SBC Life Articles

Focus on Your SBC Entities: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Taking the Great Commission Seriously

Anyone who has kept up with The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in recent months may have heard the phrase, "We are serious about the Gospel." More than a cool-sounding advertising campaign, these words represent the mindset and mission of Southern Seminary as it seeks to equip students to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth as pastors, missionaries, worship leaders, biblical counselors, and in every possible avenue for ministry.

"We are serious about the Gospel" means that the institution's leadership, faculty, trustees, donors, and everyone associated with Southern take a direct, forthright, and resolute stance upon the message of Christ crucified and risen for sinners. The message concerning Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection is the message delivered to the church in order to, in the words of the Apostle Paul, bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations (Romans 1:5). This speaks particularly of the substance of the Great Commission, teaching disciples the content of the Christian faith so that they might obey and, by obeying, bring glory to Christ's name among the nations.

Since 1859, Southern Seminary has existed to help the churches fulfill this purpose. In fact, its mission statement affirms that under the lordship of Jesus Christ the seminary is "to be totally committed to the Bible as the Word of God, to the Great Commission as our mandate, and to be a servant of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention by training, educating, and preparing ministers of the Gospel for more faithful service."

But this raises the question, "How does an educational institution help to fulfill the Great Commission?" After all, Christ did not command educational organizations to evangelize the world. Before we can address this question, we must consider the nature of the Great Commission, to whom the Great Commission is given, and the relationship of the seminary to the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Southern Baptists, Southern Seminary, and the Great Commission
Jesus gave the Great Commission as His final command to His disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20, ESV). The local church, constituted by baptized disciples of Jesus, functions as God's medium through which this weightiest of commands and highest of privileges is accomplished. When we trace the pattern for missions presented explicitly in the Book of Acts and implicitly in the New Testament letters, we find no other institution set apart, instructed, or used by God to fulfill the Great Commission.

For this reason, as an organization committed to training those called to Gospel ministry, Southern Seminary seeks to equip those who serve and will serve as leaders and pastors in the local church. In the words of Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr, "Southern Seminary exists to prepare ministers and missionaries who will go, to serve Gospel churches, and to take the Gospel to the nations."

Hence, if Southern Baptists wish for local churches to do their part in fulfilling the Great Commission, it naturally follows that they provide the right kind of training for their leaders and pastors who lead and equip the local body for the Great Commission task. The Cooperative Program helps Southern Seminary pursue that very end. With the Cooperative Program dollars that come to Southern Seminary, Southern Baptists invest in establishing and strengthening local churches by providing the capital and resources to train the men and women God calls to lead, teach, and serve within the local church.

So again, the pressing question is this: how does a seminary help fulfill the Great Commission? How does such an institution put Cooperative Program dollars to use?

Southern Seminary puts Cooperative Program dollars to use in several primary ways in accordance with its mission statement: maintaining a faculty and leadership committed to biblical authority; producing graduates who receive proper instruction and skill-sets for local church ministry with the ability to contribute to the denomination's efficiency to plant churches in North America; and upholding a vision to see the Gospel taken to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.

Biblical authority: Taking theology seriously
The seminary's commitment to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture provides the trajectory and boundaries for the doctrine, ministry philosophy, and methods its professors instill in the more-than 4,000 students currently enrolled. This standard is upheld not only at Southern's main campus, but in each its dozen-plus extension centers.

Just as Southern determines to bring faithful, substantive, theological education to students who are able to attend courses in Louisville, Kentucky, the seminary also is dedicated to expand the quality of training to the Nashville, Tennessee, area, evidenced by the relocation of full-time professors Mark T. Coppenger and George H. Martin to a new, larger campus in the Cool Springs section of Nashville.

Each campus and extension center reflects the same conviction: without an uncompromised confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible, the church cannot faithfully follow the Great Commission's mandate to teach followers of Christ everything He has commanded. For a minister of the Gospel to cultivate obedience that is most consistent with faith, he must possess a deep, well-rounded knowledge of the content of the Christian faith. This is why classes at Southern Seminary are led by many of the world's finest theology and biblical studies professors, as well as some of the leading experts in the fields of missiology and practical ministry.

With its sixty-five faculty members, Southern Seminary lists such respected names as Tom Schreiner, Bruce Ware, Gregg Allison, Tom Nettles, Michael Haykin, and Don Whitney, among many others. Moreover, the SBTS faculty publishes books assigned for classes in sister SBC seminaries as well as in other evangelical schools. They do not intend for their adherence to biblical teaching to remain on the theoretical level, simply lingering in the dorm rooms or on-campus coffee shop. Instead, professors instruct and exhort students to apply the God-glorifying theology they are taught to a lost and dying world.

"Theology at Southern is centered around glorifying God, fulfilling the Great Commission, and preparing students to advance the Gospel against the principalities and powers of evil," said Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology and vice president for academic administration.

"The Great Commission is a theology of cosmic warfare—a theology centering on the unveiling of the long-hidden mystery of Christ and His church. It means the overthrow of the ancient powers that have long held the creation captive through sin and death," Moore continued. "It means the triumph of a resurrected Messiah over every principality and power hostile to the reign of the Creator. It means that God is keeping His promises to His anointed King."

Southern Seminary's world-class faculty members are held accountable to the school's confession of faith, the Abstract of Principles, as well as the SBC's The Baptist Faith and Message. They take theology seriously because they take the Great Commission seriously. Without biblically-grounded doctrine, there remains nothing of a life-transforming, world-changing message to take to the nations.

To Jerusalem and Samaria: Taking domestic missions seriously
Southern Seminary produces graduates who receive the skills to preach Christ and Him crucified with sound exegetical skills as well as communication techniques adaptable to a variety of contexts. The seminary is dedicated to send from its halls Spirit-empowered men able to "rightly handle the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). Graduates of Southern who take domestic and international missions seriously include such SBC leaders as Bryant Wright (M.Div.), president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Tom Eliff (D.Min.), president of the International Mission Board (IMB); and Kevin Ezell (D.Min.), president of the North American Mission Board (NAMB).

Southern Seminary graduated 532 men and women at the conclusion of the 2010-2011 academic year, many of whom will spend their lives serving on this continent and many who will go overseas. This bodes well for both NAMB's long-term church-planting goals and the IMB's mission to take the Gospel to every people group.

More than merely equipping and graduating students who serve churches and evangelize the lost this side of the Atlantic, Southern Seminary maintains an intentional partnership with NAMB.

"NAMB and Southern have had a very good partnership," said J.D. Payne, director of the Center for North America Missions and Church Planting on Southern's campus.

"For more than a decade, the partnership has allowed students to be exposed to the importance of church planting and be trained in various church planting skills. This partnership has also allowed students to serve as church planters throughout the United States and Canada, many in areas with few evangelicals."

According to Payne, a national missionary with NAMB and associate professor of church planting and evangelism in the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism, the Center for North American Missions and Church Planting is a NAMB initiative that exists to prepare on-campus students to become effective church planters and connect these students with mission opportunities throughout North America.

"I hope my students will understand and grasp the implications that biblical church planting is evangelism that results in new churches. I want them to recognize the place of the Holy Spirit in the birth of churches and the calling out and raising up of pastors for those churches. It is important for students to recognize their missionary callings as they labor for the multiplication of disciples, leaders, and churches throughout North America and the rest of the world," Payne said.

"They must understand that they are to be outstanding theologians and missiologists as they are engaged in such Kingdom expansion."

Through the center, students and pastors can learn about church planting and evangelism resources provided by NAMB as well as about mobilization opportunities around North America. So, Southern Seminary provides not only the necessary training to raise up astute theologians and primed church planters, but also provides tangible opportunities and resources for students, pastors, and missionaries to carry out the Great Commission in their own Jerusalem and Samaria of North America.

To the ends of the earth: Taking world missions seriously
Southern Seminary shares a cohesive vision with the IMB to take the Gospel to all nations.

"The most important dimension of any vision for world missions is a passion to glorify God. From beginning to end, the Bible declares that God is glorifying Himself in the salvation of sinners, and that He desires to be worshipped among all the peoples of the earth," said President R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

This commitment to world evangelization is evidenced by the IMB's recent acquisition of Chuck Lawless, former dean of the Billy Graham School, to become its vice president of global theological advance.

"The Billy Graham School of Southern Seminary has a solid track record of training missionaries for the Great Commission task. The school has always been committed to balancing effectively the work of evangelism, discipleship, and church planting – a balance that Dr. Tom Eliff, the new president of the IMB, affirmed in his vision for the IMB's work," said Lawless.

Further, after Lawless' departure to the IMB, Southern Seminary announced Zane Pratt as the new dean of the Graham School. The appointment of Pratt, an experienced overseas missionary, demonstrates the high value Southern places upon providing students with the best mentoring and teaching available related to real-life missions.

"Zane Pratt will keep the focus of the Billy Graham School and Southern Seminary on the global task of the Great Commission. He is a respected missionary practitioner who thinks deeply and strategically about reaching Muslim populations with the Gospel of Jesus Christ," said Moore.

"Pratt understands that theology is not an academic discipline that ought to be separated from the Great Commission but that the Great Commission is fueled by theology and theology is informed by the Great Commission."

The seminary's Great Commission Center affords students the opportunity to participate in faculty-led short-term mission trips, both domestic and overseas. As with its partnership with NAMB, by facilitating the Great Commission Center, Southern provides not only the instruction and preparation to send out the SBC's missionaries but also the opportunity for students across all programs to gain experience on the field and thus assist in the Great Commission task.

The Great Commission Center organizes about seven to nine trips each year, sending more than seventy students each year on short-term trips. The center sent teams of faculty and students to locations such as Ecuador, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Nepal, India, China, Haiti, Turkey, Canada, and Niger, as well as Utah, New York City, West Virginia, and Iowa. Since 2000, more than 775 students and faculty have participated in international mission trips through the Great Commission Center.

The center's primary concern is mobilizing Christ's church to reach the world for His glory, which it attempts to do by leading students to a thorough consideration of international missions as a lifework and guiding them in their studies and activities for missions. So, while Gospel urgency is communicated on a theoretical level in the classroom as professors speak of man's dire need for a Savior, the Great Commission Center fosters a heightened awareness for missions on-campus as well as generating awareness for involvement on a local level. This is accomplished by connecting students to evangelism opportunities such as Reaching Out Louisville, Southern's evangelism teams, and local church outreach ministries.

Like Southern's Center for North America Missions and Church Planting, the Great Commission Center takes seriously the church's obligation to take the Gospel to Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the world by providing students, pastors, and missionaries opportunities and resources for evangelism on the local, national, and international levels.

As Mohler said, "We are serious about the Gospel." And because of this, Southern Seminary is serious about the Great Commission. And it is serious about the Cooperative Program. As evidenced by Southern's faculty, curriculum, activities, student body, and graduates, this phrase represents more than a cool-sounding advertising campaign. It's a lifestyle, and those who pass through Southern's halls realize it's embodied—as advertised.

by Joshua Hayes

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  • Joshua Hayes