The length and subject matter of your last letter will delay the examination of the biblical evidence for the Lord’s command traditionally known as the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). Your letter raises more issues than I can answer in our agreed format, so I will not respond point-by-point, but to the general idea you raise. It is striking that the conversation transitioned from the concrete reality of the local churches to the eschatological reality of the universal church. I would like to address the concepts you have offered and then ask a question. (We will not address your interesting interpretation of Dagg.)
You introduced a strategic process utilized by the International Mission Board [IMB] called “end-visioning.” Envisioning the means to a goal is certainly one way to organize human efforts, and somewhat acceptable for church matters, but only if the humanly-derived means chosen do not contradict or detract from divinely-ordained means. Since you do not accept the ecclesiology, at least with regard to the universal church, exposited from Scripture by the founder of your alma mater, perhaps you will allow me to draw upon the pastor-theologian who shepherded the modern missions movement. Surely, we can both agree with him in describing what is normative and what is dispensable in the missionary effort.
Andrew Fuller held the rope of support that allowed William Carey to take that half-year journey to
Fuller advised the Indian churches on the basis of Scripture. He began by affirming that there are “general outlines or principles” revealed in the New Testament for planting churches. These general principles are derived from 1 Corinthians 14: “Let all things be done to edifying.—Let all things be done decently, and in order.” In other words, our methodological decisions should be driven by edification, building up individuals in the holy faith; decency, in relating to one another and the world; and, orderliness, properly organizing ourselves for worship and witness. He notes that the first churches were begun with edification, decency, and order: “When a number of Christians agreed to walk together in the faith and order of the gospel, they became a Christian church.” (Although he does not use the word, “covenant,” there is little doubt this was in mind.)
Fuller was also very clear that the New Testament actually offers positive rules that must be followed. In other words, a church must follow specific rules established by God in addition to the general principles He established. Only when the Lord’s rules and principles are obeyed does freedom come to innovate. With regard to specific rules, Fuller says, “On the other hand, there are some things pertaining to the Christian church which are entirely positive; and, being clearly revealed, require to be obeyed with the same punctilious regard to the ‘pattern’ given as was observed by Moses in constructing the tabernacle. Such are baptism and the Lord’s supper. They were ‘ordinances’ of God, and required to be kept ‘as they were delivered,’ Matt. iii.5; Luke i.6; 1 Cor. xi.2.” Fuller brooked no deviation from the New Testament methodology.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are two examples of means or methods that are not up for innovation or dismissal. Baptists have long believed that we must follow Christ’s commands, not according to our preferences, but according to Christ’s instructions and the apostolic example, as revealed only in the Bible. This is why we plant churches, baptize only believers, do not serve the Lord’s Supper to unbelievers or those under discipline, and are adamant about the verbal proclamation of God’s Word to a lost world. These practices are not subject to negotiation: they are commanded! Fuller again: “In whatsoever therefore the Lord hath condescended to instruct us, we are not at liberty to prefer what may appear fit and right to us….”
Envision (if you so desire, while being careful of the source of the vision), but (if ever so tempted) please do not neglect the necessary means established by Scripture. Fuller apparently never addressed the priority of local churches versus the universal church, because he and the missionaries he led were focused upon planting local churches, not the amorphous construction of an invisible church. The envisioning approach you have raised was simply not in their vocabulary, because of their desire to obey His Word. “Again, The first missionaries to a heathen country would be employed in the planting of churches, wherever proper materials were found for the purpose….” They believed that missionaries are sent to plant churches composed of “proper materials” (i.e. converts). Emphasizing the universal church as the primary goal of the missionary’s efforts, while downplaying a focus upon planting local churches, is a recent innovation. One wonders how we can know that the proper materials of the universal church are really there, if local churches do not result from a missionary’s work.
We cannot dispense with the necessary means ordained by Jesus Christ in order to meet the end we envision, even if we believe it is His end. An emphasis on the universal church may just be a preliminary matter, while your primary emphasis is upon the local church, but the drift of our conversation is misleading, if that is the case. David, let us affirm the existence of the universal church, just as the Baptist Faith and Message unambiguously does. However, let us not lose our focus upon the local church while we affirm the universal church. You believe the local church is “a tool…(albeit a very important one).” I would state emphatically that the local church is the only body that Christ has established to proclaim the Word that saves the world. It is not one among many tools but the necessary and unique body that should receive the minister’s care. Should it not?
In Christ,Letter #7, Both the End and the Means are Established by the Lord, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #8, A Matter of Emphasis?, by David Rogers Letter #9, Complete Obedience versus Hesitant Discipleship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #10, The Universal Scope of the Great Commission, by David Rogers Letter #11, Freedom, Power and Authority in the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #12, Enduring Submission to the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #13, Obeying the Commands of Jesus, by David Rogers Letter #14, John Gill on Romans 14 and 15:1-7, by David Rogers Letter #15, The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf Denomination", by David Rogers Letter #16, A Condensed Response to Your Last Three Letters, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #17, Further Discussion on Cooperation and Obedience, by David Rogers Letter #18 (Part I), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part II), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part III), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #19, A Deep Division?, by David Rogers