation history. In some regards, however, it is possible the role we think we have filled may not always be as comparatively special as we like to sometimes believe. There may well be some big surprises when we get to heaven and the rewards are handed out. Especially, however, I believe that in today’s world we need to be emotionally and spiritually prepared to yield, as it were, the center stage of God’s work around the world to those from places that have traditionally been considered as less privileged than us and in certain aspects less sophisticated.

More than anything, I am referring here to questions of attitude that defy measurement on graphs and pie charts. We must come to consider our brothers and sisters around the world as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:1–11). We must be willing to learn from them and to see them as equal partners in the task of fulfilling the Great Commission. 

Already, all around the world, amazing things are happening that not long ago would have never been dreamed possible in world missions. From Latin America, largely under the covering of the COMIBAM movement, a vibrant contingent of cross-cultural workers are spreading out into the most challenging mission fields and seeing God’s blessing upon their efforts. In Africa, Great Commission workers are being trained, mobilized, and sent out to places like India and the Middle East. House church believers in China are totally convinced that God has given them the vision to take the gospel message across the borders to the various unreached people groups of the 10-40 Window all the way Back to Jerusalem, where Jesus first issued the Great Commission. In recent days, the missionary zeal of our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Korea has been in the news, as two choice servants of God were martyred for their faith and twenty-one others held captive for six weeks in Afghanistan. And these are only a few examples of the myriad of surprising things God is doing around the world.

Does this mean that we in the States should just sit back and relax and observe what God is doing? By no means! Each one of us will one day be called to give an account of the talents that God has entrusted into our hands and our degree of faithfulness in putting them to the best use possible for the advance of his kingdom. But it does mean, as I understand it, that we should approach our obedience to the Great Commission from a different perspective. More than ever before, we will be called upon to assume a role of servants.

In many places around the world, I am convinced that the best thing we can do is to assume a role of quiet, behind-the-scenes support of God’s new frontline workers. This includes, without a doubt, generous sharing of the financial resources with which God has so richly blessed us. We must be extra careful, at the same time, to do this in a way that does not facilitate unhealthy dependency and paternalism, and inhibit believers in other countries from being good stewards of the resources God has given them. It also includes a continued sharing of other resources, such as technology, creative ideas, and missionary personnel. More and more, though, I believe this must be done not so much from a perspective of "what we have to offer you," but rather of "what we all, as fellow team-members, bring to the table as we work together to fulfill the task before us."

Without a doubt, one of the most remarkable developments in world missions in recent years, especially from a North American perspective, has been the avalanche of short-term mission trips to the four corners of the globe. Most certainly, this has been a great blessing, as many more people than ever before have had direct exposure to the marvelous things God is doing around the world and have been able to put their spiritual gifts to use. However, I think it is crucial, if God is to really use this as fully as possible for his glory, that these new endeavors be undertaken with a spirit of humility and servanthood.

Of course, we want to be faithful to boldly proclaim the gospel message, and not shrink back from declaring “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). However, it is important to remember, at the same time, that the Great Commission does not enjoin us to make converts, or to register spiritual decisions, but rather to make disciples of all nations. In the long run, what will count most for eternity will not be the number of people we report to our sending churches back home who lifted their hand in an evangelistic meeting or who filled out a commitment card. It will be bona fide disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ who fully integrate into indigenous churches that live out the gospel, day in and day out, in a culturally appropriate and holistic manner amongst the people that surround them.

As American Christians, do we still have a role to play in all of this? Most certainly. But more and more, our effectiveness in doing so will be commensurate with our ability to form authentic partnerships, and relate to our national brothers and sisters in Christ in the nations of the world from a perspective of humility and servanthood.