Monday, February 26, 2007

The Universal Church, Landmarkism, and John Dagg

Back when I was in seminary (1983-84, 86-87 at Mid-America, and 88-89 at Southwestern), I was most interested in the practical side of ministry. I think I sort of saw theology classes as a “necessary evil” to get to what I felt God had called me to do. I remember at Mid-America from time to time hearing students talk about whether the church in the Bible was always “local” and “visible” or sometimes “universal” and “invisible.” At that time, although I never really understood where the “local church only” folks were coming from, it didn’t seem to make that big of a difference to me. “Let’s just get on with ministry, tell people about Jesus, make disciples, and love one another,” I thought.

Since that time, after 17 years of career missionary service, as I have matured a bit in my faith, and reflected on the Scripture and how it applies to life and ministry, I have come to appreciate more and more the importance of the Universal Church. It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly when and from where this increased appreciation has come: perhaps from preparing sermons on and preaching through the book of Ephesians; perhaps from some great times of Christian fellowship with believers from other denominations and backgrounds; perhaps from assorted books I have read, and messages I have heard down through the years; or, perhaps, just through the conviction of the Holy Spirit in my life.

In any case, I have come to believe that the essential unity of the Body of Christ, or the Univeral Church, is one of the most important doctrines in the New Testament. As a missionary, I see that, as I am working to fulfill the Great Commission, I am at the same time to be doing my best to work towards the fulfillment of the “end-vision” so poignantly described by that great missionary model, the Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 4.11-13:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

I never have been in favor of ecumenism, in the sense of the World Council of Churches, or dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. I firmly believe that the Reformation principles of sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia and sola fide (“only Scripture”, “only Christ”, “only grace”, and “only faith”) are watershed issues that necessarily divide between those who preach the gospel of Christ, and those who preach “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1.6-7). If I did not believe that, I probably would not be dedicating my life and missionary ministry to a place with such a strong Roman Catholic tradition as the country of Spain.

At the same time, however, I believe the early Church was right on target when they decided to include in the Apostles’ Creed, as part of the set of basic beliefs that set us apart as followers of Jesus, the line: I believe in…the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.

In any case, when I first heard about the new policy on baptism at the IMB, and read the comments of Wade Burleson on how it tied in somehow to Landmarkism, a few things began to “click” for me. I believe strongly the Bible teaches believers baptism, and have even spent hours showing believers from Reformed backgrounds the biblical basis for obeying Christ’s command regarding baptism. However, to say that those who have been baptized as believers, motivated by their desire to be obedient to Christ’s command, may not be qualified to be missionaries, just because those who baptized them may not dot every “i” and cross every “t” like us as Baptists, seemed from the beginning, to me, to be “over the top.”

As I have begun to reflect back on my seminary days, and research a little more on Baptist history, I have come to see how all this does seem to be tied in, one way or another, to Landmarkism. While not many today would go so far as J. R. Graves et al in saying we should never even allow non-Baptist ministers to preach in Baptist churches, it has been eye-opening to me to see how many in prominent positions in Southern Baptist life still seem bent on either denying the legitimacy of the Universal Church, or minimizing its importance. Consider the following quote from Mid-America Seminary Theology Department Chairman Jimmy Milliken, taken from his article “The Nature of the Church: Local or Universal? in the November 2006 edition of the Mid-America Theology Journal "Theology for Ministry", (pp. 62-77), describing the view of church in which I personally believe:

Universal Invisible/Local Visible

A widely held view of the meaning of “church” in the New Testament is that it refers both to a universal invisible spiritual body, and also to a local visible assembly of believers. This view is similar to the above view, except it limits the visible church to a local body with a distinct identity. Unlike the above view, the visible church does not include all professing believers. One automatically becomes a part of the universal church through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and personal faith in Christ. However, one must personally unite with a local assembly of believers to be a part of the visible church. In other words, a person may be a part of the universal church and never join a local visible church. Likewise, a person may be a member of a local visible church and not be a part of the universal invisible church.

This view of the church is held by many Southern Baptists and other Baptist groups. The Baptist Faith and Message, the official statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention, included an acknowledgment of the universal use of “church” in the 1963 revision. It basically defines church as a local visible autonomous assembly, but added this statement: “The New Testament speaks also of the church as the body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages.” The 2000 revision kept the universal statement with a slight expansion: “The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.” Although acknowledging the universal use of church in the New Testament, both versions support the view that the primary meaning of church in the New Testament is that of a local visible autonomous assembly of baptized believers in Jesus Christ. The statement of a universal church amounts to simply an addendum that seeks to accommodate those within the Baptist fold who sees (sic) some sort of a universal church, but it is not an essential factor in defining the New Testament church.

Consider as well the following interchange at the recent Baptist Identity Conference between Dr. Malcolm Yarnell and Dr. Paige Patterson, at the end of Dr. Patterson’s presentation on “What Contemporary Baptists can Learn from Anabaptists” (as reported by Marty Duren)…

First question from Malcolm Yarnell–”I’ve been looking in the Bible for the invisible church and it’s just not visible.” Would the anabaptists have held to the doctrine of the invisible church? Answer- Ekklesia is overwhelmingly used to refer to the visible, local church.

Consider also the following quote from Dr. Yarnell’s article on The Baptist Renaissance at Southwestern:

Yet Baptist identity has fallen on hard times… It has become common to hear people refer to “the church,” not in its primary biblical sense of a local body, but in the secondary and eschatological sense of a universal body.

I have no problem at all with recognizing and taking seriously what the Bible has to say about the local church. The only problem I have is when this emphasis, at the same time, demands downplaying the importance of our unity and cooperation with other born-again believers who were bought with the same blood as us, and will spend eternity in heaven together with us. It would appear, from what I am able to observe, that this belief on the relative unimportance of the Universal Church underlies the inference that our only real “partners” in the gospel and the fulfillment of the Great Commission are those who share not only our beliefs in the fundamentals of the gospel, but also our specifically “Baptist distinctives” as well… and, if we can’t cooperate with them on the mission field, we most certainly are not going to allow those who may have come to Christ and been baptized in their “churches” to join with us, and benefit from our Baptist Cooperative Program funds.

I realize that for many all of this may seem like theological quibbling. You may prefer, just like I did before I got wind of what was at stake, to just “get on with ministry, tell people about Jesus, make disciples, and love one another.” However, if this line of thinking is not going to eventually affect how we as Southern Baptists do ministry in a very practical way on a day-to-day basis, I believe that some of us are going to have to do our “homework.” If you think God may be leading you to be one of these, I invite you to investigate further the important words that Gene Bridges has to say about Landmarkism in the Southern Baptist Convention here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, and especially, what classic Baptist theologian John Dagg has to say about the Church Universal here.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Application of Grudem's Article to the Current Situation in the SBC (Part 9)

We now come to a point in Grudem’s article that I believe will play a major role in deciding the current debate over the new policies in the IMB, and eventually other issues in SBC life as well:

6. PURPOSES OF THE ORGANIZATION: Is the teaching a significant threat to the nature and purposes of the organization?

After posing this question, Grudem makes the following observation, which seems especially relevant to us as Southern Baptists at this time:

In asking this question I am attempting to take into account the fact that God raises up different organizations for different purposes… The situation is somewhat different with denominational groups and denominational or theologically-distinct seminaries. For example the Presbyterian Church in America is Reformed in its doctrinal convictions. If it were to begin to admit Arminians into leadership, it would be a significant threat to the nature and purposes of the denomination, and I do not think that it would appropriate for them to do so. It would fundamentally change who they are. Or, to take another example, I do not believe that historic Pentecostal groups such as the Assemblies of God should allow into their leadership people who deny that spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues and healing and prophecy continue today. To do so would be a significant threat to the nature and purposes of that denomination.

Grudem gives some examples of how the answer to question # 6 might be applied in other denominations. Let’s think some of how we might determine the answer in relation to “PPL,” “alien immersion,” and the IMB…

The Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention, originally drafted in 1845, contains the following statements:

Article II. Purpose: It is the purpose of the Convention to provide a general organization for Baptists in the United States and its territories for the promotion of Christian missions at home and abroad and any other objects such as Christian education, benevolent enterprises, and social services which it may deem proper and advisable for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God.

Article IX. Missionaries' Qualifications: All missionaries appointed by the Convention's boards must, previous to their appointment, furnish evidence of piety, zeal for the Master's kingdom, conviction of truth as held by Baptists, and talents for missionary service.

If it were possible to arrive at a unanimous conclusion of who we are as Baptists, and what is “truth as held by Baptists,” I believe the answer to Grudem’s question # 6, as regards the issues currently under discussion, would be relatively simple. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be quite so easy. Let’s consider first the question of “private prayer language”…

Up to the present, Southern Baptists, as a group, have never officially defined themselves as opposed to the practice of “private prayer language.” None of the three versions of the Baptist Faith & Message (1925, 1963, & 2000) has ever made any mention one way or another of “PPL.”

Undeniably, individual Baptists have on various occasions expressed their opposition to “Pentecostal/Charismatic” doctrine and practices, including, at times, the related issue of “private prayer language.” Some have even gone so far as to claim Baptists as a whole, or practically as a whole, have been united in these views.

The recent article in the Feb. 15 edition of the Florida Baptist Witness entitled “Is Charismatic Theology historically Baptist?” gives some good examples of this:

James A. Smith:

Can Southern Baptists adopt elements of charismatic theology and still be considered Baptist?

Paige Patterson:

Overall, consistently, for all the years of Baptist theology, whether we are talking about Anabaptists, whether we are talking about British Baptists, or whether we are talking about American Baptists and certainly Southern Baptists have rejected the charismatic interpretation of spiritual gifts.

For us to become charismatic in our emphasis now would be a major, new departure for Southern Baptists.

However, in the same edition of the Florida Baptist Witness, in a separate article, there are some quotes by other Southern Baptist leaders that would appear to lead to a different conclusion…

Ken Hemphill:

There are legitimate issues of interpretative difference on this matter among scholars with a commitment to biblical inerrancy. While I do not personally practice a prayer language nor advocate such practice, I do not think we should make this a test of one's commitment to the conservative resurgence, the principles of biblical inerrancy, or loyalty to Southern Baptist life and work. I think we should be guided by Paul's preference for intelligible speech in the gathered assembly and his caution that we should not prohibit a private prayer language.

We must be careful not to allow issues of personal interpretation and preference to deter us in our passion to expand God's kingdom through our Baptist family of faith.

James Leo Garrett (addressing the possibility of including a statement on “PPL” in the Baptist Faith & Message):

If you begin to put in things you disagree on, you begin to turn the statement in a different way. I don't believe there is now unanimity. It might be wise to wait on that.

Regarding the new policy on baptism at the IMB, any serious student of Baptist history must recognize the fact that there have been times in Southern Baptist past in which a significant group, perhaps even the majority, has been sympathetic to Landmarkist views, including the illegitimacy of so-called “alien immersion.” However, in the end, Landmarkism did not win the day. As Robert A. Baker states in the book The Southern Baptist Convention and its People, 1607-1972:

James E. Tull is probably correct in suggesting that Landmark ideas had filtered into the bloodstream of Southern Baptists, for some of them are still evident; but the radical denominational enlargement and concentration beyond the local church level that took place in the early decades of the twentieth century in the structure and function of the Southern Baptist Convention point unerringly to the disintegration and overbalancing of Landmark views. A strong Landmark undercurrent would have rendered impossible what took place in Southern Baptist organizational life between 1917 and 1972.

Some will undoubtedly protest and say that the new policy on baptism is not directly Landmarkist, and those who support it are not necessarily Landmarkers. While it is true that there were Baptists who opposed so-called “alien immersion” before the arrival of J. R. Graves on the scene, and there are some who oppose it today who do not necessarily identify with all of the teachings of Graves and Pendleton, I maintain that a certain brand of what I would call “Neo-Landmarkism” does indeed underlie the new policy.

In many ways, it would appear the soul of the Southern Baptist Convention is in the balance. Some would say there is a danger of turning “charismatic.” I believe this is a “red herring.” Very few in Southern Baptist life, even among those who are opposed to the new policy on “PPL,” would want the SBC to become “charismatic.” On the other side, some would say we are in danger of returning to Landmarkism. Although there are certain elements of the Landmarkism of J. R. Graves and J. L. Pendleton that seem to have “run their course,” I would say the dangers of “Neo-Landmarkism” gaining ascendancy in the SBC are much more real than those of the SBC going “charismatic.”

The issues are no doubt broader than just this. But the controversy over the new policies at the IMB seems to be illustrative of two streams of thought, one which would like the SBC to be, in general, more “open,” and one that would like the SBC to be more “closed.”

If the recent Baptist Identity Conference in Jackson, Tennessee, is any indication of where we are headed, though, I believe there is good reason to be encouraged. Recognized Baptist leaders, such as Frank Page, Thom Rainer, David Dockery, Mike Day, Ed Stetzer, Greg Thornbury, and Timothy George, without making clear reference to the policies at the IMB, from my perspective, all seemed to be advocating a view of Baptist identity tending more to the “open” side of the spectrum than the “closed.” All of these men are at the same time solid advocates of the authority of the inerrant Word of God and other basic doctrines held by conservative, evangelical Southern Baptists across the board.

It is my hope that I am not mistaken here in my interpretation of the spirit in the air in the SBC. It is also my hope that the Board of Trustees of the IMB, when they make a final decision on the review of the new policies, will be able to see that, indeed, those new policies seem to be out of step with the overall nature and purpose of the SBC at this time in history.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A reply to James A. Smith, “Is charismatic theology historically Baptist?”

A recent article in the Florida Baptist Witness by James A. Smith bears the title “Is charismatic theology historically Baptist?, as well as the sub-title “The current debate in SBC life concerning ‘private prayer language’ may hinge on whose Baptist history is correct.” I believe the thesis proposed by these titles is flawed from the beginning.

Among the main reasons I am Baptist is because I believe the interpretation of Scripture accepted by Baptists is closer to my own understanding of Scripture than that of other groups with which I might affiliate. It is my contention that the primary thing that describes who we are as Southern Baptists is an unswerving commitment to the authority of the Bible, as evidenced in both its inerrancy and sufficiency. I believe consistency to this commitment implies a concomitant commitment to the Reformation principle of semper reformanda (“always reforming”). We, as Baptists, have never claimed to have an infallible understanding of God’s truth, and as such, should always be open to being shown, from Holy Scripture, how views we may have taken in the past may be mistaken.

It is because of this that I am convinced that questions of Baptist history should hold a very relative importance in deciding matters of interpretation and practice for us as Baptists today. The question is not whether Baptists in a certain time and cultural context held to one view or another, as much as it is how do we today, in total submission to God’s revelation for us through His inerrant Word, understand we can best move ahead to obey His commands, and work towards the fulfilment of the Great Commission.

The main focus of Smith’s article, as well as that of an accompanying article entitled The Sandy Creek-Charleston Baptist Analogy,” is a response to Dwight McKissic’s reference to the “Sandy Creek” and “Charleston” streams of church life in early Baptist history in the south of the United States.

Consider the following quotes from Smith’s article:

McKissic’s historical claims to buttress his argument for latitude in the SBC on spiritual gifts rests on the scholarship of two Baptist church historians, Leon McBeth and Walter Shurden.

When asked if there is any historical evidence that Sandy Creek Baptists spoke in tongues or private prayer languages, Shurden responded, “I know of none in historical sources.”

Shurden told the Witness, “… Sandy Creekers were what I would call ‘little c charismatics.’ I know of no evidence to suggest that they spoke in tongues as in what I would call ‘large C Charismatics’ today.”

The apparent implication is that, if one is unable to demonstrate that Sandy Creek Baptists actually “spoke in tongues,” then McKissic's case collapses, and there is no basis for allowing freedom for the practice of “private prayer language” among Southern Baptists today.

Although it would be up to Rev. McKissic himself to either confirm or deny this, the idea I get, upon reading his various writings on the topic, is not that the legitimacy of “private prayer language” in Southern Baptist life has ever hinged upon the practice of Baptists in the past, whether at Sandy Creek or anywhere else. As I understand it, the example of Sandy Creek and Charleston are given, rather, to point to a model of cooperation and mutual understanding among Baptists of differing liturgical styles that might be taken as an inspiration to us as Southern Baptists as we deal with the present-day controversy over “private prayer language.”

Even if McKissic did mean to imply that Sandy Creek Baptists “spoke in tongues” (once again, something I doubt), I think it is a bit “over the top” to suggest that “the current debate in SBC life concerning ‘private prayer language’ may hinge on” McKissic’s or anyone else’s interpretation of Baptist history. It is my firm conviction that the implications of this discussion transcend the views of any one individual.

Smith, in another place in this article, refers as well, though, to one other person’s view of Baptist history:

Acknowledging isolated historical examples of Baptists who held ‘charismatic leanings,’ [Dr. Paige] Patterson said, “Overall, consistently, for all the years of Baptist theology, whether we are talking about Anabaptists, whether we are talking about British Baptists, or whether we are talking about American Baptists and certainly Southern Baptists have rejected the charismatic interpretation of spiritual gifts.”

This statement seems strange to me. How could Anabaptists and pre-20th-century Baptists have “rejected the charismatic interpretation of spiritual gifts” if the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement did not even begin until 1901? I do not deny that many Anabaptists, pre-20th-century Baptists, as well as Christians from many other ecclesiological streams, may have well been “cessationist” in their understanding of miraculous gifts. However, I believe the “cessationism” of many of these was more a reaction to the phenomena they observed around them in the Christendom of their time than a careful response to an objective study of Scripture itself on these points. I would propose, rather, that it has only been with the advent of Pentecostalism, and the Charismatic and Third Wave renewal movements within other denominations, that serious theologians have begun to study with any exegetical depth the possibility of the continuation or reappearance of miraculous gifts for the present time.

During the 20th century, without a doubt, many, both within Southern Baptist ranks, as well as without, have reacted to the excesses of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Some of this reaction, in my opinion, has been measured and well-directed. On the other hand, some has been of a combative, hysterical nature that has tended to be non-objective, oftentimes resorting to emotion-laden straw man argumentation. Since the 1960’s, however, some Baptists, both within the SBC, and especially in other parts of the world, have taken a more open position towards the continuation of miraculous gifts and the practice of such phenomena as “private prayer languages.”

The choice for us, as Baptists today, as I see it, is: do we want to dig in our heels in regard to all that our past has represented, or do we want to remain open to the continued direction of the Holy Spirit, new insights, as the result of developing scholarship, into the unchanging truths of Scripture, and the principle of semper reformanda? As I understand it, a choice to cling to the past implies at the same time a choice to embrace the views of our Southern Baptist forefathers on such things as slavery and race relations. It might also mean, for many, a revival of Landmarkism.

Smith also quotes Patterson as saying: For us to become charismatic in our emphasis now would be a major, new departure for Southern Baptists. If, by “charismatic in our emphasis,” Patterson means accepting the traditional Pentecostal/Charismatic distinctive of the normative expectation for all believers of the baptism in the Holy Spirit accompanied by the initial sign of speaking in tongues, than I would pretty much be in agreement with him here. However, to imply that those who are advocating the freedom within Southern Baptist life to practice a “private prayer language” are necessarily “charismatic” in their emphasis is just not true.

In closing, I find especially disconcerting the following reference in Smith’s article:

Noting that differences of interpretation on spiritual gifts is one reason why different denominations exist, Patterson invoked a baseball analogy, suggesting Baptists and charismatics are not on the same denominational teams: “Why would I want to wear a Red Sox uniform if I want to play for the Yankees?”

As born-again members of the Family of God, I believe it is a fundamental biblical principle that we are all essentially on the “same team.” In the supposed “game” of Christian service, I would hope we would all be able to say: “I do not play for the ‘Baptists,’ and I do not play for the ‘Charismatics’; I play exclusively for the same King of Kings and Lord of Lords who once said “He that is not with me is against me” (Luke 11.23).

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Alan Knox, Watchman Nee & "Assembling Together"

One of the blogs I read regularly is Alan Knox’s Assembling of the Church. I can’t remember exactly how I first discovered Alan’s blog. I think I kind of stumbled upon it. In any case, Alan, on his blog, is continually analyzing, bit by bit, what the Bible has to say about the church. He is refreshingly biblical, seeking as much as possible to be thoroughly consistent and objective in modern-day application of what the text of Scripture actually says. He is also a student at Southeastern Seminary (working on a doctorate, if I am not mistaken), and, from what I have been able to pick up, has a pretty good command of New Testament Greek.

As a missionary and church planter, I think the topics Alan writes about are very relevant. On the comment string of a recent post entitled Messy Meetings, I engaged Alan in a conversation (in which some other commenters jumped in) on the usefulness of both large and small-group meetings in the church.

This conversation jogged my memory about a book I read quite a few years back entitled Assembling Together, by Watchman Nee. One of the main theses of Nee’s book is that in the New Testament we find various types of church meetings which helped to serve various functions in the life of the church. I have promised Alan that in the next few days I am going to reread over Nee’s book, and report back any relevant insights it has for the discussion related to large and small-group meetings.

I have long been a fan of Watchman Nee’s writings. As far back as my adolescent years, I can remember picking up and reading through several of Nee’s books I found in my father’s library. Books of a devotional nature, such as The Normal Christian Life and Spiritual Authority, have deservedly become well-known evangelical classics.

Nee’s writings on ecclesiology (a topic to which he dedicated quite a bit of space) are a bit more controversial, and not quite so universally accepted. Witness Lee, a disciple of Nee, took some of his more controversial teachings to a next step, converting them into virtual “dogma,” founding what has come to be known as The Local Church movement, which, despite claims to the contrary, is considered by many to be border-line sectarian, and even by some to be a cult. It is my understanding, as well, that the teaching and influence of Nee have been significant elements underlying the massive growth of the house church movement in China.

I personally find Nee’s writings, even on ecclesiology, valuable, because he almost always interacts directly with the biblical text, and has a keen ability for drawing out insights from Scripture that most others pass over. At the same time, I find his hermeneutics, at times, to be a bit rigid, tending to discount differences of cultural and historical context in his application of biblical teachings drawn from specific situations reported in the New Testament.

Interestingly enough, I see some parallels to Nee’s hermeneutical model both in Landmarkism and Pentecostalism. Landmarkists (as I understand them), and many Baptists who are influenced by Landmarkism, tend to take historical references from the book of Acts, or other contextually-specific elements from the epistles, and make them normative for the local church throughout history and all cultural contexts. Pentecostals (and many Charismatics) tend to do the same things with reference to supernatural manifestations recorded in Acts.

I personally prefer the ecclesiological model described by John Reisinger here, here, here, here and here, in which it is recognized that, although the New Testament has much to teach us about the functions of the church, many of the actual forms a local church takes will vary, on a pragmatic basis, according to the cultural and historical context.

In any case, this is sort of a long and rambling introduction to a quote I found as I was beginning to reread Nee’s Assembling Together. I believe this quote captures the essence of what Love Each Stone is all about. As indicated in the heading, my inspiration for the name “Love Each Stone” comes from the Contemporary English Version’s rendering of Psalm 102.14, which says, referring to “Zion”: We, your servants, love each stone in the city, and we are sad to see them lying in the dirt.

On this post and this post, I have already written a bit about some implications of this for us, as Christian workers, as we join hands with the Master Builder, in helping to rebuild the fallen ruins of the spiritual city of Zion, which I understand to be the Body of Christ, the Universal Church, which expresses itself visibly around the world in different locations in individual congregations. It is my hope that everything I write and discuss together with you who read and leave comments here may indeed help to further the purpose of building up “Zion,” and contributing toward the unity of the Body of Christ.

From Assembling Together, by Watchman Nee, Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1973, pp. 4-6…

The Bible reveals to us a most wonderful thing when it shows us that the church is the habitation of God. This is found in Ephesians 2. All the revelations in Ephesians are of tremendous dimensions and this one in chapter 2 is one of them. We must know that God has a dwelling place, a habitation on earth. The thought in the Bible of a habitation for God starts with the tabernacle and continues right on up to the present. In the past God dwelt in a magnificent house, the temple of Solomon. Now He dwells in the church, for today the church is God’s habitation. We, the many, are joined together to be God’s habitation. As individuals, though, we are not so. It takes many of God’s children to be the house of God in the Spirit. This agrees with what 1 Peter 1:5 says, “Ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house….”

How is this spiritual house built? It is with living stones, not dead ones. Solomon’s temple was built with dead stones, but today God’s house is made with living stones. Peter was a living stone, for this is the meaning of his name. By putting these living stones together, God gets His temple. Can one believer alone be a house? If there are not stones built on other stones, it is not a good sign, for it expresses the idea of ruin. It speaks of the desolation that comes after judgment when no stone is left standing on another stone. If a house is to be constructed, stones must be built on stones and stones must be joined to stones. Thank God, you are saved, you have trusted in the Lord Jesus, you are now a stone. Don’t then just hide your stone away some place by itself. Let your stone be built together with the other stones and you will have a house. For the stones to be left scattered and independent is not only useless but also can become a cause of stumbling.

As soon as one believes in the Lord, he becomes one of the stones in God’s habitation. He is a stone, but until he is related to other stones, he is useless. It is like the parts of an automobile. The car can run only when the many parts are put together. What use does one have if he remains alone? He will lose out on the riches of God. We dare not say that living stones standing alone become dead stones, but it is certainly true that a stone, though living, will lose its usefulness and miss out on spiritual riches if it is not joined to other stones to become God’s habitation. We can contain God’s richness only when we are joined together with other living stones; then God can dwell in our midst. That is why there should be a conviction in our hearts that we must be in the church.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Application of Grudem's Article to the Current Situation in the SBC (Part 8)

The next question in Grudem’s list of questions we should ask when trying to determine For What Doctrinal and Ethical Matters Should Christian Organizations Draw New Boundaries? is:

5. PERCEPTION OF IMPORTANCE AMONG GOD’S PEOPLE: Is there increasing consensus among the leaders and members that this matter is important enough that the false teaching should be explicitly denied in a doctrinal statement?

There is no doubt, as I pointed out on my recent post on The Latest Edition of the Florida Baptist Witness and PPL, that the issue of PPL seems to be becoming more and more important in the eyes of many Southern Baptists. However, as I was also trying to point out in the same article, I do not believe that this is because “rank and file” Southern Baptists, by in large, really care that much about what missionary candidates do or don’t do in their private prayer closet, just as long they love the Lord, are “in the Word,” and are men and women of prayer.

From everything I can tell, this is a classic example of a “media event,” that is, something that comes to gain importance in the minds of the general public, not so much because of the issue in and of itself, as much as because of the inordinant amount of attention given to it in the media.

To be sure, some might argue that the whole issue of PPL, as it relates to the IMB, would be a complete non-issue in Southern Baptist life today, if it were not for the blogging of Wade Burleson. And I will be the first to concede that there may indeed be an element of truth behind this assertion.

When I, for example, as an IMB missionary, first heard about the new policies, I was disheartened. In communication related to recent decisions by the Board of Trustees, as noted previously on this blog, I had previously sensed a trend towards narrowing of parameters, and a tendency towards what I considered to be defining and protecting “denominational turf” on the mission field. The new policies on PPL and baptism, were to me, when I first heard about them, just one more step in the same direction.

It was reading Wade’s blog, however, that helped me to “put a finger” on something about which I had sensed an uneasy feeling inside for some time. The amount of attention these issues have since garnered in the blogosphere is, for me, a definite confirmation that the feelings I was experiencing were not limited to just an isolated few.

The real issues, as I understand it, however, have never been PPL and the appropriate administrator of baptism, in and of themselves. If it had not been for the decisions at the IMB, I am quite convinced that discussion over these third-tier doctrinal issues would have never occupied even 10% of the space on the Baptist blogosphere and Baptist press that they have in this past year. The result of all this attention, nonetheless, has been that many, who had been relatively indifferent beforehand, have come to voice, and, in some cases, forcefully defend, an opinion one way or another on these issues.

All this brings me back to Grudem’s original question: Is there increasing consensus among the leaders and members that this matter is important enough that the false teaching should be explicitly denied in a doctrinal statement?

In the first place, I would say that no, there is not anything close to a “consensus” among Southern Baptists that PPL and so-called “alien immersion” are to be regarded as “false teaching.” These are matters on which there exists a divergence of ideas and opinions among Southern Baptists.

Admittedly, Southern Baptists have not, in general, been supportive of the “Charismatic movement,” and there are many who would seem to have something of an emotional aversion towards anything that even “smacks” of Pentecostalism. It is precisely for this reason, I believe, that some of those who have been the prime movers behind the new policy on PPL, for whatever motive they may have, have sought to publicly vilify PPL as essentially equivalent to “Charismatic extremes.” A perfect example of this can be seen in the recent articles of the Florida Baptist Witness.

The argument defending the new policy on baptism is a little harder sell. There may be certain congregations or regions of the country where Landmarkist or Neo-Landmarkist ideas may hold some emotional sway. But, if I understand anything about religious trends, the “consensus” among Southern Baptists, while a long way from anything remotely close to abandoning the biblical doctrine of believers’ baptism, does not, at the same time, support us becoming more and more denominationally narrow in our ecclesiology and general focus.

For some reason, however, there appears to be a smaller group within the power structures of the SBC that wants to speak for Southern Baptists on second and third-tier issues. At the same time, there is a big group of “rank and file” members of typical Southern Baptist churches who are not completely sure what they think on these issues. As a result, there is an attempt on the part of some to tell them what they should think. They would like for us to believe there is indeed a “consensus” among Southern Baptists supporting their ideas, and if you are smart, you will get on the bandwagon. But I, for one, am far from convinced that such is really the case.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

What's Right with the SBC and IMB

Not meaning to imply there are not other things right with the SBC and IMB as well, but upon reading this post by fellow missonary blogger "Strider," my heart was bursting with "healthy pride" to be a part of the IMB, the SBC, and the Body of Christ at large. "Strider" and his team work in an area of the world he calls "Middle Earth" that is not precisely where most church growth experts usually go to do their investigations. The approach to missionary strategy outlined by "Strider" in his post is, in the humble opinion of this 17-year missionary "veteran," practical missiology at its best.

I am encouraged to know, as I go about my very different type of ministry here in Spain, that there are people on the same "team," in the broader sense of the word, like "Strider," doing the types of things he talks about in his post, in places of the world like "Middle Earth." I think you should be encouraged too.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Latest Edition of the Florida Baptist Witness and PPL

There are several new articles in the Feb. 15 online edition of the Florida Baptist Witness on the issue of “private prayer language.” The headline article entitled Is charismatic theology historically Baptist? deals with some specific questions I was already planning on discussing on Part 9 of the series on Wayne Grudem’s article, Why, When, and For What Should We Draw New Boundaries? When I get to that particular post, I will have more to say about James A. Smith’s article in the Florida Baptist Witness. There are also several other articles in this new edition of the Florida Baptist Witness that I would like to comment on, pointing out what I believe to be lack of objectivity in certain places, and plan to do so as time allows.

In the meantime, I think it is relevant to point out that it is very unlikely that the question of “private prayer language” would occupy such a prominent space in the Florida Baptist Witness if it were not for the new policies at the IMB. For that matter, if it were not for the new policies at the IMB, I would probably not be blogging about PPL. It is not an issue that, by its very nature, in and of itself, would normally merit a great deal of attention in Southern Baptist life. It is not an issue that I have dedicated a whole lot of time to discussing before the new policies at the IMB. However, the narrowing of parameters that would limit the missionary ministry of God-called Baptists due to their practice and/or belief in something as secondary or tertiary as PPL is something that I believe is worth talking about and writing about.

The result of all of this is that the entire issue of PPL has now become a lot more prominent in Southern Baptist life than it ever was before. I don’t believe this was the intention of those who came up with and passed the new policy at the IMB. Nor do I believe it is the intention of the staff of the Florida Baptist Witness, nor of the authors of the articles in the new edition. Nonetheless, that has been the result. A bit ironic, if you ask me.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Application of Grudem's Article to the Current Situation in the SBC (Part 7)

We now come to the fourth question in the last section of Dr. Wayne Grudem’s article Why, When, and For What Should We Draw New Boundaries?:

4. HISTORICAL PRECEDENT: Is this teaching contrary to what the vast majority of the Bible-believing church has held throughout history?

In regards to the question of “private prayer language,” this point is admittedly one on which the position in favor of openness may appear to be most vulnerable. I readily recognize that the practice of “PPL” has not been well documented down through the great part of church history, up until the advent of the Pentecostal movement at the beginning of the 20th century.

On the other hand, D. A. Carson, who, as far as I can tell, has “no axe to grind” on this issue, and is widely recognized in conservative evangelical circles as a competent and balanced scholar, tempers the historical pretensions of cessationists a bit, when he states the following, on p. 165 of Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14:

There is a considerable historiography that argues that the phenomenon of tongues and other “charismatic” gifts died out fairly early in the history of the church. This varies from Knox’s amusing and sometimes savage denunciation of what he calls “enthusiasm” to more pedestrian studies that may admit strange phenomena do recur, but insist that such aberrations are found only in fringe groups, among sectarian heretics. Thus one noncharismatic ends his study of both the Bible and church history with these words: “We conclude by quoting Paul, who said: ‘Tongues shall cease’ (1 Cor. 13:8). They have.” There are enough loose pieces to make us fearful that the historical records are being handled (or mishandled) on the basis of a strong commitment to a predetermined conclusion.
Also, I think it is relevant here to take into account not only the practice of the majority of the pre-20th-century church, but also that of the present-day church. The fact of the matter is that “PPL,” though probably not practiced by the majority of bible-believing Christians today, is at least accepted and tolerated by a significant majority throughout evangelical Christianity around the world.

In addition, Grudem himself states: “It is important to remember that these questions should be weighed and not just counted, for some of them will be more relevant than others, depending on the individual situation.” I believe that, with respect to the validity or lack of validity of “PPL,” this particular question (i.e. historical precedent) is comparatively less relevant than others. There are various reasons for this:

1. The preponderance of the practice of certain spiritual gifts and phenomena seems in one degree or another to be related historically to the spiritual state of the church of the time period under consideration. Jesus himself said He did not do many miracles in Nazareth due to the lack of faith of the people there. Although I personally would not go so far as to claim an across the board spiritual superiority for continuationists or Pentecostals/Charismatics, I do think it is entirely plausible that the rationalistic prejudices on the part of some, and the hardened hearts of others, have, to a certain extent, limited the miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power in the lives of Christians on many occasions.

2. Many beliefs and practices that are accepted as legitimate by the vast majority of bible-believing Christians today were not always accepted as such. Included among these are such questions as justification by faith, believers baptism, and the abolition of slavery. I think these examples provide more than ample evidence to demonstrate the vast majority of Christendom has been wrong on more than one occasion.

3. Although I do not believe the defense of this question rises or falls on this point, I personally see a certain degree of plausibility to the “latter rain” theory that posits an increase in the occurrence of supernatural manifestations as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit as we draw closer to the “end-times.”

On the other hand, the requirement that legitimate Christian baptism be administered by a local church that only baptizes believers by immersion, and does not teach the doctrine of “eternal security,” seems to go against the opinion and practice of the majority of bible-believing Christians throughout history. Admittedly, consistency with the argument presented above regarding “PPL” demands that this teaching not be rejected on the basis of this criterion alone. However, I would think that the almost total lack of support of the teaching underlying the new IMB policy regarding baptism throughout church history, with the notable exceptions of the Landmark movement, and certain other Baptists I think would best be described as “neo-Landmarkists,” gives, at the very least, due cause for serious reflection.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Tom Ascol on Post-Denominationalism

In case you haven’t seen this yet, Lifeway has just come out with a new study on “loyalty to denominations and specific churches, as well as length and frequency of attendance.” Blogger and Founders Ministries director Tom Ascol has written a post that I think expresses some very perceptive thoughts in response to the fascinating information presented in this study.

I think the following paragraph from Ascol’s post is especially helpful and incisive…

The denominational world has changed. Ultimately, this is a good thing, I believe. Blind loyalty is never wise. By getting over that when it comes to a denominational identity one is free to pursue unreserved loyalty to Jesus Christ and out of that loyalty identify with a local church and/or denomination. Such people make the very best kinds of church members and churches comprised of such members make the best kinds of denominations.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Application of Grudem's Article to the Current Situation in the SBC (Part 6)

After a bit of a break from our consideration of Grudem’s article Why, When, and For What Should We Draw New Boundaries?, we now come to the third point under the last section on For What Doctrinal and Ethical Matters Should Christian Organizations Draw New Boundaries? Up to now, I have been talking about various doctrinal issues being debated in Southern Baptist life in our discussion of Grudem. But, in this post, I will limit discussion to the issue of “private prayer language.” Perhaps there will be opportunity to discuss other issues as they relate to Grudem’s point here at a later time.

3. EFFECT ON PERSONAL AND CHURCH LIFE: Will this false teaching bring significant harm to people’s Christian lives, or to the work of the church?

If indeed PPL were a “false teaching,” I think you would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that either allowing it or practicing it brings “significant harm to people’s Christian lives, or to the work of the church.” My personal experience has been just the opposite. In general, where PPL is freely allowed and practiced, the church seems to be experiencing vibrant growth and spiritual vitality. Indeed, the most significant numerical growth in the evangelical movement around the world has unquestionably been in the Pentecostal and Charismatic sector.

Some may argue that an openness to PPL tends to go along with an openness to unhealthy spiritual extremes. While I would agree that many who advocate and practice certain forms of extreme doctrine also happen to be advocates of PPL, to lump everyone together is, in my opinion, unfair “guilt by association.” There are plenty of extremists associated with any number of doctrines and practices accepted pretty much across the board as being within the bounds of orthodoxy. A belief in a holy lifestyle, for instance, does not necessarily make you a legalist. Though the majority of legalists would give at least lip-service to the importance of a holy lifestyle.

Others may want to point out the moral failures of several high profile leaders who are known advocates of PPL. Honesty, however, obligates us to admit that moral failure does not seem to play favorites among those of different doctrinal persuasions. My personal observation has been that the presence of both moral shortcomings and moral excellence is pretty much evenly apportioned between advocates of PPL and those who do not advocate PPL.

Others would point towards the high degree of church division that has often been associated with the presence of charismatic practices. A very interesting answer to this line of thinking comes from D.A. Carson, in his excellent book Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14. In general, Carson’s treatment of this entire issue is one of the most even-handed and objective of which I am aware. I think the following quote, although a bit long, is especially instructive in regard to the question at hand…

For many young clergy from noncharismatic traditions, one of their first major crises will develop when some strong voices in the church call for freedom to speak in tongues in public services, or start to proselytize members in home Bible studies. Precisely this situation has generated the polarizations that have split countless churches. What should be done?

In some instances, of course, the split may be unavoidable. But as I faced precisely this situation, in a fairly mild form, when I was in pastoral ministry sixteen years ago, perhaps I can pass on some lessons I learned at that time.

Our church was divided between a few procharismatics and several anticharismatics, with the majority fairly confused between the two, and asking for leadership. Neither of the extremes was virulent, but it was obvious the situation could have rapidly degenerated. I asked for prayer and time: prayer to hold us together and do what was right, and time to survey in weekly meetings what the Bible had to say about the Holy Spirit. I asked for six months, and the last two months or so of that Wednesday night series were devoted to much the same sort of material here put together in more sophisticated fashion. I have changed my mind on a number of minor points since then, and on several issues where I was less clear about what the Scripture said, I acknowledged my confusion and ignorance and tried to convey what I thought was being said, while still surveying other interpretative options.

Toward the end of the series, I tried to summarize what I judged to be true points that fair, biblical exegesis could affirm with confidence. The first and most important of these was that tongues cannot possibly serve as a criterion of anything; the second was that I could not find any unequivocal criterion for ruling out all contemporary tongues-speaking, even though I thought much of what I had seen was suspect or was manifested outside the stipulations Paul had laid down. I think everyone in the church came to accept these two points, and as a result, 80 percent of our problem was solved. So much of the divisiveness of tongues-speaking turns very little on the tongues phenomenon itself, but on what it allegedly attests. It so easily promotes pride in those who think that it confirms they have a measure of the Spirit not enjoyed by others; and for the same reason it evokes resentment, jealousy, and defensiveness among many noncharismatics who feel they are being relegated to second-class status in the church. Moreover, because we did not conclude that all contemporary tongues must automatically be dismissed as illegitimate, the few who were practicing tongues in private did not feel threatened or begin to hurl accusations that the leadership did not really believe the Bible and was not open to the Spirit.

We then took two more steps. The first was to invite anyone who had attended the series of addresses to testify as to his or her experience on these matters, and to seek to evaluate that experience on the basis of what had been learned from the series. This proved fascinating. In the mercy of God, enough trust had been established to allow us to listen to remarkably diverse points of view, and without rancor. A few testified how they felt they had been helped by their gift of tongues, but were quite willing to admit that they had unwittingly elevated it to the level of criterion, a step they were prepared to abandon. One person, a highly respected deacon, told of his own experiences in the charismatic movement, and how he had left it because he had come to think that its claims were commonly false. Another deacon who, I knew, had been converted in Pentecostal circles, at first said nothing. I did not know what he would say, but I elicited from him his own testimony, not wanting anything to be bottled up. He cheerfully acknowledged, with gratitude to God, the context of his conversion as a young patrolman in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In the long watches of the night, when he sat in his car by the hour in a fairly remote part of the Rocky Mountains, he used some of his time praying in tongues, and he felt that the experience had made him profoundly aware of God’s presence and had helped to ground is fledgling faith. I asked him if he still, twenty years later, spoke in tongues, and he replied, “No, I don’t.” I asked him why not; and he answered, with innocent candor, “I guess it’s because I don’t need it now. I think that was for when I was a baby Christian.”

That judgment, of course, needed to be assessed against the testimony of Paul, who, certainly no baby Christian, could testify that he spoke in tongues more than any of the Corinthians. But the direction of the discussion, including the witness of that police officer, was profoundly right in another sense; without suggesting that all experiences of tongues-speaking are spurious, the general effect was to downplay the importance of the phenomenon. That is surely in line with one of Paul’s aims in 1 Corinthians 12-14, and the effect in our church was to draw the sting out of further discussion.

I took one more step. I asked for another week to survey New Testament teaching on church discipline before offering any recommendation; and the congregation kindly agreed. At that last Wednesday evening, I tried to outline the three areas that could lead to the supreme sanction, excommunication: flagrantly immoral life, major doctrinal aberration, and a loveless, fundamentally divisive spirit. It was the last one, of course, that was so important in our context: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him” (Titus 3:10). This strong response is a reflection of the New Testament’s profound commitment to the unity of the church. The question, then, was this: In the light of what we had learned of tongues and related gifts in the New Testament, and in the light of the emphasis on loving unity in the body, what stance should we as a church adopt?

The conclusion was that we would not foster tongues-speaking in public meetings, but we would not oppose them if they occurred, provided they fell within the Pauline stipulations. However, those who felt they had the gift were encouraged to practice it in private, rather than in the public assembly where those who were still suspicious of all instances of the phenomenon would have been more than a little uncomfortable. We also agreed in the strongest terms that is a charismatic began to use his or her gift to proselytize, or if a noncharismatic began to agitate to squeeze the charismatics out, action would immediately be taken by the church leaders to warn against the divisiveness bound up with such conduct.

In the Lord’s mercy, we did not lose anyone, and in six months, the issue was dead. In retrospect, it is clearer to me now than it was then that many things could have gone much worse than they did, if we had not enjoyed the mix of people who were there. Doubtless in a slightly different mix, or in a different ecclesiastical tradition, exactly the same sorts of arguments might have led to occasional use of tongues in public assembly. But of the thrust of the steps taken, and of the relative valuation of church unity and the place of tongues-speaking, I would not change one iota if placed in a similar situation today.

In short, the church must hunger for personal and corporate submission to the lordship of Christ. We must desire to know more of God’s presence in our lives, and pray for a display of unleashed, reforming, revivifying power among us, dreading all steps that aim to domesticate God. But such power and hunger must always be tempered with joyful submission to the constraints of biblical discipline.

*D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, Baker Books, 1987, pp. 185-88.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Great Article on Christian Unity

One of my principal interests on this blog is the practice of unity in the Body of Christ. Alan Knox, on his post Unity in Christ... links to one of the best articles on Christian unity I have ever read. I thus direct you to read and reflect upon: A fading unity by Chris Milliken.