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Scholars explore doctrine of the church

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Historical and contemporary Baptist views on the doctrine of the church were examined during Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s fourth annual Baptist Distinctive Series at the Fort Worth, Texas, campus.

Conference registration exceeded previous years, with more than 300 participants, as scholars set out to elaborate on the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message’s article on the church.

Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern, opened the conference with a lecture titled “Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church: A Theological Exposition of Matthew 16:13-20.” The interpretation of Jesus’ words to Peter in this passage too often has emphasized the office of Peter rather than the object of Peter’s confession, Yarnell said.

“Although the rock upon which the church is built is not Peter personally or officially, the rock certainly has to do with Peter, specifically with his confession of the divine revelation, which itself points to Jesus Christ,” Yarnell said.

James Leo Garrett, distinguished professor of theology emeritus at Southwestern, began the second day of the Sept. 25-26 conference with a lecture addressing congregationalism.

“Baptists have for four centuries claimed to be practitioners of congregational polity, … that form of church government in which final human authority rests with the local or particular congregation when it gathers for decision-making,” Garrett said, adding, “Internally, it means the affirmation that every member of the congregation has a voice in its affairs and in its decisions, and hence the term, democracy.”

Thomas White, vice president of student services and communications and associate professor of systematic theology, focused on a right understanding of the local and universal church. Of the 109 times the word ecclesia is used to refer to the Christian church in the New Testament, it almost always refers to the local church, White said. The universal church — the future and final glorious assembly — consists of members who are now in heaven, members currently on earth and members who do not exist yet. Therefore, it will one day gather, but it does not yet meet, he said.

White warned against a growing tendency to value the universal church over the local church. He said the growth of multi-site churches, multiple worship services with different styles of music and separate buildings for different age groups often substitute consumerism and customization for the biblical imperatives for churches to suffer together and rejoice together.

When it comes to building meaningful church membership within the church, Southwestern President Paige Patterson stated that an imbalance has occurred. During the final lecture of the conference, Patterson said, “Repairing and restoring the caboose doesn’t help if the engine is broken.” Churches today have a tendency to focus solely on church discipline, the caboose, while neglecting the two ordinances of the church, the engine, he said.

Patterson cautioned the audience against saying that the ordinances — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — are merely symbols of Christian truths, noting that they are much more than that. Citing the biblical concept of distinguishing between what is common and what is holy, Patterson posited that baptism and the Lord’s Supper also display the three phases of sanctification: positional, progressive and ultimate.

Also making presentations during the conference were David Allen, dean of Southwestern’s school of theology, on the autonomy of the local church; Keith Eitel, dean of Southwestern’s school of evangelism and missions, on Baptists’ view of global missions; Byron McWilliams, president of Southwestern’s national alumni association and pastor of First Baptist Church in Odessa, Texas, on the church and its officers; Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, on the biblical foundation and usefulness of denominationalism; Emir Caner, president of Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, Ga., on covenants and confessions.

To listen to all conference presentations online, visit www.swbts.edu/conferenceaudio.
Keith Collier, Benjamin Hawkins & Michelle Myers are writers for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Keith Collier, Benjamin Hawkins & Michelle Myers