PHOENIX (BP)–Calling themselves “men of yesterday” in the Southern Baptist Convention, 9Marks founder Mark Dever and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson told younger pastors June 13 they should heed the wisdom of previous generations that upheld biblical authority and sound doctrine.
Speaking at a “9Marks at 9” gathering following the Monday evening session of the SBC Pastors’ Conference, Dever said: “I didn’t invent these things. These are the things our grandparents said. They are good things to keep saying.” The 9Marks group examines and promotes regenerate church membership, scriptural authority and elder-led church polity.
Patterson, who disagrees with Dever on the issue of church elders and Reformed theology (also known as “Calvinism”), said he had been on the earth long enough to “learn something about the ebb and flow of the Christian faith.”
“Every generation will be faced with a very significant decision and you are going to experience great sorrow because of it,” Patterson said. He told of how he learned this lesson from the Downgrade Controversy in England and Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s role in leading the Baptist churches of England to a firm, scriptural footing.
That controversy in 1887 centered on the authority and reliability of the Bible, which at the time was under attack from German theologians who applied an evolutionary framework to biblical studies.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” Patterson said, recalling the Conservative Resurgence among Southern Baptists during which the convention reclaimed its own heritage of biblical conservatism in the 1980s and ’90s.
DECLINE BEFORE RESURGENCE
Dever asked Patterson about the difference between legitimate vigilance and paranoia that sees theological enemies at every hand.
“Paranoia is a condition that exists when you are thinking about you and your pastorate,” Patterson said. Vigilance, he said, is when people think constantly about protecting the Kingdom and ensuring that the Christian faith is passed from generation to generation.
“A denomination is nothing more than a reflection of what is going on in the churches,” Patterson said, noting that churches must hold and teach sound doctrine.
Dever asked Patterson to diagnose how the Southern Baptist Convention had declined theologically prior to the Conservative Resurgence, indicating he believed a lack of expositional preaching caused the decline. Patterson agreed.
“There was not a lot of expositional preaching in the 1950s. In fact, W.A. Criswell experienced a fair amount of ridicule for his expositional preaching,” Patterson said. “Even though people found the Lord under topical preaching, churches became weaker and weaker in terms of knowing the content of Scripture and what the Christian faith was about.”
Patterson said this decline in doctrinal knowledge lead to “anemia” in the churches, which in turn led to a lack of discipline. Churches once published the number of instances of church discipline, he said, but after some churches abused the process of discipline, the practice fell out of favor.
“There is something to the separated, sanctified life for Christ,” Patterson said, adding that churches still need to invoke discipline when necessary. Patterson said he believes the best form of discipline is “withholding the table” from those disciplined — prohibiting them from partaking of the Lord’s Supper with the remainder of the congregation.
CHURCH MEMBERSHIP & LEADERSHIP
Dever said he thought church discipline is a less likely course of action if church members are truly regenerate. He asked Patterson if Southern Baptists had experienced problems in the past because they had not ensured those they baptized were actually born-again believers.
That was true then, Patterson said, but there are problems in modern churches as well. He noted the early church “did not baptize carelessly,” though they sometimes did baptize quickly. “I think we have done this sometimes carelessly.”
Patterson also said many churches almost could have been considered guilty of infant baptism, baptizing children as young as age 4. Many of these children grow up and leave the church or cannot remember their conversions, he said, emphasizing that churches must be sure that those who are baptized are regenerate.
“A lackadaisical policy toward baptism is a problem,” Patterson said. Without regenerate members, churches likely will have difficulty governing themselves.
That assertion prompted Dever to ask Patterson about a June 9 blog post in which James MacDonald, pastor of a nondenominational church and a voice in the Acts 29 church planting network, said congregational church government is not biblical. McDonald, who promotes an elder-led model, claimed pastors are “crushed” as the result of democratic voting and went on to call congregational church government “satanic.”
Dever asked Patterson if congregational government is, indeed, “satanic.” Patterson replied that this critique grows “out of a doctrine that has been abused in recent years — the priesthood of the believer.” Patterson said each believer is a priest, with the Holy Spirit indwelling the “temple” of his or her body. He noted the word used for “temple” by Paul was not a reference to the entire temple complex, but to the “Holy of Holies.” Believers must see themselves as part of the body, and not the whole or, worse, as individuals. And they must also submit themselves to the leadership of a shepherding pastor.
“Congregationalism of a sort, then,” based on a proper understanding of the priesthood of the believer, “is right theologically and it is the way God moves the people in a certain direction,” Patterson said. If the pastor is doing his job of listening to the Lord correctly, this movement should be in the direction the pastor desires based on his leading from the Lord,” Patterson added.
The pastor as a shepherd should be a “decisive leader,” Patterson said, noting that he is a servant but “rules” over his flock. “A shepherd doesn’t counsel with the sheep, asking, ‘Where would you guys like to graze today?'”
This, however, does not mean a pastor should be a chief executive officer (CEO), Patterson said. “The first responsibility a congregation has is to call a pastor,” he said. “Once they call the pastor, they need to follow the pastor.”
During his years as pastor, Patterson said he preferred not to have regular business meetings, which lead to “exercises in carnality” and “regular fights.”
GREAT COMMISSION RESURGENCE
Dever asked Patterson if the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) was part of, or a continuation of, the Conservative Resurgence. Patterson said he personally was not involved in the GCR and that he was not consulted on the plans or the report that was presented to and adopted by the SBC in 2010.
“They wanted to see the Great Commission put back in the lead position of what we do in Southern Baptist life,” Patterson said. Dever asked Patterson if he was pleased with the fruit of the GCR.
“I can’t say I’m not pleased with it, but I can’t say that I am. I haven’t seen enough of it yet,” Patterson said.
Asked by a pastor in the audience about the future of the SBC as a “red-state denomination with red-state sensibilities in a blue-state world,” Patterson acknowledged that Southern Baptists had to change. He said the convention must focus on urban areas, focus on universities and assume a New Testament mentality.
“We have to move Southern Baptists from being an agrarian, suburban denomination and move toward being an urban missionary force.”
Dever noted that Southern Baptists have been cooperating and should continue to cooperate on social issues and missions, but he asked Patterson to describe the positives and negatives of cooperation.
Cooperation is valuable, Patterson said, as long as it focuses on the proper subjects.
Southern Baptists need to realize the SBC doesn’t constitute the entirety of the work of God on earth, Patterson said. Other Christians are sharing the Gospel and though they may disagree on minor points, those who believe the Bible believe in preaching Christ. This should be supported, Patterson said, just as the Anabaptists thanked God for Martin Luther but thought him “inconsistent” on a number of points. Christians can unite in evangelism, such as when Southern Baptists have participated in Billy Graham crusades, he said.
“However, when it comes to church planting, I’m going to plant Baptist churches,” Patterson said. Baptist churches are the closest to New Testament churches, he said, and Baptists have always been a “people of the Book,” “hot-hearted with compassion for people,” and a people of evangelism.
Patterson said Southern Baptists must be aware, however, that “a careless sort of ecumenism is slipping in.” Baptist doctrine cannot be softened to appease or changed for the sake of unity.
“Don’t I epitomize that?” Dever asked.
“No, you don’t,” Patterson said. “You have not taken Baptist out of the title of your church, you practice only believer’s baptism and you are a believer’s church.”
Understanding he is able to better educate seminary students by exposing them to various points of view, Patterson said he has invited people of different denominations to speak at Southwestern. “We have to recognize that God is doing some great things among people who are not Baptists,” he said.
Many who came to the 9Marks meeting likely expected the discussion of the Reformed influence of the movement to be a topic for discussion. In reality, little time was devoted to it and none of the questions from the audience addressed Calvinism.
“You Calvinists scare me,” Patterson said, adding that he can always “put up with” people who hold different theological opinions as long as they are evangelistic. Dever said likewise he was frightened when people claimed to be Calvinists but refused to evangelize.
Dever asked Patterson if he believed in the total depravity of man, the first point of Reformed theology. “If I can define it, I do,” Patterson replied.
Dever followed with a similar question about unconditional election. Again, Patterson answered that he did believe the teaching “if I can define it.”
“If you mean by unconditional election that God arbitrarily decided in eternity past to create some people to save and some people to condemn, no,” Patterson said, drawing a loud “amen” from one pastor in attendance. “See, at least one brother here agrees with me.”
Dever told the audience that Patterson indirectly “helped start” the 9Marks movement. While Dever was at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, he wanted to print a pamphlet at the seminary extolling the marks of true Baptist churches. Patterson, then president of the North Carolina seminary, at first refused because the pamphlet promoted the use of elders. Dever eventually convinced Patterson to write a letter commending the pamphlet but stating his disagreement with the use of elders.
Dever is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., andthe immediate past chairman of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s board of trustees.
Gregory Tomlin is a writer based in Dallas.