Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love and the Limits of Fellowship, Part III, by Malcolm Yarnell
III. Testing the Limits of Church Fellowship
David, I have focused upon the New Testament church as the place for living faithfully the Christian faith because that is what is currently not well remembered. By focusing on the theological fiction of the invisible church, many Christians have turned a primary concern in the Bible, the local church, into a secondary or tertiary issue. The acceptable language of "theological triage" has been misused in order to further this worrisome trend. The evangelical ecumenism that is so popular among some younger Southern Baptists is a cause for concern, because it may compromise the faithfulness of our churches.
Before proceeding, notice the distinction between the recognition of others as Christian and the need to maintain the integrity of covenantal fellowship. Defining true Christian faith is integral to but only one part of the Christian desire to live out the faith in a faithful manner. Orthodox doctrine is insufficient on its own. An isolated effort to define the irreducible faith is ultimately a lowest-common denominator approach to Christianity, and represents an opposing outlook to the call of Jesus Christ for men to follow Him by taking up their crosses daily (Mark 8:34-38).
Southern Baptists have reached a crisis decision, for there is a fork in the road ahead of us. There are two directions before us: either we will continue reducing our church standards in order to "build bridges" to other Christians and even other religions, or we will maintain the ordinances that Christ instituted in obedience to Him. The evangelical ecumenist is committed to the former in the name of Christian unity and the fictional invisible church; the free churchman is committed to the latter in the name of love for Christ and His will for the local church. I personally believe that the best way to love other men is by loving Christ and His church, and that is why I am a free churchman rather than an evangelical ecumenist.
This belief is not a movement away from evangelistic witness, but a reclaiming of it. Evangelism is best done as the church separates itself from an unholy world (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1). How will they know Who Christ is? They will know Christ by the love of Christians for one another (John 13:34-35), and by the bride’s submissive devotion to the bridegroom (Ephesians 5:22, 32). Our Baptist forefathers understood this truth, for they maintained high walls in their ecclesiology at the same time that they were zealous to proclaim the Gospel to a lost and dying world.
Biblical missiology is a function of biblical ecclesiology. Our mission, taken in obedience to Christ, stands or falls with our obedience to Christ. This is so intuitive, that stating it seems redundant. To put it another way, surrendering the New Testament pattern of the church ultimately results in the forsaking of the Great Commission. It is no coincidence that Baptists were the first in the Modern Missions Movement, and that they continued in it long after many mainline denominations lost their zeal. Ecclesiology and missiology are inseparably related, for the Great Commission was given to the churches.
Testing the Limits of the Christian Faith. David, it seems to surprise many to learn that I truly believe in pursuing the prayer of Christ made in John 17:21, 23. I do wish to make visible the prayer that Christ made to His Father. However, I am also enough of a Biblicist to recognize that the fulfillment of that desire for visible unity must be according to God’s way and not my own. We will achieve true Christian unity only insofar as we are faithful to God’s Word. He has already revealed to us how we will achieve unity, and that is through faith in His Son and obedience to His commands. The genius of the believers’ churches is that they have taken seriously both faith in Christ and faithfulness to His will.
This does not mean that Baptists are the only true Christians, nor that Baptists are by and large better Christians. We Baptists have our severe problems just as much as other Christian communions do. Those who personally and congregationally claim the faith outlined in the first part of this letter deserve to be classified by us as Christians. And notice that I advocated a fairly broad Triune statement of true Christian faith that encompasses evangelicals and other Christians. Indeed, it would include all of those who have personally received by grace the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
While I am willing to recognize many Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as Christians, at least from a classical sense, I am even more comfortable with recognizing Lutherans, Presbyterians, Charismatics, Methodists, and others as Christians. The doctrine of justification that the more sacramental churches hold is simply not palatable. However, it is not doctrine that saves, but faith. Even those who have a faulty doctrine of justification may be justified by faith. That may sound rather broad-minded for somebody who has been falsely accused of being a Landmarkist, but it is what I have believed for a long time, and I doubt I will change that view.
Testing the Limits of the Faithfulness of Christians. In spite of our faults, one aspect of Baptist theology is far and away superior to that of other Christian denominations, our theology of the church. And, this is where you and I seem to have so much difficulty with one another. From our limited conversation, it is apparent that I consider Scripture as containing a holistic and plain ecclesiology, while you consider Scripture’s doctrine of the church as somewhat difficult to discern and subject to variable interpretations. If it makes you comfortable, you hold the typical view of most evangelicals. Unfortunately, it is also recognized by many scholars that evangelicalism lacks any substantive ecclesiology anyways.
Now, while I am more comfortable with the churches that proceeded from the Reformation, I am still unhappy with broader evangelicalism’s willful or ignorant disobedience of Christ’s will as recorded in the New Testament. Again, this unhappiness is not a claim that Baptists are better Christians, nor even that we are better theologians. This unhappiness with the other Reformation churches recognizes that our theology of the church looks more like the New Testament than the others. Notice that I said, "our theology of the church." Unfortunately, the worldview of an over-tolerant modernity has affected Baptists, even conservative Southern Baptists, just like it has other churches in Europe and America.
But the solution to reclaiming our churches’ faithfulness to the New Testament lies not in the direction of ecumenism, evangelical or mainline. This is why I opposed Tom Ascol’s resolution on regenerate church membership at the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio. As I discussed with him beforehand, Tom’s resolution was an adequate resolution on church discipline alone, but it was inadequate for what it purported to address: regenerate church membership. The way back to faithfulness in our churches is not through a resolution that a good Presbyterian or even a good Roman Catholic could support. The way back to faithfulness in our churches is through a widespread local resolve to obey Jesus Christ as commanded in the New Testament, which reveals highly integrated doctrines of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
This is why I also have opposed the theology of open communion, modified or otherwise, in the Southern Baptist Convention. As a young pastor, I had to face the issues of alien immersion and open communion. The sentimental side of my character wanted to make it easy for Presbyterians and Methodists to become members of my church. But my conscience just would not allow it. I knew that the Word of God and the confession of my church demanded that Presbyterians who become Christians must be properly baptized in order to join with our New Testament church.
It was difficult to tell that first couple that they must be properly baptized, for I did not doubt their very real and long-held faith. What was in question was whether they had received New Testament baptism. Fortunately, they became convicted about the will of Christ, and I had the privilege of properly baptizing this fine and dignified couple according to His commandment. Unfortunately, it seems that there are some Baptists today who are as theologically challenged in this regard as are the paedobaptists. Infant baptism is not New Testament baptism, and the popular identification of the sprinkling of a baby as "baptism" is a reckless innovation.
If I have addressed the Presbyterians here, it is not out of any special animus towards them, for I actually find the Reformed to be very close, more often than not, to Baptists when I am involved in ecumenical conversations. The Presbyterian churches deserve rebuke no more than any other non-New Testament churches, except insofar as some of our more naïve Baptist ministers have become unduly attracted to their unbiblical ways in recent years. We could turn this critique upon the Methodists for their Arminianism and their infant baptizing, or upon the charismatic free churches for their unbiblical innovations with regard to the charismata.
At this point, perhaps we can answer your third set of questions, "At what point do we cross the line from evangelistic and disciple-making ministry into ‘church planting’ ministry? … [A]nd what are the reasons for drawing the line of cooperation at that particular point?" David, there is no biblical precedent for separating evangelism from disciple making, nor for separating disciple making from church planting. These activities are distinguishable conceptually, but they are not separable biblically. Evangelism is the beginning of the process of making disciples, but the making of disciples always entails the planting of churches.
When Paul and Barnabas were involved in planting churches during their first missionary journey, they started by evangelizing the people. Such evangelism resulted in the making of disciples, who were simultaneously gathered into churches (Acts 14:21-23). One evangelizes the world in order to transfer lost people out of the world and into the church through personal salvation. The making of a disciple entails baptism and baptism is a church-administered ordinance. There is no drawing of lines between the activities; there is only the continuous activity of making disciples, which starts with evangelism and results in churches. Rather, the drawing of the line is between the church and the world.
Really, the second question is yours to answer, for I do not separate disciple making from church planting. If a missionary’s disciples are not planted in a church through baptism, can they truly be considered followers (i.e. disciples) of Christ? A follower of Christ will follow His commands, and Christ has commanded baptism (Matthew 28:19) and intentional gathering with the local church (Hebrews 10:24-25). This is what the apostles practiced from the beginning of their ministry (Acts 2:37-47). Who are we to improve upon the authoritative commands of Christ and the inspired example of the apostles?
Testing the Limits of Faithfulness in the Southern Baptist Convention. With this explanation in the background, perhaps now I can address your first two sets of questions. You asked, "Do you believe there is a place for people like me in Southern Baptist life?" David, I most certainly do believe that you and people like you have a place in Southern Baptist life. Fidelity to the entire confession of Southern Baptist Convention has never been a prerequisite for church membership in the SBC, and I am loath to see the Baptist Faith and Message take on such a role.
I do hope that more churches will examine the 2000 confession and adopt it as their own, but I think the convention should be wary about requiring ecclesiastical subscription as a basis for denominational cooperation. The Sandy Creek tradition did not believe the Philadelphia Confession should exercise particular authority over particular churches. There is wisdom in distinguishing the particular and direct authority of divine Scripture from the general and derivative authority of a human confession. Moreover, because Baptist confessions typically change as our theology improves, the effort it would take to require uniform subscription might unduly ensconce a confession requiring amendment.
However, the second part of your first question does create some concern. You asked me, "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?" David, because you have expressed public disagreement with Article VII, you know you have disqualified yourself from service with at least some of our denominational entities. But notice how this response is qualified. Our denominational entities are overseen by boards of trustees, who have been tasked by the convention of our churches to answer such questions. Because I do not sit on any board, I do not have any authority to answer such a question with anything beyond personal opinion. Moreover, even if I were a trustee, remember that a single trustee also lacks authority, for authority is vested in the board, not the individual.
With that qualification, my personal opinion will doubtless disappoint you. David, if I were your supervisor at the International Mission Board, I would be constrained by a conscience informed primarily by Scripture, and secondarily by the beliefs of the churches expressed in their votes at the Southern Baptist Convention. Theological integrity would constrain me to call you in for a visit, specifically about your disagreements with our common Baptist profession. You will remember that your father chaired the committee that stated that Baptists have "adopted confessions of faith as a witness to the world, and as instruments of doctrinal accountability" (Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Preface). I believe he and his committee intentionally inserted these words to address the very issue that we are discussing.
Because our confession was adopted as an instrument of "doctrinal accountability," it carries more than mere preferential authority. Your father argued once, in a press conference, that our denominational employees have the religious liberty to teach whatever they wish, but this does not require us to employ them if they do not teach what the churches believe. If a number of private and confidential attempts over a good period of time failed to persuade you, I would be compelled, again by conscience, to take the matter to my superiors in the entity or to the trustees, if directly responsible to them.
As a result of our denominational polity, the resolution of such a matter would rest upon the trustees. Of course, if they would choose to listen to my voice, I would recommend they act with the utmost of grace and mercy shown to you and your family. Every Christian supervisor and every trustee board should act in such a difficult situation with the greatest sense of personal pain, just as Boyce felt with regard to Crawford Toy, and never with any flippancy. The answer to your second full question is thus dependent upon the outcome of a disciplinary process, which parallels Matthew 18, and which depends on the decisions of a group of Christian leaders. However, even if your supervisors and/or your board chose the course of institutional discipline, we must agree that only a local church carries the spiritual authority of a church.
The Theological Spectrum in the Southern Baptist Convention. Please allow me to close with an illustration from the history of our convention. Charles Fuller, venerable pastor emeritus of Virginia, was the chairman of the convention-created Peace Committee that issued its famous report. The committee met for two years of intense meetings prior to the issuance of that 1987 report. Dr. Fuller shared with me a metaphor that may be helpful to us at this time of intense concern regarding interchurch cooperation. He noticed the Peace Committee was composed of a theological spectrum stretching from one end of the convention to the other. The problem in the committee was that some could not cooperate with others in the committee, because the theological differences were too deep. Specifically, it was not possible for Adrian Rogers on the right and Cecil Sherman on the left to bridge their differences.
In the last few years, we have discovered that a theological spectrum still exists in the Southern Baptist Convention. Hopefully, however, the tensions in today’s spectrum will not result in the denominational departure that Cecil Sherman felt compelled to undertake. I believe that I can hold hands with you, David, as a faithful Southern Baptist, even though I believe our confession is correct in one important area that you do not. I can also hold hands with Mark Dever and Reformed Baptists, and with Dwight McKissic and those who advocate private prayer languages, and with Timothy George and those who are more enthusiastic than I am about theological ecumenism.
The difficulty will come, however, if I am asked to hold hands with others with whom these beloved colleagues enjoy extra-denominational cooperation. My church now cooperates with many churches through the Southern Baptist Convention. Although my church speaks only for herself, I believe she would find it difficult to cooperate with the Presbyterians, the Charismatics, or the Ecumenists in any ecclesiastical sense, such as in disciple making or church planting. We want to be a faithful New Testament church, in spite of our failures, and we want to plant faithful New Testament churches that will seek to implement Christ’s will in its entirety.
I want to cooperate with Baptists like Mark Dever and his church, but until Ligon Duncan is properly baptized and properly baptizes, I will refuse ecclesiastical cooperation with this Presbyterian due to a Christ-submitted conscience. I want to cooperate with Baptists like Dwight McKissic and his church, but until Richard Hogue repents of TBN’s unbiblical views of the Spirit, I will refuse ecclesiastical cooperation with this Pentecostal due to the Spirit-inspired text. I want to cooperate with Baptists like Timothy George and his church, but until Avery Dulles repents of his extra-biblical views of the church, I will refuse ecclesiastical cooperation with this Roman Catholic due to New Testament congregationalism. While I recognize the faith of these non-Baptists and appreciate many of their profound contributions, I reject their understanding of faithfulness.
This outlook does not issue forth from any type of Baptist superiority to these non-Baptists, for we are not their Lord. As far as I know, these men affirm the true Christian faith, and I accept their witness. The problem is that they are not living out the Christian faith in churches that are seeking faithfully to emulate the New Testament pattern for the church. We have no way to judge their Christian faith, other than by their words and their works. And the primary way we possess to judge their Christian faithfulness is in the context of their churches. For at this place, the local church, the Christian life is lived.
Since discipleship to Christ is the key to being a Great Commission church, proper ecclesiology is too important to ignore. Unity must be sought only on the basis of the true Christian faith and upon sincere faithfulness to Christ. Therefore, I invite other Christians to join Southern Baptists and the other believers’ churches in our efforts to fulfill the Savior’s mandate faithfully. This is the only type of ecumenism that I currently see as tenable: sitting down together, listening to one another, and constantly witnessing to the faith given by and the faithfulness required by our Lord. Faithfully pointing to and following Christ’s cross is a great expression of love by one disciple to another. Let us return to the text and exalt the cross of Christ while carrying the cross that He commands, and leave behind the innovations of men.
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