SBC Life Articles

Working Together for the Sake of the Gospel

In many ways, 2006 was a great year in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention. Last year, Southern Baptists reaffirmed their belief that we can do more together than we can do on our own. For the first time, gifts to the Cooperative Program topped 200 million dollars! The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering (2005-2006) resulted in $137.9 million for global missions. And in 2006, for one of the few times in our history the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for the North American Mission Board exceeded our goal, which was $56 million. As of January 17, 2007, the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering topped $58 million! As Chairman of the Board of Trustees for NAMB, I want to say a special word of thanks to every Southern Baptist who invested in our Annie Armstrong Offering this year. We had a difficult 2006, but your North American Mission Board is pressing on into 2007 with great enthusiasm and with a great sense of anticipation at all that God will do through our agency this year.

As we enter a new year, however, it is with the solemn awareness that we must be even more effective in accomplishing God's Kingdom work. We partner together as Southern Baptists to do many important things, but the priority of our cooperation must be working together for the sake of the Gospel. Our task of global evangelization is a daunting one. But permit me to take a moment to review some indicators of the severity of our problem in North America alone:

• SBC baptisms are at their lowest levels in twelve years;

• Seventy-three percent of SBC churches are plateaued or declining;

• There were 11,740 SBC churches that reported zero or one baptism in 2005;

• Fifty-five percent of SBC churches baptized no youth between the ages of 12-17 in 2004;

• From 1991-2004 the number of unchurched adults in America increased from 39 million to 79 million;

• Every county in North America is at least 50 percent unchurched (statistics available from NAMB).

It is easy to become discouraged when we think about the implications of these numbers. Certainly, Jesus' words have never been truer: The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest (Matthew 9:37-38). Despite the amazing need and opportunities for Kingdom work that surround each one of us, we find ourselves distracted as a Convention.

In the era following the conservative resurgence, when we should be better positioned than ever before to work together for the sake of the Gospel, we are beginning to see factions crystallize within our Convention. Where before we stood united in our commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, many now are choosing sides over issues which pit generations and traditions against one another and which seek to limit theological fellowship when, in fact, debatable issues exist within the scope of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M 2000).

I have watched these sentiments develop in recent years, both in my home state of South Carolina, and throughout the SBC. I have seen these issues begin to divide good men who labored together during the resurgence, men whom I respect. And I am heartbroken by what I am seeing. Individuals on different sides of a variety of issues continue to fire rhetorical salvos at one another, with little apparent regard for the consequences it will have on the current effectiveness of our evangelistic strategies. The ultimate result of this behavior will not be greater denominational purity — it will be missed evangelistic opportunity.

As a result, I urge all Southern Baptists — pastors, entity leaders, and laypeople — to consider adopting the following framework for our continued cooperation in evangelism. I offer these suggestions in a spirit of humility and with the sincere desire that our Convention successfully refocus on the priority of the Great Commission.

Respect the worship styles of churches that affirm the BF&M 2000.

There is no question that we are experiencing a seismic shift in 21st century worship methodology and ministry philosophy in America. It can be seen in all facets of religious life, including Southern Baptist churches. Many churches, while remaining faithful to the biblical message, are engaging their culture with more contemporary forms of music, ministries, and evangelism. However, there are some within our Convention who are struggling with these contemporary models. Indeed, some are desirous of defining how churches in the SBC should worship. It is here, for clarity's sake, that we must turn our attention to our Convention's own theological document for insight on this issue. The BF&M 2000 defines the church in the following way:

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord.

As you can see, nowhere in this statement are worship styles or methodologies mentioned. In fact, nowhere is there even an implied reference that the use of contemporary methodologies is by definition, unbiblical. One of the strengths of our Convention is that every church is autonomous. Every church has the freedom to use the worship style that best suits its own context. By not addressing the issue of worship style in the BF&M 2000, Southern Baptists have already decided that worship styles and methodology are not a condition of cooperation. I think this is very wise! Any SBC church has the right to be as traditional or contemporary in its methodology as it chooses. But for us to be successful in working together for the sake of the Gospel, we must reject the claims of those who insist that their own worship style, either traditional or contemporary, is the only valid mode of worship.

Respect the theology of those who affirm the BF&M 2000.

The conservative resurgence mobilized millions of Southern Baptists to reaffirm our commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture. We stood united while we struggled for the heart and soul of our Convention. During that time, we refused to let our differences in worship styles and methodologies hinder us from the task at hand: reforming our Convention. Similarly, we refused to be uncooperative during those years because of theological issues that were debatable within the scope of the Baptist Faith and Message. After all, we were striving for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all (Jude 1:3).

There were still conversations by premillenialists about the timing of the rapture and by theologians and pastors over the unsolvable tension between sovereign election and the free agency of man, but these disputes took a back seat to the cause of inerrancy. We stood side-by-side in defense of our conviction that Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. And it was, and still is, a worthwhile cause. And the goal was a Convention better prepared and equipped to work together for the sake of the Gospel.

Today, the battle over inerrancy is being replaced by a growing conflict between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. While some Southern Baptists are trying to identify Calvinism as heresy, others are mocking those who adopt a more Arminian, free-will theology. Once again, when facing an issue of this magnitude, it is best to revisit our Convention's own theological document, the BF&M 2000. It has this to say about sovereign election and the free agency of man:

Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God's sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.

Obviously, the free agency of man is widely accepted in the belief system of Southern Baptists. Similarly, a cursory reading of SBC history will reveal that Calvinism has had a place in our Convention since its inception. Yet, we find ourselves as a Convention in a growing conflict over these positions. Today, there are some non-Calvinists who are so insistent upon the free agency of man that they seem to exclude any scriptural acknowledgement of sovereign election. On the other hand, there are some Calvinists who are so strident in their position regarding sovereign election, that they appear to devalue any human responsibility in salvation.

Now let's return to the BF&M 2000 passage I quoted above. A careful reading of this document reveals that neither Calvinism nor non-Calvinism is defined as being outside the scope of the BF&M 2000. As a result, the degree to which one affirms a position of either Calvinism or non-Calvinism should not be a test of fellowship issue. Frankly, "Are you a Calvinist?" is the wrong question for us to be asking. The proper question is this: "Are you committed to sharing the Gospel of Christ and fulfilling the Great Commission?"

Years ago, in my Systematic Theology class at Southeastern Seminary, Dr. Danny Akin made a statement I have never forgotten. He said, "Any system of theology which deemphasizes the Great Commission is a flawed system." Remember the statistics I mentioned earlier? They reveal that the greatest problem in our Convention is not the number of Calvinists or non-Calvinists. The greatest problem is the reality that regardless of the system of theology being adopted by people throughout our Convention, in practice at least, we are deemphasizing the Great Commission — and that is the greatest flaw of all. But this one thing is absolutely certain: if we are content to pull ourselves apart over this issue, rather than work together for the sake of the Gospel, our ability to permeate our culture for Christ will be greatly diminished.

Ultimately then, one's personal positions related to either sovereign election or the free agency of man should not be a source of division. Most pastors, theologians, and laypeople have adopted personal positions on this subject, and often enjoy discussing and debating them; but we should not cease cooperation because of them. Ultimately, I would submit that the decision about these positions is an issue, once again, to be decided in the local church. However, the BF&M 2000 makes room within our Southern Baptist family for both Calvinists and non-Calvinists.

Reject the divisive rhetoric in our Convention.

Today, seemingly more than at any time since the end of the conservative resurgence, there is the emergence of harmful and potentially destructive rhetoric. The willingness of some SBC leaders, pastors, and laypeople to criticize, label, ridicule, and shun fellow Southern Baptists over the issues I've addressed in this article is astounding to me. It is appearing with greater regularity, and its effects are being felt throughout the Convention. From mega-church pastors, to our young pastors, church planters, and missionaries, it seems as though one's positions related to these areas is becoming a litmus test everywhere we look.

We've already noted that the BF&M 2000 does not categorize people on the basis of worship methodologies or the degree to which they affirm either Calvinism or non-Calvinism. Now, it's important to note that I am not advocating an absence of dialogue about the significant issues that face our Convention and our churches. Yet the positions and current dialogue are becoming so polarized in some circles that we are risking the viability of our Convention and the effectiveness of our evangelism. In fact, from large churches to small, many of our pastors are asking a question that years ago seemed unthinkable: "If this is what the 'new' Convention looks like, do I really want to stay a part of it?"

Sadly, I fear that unless something happens soon to bring us into a new era of cooperation for the sake of the Gospel, despite our differences in these areas, we may enter a yet another conflict — something I believe the majority of Southern Baptists oppose. Yet, there are still some glimmers of hope that we can find a way to navigate through this challenging time.

Last year at our convention, Dr. Paige Patterson and Dr. Al Mohler engaged in a good-natured debate about Calvinism during the annual Pastor's Conference. That one event demonstrates the reality of my claims that there is room in our Convention for people who have disagreements about the five points of Calvinism or worship styles. It also set an example for the kind of rhetoric that should characterize our Convention: gracious, reasoned, and respectful. It is time for us to adopt this as our pattern and to steadfastly reject anyone who uses divisive rhetoric to assault brothers who affirm the BF&M 2000.

Refocus on the biggest problem facing Southern Baptists.

As I noted earlier, our biggest problem as a Convention is not worship styles or Calvinism. It is the overwhelming number of lost people in our world. The suggestions I've offered in this article, if applied, have the potential to bring us together again for the work of the Gospel. They will allow us to value our Southern Baptist heritage, while at the same time permitting us to use new, creative, and innovative strategies to reach people for Christ.

I, for one, am making the conscious decision to use whatever influence I may have in my church, my state, my agency, and my Convention to refocus on the priority of the Great Commission. I will not criticize, be uncooperative, or break fellowship with any supporter of the BF&M 2000 because of personal differences in worship styles or methodologies. I will accept the different positions held in Southern Baptist life related to either Calvinism or non-Calvinism, determined to not vilify proponents of any BF&M 2000-affirming view. We may be unclear about the mystery of sovereign election and the free agency of man, but we should be very clear about the mandate of the Great Commission. Therefore, I will choose to focus my attentions on the promotion of the expository preaching of an inerrant Bible, for the winning of souls and the growing of Christ-followers.

Some may ask, "Why are you so passionate about this subject?" It is a fair and valid question. I'm passionate about it because we need to be about the business of evangelism, missions, and church planting. I'm passionate about it because the North American Mission Board, which I serve as a trustee, is tasked with assisting our churches and state partners with fulfilling the Great Commission. The simple reality is this: if we are prepared as a Convention to break fellowship over the issues I've addressed in this article, it will have a tremendous negative impact at NAMB on our future capacity to recruit and deploy church planters and missionaries. Are we really prepared to let that happen? Did we really participate in the resurgence so that we could disfellowship over these issues? I think not.

But we all face an important choice: Will we value one another's contributions to the Kingdom as affirmers of the BF&M 2000, regardless of our differences, or will we be distracted from our primary purpose? Now is the time to refocus our attention on the work of the Gospel. At the North American Mission Board, our missionaries, staff, and trustees are working hard to fulfill our mission. You can have confidence that we will strive to set the pace by leading our Convention to reach North America with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Cooperating together despite our differences has been an integral part of our Southern Baptist heritage since the time of Charleston and Sandy Creek. Perhaps it is time for a new generation of Southern Baptists to work together for the sake of the Gospel. Perhaps it is time for our SBC leadership to guide us into a new spirit of cooperation for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. I urge the precious people of the Southern Baptist Convention to join me in adopting the framework I have recommended, so that we can work together for the sake of the Gospel and fulfill the Great Commission as cooperating Southern Baptists.

    About the Author

  • Bill Curtis