A Deep Division?, by David Rogers
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 #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