Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Rocks on the Path to Unity

My last post on "Unity with Other Religions Too?" has got me thinking more about the whole matter of our essential unity with other Christians, and how hard it is, at times, to make it work. A very interesting conversation, in which I was involved, ensued on this topic in the comment string over at Paul Grabill’s blog. Also, I had a conversation yesterday with some family members, including my Mom, in which I mentioned this post, and the various issues involved.

In the midst of this conversation, my Mom shared about how my Dad, early on in his ministry, when he was pastor of a church at Fort Pierce, Florida, decided to drop out of the local Ministerial Alliance, because they voted to include the Mormons. In the latter part of his ministry, here in the Memphis area, I know he was a regular participant in pastors’ meetings in relation to the local Baptist Association. I know he also met together on a regular basis, and actively pursued fellowship, with several other area pastors from other denominations, including Methodists, Presbyterians, and Assemblies of God.

I am proud of my father, and the example he set for me in this area. I believe that biblically, there is a legitimate tension between the injunctions, on the one hand, to not be "yoked together with unbelievers" and "come out from them and be separate" (2 Corinthians 6:14-18), and, on the other hand, to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3).

As I have observed other pastors and Christian leaders in various contexts down through the years, it seems to me that one of the major causes that keep them from more actively pursuing practical unity with believers and churches from other backgrounds is the fear of being "yoked together with unbelievers." I personally find it hard to find fault with someone, whenever their decisions are truly based on a desire to be as faithful as they possibly can to the teaching of the Word of God. However, I am convinced there is still a "more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Back in Extremadura, Spain, where I learned and experienced many of the things that have molded my current thinking regarding Christian unity, at one time, the Seventh-Day Adventists applied for membership in the regional Evangelical Council. The vote among all the participating churches, which included Baptists, Pentecostals, Plymouth Brethren, Charismatics, Presbyterians, and Independents, was unanimous to not admit them.

Personally, I have known several brothers and sisters in Christ, who are now solid, committed evangelicals, who shared with me that they first came to a saving knowledge of Christ while they were still with the Seventh-Day Adventists. So, I am not saying that you cannot be Seventh-Day Adventist and saved at the same time. I would say that pretty much the same thing holds for Roman Catholics. However, the official doctrine of both of these groups, as I understand it, if rightly understood and embraced, would preclude salvation, because it is, at its root, a doctrine of "grace plus works."

Because of this, my personal position has always been to pursue fellowship and unity on a personal level with all those who give evidence in their personal life and testimony of being truly born again; and on an organizational level with all those whose official doctrinal position, if truly understood and embraced, would lead to being born again.

What if the Extremaduran Evangelical Council had voted to include the Seventh-Day Adventists? What if they had voted to include the Catholics, or the Mormons, or the Muslims? I freely admit, that, in such a case, things would have gotten a lot more complicated for me. But, I still would have felt a compulsion to do my best to work towards practical unity with those I understood to be true believers, even if I disagreed with them about admitting others who were not.

Within the family of faith, there are plenty of things we can discuss and disagree about amongst ourselves. But, they are, at the root, "in-house arguments." They do not affect our basic unity one with another.

There are also certain individual believers, as well as certain groups of believers, with whom God joins our hearts in a special way, and with whom we have particularly close fellowship. There are also some who, for more pragmatic reasons, turn out to be more conducive partners than others in certain ministry projects.

But the fact that there are difficulties and complications involved in putting into practice our unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ should never lead us to put the topic of unity on the back-burner, or to treat a fellow believer as if he/she were not a true, full-fledged member of the family.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Unity with Other Religions Too?

Paul Grabill has posted a link on his blog to a story in the Austin American-Statesman about Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin choosing to not allow Austin Area Interreligious Ministries to use its property for an inter-faith Thanksgiving service, which encouraged the joint worship of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Bahais, and was to include Muslim Maghrib prayer.

I hope it is clear, when I write about the practice of Christian unity, that I am NOT talking about events like this. I think that Hyde Park Church made the right decision. In the world in which we live, this type of decision can be very unpopular, and expose us to accusations of intolerance. See, for example, the editorials in the Austin American-Statesman here, here, here and here.

Among those accustomed to narrow denominationalism, efforts toward promoting biblical unity can also be unpopular. Sometimes, seeking to be faithful to our Lord's commands leads one to walk a pretty tight rope.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thoughts from Philippians on the City Church

I was just reading through Philippians in the New Living Translation, and, with the post from yesterday on the City Church on my mind, the following verses stood out to me:
v. 1. This letter is from Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus. I am writing to all of God’s holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus, including the elders and deacons.

vv. 4-5. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now.

v. 27 Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News.
Would it not be something truly wonderful to be able to say that "all of God's holy people" in Memphis, or Dallas, or Tulsa, or Hot Springs, or Madrid, or wherever, were "standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News"?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The City Church Revisited

One of the posts that has attracted the most comments on Love Each Stone was a guest post, entitled The City Church, by Paul Grabill. There are many misconceptions about the City Church, including the idea that it eliminates the need for individual congregations, and denominations. Grabill, who blogs at Beside the Point, is pastor of the State College Assembly of God in State College, Pennsylvania. As such, he obviously believes in the value of the local congregation, as well as in denominational cooperation.

Christian Unity: Local Movements & Congregational Implications is a paper Grabill wrote fleshing out the concept of the City Church, and proposing some practical steps for putting it into practice. As a conservative Baptist, I, evidently, have a few doctrinal differences with Grabill. Frankly, there are a few things he says in this article that make me a bit nervous, especially when he uses terms like ecumenism and liberalism, and talks about building bridges to Catholics.

Don’t worry. I’m not on the verge of selling out on such matters as the inerrancy of Scripture, justification by grace through faith alone, or believers baptism. It’s just that, in addition to these, I also have a conviction that we, as Southern Baptists, are not doing all we could and should to work towards the unity of Christ’s Body for which he prayed in John 17. And it doesn’t necessarily mean compromising our convictions on other key doctrines.

In the interest of seeking to be as obedient as we can to Christ’s commands, and making "every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3), I urge you to carefully read what Grabill has to say, and prayerfully consider whether it is line with what Christ would want of us as his children.

Another article along the same lines I highly recommend is Shopping for the Right Church, by Nathan Pitchford. It is well worth the read. Please take the time to read the whole thing and take to heart what it says as well.

For some more practical examples where some interesting progress is being made along these lines, see also:

Mission Houston
The Katy Church
Why a "City Church?"
Church Planting Manifesto

Friday, November 16, 2007

Additional Thoughts

For those of you who, for whatever strange reason, may not have already had more than your fill of my thoughts and reflections on assorted topics, here are a few links...

1. Back in the Spring, Ryan Rice, over at did a pod-cast interview with me, on the topic of church planting in Spain, which he now has on-line here. We did it in a crowded restaurant, so there is a bit of background noise. But, if you turn the volume up, you can follow it pretty well.

2. I still am posting, once every 8 or 9 days or so, at sbc IMPACT! My posts over there, which, for the most part, are different from what I post here, include:

The Role of the American Church in World Missions
The World is a Waffle
The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf Denomination" (with a separate comment string from the one here at Love Each Stone)
World Evangelism is a "Team Sport"
Why Did God Destroy Sodom?
The "Harvest Cycle" and Short-Term Missions

While you're at it, don't forget to check out the daily articles by the entire excellent team of writers at sbc IMPACT!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Landmarkism and the Arkansas Baptist Convention

During the past couple of years, there has been a good bit of debate regarding the influence of Landmarkism within the SBC. Although I am a pretty far cry from being a political pundit, I believe the recent vote at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention may well have been a pretty good referendum on this question (read about it here). I was not there, but here are a few of my observations based on what I have read on the internet:

1. The proposed amendment was to strike from the ABSC constitution the statement: “The Baptist Faith and Message shall not be interpreted as to permit open communion and/or alien immersion.”

While, as I understand it, state conventions are officially autonomous, and are free to make the doctrinal statements they wish, it is interesting to me that, in addition to approving the Baptist Faith and Message, the ABSC has officially gone on record as interpreting it. The problem is that the terms “open communion” and “alien immersion” are open to interpretation themselves. I had always assumed that the phrase “Being a church ordinance, [baptism] is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper” precluded the option of “open communion.” Inasmuch as, strictly speaking, my personal view is not that of “open communion,” but what some (such as Nathan Finn) have called “modified open communion,” I may not have needed to sign the Baptist Faith and Message with a caveat after all. At least not, according to the way many Arkansas Baptists apparently interpret it.

I don’t have a clue where they get that the BF & M says anything one way or another about “alien immersion,” though.

2. The vote total in favor of the amendment was 383 votes (63%) to 225 votes (37%) against. However, that was not enough, since the constitution requires a 2/3 majority (67%) in two consecutive conventions in order to pass.

It is difficult to know for sure how many of the people who voted in favor of the amendment actually believe in and/or practice “open communion” and the admission of “alien immersion.” However, it seems significant to me that a pretty clear majority appear to at least be open to this possibility. This is in Arkansas, a state that is generally considered to be a stronghold of Landmarkism within the SBC. It is also significant to me, at the same time, that 37% appear to favor an interpretation more in line with Landmarkist views. This is evidence that what Timothy George once called “the ghost of Landmarkism” is still with us, and is something to be taken into account.

From what I read into these statistics, there is a very real possibility, or even probability, that the majority of rank and file Southern Baptists do not expect SBC denominational employees and missionaries to hold to “closed communion” or reject “alien immersion.” At the same time, it is evident there is a real division within the SBC (if the ABSC is representative of the rest) over these issues. That would not be so much of a problem if Landmarkism did not carry along with it the tendency to exclude those who do not give assent to its tenets.

I doubt the authors of the ABSC constitution contemplated this particular situation when they came up with the 2/3-majority, 2-convention clause. However, I think it is ironic, and somewhat ominous, for the SBC at large, that a Landmarkist-leaning minority was able to hold sway in this particular situation.

3. By in large, the people who voted in favor of this amendment were, no doubt, solid conservative Southern Baptists who are supportive of the Conservative Resurgence in general.

Greg Addison, chairman of the committee that presented the amendment, is a personal friend, who grew up with me in the youth department of Bellevue Baptist Church, under the pastoral leadership of my father, Adrian Rogers. He was a staff member of Bellevue for several years, a frequent preacher in the Bellevue pulpit, and someone of whom I know, beyond a shadow of any doubt, my father thought very highly.

It is significant to me, as well, that Ronnie Floyd, Senior Pastor of FBC Springdale & the Church at Pinnacle Hills, as well as candidate for the presidency of the SBC in 2006, publicly supported the amendment. According to his blog, his church practices “open communion,” and handles cases of “alien immersion” on an individual basis.

Pretty good evidence to me that this is not, as some would have us believe, a matter of compromising with the authority of the Word of God. As Floyd says, “Yes, our commitment is to doctrinal purity. We hold the line tight, even to the point of losing possible members to our church. However, we are to be a biblically grounded, Christ-centered people of God. We cannot negotiate away the precious doctrine of salvation as well as other doctrines.”

At the same time, I think it is significant that Floyd defends the right of his church to dissent with decisions they feel are not biblically correct: “Please understand that while we do associate with the Arkansas Baptist Convention, we are an autonomous body of Christ. No convention office dictates to our church how to practice our faith. As a local body of Christ, we have the liberty to interpret Scripture as we believe is right and prayerfully historically accurate.”

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Praying for the Sick

One of the most significant memories that will stick with me from my visit to India is the several occasions on which I was asked to pray, one by one, for sick people after several of the meetings in which we participated. Although, as I have previously indicated on various occasions on this blog, I am a continuationist, and believe in the current operation of the so-called "sign gifts," I have not, in the past, been quite so intensely involved in praying for sick people as I was on this trip to India.

This was not something that I sought out on my own. I was asked, on several occasions, if I would be willing to pray for the sick. Believing that, in some way or another, God might be able to use me, I agreed to do so. After the meetings, the people lined up, and one by one, I asked them what was their particular prayer request, laid my hands on them, and lifted them before the Father. Some of them brought with them a small vial of oil, and handed it to me. In those cases, I poured a little bit on my hands, and rubbed it on their head, as I prayed for them.

While I was in India, I was told that pretty much across the board, throughout all the Christian groups and denominations that are seeing any significant response to the Gospel, a good part of this response is linked to praying for the sick and miraculous healing. From what I have read, in books such as The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins, this is true as well for most areas of the world that are experiencing significant church growth, especially among the so-called "two-thirds world."

I cannot say for sure whether anyone I prayed for was healed as a result of my prayers. I did not ask them directly. However, this experience in my life gave me cause to reflect on the whole issue of praying for the sick. The following are some of my observations:

*God still miraculously heals people today. From my study of Scripture, I see no reason to conclude this is not the case. I have also heard too many credible testimonies of miraculous healing to discard them as mere emotionalism or exaggeration.

*The term "the gift of healing" is a red herring in the whole discussion on continuationism. The biblical text, in the original Greek, says literally, "gifts of healings" (1 Corinthians 12:9, 28). As such, the argument that, if someone had "the gift of healing," they ought to be able to go into hospitals and heal people indiscriminately, is unfounded. I believe that God, in his sovereignty, has distributed the gift of being able to pray for people, and see God heal them as a response, in differing degrees, to different people, in different circumstances, at different times.

*I also believe that physical healing is included in the atonement. A thorough examination of the biblical context of the phrase "by his wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24) makes it hard to relegate it to the strictly spiritual sphere. However, the full effects of Jesus’ death on the cross, especially in the physical realm, are not extended to us completely until "the redemption of our bodies" at the last day (Romans 8:18-25; Revelation 21:4). This does not preclude the possibility of God, on occasion, sovereignly bringing forward, into the present day, some of the blessings reserved for us, as his children, in eternity. In the biblical records of miraculous healing (both O.T and N.T.), I believe this is precisely what happened. Whenever God miraculously heals, whether physically, psychologically, or spiritually, He does so on the basis of the blessings won for us by Jesus on the cross of Calvary (see also Exodus 15:22-26).

*I believe that many who purport to have "the gift of healing" are spiritual charlatans. Whenever people use supposed spiritual gifts, accompanied by manipulative techniques and a motivation of personal aggrandizement, there is no way that God can be pleased. Therefore, as believers, we need to use a healthy dose of spiritual discernment in our evaluation and support of such ministries. However, I believe we need to be careful, at the same time, to not "throw the baby out with the bath water."

*I also believe that the degree of our faith does play a role in the efficacy of our prayers for healing. There are too many verses in the Bible that say this too clearly to deny that it is so. However, I believe that, at the same time, it is a travesty to lay the blame for people not being healed on the supposed lack of faith of those being prayed for. Biblically, there is evidence of God responding to the faith of the sick person him/herself, the faith of the one praying for the sick person, and the faith of the one bringing a sick person to someone else so that they might pray for them. I also believe that it is blatant Scripture-twisting, not to mention extreme irresponsibility, to suggest that going to the doctor and taking medicine manifests a lack of faith.

*One of the main motivations for healing in the Bible is compassion towards those who are suffering. As a result, whenever we pray for someone who is sick, we need to be very careful to do so in such a way as to not add to their suffering by either laying the burden of the responsibility for their healing on their faith or lack thereof, or raising their expectations for miraculous healing, only to send them crashing down to the ground afterwards.

*Although it is certain that not all sickness comes as the result of individual sin (John 9:1-3), it is also true that many ailments, whether spiritual, psychological, or physical, have their root in unconfessed sin in our lives. I believe the context of the passage in James on calling for the elders to pray for the sick (James 5:13-16) implies taking this possibility into consideration ("if he has sinned, he will be forgiven"). As ministers of God’s grace, though, we need to be very careful, compassionate, and spiritually discerning, in the way we deal with this.

*I do not believe all sickness comes as a result of demonic activity. However, there does appear to be a clear link, in many instances recorded in the Bible, to certain physical conditions and spiritual bondage. I believe that some people are more spiritually gifted than others at discerning when this is the case. I also believe that our authority, as believers, over the power of the enemy and the spiritual bondage he inflicts, is more direct and complete in this present age, than any authority God may happen to give us over purely physical phenomena. As a result, I believe it is generally a good thing, whenever we sense that demonic activity or spiritual bondage may be at the root of physical sickness, to appropriate in faith the authority God gives us as his children over "all the power of the enemy" (Luke 10:19).

*For some reason, God’s miraculous power in healing seems to be more active in certain areas of the world, and in certain periods of history, than others. We therefore need to be careful not to judge what God may be doing in a certain place, at a certain time, on the basis of what we may have observed at another place and another time.

*At the present time, from all evidence, God appears to be working in unusual ways in many places around the world to raise spiritual awareness and prepare a great harvest of souls. Much of this seems to be tied in with miraculous healing. I believe that we, as God’s servants, and particularly as those associated with Southern Baptist missionary efforts, need to be "in tune" to what God is doing, and join him where He is at work around the world. While we do need to use discernment and not be too quick to jump on the bandwagon of the latest spiritual fads, we, at the same time, need to be just as careful to not cast a scornful eye, and miss out on some of the mighty works of God, as a result of our spiritual skepticism and cultural presuppositions.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

IMB in South Asia

During my recent trip to India, I had the privilege of spending some quality time with several members of the IMB South Asia Region’s leadership team. In the same spirit as my last post, I would like to dedicate this one to the tremendous things God is doing through our Southern Baptist IMB workers in a different region of the world than the one in which I normally work, Western Europe.

I must say I was totally blown away by the vast spiritual needs and ministry opportunities in this significant region of the world that comprises the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives. In my time with the South Asia regional leaders, I learned that, among the various ministries in which they could invest their efforts, our IMB workers have chosen to focus their energies on reaching the most unreached of the unreached. They are strategically working to train national believers in discipleship and church planting methods that have proven to yield the greatest fruit in terms of spiritual multiplication. Inasmuch as IMB work in much of the region is comparatively new, I was especially pleased to learn of plans to give priority consideration toward building stronger relationships with the various Baptist unions and other Great Commission Christian groups scattered across the region, helping to mobilize them towards greater effectiveness in reaching the unreached in their midst.

The South Asia region has a very informative and extensive web-site, which I strongly recommend you to check out for yourself. A good place to begin would be the Fast Facts page, and the Frequently Asked Questions page. But for those of you who don’t go there for yourselves, here are a few of the more noteworthy statistics:
  • More people live in India than in all of North America, Central America and South America – combined!

  • The seven countries of South Asia are home to about one out of five people in the world. Most have never heard the Gospel even once!

  • South Asia has 51% of the world’s Unreached People Groups (UPGs), nearly 3/4ths of the world’s Unengaged Unreached People Groups (UUPGs) and one out of every four lost persons on the planet!

  • South Asia is home to more unreached people groups and more unengaged unreached people groups than all the rest of the world combined!

  • As an IMB region, South Asia still has one of the lowest numbers of personnel compared to other regions!

I am extremely grateful that God allowed me to have a first-hand glimpse at what He is doing in this part of the world. I also have a deep admiration for those who have made the decision to actually move to South Asia, and pour their lives into helping to reach the unreached and minister to the needy in this very challenging place to live and work. And, while not neglecting other areas, including Western Europe, I have been inspired to be more faithful in praying for the needs of South Asia, as well as becoming an advocate, whenever I have the opportunity, for the work of the IMB in this high-priority arena of God’s redemptive work around the world today.