Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Plymouth Brethren, William MacDonald, and Christian Unity

My impression is that among Southern Baptists there is relatively little knowledge of the Plymouth Brethren movement. In the country of Spain, where my wife and I are missionaries, though, they are one of the main evangelical groups. I would say "denominations," except for the fact that many "brethren" profess to be opposed to denominations, and do not recognize the denominational character of the movement with which they identify.

For the most part, Plymouth Brethren are conservative evangelicals, even more conservative on several points than most Southern Baptists. I have had the privilege of sharing some wonderful, warm fellowship in the Lord with various individuals and congregations associated with the Plymouth Brethren movement.

Like various other Christian groups, the Plymouth Brethren started by and large as an attempt by sincerely motivated believers to work towards Christian unity, and overcome the barriers of denominationalism. Sadly, though, in many cases, the practical outworking of the application of the principles behind the movement has led to increased sectarianism, similar, in some aspects, to the Campbellite/Church of Christ movement, and the Witness Lee "local church" movement.

In any case, I think there are many things we can learn from the Brethren, including both lessons from their achievements and shortcomings as a movement, as well as some excellent biblical reflection and spiritual exhortation. Several names associated with the Plymouth Brethren who have made an impact on evangelicalism at large include George Müller, J. N. Darby, Harry Ironside, Jim Elliot, F. F. Bruce, and Luis Palau.

This past Christmas, Dec. 25, 2007, William MacDonald, one of the most beloved and respected Bible teachers associated with the Brethren movement, went to be with the Lord at the age of 90. Like so many other godly leaders down through history, MacDonald wrestled with the practical implications of biblical teaching on Christian unity. Although, in the context of what he writes, MacDonald specifically addresses some of the quirks and idiosyncrasies within the Brethren movement, I think the following article contains some very rich food for thought all of us as Bible-believing Christians, and specifically, as Southern Baptists.

Read To What Should We Be Loyal, by William MacDonald

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Spiritual Landscape in Spain

For those who may be interested, the following article posted on Protestante Digital gives what I consider to be an objective and succinct summary of the current religious make-up of the country in which my family and I have dedicated the last 17 years of our life and ministry.

Immigrants changing religious map of Spain

LA CORUÑA, (Source: La Voz de Galicia /

One of the effects of the large numbers of immigrants entering Spain is the rapid increase in the number of religious groups. Most of the 14,000 registered religious organisations are Catholic, but those representing minority faiths are growing fast.

Spain is Roman Catholic by history and tradition, at least over the past five hundred years, but is becoming less so. Not just because the number of atheists is growing, up to 4.9% of the population at the latest count, nor yet that of agnostics, now at 11.7%, but because there is a proliferation of non-Catholic religious groups. In 2005, according to government figures, there were 12,453 Catholic organisations (today up to 12,585), while non-Catholic groups totalled 1,388 in 2005, but are up to 1,895 today.

Most of these non-Catholic groups are Protestant or Evangelical, but there are also Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox, Hindu, Buddhist, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon groups. And the figure is set to rise, not least because of the recent government decision to recognise the Scientology 'Church' as a legal entity, with the same rights as all other recognised groups.

Despite all the growth, it is somewhat amusing to discover that if one adds up the number of followers claimed by each group, it comes to a figure higher than the total population of Spain, although there may be people who claim to practice more than one religion. In round numbers, the Spanish population is 44 million, of whom 34 million are officially Catholic. However, it is impossible to know how many of them are actually still in the Catholic Church in any meaningful way, given that the Catholic Church doesn't recognise apostates. Government figures suggest about half of all Catholics are non-practising.

Behind the Catholics come the Muslims, who number over a million in Spain at present, and the Protestants, who represent a community of about 400,000 people, which has increased considerably in recent years with the huge wave of immigration from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. The Federation of Evangelical Organisations calculates that there are a further 800,000 foreign Protestants who live in Spain for at least six months a year, most of them from northern Europe. This would put Protestants in second place, with a total of around 1.2 million.

There are about 40,000 Jews in Spain, and 9,000 practising Buddhists, as well as all those people who follow other minority faiths. The Scientology group claim to have around 10,000 followers in Spain.

Monday, January 07, 2008

John Woodhouse on Christian Unity, Ecclesiology, and Denominations

I do not know how to recommend strongly enough that you take the time to carefully read through the following three articles by John Woodhouse on Christian unity, ecclesiology, and denominations.

1. When to unite and when to divide
2. The unity of the church
3. Christian unity and denominations

John Woodhouse is Principal of Moore College in Sydney, Australia, and a well-known "Sydney Anglican." According to Wikipedia, "The Diocese of Sydney, in the Anglican Church of Australia, is unusual in Western Anglicanism in that the majority of the diocese is Evangelical and low church in tradition and committed to Reformed and Calvinist theology."

As an Anglican, there are undoubtedly several doctrinal issues on which I, as a Baptist, differ with Woodhouse. However, I believe he has much to say that is very relevant for us as Southern Baptists. As a matter of fact, upon reading these articles, I was surprised by the degree of agreement I found with him on the particular issues discussed therein. I believe a serious consideration of the ideas proposed by Woodhouse in these articles will help to clear up some crucial misunderstandings, as well as open up avenues for fruitful dialogue, on many of the issues currently being discussed on this blog, and in Southern Baptist life in general. Especially important, from the standpoint of context, is what Woodhouse says in the second article on ecclesiology and a biblical definition of "church."

In order to get a true understanding of what he is saying, it is very important that you read all three articles in their entirety and in order. However, in order to whet your appetite so you will want to read more, I include here the following quotes from the third article on Christian unity and denominations. (HT: Justin Taylor, Andy Naselli)

"What is a denomination? Here is a working definition: A denomination is an association of some churches which does not include all churches."

"Denominationalism, in this sense, is a deliberate rejection of sectarianism. Sectarianism is the view that a particular group is the only legitimate expression of the church."

"Denominations can be an expression of the unity of the Spirit. However when the nature of the denomination is misunderstood and inappropriate policies and actions developed, denominations can oppose the unity of the Spirit."

"One of the chief benefits of denominationalism is the freedom of conscience it allows. The unity of the Spirit cannot be coerced against conscience."

"Once a denomination has developed institutional structures that people come to think are ‘the church’, the trouble has begun. Instead of being an expression of the unity of the Spirit, an outworking of the fellowship of those who in different places call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the denomination can then impede the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. History suggests that over time this temptation is close to irresistible."

"With centralism comes control and interference. Whereas in spiritual reality the local gathering of believers is assembled by Christ, ruled by his Spirit through his Word as the members serve one another, the denomination is tempted to rule the congregation from a distance, and according to its own interests."

"There is an urgent, necessary and grave duty to see that the control of the denomination over the life and ministry of the local congregations must be broken."

"A denomination, once it has developed, appears typically to demand the loyalty of the individual churches and their members to the association itself. The denomination very easily loses sight of its proper role of encouraging faithfulness to Christ and to all who belong to him. Instead of being a means to this end, the denomination becomes an end in itself."

"Loyalty is not a Christian virtue. Indeed it can be sinful. The Christian virtue is faithfulness, and faithfulness is exercised towards persons, not institutions. Faithfulness to Christ is our first duty, as he has been faithful to us. Faithfulness to our brothers and sisters into whose company God has drawn us is a second. Faithfulness to brothers and sisters beyond our circles is a third."

"Loyalty to a denomination is often expected in exclusive terms. Relations with believers of the same denomination are seen to take precedence over relations with other believers. It may be regarded as disloyal (or improper in some other way) when a person moves to a different town if he/she joins a church of a different denomination. But this is an improper expression of denominationalism."

"The scandal of denominationalism (which is neither inherent in the concept, nor necessary in practice) is the creation of barriers to fellowship with those who do not belong to that denomination, based on the traditions of men. The denomination exists to foster the Christian fellowship of member churches, not to create barriers to fellowship with other churches!"

"Once the distinctives of your denomination become part of your religion, your denomination has become a sect. Once the distinctives (of dress, liturgy, polity, or other practice) become hindrances to relating to believers who do not share these distinctives, then the distinctives must be challenged."

"There may be circumstances where change is not possible or desirable. But we ought not to be among those who resist changes because of denominational identity. Uniformity of distinctive practices between churches of a denomination is of no spiritual value. It establishes a false unity, which all too easily substitutes for the unity of the Spirit, and has often done so. It is Babylonian unity."

"We will be more concerned for the prospering of believing churches than for the prospering of the denomination. It is in the churches and from the churches (not from the denominational ‘centre’) that we expect the gospel to grow."

"In our denominational activities we must resist the temptation to be people-pleasers. All too frequently evangelicals who get involved in the denominational structures are tempted to dissociate themselves from other evangelicals who are less committed to the denomination. That is unfaithfulness. Our unity with those who agree in the gospel is too important for that game to be played."

"Denominational unity is Babylonian unity, and typically an alternative, a rival, to the unity of the Spirit. If you are for one, you will be against the other."

"We ought to take up opportunities given by our denominational association for believing churches to relate to other faithful churches. However, it is also important that we express our unity with gospel people and churches across recognised denominational boundaries. Evangelicals working together, fellowshipping across denominational limits for the sake of gospel churches and gospel proclamation will, at some point, encounter denominational opposition."

"Evangelicals must repudiate the idea that our Christian identity is associated with our denominational label. The folly of denominational loyalty expresses walking by sight, not by faith. Our agenda with respect to our denomination must be the good of churches and the spread of the gospel. When the denomination loses its usefulness for those ends, it has lost its usefulness for anything."

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Rogers-Yarnell Dialogue on the Great Commission, Letter #19

A Deep Division?, by David Rogers

Dear Malcolm,

I appreciate you taking the time and energy, after a long interlude, to give such an extensive response to my letter #17, and especially to the three questions I ask at the end of it. I realize you have previously indicated your desire to let this be your final contribution to our present dialogue. At the same time, the issues you raise in your last letter are of such a nature that I find myself obligated to raise a few questions here in my response that you may well prefer not to leave unanswered. You may wish to do this in an additional letter, or in the comment string to this letter. Either option is fine with me.

In your letter, you say: “our discussion has revealed an apparently deep division in how we view the Christian faith and faithfulness to Christ.” From my perspective, this division, inasmuch as it may exist, is provoked more by your position towards me than mine towards you. As far as I can discern, the only real substantive difference that we have in our views of doctrine have to do with some relatively minor points of ecclesiology, especially our approach to fellowship and unity with other believers.

In regard to what you have to say about “the true Christian faith,” I have no discrepancy. I am in total agreement with you. In regard to “the New Testament churches,” as far as I can tell, I am in essential agreement as well. If I have a difference, it is that honesty leads me to wrestle with a certain degree of ambiguity I find in the text of the New Testament, and, as a result, not be quite as dogmatic as I sense you to be regarding certain issues.

For instance, I agree with you on the basics regarding regenerate church membership, believers baptism by immersion, congregational church government, and the need for biblical church discipline. Personally, though, I see such questions as whether the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized “into the local church” or “into the universal church” as beyond the scope of what the New Testament writers intended to teach us. As I see it, he was simply baptized, upon his profession of faith, in obedience to Christ’s command, and, as would be natural for any new disciple, most likely sought out the fellowship of other believers whenever and wherever that might have been a viable option. Also, the supposed link you see between baptism and church membership in the various other passages you mention in Acts are not, as I see them, quite so clear as you make them out to be.

All told, though, I, from what I can tell, in my practice, whenever faced with this issue, come down exactly where you do, teaching believers baptism as a prerequisite to church membership.

In the second part of your letter, when you talk about “building bridges” to other religions, the “fictional invisible church,” and “evangelical ecumenism,” I sincerely believe you are confusing the issues by use of straw man arguments, and ambiguous, yet incendiary language. I believe our communication would be aided by mutually recognizing that neither one of us is interested in joining together with those of other religions, nor in ecumenism, in the classical sense of the word, as used by such groups as the World Council of Churches. While I sympathize with Dagg’s distaste for the term “invisible church,” for the same reasons as his, I, upon my study of Scripture, am not able, in good conscience, to relegate the Church Universal to a merely ethereal eschatalogical reality that has no practical implications for us as Christians today.

I also believe your choice of wording, “willful or ignorant disobedience,” with regard to “broader evangelicalism,” in Part III of your letter, obscures the real issue. As I inferred earlier in Letter #13, I find it hard to call sincere but mistaken interpretations and/or applications of Scripture, coupled with a heartfelt submission to the Lordship of Jesus, “disobedience.” It seems inconsistent to me for you to say, on the one part, “even those who have a faulty doctrine of justification may be justified by faith,” while those with a faulty ecclesiology are “disobedient,” and unworthy of our cooperation. Are you prepared to call all those with what you would consider a faulty eschatology, or an improper view on the five points of Calvinism, “disobedient” as well? As mentioned earlier, I believe in the necessity of biblical church discipline. However, when you carry this over as a prerequisite for cooperation with other Christians, it even leaves you in the uncomfortable position of eliminating as valid ministry partners the majority of Southern Baptist churches today.

On another front, although they are admittedly related questions, I object to your apparent equating of open church membership and open communion. The qualifications for participation in communion, as I understand it, are embracing those items you refer to in your section on “the true Christian faith,” and a clean conscience before God. It is for this reason that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:28, tells us that “a man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.” In addition, a local congregation may legitimately “ban” an individual from participation in the Lord’s Supper. Biblically, however, such a “ban” ought always to be as a result of confirmed and genuine unrepentant sin in the life of that person. However, as I presently understand it, refusing someone membership in a local congregation should not be construed as concomitant with punitive church discipline.

I am happy to see that in your answer to my “third set of questions” on evangelism, discipleship, and church planting you are at least consistent. You appear to recognize that the distinction employed by the IMB Board of Trustees between evangelism, discipleship, and church planting in determining levels of cooperation is artificial and unbiblical. As I understand it, a consistent application of what you are saying here would lead the IMB to forbid not only cooperation with non-Baptists in church planting, but also in evangelism and discipleship.

I myself, however, am not prepared to go there. And, I have a strong hunch that neither are the majority of Southern Baptists. While I am in agreement that IMB appointees should be expected to agree with and teach basic Baptist distinctives such as the necessity of believers baptism by immersion, I believe that to limit partnership in Gospel ministry exclusively to other Baptists goes against a biblical understanding of the Body of Christ, or the Church Universal.

Indeed, Paul writes to “all of God’s holy people in Philippi who belong to Christ Jesus” that he regards them as “partners in spreading the Good News about Christ” and desires that they might stand “together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News” (Philippians 1:1, 5, 27, New Living Translation).

While I agree in principle with what you say about the Baptist Faith & Message and “doctrinal accountability,” I believe that my particular case, which I surmise to be far from isolated, exposes an important anomaly in the system that ideally and ultimately will need to be corrected. The truth is that, although the majority of messengers present at the 2000 convention voted to adopt the text of the BFM as it now stands, an apparent majority of Southern Baptist churches do not hold to a strict practice of “closed” or “close communion.” To require a denominational employee to hold to a view that is contrary to the practice of the majority within the denomination, in my opinion, is, at best, inconsistent. In the meantime, I suspect that the majority of Southern Baptists, whether on Boards of Trustees or not, instinctively know such is the case, and, as a result, are not willing to demand a strict concession on this point.

From what it looks like to me, though, if those who hold the strict views I understand you to advocate really gain ascendancy within the SBC, and consistently carry out what is implicit in your line of reasoning, I believe we are headed for stormy days. It will no doubt mean great division and parting of ways between many whom, up to this point, have been able to cooperate effectively and harmoniously in the enormous common ministry project that is the Southern Baptist Convention.

Such being the case, it seems to me that it would be a real tragedy if these differences, which I consider relatively minor, were to somehow place a barrier between our fellowship and cooperation in ministry. According to data from the World Christian Encyclopedia, out of all affiliated Christians around the world, Baptists comprise less than 3%. Out of all Baptists, the number who would affirm the Baptist Faith & Message is a good bit smaller. To demand a strict adherence to disputed points within the BFM, and then, on top of that, add extra points of doctrine, such as narrow stands on “private prayer language” and “alien immersion,” limits the playing field even more.

At the same time, I recognize that all organizations, such as the SBC, must have some mutually agreed upon set of standards. Perhaps the convictions of people like you demand that this set of standards be relatively rigid and narrow. Admittedly, there are denominations and associations of churches out there that are even narrower. However, I personally think the interests of the Kingdom of God are better served by a Southern Baptist Convention that is not quite so narrow. And, since the interests of the Kingdom of God are something to which I am strongly committed, I find it worth my while to contribute my grain of sand towards the effort against increasingly narrow parameters of cooperation within the SBC.

In the end, I do not know which side will win out in the current conflict in the SBC. What I do know, though, is that, when all is done and told, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church Jesus is in the process of building. And, in the meantime, I am called, to the best of my ability, to “love each stone” being built up together with me to form “a holy temple in the Lord,” – “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.”




Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #2, A Steward must be Found Faithful, by David Rogers

Letter #3, Centripetal and Centrifugal, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #4, To Whom is the Great Commission Given?, by David Rogers

Letter #5, The Great Commission is Given to the Gathered Church, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #6, The End-Vision of the Great Commission, by David Rogers

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