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FIRST-PERSON: CBF reflections: Truth vs. the cult of personality


CHARLOTTE, N.C. (BP)–My plan was to find an inconspicuous seat in the back of the room. But Bill Leonard’s breakout session at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s general assembly was so crowded that I was forced to wedge myself into one of the few remaining seats right at the front. Shortly after sitting down, I began to chat with the woman sitting next to me. We exchanged pleasantries for a few moments, but when she learned that I am a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the tone of our conversation changed.

With passion and genuine concern she told me that Southern Seminary is a place that will stifle my ability to think rationally. Southern Seminary can be an unfriendly place, and Southern Seminary wants to mold me into a rigid cookie-cutter of what it thinks a preacher should look like, she said.

Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School, lectured for the next hour on “The Plan(s) of Salvation: When Conversion and Pluralism Collide.” He surveyed Baptist history and proposed several hypotheses. Among them:

–“Almost from the beginning of our movement, give or take 20 or 30 years, Baptists themselves have not agreed on the nature or process of conversion. We have had multiple plans.”

–“Baptists invented the foundational principle of religious pluralism in the United States: … religious liberty.”

–“Early Baptists had no vision of foreign missions until [William] Carey and his colleagues appeared on the scene.”

I listened to Leonard with great interest, but the whole time he was lecturing I had my conversation with the woman next to me in the back of my mind. When his lecture was over, we resumed our conversation and she asked me a startling question: “Why are you at Southern Seminary with people like Al Mohler when you could study with people like Bill Leonard instead?”

As I reflected on her inquiry, I thought about its implications. In her thinking, following a personality like that of Leonard would be more pleasant than following some of the personalities at Southern Seminary. And as I mentally surveyed my CBF experience, I had to admit that indeed, many of the CBF leaders I met — like the faculty and leadership at Southern Seminary — seem to have pleasant personalities.

Tony Campolo’s sharp wit and dry sense of humor came through in his sermon to the general assembly. Carolyn Hale Cubbedge, past president of Baptist Women in Ministry, appeared to show deep personal concern for each of the young women who attended her breakout session. And by all appearances Bill Leonard demonstrated humility and love for his friends in attendance at the breakout session.

In fact, the more I reflected upon the appealing personalities at the CBF, the more I came to understand how sincere people like the woman next to me may have departed from the ranks of Southern Baptist conservatives. There may have been doctrinal differences. But in addition, perhaps somewhere along the way SBC leaders hurt her feelings and she decided to follow people whose personalities she preferred.

God’s Word reminds us in 1 Corinthians 1:10-12 that this is not the first time the church has divided over personalities. Though they should have united in Christ, the Corinthians instead divided according to which church leader they preferred: Paul, Apollos, Peter or Jesus.

The problem with following personalities is that it inevitably leads to division, or worse, deception.

Why do I attend Southern Seminary with people like Al Mohler rather than another seminary with people like Bill Leonard? When the question is phrased in terms of competing personalities, there is no objective answer.

While I have found Mohler to be a very likable person, the question should not be one of personalities. Rather, it should be one of who proclaims the absolute truth of Scripture.

Paul reminded the Corinthians that they should follow him not because of his dynamic personality, but because he preached the truth of Jesus Christ: “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).

If the woman next to me had phrased her question in terms of who proclaims the absolute truth of Scripture, it would have been much easier to answer. Why do I attend a seminary like Southern rather than a seminary with professors like Leonard? Consider the following:

–Leonard said in his breakout session on pluralism, “When I talk about this, somebody almost invariably stands up and wonderfully quotes John’s gospel: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ which is fine. But if we’re going to be literal about that, then let’s trade literalisms and read Matthew 25 because in Matthew 25, there’s a suggestion that on that great getting up morning, the … ones who are welcomed into the Kingdom are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick. And in doing that, the text says, even when they didn’t know it, they were … Christians.”

–In his spring commencement address to Southern graduates, Mohler said, “Only one Gospel saves. The Apostle Paul … says, ‘Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel.’ It is because he knew the power of the authentic Gospel and the futility and the deadliness and the poison of the false gospels.”

So if the question is one of personality, that woman and all the CBF attendees like her are justified in following personalities that meet their felt needs. But if the question is one of declaring “nothing … but Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” I’ll choose Southern Seminary every time.
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David Roach is a newswriter at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.