Denominational Integrity: A Plea from a Younger Pastor

Founders Journal 63 · Winter 2006 · pp. 20-24

Denominational Integrity: A Plea from a Younger Pastor

Joe Thorn

I am a 33 year-old pastor of a Southern Baptist church. I am comfortable calling myself a Southern Baptist, but not because I grew up as one. In fact, I did not grow up in church at all. I became a Christian in 1990 at the age of 18. As I read Scripture and good Christian literature, I embraced Reformed Theology. Later I became convinced of credo-baptism and Baptist ecclesiology, and only then did I choose to be a part of a Southern Baptist church. What drew me to a Southern Baptist church was first, the local church’s doctrine and character, but I also liked that the SBC had theological origins that matched my own convictions, and I was impressed with their missionary enterprise. Since that time I have attended a Southern Baptist seminary, pastored in three Southern Baptist churches, and was commissioned as a missionary through our North American Mission Board to plant a church 44 miles west of Chicago, Illinois. That church has constituted and is itself an involved Southern Baptist church. I have also had the opportunity to serve the Convention at both the local and state levels. I put all of this on the table to explain that I am an involved Southern Baptist. In the past year a new label has become popular which applies to me as well. I am a “younger leader” in the SBC.

As one of the so called “younger leaders” within our Convention I am very interested in both where we have come from and where we are heading as cooperating Baptists. Like many others, I am simultaneously encouraged and concerned by much of what I see. Because of Dr. Jimmy Draper’s efforts to dialogue with younger leaders while he was president of Lifeway, and because of the popularity of blogs, most know that we younger leaders have concerns. But don’t believe all the hype.

Our concerns are not about “having a place at the table.” We are already sitting there next to our brothers and sisters. Nor are our concerns about positions in the Convention, recognition by the Convention or being heard. All of the younger leaders I know are primarily concerned about the local church and how our Convention affects them. We are concerned that at times the tail is wagging the dog. We are troubled that loyalty to our Convention and traditions sometimes eclipses the missio Dei. We wish there was an easier way to put a face on missions, instead of merely supporting a program. How can we promote missionaries and the mission over a program? We do not like our inflated numbers or our obsession with numbers. We are concerned about the open hostility toward orthodox, evangelical, historic Baptist Calvinism. We are uncomfortable with our tendency to major on the minors. In light of concerns like these I would make an appeal for denominational integrity based upon two principles.

Need for Confessional Identity

First, I am convinced that the future of our Convention is connected to a confessional identity. It is not that we don’t have a confession. Baptists of every theological stripe have used confessions from the beginning, and the SBC is no exception. My concern is that the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 seems to have little use. Confessions are critical to cooperation because they establish the common ground on which we stand. They can set boundaries while allowing a certain amount of freedom for all who would join us. A confession serves as the doctrinal standard by which we evaluate participating churches and missionary personnel. Yet, despite all the work that has gone into formulating the BFM2K, it does not occupy a central place in our denominational life. Churches need not affirm its content to be a part of our Convention. All that is required is a financial contribution to Southern Baptist causes and a spirit of cooperation. It appears that many of our churches have forgotten our confessional history, and have themselves birthed churches that have never known the place and importance of confessions.

While I am a Reformed pastor/theologian I do not believe the answer to this problem in our Convention is forcing Calvinism, nor adopting the Second London Confession as our Convention’s statement of faith. I do not think the answer is to be found in electing a Calvinist president. I do believe that central to denominational health and integrity is reclaiming a truly confessional identity. A confessional identity protects churches from being marginalized because of differences in theology that fall outside the confession. It allows for healthy diversity and an evangelical spirit of cooperation. If I am honest, I must admit that I pray for a day when all of our Southern Baptist churches reflect Reformed theology, but I believe the answer to that prayer will only come about through God’s reviving and reforming influence. In short, I am not interested in making the Convention Reformed as much as I hope to see our Convention characterized by Reformed thought due to our churches being blessed by the Spirit of God.

Need for Missional Character

A second plea for denominational integrity is that our Convention would have a truly missional character. To be missional means that we recognize ourselves, as the people of God, to be a sent people, the mission of God and the presence of Christ in the world. It means that we see our congregations as not only sending churches, but sent churches themselves. It means that churches, while sharing the same basic theology (confessional identity) will look different from one another because of context and culture. A missional character would not encourage the expectation that every church must look and function the same way. We are better at this on the international mission field than we are here at home.

A church in the inner-city should look different from those in the rural counties. In some cases they will address the same issues with the gospel, but in many others the gospel will be worked out redemptively in different ways to different issues. Instead of relying on one-size-fits-all programs and church models, it is necessary to allow the kingdom of God to present itself to the community through the church in ways needed by that community. This is not an abandonment of truth, doctrinal standards or biblical ecclesiology. It is the church moving forward with all of that to become what God intends us to be in each new place. A confessional identity allows for this, it even pushed for it with confidence that the confession around which we unite is enough.

Lest anyone think I am merely whining, or that I take pleasure in only offering criticism—a charge often laid against “younger leaders” —let me say that I have never personally found resistance to my ministry because of my Reformed theology, my open desire to “do church” differently than what has come to be the traditional Southern Baptist model, and engage the culture up close and redemptively. In fact, the Convention has been very supportive of our church plant and has helped to make it a success. Of course, this has not been everyone’s experience, and I have spoken with many who have found great frustration and resistance because our Convention often operates without a clear confessional identity or missional character.

Always Reforming

As you can see, I am not suggesting that the answers to these concerns are easy, nor am I claiming to have those answers myself. Like most Southern Baptists I sense the need for things to change. While the solution to the problems I see may not be simple, I and other younger leaders are not passively waiting for things to change on their own.

Despite the charges, younger leaders are not merely complaining, nor are we waiting for something to be done for us. We are actively involved in the change we would like to see.

What are we doing?

We are talking. This really is a valid part of the whole process of change. Conversation helps us in our learning. Through discussion online and in person I have seen people (including myself) change direction. For a people that place great emphasis on words/preaching, the use of words should be understandably valuable.

We are reworking how discipleship is done. It is unfortunate that many of us do not use LifeWay products. Much of what is produced does not fit our approach and/or theology, forcing us to use other resources. We are pushing discipleship beyond the “classroom” setting and into homes. We are building it into actual relationships because we believe this is more biblical and more productive. We are pushing community, serious theology and emphasizing the experience of truth. We are also talking to LifeWay, letting them know what we want, praying for products that can help us make disciples.

We are approaching evangelism differently. We have moved away from canned presentations, easy believism and sacramental, saving prayers and toward a more dialogical/relational model of evangelism that involves spiritual diagnosis beyond “lost” and “saved.” We view evangelism and discipleship as organically connected to one another and the local church.

We are participating in the SBC at every level. We are present at the annual meeting, working with our local and state associations, and taking positions within when nominated. Though most of us would rather have more time with family or the church, we serve in these roles because we believe God has called us to do so. We participate because we believe God can and will use the Convention, and because we want to partner together with others for the glory of God.

We are reforming churches. Theologically, operationally, structurally—many of us are laboring within established churches to see reformation and revival. We are seeking to be faithful to God and His people by leading His people to change wherever necessary no matter what the cost. We understand that this takes time, patience and humility and have been blessed to learn from the many pastors who have set examples for us to follow. We are seeking to be faithful to the task of semper reformanda.

We are also planting churches. Many of us are re-imagining and starting new churches that are theological and missional and therefore breaking many of our traditions in the process. This is not only a move forward with change, but a move backward as well. We are seeking to return to a 1st-century model where we can, while incarnating that ideal in the 21st century.

This is part of what we are doing. Some of it fails and by God’s grace some of it works. But the effort flows out of an awareness of needed change, and the desire to glorify God, follow Jesus Christ and partner together with our brothers and sisters in the Southern Baptist Convention. The truth is, my concerns and the efforts of many of our “younger leaders” mirror the concerns and work of those who have served the Convention for decades. In the end, most Southern Baptists I know want to encourage denominational integrity. Without it our Convention will be characterized by irrelevance and ineffectiveness, and we may find ourselves working to simply save a sinking ship, rather than serve the interests of Christ’s kingdom.