I have noticed in the comment thread of your last letter that you plan on making your next letter your last in this series. In the event that ends up being the case, I want, first of all, to make sure to speak to several points you bring up in your last letter. After that, I want to pose a few brief questions I would like for you to answer before we close off this current dialogue.
In your section on “Clarification Regarding ‘Faith’ and ‘Order,’” you say that I define "secondary matters" in terms of "order" with my references to "baptism by immersion" and "common loaf." Actually, if I am understanding correctly the traditional theological distinction between “faith” and “order,” I would say that I do not define “secondary matters” in terms of “order.” While I would agree that many matters of secondary importance do, in fact, coincide with what have been termed matters of “order,” I am not so sure that the actual division between “primary” and “secondary” always falls neatly along these same lines.
As I tried to make clear, especially in Letter #13, I certainly do not “dismiss” the importance of obeying any command of Christ, whether it concerns matters of “faith” or “order.” However, there are certain commands that, due to confusion in interpretation, or a certain degree of ambiguity in the biblical text itself, have been understood differently by sincere followers of Christ down through history. At the same time, there are certain matters that heretical groups and false cults have twisted in order to prop up their false doctrinal systems, and are of such central importance to the Gospel message itself, that to misunderstand and misapply them would compromise the very essence of Christian discipleship. Perhaps these are what you would call matters of “faith.” If such is the case, I do not have any real objection to this distinction. At the same time, I wish to make perfectly clear, once again, that I do not advocate any compromise whatsoever regarding one’s personal obligation to obey, as well as he/she is able to understand them, each and every one of Christ’s commands, whether they be matters of “faith” or “order.”
In your section entitled “Where Do You Stand?,” you say that several things I have written suggest that “disciplined obedience to Christ’s commands is not something with which disciples should be overly concerned.” I forcefully disagree with this conclusion. I do not see a contradiction between the statements of mine that you quote, and a concerted effort towards “disciplined obedience to Christ’s commands.” The fact that we will not be judged according to our observance of the law, but rather in virtue of the righteousness vicariously gained for us by Christ at Calvary, does not, in any way, devalue the importance of obedience to his commands, whether in so-called issues of “faith” or “order.”
At the same time, you correctly understand me to voice a conviction consistent with a traditional Baptist interpretation of baptism. However, I believe you misinterpret me when you suggest I am confused about what I believe. Properly understood, I believe there is no contradiction whatsoever in my personal convictions regarding the biblical teaching on believers baptism by immersion, and the possibility of cooperating and fellowshipping with authentic followers of Christ who are sincerely mistaken in their views of baptism, and/or other “secondary” and “tertiary” matters.
While, in the spirit of the Reformation principle of semper reformanda, I am open to growth in my understanding of biblical teaching in many areas, I do not, at the same time, consider myself to be in a “precarious position” of abandoning important principles due to an unhealthy influence of “modern missionary thought and practice.” Actually, the views I take on the particular issues we are discussing are views at which I have arrived after a heartfelt and diligent study of Scripture. They are matters of strong conviction for me from which I will not easily be moved.
With regard to your section on “The Definition of a Great Commission Christian,” I think it may help to “clear the smoke” a bit, at this point, to recognize that the term “Great Commission Christian” is not in itself a biblical term, and has only recently come into use among evangelical Christians and Southern Baptists. As such, there is a certain degree of arbitrariness in the definition we choose to give it.
The International Mission Board, when they first began to publish material on “New Directions” in regard to missionary strategy and philosophy of ministry around the world, gave the following definition to the term Great Commission Christian: “an evangelical Christian actively engaged in or committed to the fulfillment of the Great Commission” (from Something New Under the Sun, Glossary).
In addition, the following description is a bit more specific:
“…within the great sea of Christianity there are many born-again believers--men and women--who have experienced a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ and look to God's Word as their authority for faith and practice. These evangelicals are scattered all over the world and are growing in number. Current global estimates put their number at up to 500 million. They are found in more than 20,000 denominations with over 1,000 foreign mission agencies worldwide. It is these fellow believers who offer us tremendous potential as co-laborers in fulfilling the Great Commission” (from Something New Under the Sun, ch. 5).On the comment thread to your Letter #16, several others have already pointed out that, according to the criteria you appear to be using, we ourselves as Baptists would be disqualified as Great Commission Christians. None of us is perfect, neither in our understanding of nor our obedience to the Great Commission. Undoubtedly, at the same time, however, many Baptists are sincerely trying to understand and obey as consistently as possible the Great Commission. But, then again, if that is the understanding we have of “Great Commission Christians,” so are many others in many, if not all, of the groups you reference in your letter. The real issue for me, however, is not who we may call “Great Commission Christians”, and who we may not, but rather with whom we fellowship and cooperate for the advance of the Kingdom of God in our desire to be obedient to the Great Commission.
In your section entitled “Unrepentant Sinners” and “The Baptist Renaissance,” you make the assertion that Christians who do not understand and practice baptism in the same way as Baptists are, in fact, “unrepentant sinners.” The question that must be answered at this juncture is whether or not someone who has made a heartfelt commitment to submit to the Lordship of Jesus as transmitted to us in Holy Scripture, but who is sincerely mistaken in their attempts at understanding and obeying certain commands, is truly “disobedient.” In American society, a commonly quoted maxim is “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” However, as I understand it, the correct application of the principle enunciated in this maxim only applies in the case of laws that are punishable by condemnation and penalty. If, however, we have been set free from the bondage of the law (Galatians 5:1), and “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), I do not understand sincere but mistaken attempts to obey as actual “disobedience.”
Under the New Covenant, we seek to understand and obey out of love, not obligation, or fear of punishment. As such, the true degree of our obedience is commensurate with the degree of our love. As a matter of fact, we can be completely flawless in our external adherence to the commands of God, and yet, at the same time, if we do not have love, be nothing more than resounding gongs or clanging cymbals. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
While I readily recognize, together with you, the dangers of compromising our convictions of the truth due to “sentimental gullibility,” I do not, by any means, concede that all of us who are diligently working towards progress in our understanding and application of Christian unity are doing so out of a lack of solid conviction. In my case, personally, I do not believe I am naïve or deceived when I affirm that my convictions regarding Christian unity are rooted first and foremost in my understanding and diligent study of the Word of God.
Malcolm, I can’t help but ask myself, in relation to what you have written here, whether you are really being obedient to Christ’s commands concerning unity in his Body. I am disappointed that you have not responded, as far as I can tell, to what I consider to be the main thesis of my Letter #13--even though we may be convinced of how we, in our personal practice, ought to obey specific commands of Christ, it does not necessarily follow that, in order to avoid disobedience in our own lives, we must demand the same understanding and manner of obedience from others. My thesis, as I understand Scripture, is that the most obedient option is many times the one of greater tolerance and acceptance of those who differ with us in their understanding and practice of secondary matters. From my perspective, it is not that I am being any less obedient to Christ’s commands concerning baptism, and other secondary matters, but rather, perhaps, I am being more obedient in regard to his commands concerning unity.
In your section entitled "A Positive Conclusion," while I appreciate and am humbled by your comments regarding my love for other people, you indicate that I seem to misinterpret John Gill in some way or another. Recognizing the breadth of your studies of Baptist history, I dare not call into question your understanding of Gill’s theology. However, in my post on Romans 14, I limit myself, for the most part, to quoting directly from Gill’s commentary. It would help me to know on what specific point you feel I have mischaracterized Gill.
While, most assuredly, you, I, and Gill are all totally convinced of the correctness of the Baptist view on the subject and mode of baptism, I think you are missing the point I was making from Romans 14--we may be totally convinced of our particular position, but the degree of certainty we have regarding our interpretation of a particular point is not what makes it a “disputable matter.” What makes it “disputable” is the fact that other sincere disciples of Jesus understand it differently than us.
Frankly, I cannot understand how you can call clear biblical teaching on the “common loaf” a mere personal preference, and, at the same time, call baptism by immersion an inviolable command. It seems to me that, in stating that baptism symbolizes the Gospel, and the common loaf symbolizes church unity, you yourself are making the same distinction between “faith” and “order” about which you forewarned me earlier. Malcolm, as the popular adage states: “You can’t have your cake, and eat it too.”
Now, for my closing questions to you:
1. I hope that by now you have a fairly good grasp on my theological views, at least on the particular issues we have been discussing during this dialogue. Do you believe there is a place for people like me in Southern Baptist life? Do you believe that any of the views I take should disqualify someone like me from service as a Southern Baptist missionary or denominational employee? Why or why not?
2. If I do not change my views concerning the matters we have been discussing here, do you believe it would be better for me to serve with some group other than the IMB? Why or why not?
3. If I understand you correctly, you allow for certain cooperation with non-Baptists in certain ministry projects. Where you (and recent adjustments to IMB policy) draw the line is specifically in regard to cooperation in “church planting.” As someone who has participated actively over the last 17 years in “church planting” ministry, I want to know: At what point do we cross the line from evangelistic and disciple-making ministry into “church planting” ministry? My experience has led me to conclude that this line is, in many cases, very blurry and hard to define. In actuality, practically all of what we do, as “church planters” on the mission field, involves, to a large degree, evangelism and disciple-making. I would like to know, if you can help me understand it, at what point do we specifically cross that line, and what are the reasons for drawing the line of cooperation at that particular point?
Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell 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