KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–“The most dangerous errors in any generation are those that many Christian leaders do not see,” argued D.A. Carson, a New Testament professor from Trinity Evangelical Seminary in suburban Chicago, drawing from principles found in Galatians 2.
Referring to debate at the recent meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Carson said in a Nov. 1 address at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: “That one’s done. It’s a dead issue. They’re dying off.”
Now, Carson said, “The dangers ahead of the Southern Baptist Convention are not in the votes taken in Texas” and “not the dangers of liberalism. You fought that one. You basically won. You’re cleaning up some skirmishes now — some of them nasty — but they’ll pass.”
Rather, they are “the dangers that most people will not see until they’ve been around two generations,” Carson warned, citing postmodernism, “the relativizing of the exclusive claims of the gospel” and a “hardhearted right-wing reaction” as the more likely enemies of the gospel.
In the second of a series of three Sizemore Lectureship sermons at the Kansas City, Mo., seminary, Carson related Peter’s involvement with gentile believers described in Galatians 2:12. He interpreted the reference to “those from James” as messengers who warned of the persecution Christians were experiencing at the hands of the Jews. The reference to the circumcision group described the Jews who were persecuting the Christians, Carson explained.
Many commentators accuse Peter of being hypocritical by switching back and forth between close ties with gentiles and separating from them out of fear of the Jews. But Carson viewed Peter’s response as a shortsighted act of compassion. And ultimately, the gospel was perverted through the misunderstanding, he said.
“From Peter’s point of view he was acting in an honorable way to help Christians out, but he didn’t see far enough down the track to see where it would lead — that his conduct would jeopardize the exclusiveness of the gospel itself,” Carson said. “Maybe it would take Christian suffering and being beaten up by the circumcision group and maybe even dying for the gospel sake,” he added.
Just as Peter failed to see the error that would spread by his well-intentioned actions, Carson said theological institutions that began with good intentions often decline when the original vision is not maintained.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Carson said, noting that many steps were taken along the way to cause institutions like Harvard, Princeton and Yale to abandon orthodoxy. “One of those steps is this — a confessional institution starts so often with the vision of a pastor-theologian who is concerned to propagate the gospel and disseminate it among a new generation.”
Carson advised theological institutions to take care in maintaining leadership that can “articulate and repeat in biblical terms the nature of the vision of that institution.” Otherwise, he said, “tolerance levels” may change to “allow in things with new errors whose significance they do not see.” One result, Carson noted, is a change in the shape of an institution’s faculty. “And in two generations you’ve got some kind of Christ-denying core right in the institution. That pattern has been repeated over and over again,” he stated.
Carson applied three other truths from the Galatians passage, including the need for biblical truth to be hierarchialized, as in the case of eating meat sacrificed to idols. He told of a pastor serving outside his homeland being scandalized by local Christians wearing shorts to church and going to the beach on the Sabbath. “He had temperamentally an inability to hierarchialize the truth, and virtually every element of truth through a whole complex web of interlocking arguments had the same final weight as almost any other truth.”
Noting that the man lasted 18 months before returning to a more comfortable parish, Carson said, “If you belong to a certain mindset, every single thing that you find in the Bible, whether it is the truth or your misguided interpretation of it, you are prepared to split a church over.”
While such truths may be important to teach and apply over time, Carson said that “in refusing to hierarchialize, you’ll split and split and split and call it faithfulness.” He urged listeners to determine “the doctrinal matters for which you will go to the mat.”
He also used the example of the apostle Paul with the Galatians to teach that unity is not more important than the gospel message. Referring to Galatians 1:8, Carson reminded his audience that Paul insisted that the gospel is not negotiable. “The gospel undergirds apostolic authority and not the other way around. That is one of the fundamental differences between Romanism and confessional Protestantism.
“If even apostolic unity is to be jeopardized for the sake of the gospel, don’t ever think you have the right to appeal to some vague denominational, sentimental or traditional unity where the gospel is at stake,” Carson stated.
Furthermore, church discipline should not be regarded as either excommunication or no action at all, Carson said. “Sometimes we think to exercise church discipline means to do absolutely nothing until we reach crisis proportions and turf the blighters out.”
Carson spoke of New Testament expressions of mutual admonition, correction, private appeals and confrontation, as well as public rebuke. “Paul does not say, ‘No, I would like to move that our brother Peter forthwith be expelled from the church.’ That’s not where you start.”
Because the aim of church discipline is to preserve the gospel, do good to the people of God and bring glory to the master, Carson acknowledged that excommunication may be the only means of accomplishing such goals. “But it’s the last step. It’s not the only step. God help us if it’s the first step.”
Further coverage of Carson’s sermons will be posted at Midwestern’s Internet site, www.mbts.edu.