"In other decades Baptists were better indoctrinated than they are today. The environment in which they lived, sometimes inimicable to them, was conducive of the mastery of their principles. Of later years, a tendency to depreciate doctrinal discussion is easily discernible, and young converts particularly are not rooted and grounded in the faith. Modern nonchalance acts as if it made little difference what one believes."
These words were spoken in 1919 by George W. McDaniels, a leading pastor in Virginia and later president of the SBC. Seventy-five years later, McDaniels' words still ring true. We live in an age held hostage to an ideology of indifference to truth. There is no problem more urgent for Southern Baptists today than how to pass on the faith intact to the rising generation.
This crucial task has been made even more difficult by a new mythology of Baptist identity which runs something like this: "Baptists are not essentially a doctrinal people. The basic criterion of theology is individual experience. Baptist means freedom, freedom to think, believe and teach, without constraints."
Baptist does mean freedom, but freedom for as well as freedom from. Throughout our history Baptists have been staunch advocates of religious liberty. We stand for a free church in a free state.
But religious liberty means freedom not only from improper coercion, but also for unswerving obedience to Christ. Some Baptists define their identity exclusively in terms of what they are against. We are against creedalism, they say, against sacramentalism, against authoritarianism. Well and good. But what are you for? When we emphasize freedom from to the exclusion of freedom for, we turn liberty into license and are left with nothing but a warm-tub feeling to present to a lost world.
Baptist means freedom for confession. In the 16th century, the great scholar Erasmus believed that the way to peace in the church was to define the smallest number of doctrines possible, and to hold them as lightly as one could. Over against Erasmus, Martin Luther declared that there could be no Christianity without assertions. By assertions he meant "a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and invincible persevering … in those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings." On this point Baptists stand with Luther, not Erasmus.
Historically, Baptists have declared our faith gladly and openly. We publish and circulate confessions in order to make known our adherence to the great doctrines of historic Christian orthodoxy, as well as our commitment to Baptist distinctives such as believer's baptism, congregational order and religious liberty.
Are confessions creeds? No, not in the sense that they are infallible artifacts of revelation which may never be revised or changed. Holy Scripture alone is God's perfect touchstone of revealed truth. But confessions of faith may rightly be used both as a joyous affirmation of corporate commitment to Christ and as a safeguard against doctrinal error and unconcern.
While living in Switzerland several years ago, I had to drive across the Alps, with their treacherously narrow roads and hairpin curves. Wherever I drove I was aware of the presence of the guardrails on either side of the road. Our confessions of faith are like those guardrails. They establish limits, they protect us from the gaping ravines to our right and to our left. Only a fool with suicidal tendencies would want to drive across the Alps without the guardrails. For Christians there is only one road: Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6). The Bible is the light by which we see the road, "A lamp unto our feet, and a lantern along our pathway." Illumined by God's Spirit and informed by God's Word, confessions of faith help to keep our focus on Jesus Christ Who, as St. Augustine said, is "both our native country and himself also the road to that country."
Baptist means freedom for commitment. Baptists not only publish confessions, they also adopt church covenants. Just as a confession sets forth what we believe, so a church covenant is concerned with how we live. It describes in practical terms the ideal of the Christian life: a living faith, working by love, leading to holiness. The congregation's covenant also outlines that process of mutual admonition and responsibility through which fellow believers engage to "watch over" one another through encouragement, correction and prayer.
Baptist also means freedom for the Great Commission. It is sometimes said that theology divides while missions and evangelism unites. But this is a false dichotomy. Unless we have experienced the transforming power of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, we have no adequate motivation for missions. Unless we believe the gospel with all our hearts, then the content of our message will only deepen the darkness of those who are living and dying without hope in Christ.
Freedom for the Great Commission involves a mandate for action. It is the kind of freedom that places everyone who embraces it in a state of obligation to declare the marvelous message of God's grace to all peoples everywhere. We do this precisely because we "are not ashamed of the gospel." And we do this in the assurance that the Christ Who sends us out, walks besides us, dwells within us, and goes before us, unto the ends of the earth.
If You Minister, They Will Come
by Michael Chute
Small town church baptizes 300 a year through ministry evangelism
Just over 10 years ago, First Baptist Church, Leesburg, FL, exhausted evangelism prospects within the sleepy, southern town an hour's drive north of Orlando. Pastor Charles Roesel says the church blitzed, surveyed and did everything it could to find more prospects, but often were short of names on visitation night. Then the church began sacrificially reaching out to people with problems — all kinds of problems: homelessness, poverty, crisis pregnancies, abuse and abandonment — and prospects for evangelism began coming out of the woodwork. FBC's Christian Care Center, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, has helped thousands of men, women, children and families since then. "It's amazing that in a town this size, we have work this size," says Roesel, a member of the SBC's Executive Committee. "There's not a place — town, village, one-store country (stop) — that doesn't have the problems we have right here …. As long as you minister to hurting people, you'll never lack for an audience."
A model for ministry evangelism
Southern Baptist leaders point to FBC-Leesburg as a model for ministry evangelism. Says Art Ayris, the church's minister of evangelism and ministry: "People come here and see everything we do and are overwhelmed. But we started right where we were. We tell them to 'feel the needs needed to minister in their community and start right where they are' … Start where you are. Give food out of a closet in your church. Work with women and children in the locations where they are."
Never ask if you can afford it
FBC-Leesburg started most of these ministries out of old houses, but since then they've built a complex called Ministry Village. Currently under construction is an addition to the Village that will house a Pregnancy Care Center, Children's Rescue Shelter and Teen Home as well as the furniture barn, clothing closet and food pantry. When completed, the entire project will cost approximately $2 million. Says Pastor Roesel: "All the money was raised without a campaign. The Holy Spirit has raised the money independent of a campaign. (I) shared the vision and the money started coming in. The Holy Spirit is giving the money (and) I'm not going to mess up what He's doing. I told the church members, 'Nobody is going to contact you (about the project).'"
For more information
Resources for introducing Meeting Needs, Sharing Christ concepts into the local church are available through the Sunday School Board, including workbooks, videotapes and audiotapes. The book Meeting Needs, Sharing Christ in Today's New Testament Church is by Charles Roesel and Donald Atkinson.
FBC-Leesburg's Christian Care Center
1,400-plus volunteers in 82 different ministries, including:
• Rescue Mission for men
• Women's Shelter Pregnancy Care Center
• Children's Rescue Shelter
• Teen Home
• Furniture barn
• Clothing closet
• Food pantry
"This is not the old 'social gospel' resurrected; this is ministry evangelism. I exist for evangelism as fire exists for burning, We don't have a single ministry but that the goal is to reach every person involved with gospel of Jesus Christ." – Charles Roesel, pastor, FBC-Leesburg