Friday, June 30, 2006
Baptist Colleges and Baptist Churches — Who Threatens Whom?

The William Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society presented its 2006 “Courage Award” to retiring Mercer University President R. Kirby Godsey. Receiving the award, Dr. Godsey told the society’s members that the “monumental crisis” facing Baptist educational institutions is church control and the intrusion of ecclesiastical authority.

Godsey made his remarks in the course of delivering the society’s Penrose St. Amant Lecture on “The Future of Baptist Higher Education.” According to a report by Marv Knox published by Associated Baptist Press, Godsey declared that “Baptist politics are wreaking havoc on Baptist higher education . . . . Baptist higher education has never been more fragile.”

From the report:

Because of their dependence upon Baptist state conventions, which provide a portion of their budgets and typically elect at least a majority of their trustees, Baptist schools increasingly are being “forced to sacrifice their intellectual integrity to ensure the flow of funds,” he reported. Two Baptist universities have been involved in lawsuits with Baptist state conventions with which they are affiliated, and a suit looms on the horizon for another university and convention, Godsey said.“While Baptist educators and denominational leaders can chart a course of hope that benefits both church and school, “our present course is terrible,” he stressed.

“If they do not create a relationship based on mutual respect, Baptist educators will have to make the choice between being Baptists and being educators,” he added.

Control, and most particularly financial control, breeds difficulty, he said, noting state conventions’ control over funding is being used to “enforce rigid religious orthodoxy.”

Specifically, Godsey warned that schools are threatened by the trustee selection process, making this remarkable statement: “Trustees should not be forced to choose between what’s right for the institution and what’s acceptable to the denomination. … Churches should get out of the business of selecting trustees.” Further: “Trustees are accountable not to a church constituency, but to [the university’s] mission.”

Wait . . . there’s more. Consider this piece of upside-down analysis: “Baptist churches must be free, and Baptist colleges and universities must be free to pursue intellectual freedom,” he explained. “Denominational leaders trying to control educational decisions is no more appropriate than schools seeking to control pulpits.” Well, the churches are funding the schools; the schools are not funding the churches. Denominations and churches have every right and responsibility to hold the institutions they sponsor and fund accountable to their commitments.

Dr. Godsey’s address contained nothing fundamentally new, but it should serve to awaken some Baptists to the two rival visions of education and Christian identity that mark the fault-line of our times. On one hand are those who, like Dr. Godsey, want the churches to fund schools that will feel no basic obligation to the truth claims those churches hold to be precious, non-negotiable, and central. On the other hand are those who believe that any school that claims a Baptist identity and receives Baptist funds should be accountable to Baptist churches through the trustee process.

Mercer University is a clear example of an institution that would represent Dr. Godsey’s vision. That makes sense, given the fact that he is soon to retire after 27 years as the school’s president. The landscape is littered with colleges and universities that long ago abandoned their commitments to Christian truth and accountability to the church.

Dr. Godsey’s lecture is a helpful reminder of how those institutions made their break – and why.

Dr. Godsey is no stranger to theological controversy. He is the author of a book entitled When We Talk About God . . . Let’s Be Honest, in which he denied the infallibility of the Bible, suggested that Jesus did not intend to be worshipped, and argued: “To say that Jesus is God’s word is not to say that Jesus is God’s only word.” [See my article, “When We Talk About Heresy . . . Let’s Be Honest.”]

He told the Whitsitt Society, “You don’t always ask to be courageous. You get pushed into it . . . Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” When it comes to far too many colleges, universities, and seminaries, that horse left the barn a very long time ago.

For coverage from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, CBF News, go here.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006
The Unavoidable Issue — Ecclesiology

I will be dealing with these questions at greater length in coming months, but recent developments raise inescapable issues for Southern Baptists. Do we really believe in believer’s baptism by immersion? Are we really committed to a regenerate church?

In a recent report from Associated Baptist Press, recent controversies concerning baptism and church membership were brought to light [see report here]. Ken Camp suggested several developments that raise a basic question about Baptist commitment to the baptism of believers by immersion as essential to membership in a Baptist church.

From his article:

A variety of reasons may cause some modern Baptists to downplay believer’s baptism by immersion said Bill Pinson, Director of the Texas Baptist Heritage Center and Executive Director Emeritus of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Possibilities include the influence of “ecumenical evangelism” that stresses commonly held beliefs over denominational differences; the influence of Calvinism in some Baptist circles; a desire to be non judgmental and tolerant; a postmodern worldview that questions exclusive claims of truth or “right” methods; and a lack of understanding about distinctive Baptist beliefs, Pinson noted.

Dr. Pinson is essentially correct in pointing to several of these influences. For some churches, it may be reduced to a question of marketing. The requirement of baptism by immersion as an act of the believer’s public profession raises the social “cost” of church membership, leading some churches to compromise a commitment to believer’s baptism as a prerequisite for membership in the church (and fellowship in the Lord’s Supper). Ideologically, the relativism inherent in the postmodern worldview plays right into this. If doctrine is a mere language game, why not change the game?

In mentioning Calvinism, I assume Dr. Pinson to be pointing primarily to the influence of Dr. John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Dr. Piper is a dear friend, and his vision of the Christian life is centered in the enjoyment of God and His greater glory has been transformative for an entire generation of young (and older) Christians. For his personal friendship and his friendship in the Gospel I am profoundly grateful.

Furthermore, as friends who love the truth and respect each other for that commitment, we can disagree without rancor or insecurity. That said, I am in profound disagreement with the proposal put forward by the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church concerning a change in their requirements for church membership. I do not believe that we give best witness to our unity in Christ by diminishing to any degree a Baptist commitment to believer’s baptism by immersion as a prerequisite to church membership. I cannot affirm a position that leads to the judgment of the believer the question of his of her baptism and its meaning.

The elders of BBC and Dr. Piper are to be commended for being so open and honest in calling for Christian brothers and sisters to respond to their proposal before the church takes action (an action delayed at the present time). I know of no other congregation that has been so open in its call for response from fellow believers.

With all respect for my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, I do not believe that the “baptism” of infants is any baptism at all. I can say that with great love and respect, knowing that Presbyterians who love the truth in their own confessional standards will respect a Baptist who does the same. As I often remark to evangelical Presbyterians, we may be the last people on earth who can have a real disagreement.

That said, baptism has been understood by all major branches of Christianity, throughout the centuries of Christian experience, to be a requirement for church membership and the fellowship of the Lord’s table. Thus, for Baptists to receive into the membership of a Baptist church (or to invite to the Lord’s Supper) any believer who lacks such baptism, is to receive non-baptized persons as if they were baptized.

Any compromise of Baptist conviction concerning the requirement of believer’s baptism by immersion amounts to a redefinition of Baptist identity. More importantly, it raises the most basic questions of ecclesiology. We must give those questions intent attention in these days. Otherwise, will there be any Baptists in the next generation?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Dever Defines Evangelism

Mark Dever recently defined evangelism in a most helpful and biblical way as he preached from Romans chapters 9 and 10. [See Baptist Press coverage here.]

As Dr. Dever stressed:

“We don’t fail in our evangelism if we tell them the Gospel and they fail to be converted; we fail if we do not faithfully tell them the Gospel at all times. We know that we are called to tell them and so we do and we trust God with the results.”

More:

Dever encouraged Christians to be patient in their evangelism because it is rare one is converted the first time he or she hears the Gospel. No sinner is beyond God’s grace until he is in the grave, Dever said. Both church history and the Bible are filled with examples of conversions that came after one had rejected God for decades, he added.

Fourth century church father Augustine of Hippo was converted after his mother prayed for him for nearly three decades, and the Apostle Paul was saved after many years of persecuting Christians and attempting to destroy the faith, Dever pointed out. God’s sovereign saving grace always provides hope, he said.

Ultimately, Dever said, the doctrine of election teaches Christians that the Holy Spirit of God persuades sinners to flee to Christ. Consequently, evangelists are relieved of the pressures to give a perfect Gospel presentation and it should keep them from seeking to manipulate someone to follow Christ, he said.

When Paul became discouraged while in Corinth, God appeared to him in a dream as recorded in Acts 18 and encouraged him, telling the apostle, “I have many people in this city,” Dever said. In the same way, election should encourage all Christians fervently to proclaim the Gospel to the lost because God has designed to save sinners through His Word preached by weak human beings, Dever said. The Gospel, he said, provides hope for the salvation of friends who as of now are still lost.

“Friends you have that you think will never be converted will be some of the most splendid trophies of grace you have ever seen,” he said.

This is a wonderful summary of the Gospel imperative and a witness to the power of the Gospel to save.