Gary Ledbetter, editor of the Southern Baptist Texan, posted an editorial on the on-line edition of Nov. 22 entitled "The right kind of unity." I think the issues he brings out help to define some of the key differences among conservative Southern Baptists being voiced recently on this crucial matter. Let me make clear from the start that I regard Mr. Ledbetter, as well as those who sympathize with the views he advocates in this editorial, as dear brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom I am proud to join together to work towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission. I would like, however, to take this opportunity, through the following reprint of his editorial (Ledbetter’s text in italics) and some comments of my own, to dialogue some about the ideas contained therein. Though, as my comments will make clear, I see some of the questions involved a bit differently than Ledbetter, I hope this post will be read with the same spirit in which it is intended: not one of attack but rather friendly dialogue.
Ledbetter: We’re often reminded that Jesus’ prayer for his disciples (including us) is that we would be one (John 17:21) and that we would love one another (John 15:12). The interpretation of these commands has led some to suggest that denominations should be done away with, that creeds and confessions are contrary to the mind of Christ, that doctrine divides. Interpret Scripture by Scripture, though. This is the same Lord who a few weeks later commanded us to: make disciples (evangelism, teaching), immerse those disciples in the name of a Trinitarian God, and teach these newly baptized believers all the things he has taught us, presumably by means of an authoritative Bible.
There is a lot of doctrine and denominationalism in that little passage, isn’t there?
Rogers: Doctrine, yes. Denominationalism, only if you equate believers baptism by immersion with denominationalism, which I do not. Among the things Jesus taught us that He expects us to teach new believers is the doctrine of the unity of His Body. If we are to be true to His Word, in my opinion, we must work out the appropriate balance of this clear teaching with other more dubious teachings on ecclesiological specifics.
Ledbetter: Our unity must be in service of something and not an end in itself.
Rogers: Our unity should be in service of the King of Kings, obedience to His Word, the glory of His name, and the advance of His Kingdom.
Ledbetter: A good unity story is the burgeoning relationship between the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas and our own SBTC.
For about a hundred years the Baptist Missionary Association and the Southern Baptist Convention went their own ways in the specifics of missionary support. Southern Baptists have been more centralized in their support of various denominational causes than have Missionary Baptists. In Texas, at least for the past few years, we are once again finding ways to work together. On page 2, our annual meeting wrapup describes the latest initiatives between our two state fellowships.
The point is that we are once again finding unity for specific ministries with others who substantially agree with us regarding faith and practice. Without revisiting the reasons for our initial separation, the reasons for this growing unity seem biblical and godly. For the most part, it was movement on the part of Southern Baptists that strengthened our relationship. The fact that our convention has clarified its beliefs on significant matters of faith answered a lot of questions for Baptists of other bodies.
In other words, our confessional nature told them a lot about what we are and are not. It defined the meaning of cooperation so that biblical compromise was not sacrificed for the sake of unity. Maybe you’ll argue that compromise never was part of the deal. OK, but setting the parameters in unequivocal language makes a big difference for many within and outside our fellowship.
Rogers: Are we talking about moving closer to Landmarkism, the defining doctrinal stance of the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas, and the reason for their past differences with Southern Baptists? Are we talking about not accepting "alien immersion"? Or not accepting "private prayer language"? Or, are we just talking about taking a clear stand on the inerrant Word of God? If the latter, there are other groups besides just "Missionary Baptists" who are becoming more and more open to working together with us on "specific ministries." If the former, though, we are moving further away from being able to work together with some of these same groups.
Ledbetter: Here’s another example. Back in the early 1990s I served the Indiana state convention. We were about to host the SBC during a year when the convention was going to clarify its stance on homosexuality with an amendment to the SBC Constitution. At the same time the American Baptist Convention was being less clear, to put it nicely. Our state office received several calls that year from conservative ABC churches who were troubled by the stand of their own denomination. They called us because they were heartened by the stand our denomination was taking. A clarifying of our stance opened the door to greater unity among Baptists in Indiana.
Likely that same thing happened in other places across the Midwest during that year. It was doctrinal clarity, not vagueness that best served the cause of Christian unity. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has more clearly defined itself than any other Southern Baptist denominational body larger than an association. Of course this means that some will choose another affiliation for doctrinal reasons but it is mistaken to think that doctrinal firmness is only divisive. If we want unity, what’s the alternative?
Rogers: This depends on how you define unity. Is it working together on specific ministry projects? Is it denominational merger? Is it more believers and more churches joining the same denomination? I personally see spiritual unity and denominational affiliation as two separate issues (see "Unity in the Body of Christ and Unity in the SBC").
Greater clarity on "tier one" issues is one thing. Tighter parameters on "tier two" and "tier three" is something entirely different. If we are unable to make this distinction, we are well on our way to sectarianism, which is not, by definition, "greater unity." If it is always a good thing to define oneself more and more clearly and narrowly, where do we stop?
Ledbetter: Usually it’s to draw the circle larger with indistinct edges. Ecumenical movements have been trying that for years and for them, the circle is never large enough. Interfaith witness becomes interfaith dialog. "The way, the truth, and the life," becomes "many roads up the same mountain" or "God is the judge, I wouldn’t dare claim to know who will and won’t go to Heaven."
Rogers: Here, where we are talking about "tier one" issues, I am in total agreement.
Ledbetter: Doctrines that define denominations, believers’ baptism, eternal security, local church autonomy and the like are downplayed until a generation has no idea what their own churches believe.
Rogers: Here, where we are talking about "tier two" and "tier three" issues, we are talking about something entirely different. By no means am I in favor of local churches "downplaying" their convictions and beliefs on these issues. Each believer, and local congregation as a group, must search the Scripture, and to the best of their ability, arrive at some conclusions regarding what is being taught.
However, true Christian unity is not based, in my opinion, on lock-step interpretation of controversial biblical passages. Otherwise, there is nothing to keep us from getting narrower and narrower, basing fellowship and cooperation on similar views of eschatology, number of points of Calvinism one accepts, worship style, etc.
In the Body of Christ, there will always be those with whom we do not agree on 100% of our interpretation of the Bible. The question is: "where do we draw the line of fellowship and cooperation"? In my understanding, the line of fellowship must be the same that God draws with us. 1 John 1.3 teaches that our fellowship with one another is based upon our previous fellowship "with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ." John 6.37 says: "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." John 14.6 also tells us that no man comes to the Father, except through Jesus. Hebrews 10.19-20 tells us more specifically that we have access to the Father through the blood and flesh of Jesus. And Ephesians 2.8-9 tells us that we appropriate this by grace through faith.
The question of cooperation is a little trickier. Practical concerns make it difficult to fully cooperate in certain ministry projects with certain other true brothers and sisters in Christ, due to differing interpretations of Scripture that are incompatible with each other. For example, it is hard to hold to believers’ baptism by immersion and infant sprinkling in the same church. They are mutually exclusive. By the same token, either a church takes a stand allowing for women pastors, or it takes a stand not allowing for women pastors. It is impractical to hold to both views at the same time.
With other interpretative differences, it is easier to work together. I believe, for instance, that "private prayer language" is one of these. As long as those with a "private prayer language" do not make their practice normative for other believers, or disparage the spirituality of those who have other gifts, I see no reason why fruitful cooperation in ministry need be hindered by the taking of different views on this subject.
There is a whole gamut of other issues that must be worked out individually. One man’s "second- tier issue" is another’s "third-tier issue," and vice-versa. I do not believe the answer is defining ourselves more and more clearly and narrowly on every single issue, though.
Ledbetter: Is anyone who believes the Bible to any degree happy with the way that’s turning out? How is it then that some of us toy with other strange practices and beliefs that seem only meant to convince people that we’re tolerant?
Rogers: It doesn’t have anything to do with convincing other people we’re tolerant. It is all about obeying Jesus’ desire, communicated to us by way of His inerrant Word, for unity in His Body.
Ledbetter: Alcohol use among Christians may not be, for example, the crucial definition of cultural compromise. But it’s also dangerous, more dangerous, to make this one practice the test of cultural coolness or relevance. It may sound intolerant but I still maintain that nothing positive, except the acclaim of the sensual among us, comes from using our freedom in this way.
Rogers: Who wants to "make this one practice the test of cultural coolness or relevance"? That, as I understand it, is not the issue at all, but rather, who do we exclude from fellowship and cooperation, and on the basis of what? What does alcohol have to do with "the right kind of unity," anyway?
Ledbetter: Downplaying the importance of baptism by immersion seems to also be a place where some play to the crowd. Except for the appearance of tolerance, and the resulting larger numbers drawn to his ministry, I can’t think of a reason for a pastor to redefine a word that has never meant anything but "immersion." Sure, it’s a nice big circle and there are a multitude of shining and multidenominational people inside, but what is the basis of their unity?
Rogers: Maybe this article is directed towards people other than those I read and with whom I correspond. But, among those I read and with whom I correspond, I don’t know of anyone wanting to "downplay the importance of baptism by immersion" or wanting to "redefine" the word "baptism."
Ledbetter: What beliefs do they hold in common that will hold them together in ministry? It is unlikely that baptism will be the only casualty when an evangelical or even Baptist church decides to smear its doctrinal foundation.
Rogers: Once again, to whom are we referring here? Henderson Hills? Bethlehem Baptist? If so, in what way have they decided to "smear their doctrinal foundation"? All I see is churches and believers sincerely doing their best to search the Scriptures in order to come to some conclusion about where they draw the line of fellowship. They may well come to some different conclusions than I do. But I am not prepared to accuse them of "smearing their doctrinal foundation" and heading down the road of abandoning other biblical doctrines, as a result.
Ledbetter: A form of ecumenism developing among those who believe in biblical inerrancy will/has rapidly become less committed to biblical inerrancy. The fact that Open Theism (the belief that God is limited in his knowledge of and power over the future) has already found adherents among inerrantists cries out for a more specific definition of the term. The circle is already too big and we didn’t notice.
Rogers: This seems to me to be largely a "straw man" argument. Who, at least in Southern Baptist circles, claims to be "inerrantist" and adheres to "Open Theology"? Perhaps there are some, but I am not aware of them. Is that what’s really being discussed, or what’s really at stake, here? I, for one, am open to greater cooperation in various degrees in working towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission with other conservative evangelicals. But for me, at the same time, adhering to "Open Theology" is the furthest thing imaginable.
Ledbetter: If we are to be Great Commission Christians we must constantly strive to take seriously the words of the Commission and the "all things that I have taught you" contained in the entirety of Scripture. It is a balancing act to define the parameters of biblical belief and practice without either compromise with worldly influence or legalistic narrowness. It’s a struggle worth trying. Surrender to either side of the balance is unworthy of our call.
Rogers: On this, I am in complete agreement. Especially the phrase: "Surrender to either side of the balance is unworthy of our call."