From Resurgence to Re-Formation to Reformation: A Generational Vision for a Denomination Halfly Reformed

Tim Brister —  October 31, 2007 — 7 Comments

martin-luther-wittenburg-door.jpgI think it is safe to say when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on Wittenberg’s Door that he would have imagined the impact it would have 490 years later. It is rather fitting to find myself writing on a medium that has democratized the voice of Christians in the 21st century in a very similar fashion that Luther utilized the Gutenberg Press to promulgate his translation of the Scriptures to the masses. I am quite confident that, were Luther alive today, he would have taken full advantage of such mediums of communication as blogs to proclaim the gospel of justification by faith and herald the battlecry of ad fontes!

In the same year I was brought into this world, another birth came about, namely the birth of the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention. I am forever grateful for the ways in which God providentially brought about the recovery of something which Luther held so dear–the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. With every passing year of my life, the mile marker will remind me that I am a beneficiary of a generation of Southern Baptists who believed that the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture was something worth fighting for and dying for. I pray God never allows me to take for granted the blessings and benefits I have received as a result of such a resurgence, not the least of which include me being saved, licensed to gospel ministry, ordained, and now being theologically trained.

Nevertheless, with nearly three decades of the Conservative Resurgence under our belts, the Southern Baptist Convention and the churches of which it is comprised, is no better off now than when we did not believe in the principle of sola Scriptura. During this span of time, we have not seen an increase in people being saved and baptized, even in the midst of a heightened emphasis on church growth and rise of megachurches. We have effectively replaced one bureaucracy with another and have failed to realize the implications of what the recovery of the formal principle in our churches. Setting all political and personal agendas aside, it would be only fair to conclude that the Southern Baptist Convention is currently a denomination that is halfly reformed.

So where do we start? I would argue that we must proceed from resurgence to re-formation. By re-formation I mean we must reconsider just how we function as Southern Baptists in cooperation with one another. One of the biggest obstacles of re-formation is our unwillingness to see that it needs to take place. It is a problem that denominational triumphalism and pride keeps us from being truthful when it comes to speaking about our denomination. It is a problem that the churches from whom we get our Cooperative Program money are the last ones to benefit from it. It is a problem that the Executive Committee and entities of the SBC are trying to enforce their agenda on local churches, thereby threatening their autonomy. It is a problem when state conventions and associations pressure churches to turn in the Annual Church Profiles so that they can continue to bankroll the Cooperative Program to fit the bill of their overpaid staff and travel expenses while at the same time telling blue-collar bi-vocational pastors how they should lead and grow their church (from “catalyst specialists”). It is a problem that a significant number of the churches being planted in the SBC are not being sustained while others are being constituted either from new affiliations or a new church splits. It is a problem that we provide celebrity status to certain mega-church pastors in our calendar-driven conference circuit, catering to their influence while neglecting the overwhelming number of ministers who pastor small churches in relatively obscure places that don’t have the where-with-all to rise above anonymity. Now, if we do have such problems, then it is only right to reconsider the re-formation of the SBC so that our primary focus can truly be on the kingdom of God through the building of healthy, growing churches. It is no use to tighten the nuts and bolts on a flat tire; it is no use to provide a new paint job when we have engine failure; and it is going to require a full-body inspection that can make the assessment whether our denominational vehicle needs more than a new fragrance.

Yet, I want to be clear that the move from resurgence to re-formation is only a small part of the generational vision for a denomination halfly reformed. The fundamental matter before us today is to move from resurgence to re-formation to a true reformation of the local church. I know that reformation is a scary idea to a lot of people, especially to those who would be the recipients of such reform. However, would we to reject the call for ecclesiological reform, history informs us that the demise of the SBC is almost inevitable.

First and foremost we must recover the gospel of Jesus Christ in our churches. The gospel has been suppressed and ignored through several agents, including semi-Pelagianism in the legacy of Finneyism in the SBC, unbridled pragmatism of the church growth movement, and unchecked nominalism whereby many have tipped their hat to the gospel in their “decision” but in no way is it normative in their lives.

Second, we must re-emphasize biblical expository preaching in our churches. Ecclesiological reform would be most evident if the sacred desk would sound forth “Thus Saith the Lord” in all earnestness and exultation.

Third, we must return to regenerate church membership in our churches. Statistics reveal that over half of our denomination do not believe attending church on Sunday’s is part of being a church member; half of those who do attend worship do not attend Sunday School. The integrity of the church requires an intentional and deliberate effort to hold all church members accountable to the faith they profess and the community of faith they belong.

Fourth, we must rediscover church discipline in our churches. Perhaps the single biggest reason why we have failed to see revival in our day is that we have unhinged the front door and sealed the back door. When churches begin to deal with sin in the camp, we will see more of the front door closed and the back door open, repentance and confession common and gossip and slander uncommon, passion for corporate holiness and a dismissal of sin management.

Fifth, we must reconsider plurality of elders and church government in our churches. The New Testament witness is clear that multiple elders were in every church whose primary role was to teach and exercise authority in a congregational setting. The current setting of committee-driven churches, pastor-as-autocrat churches, and deacon boards as elders are not prescribed anywhere in the Scriptures.

Six, we must renew our passion to communicate the glorious good news of Jesus Christ in our postmodern culture. Such renewal includes a perspective that all members have been entrusted as stewards of the gospel to the world in which they live. Evangelism and missional living must become more than a once-a-week program with an attractional emphasis.

These are some of the crucial areas that I believe must become the areas in which we focus our attention if we are going to see ecclesiological reform take place in the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I realize that many will dismiss this vision as too bold and highly improbable, and the desire to implement such a vision would come at the cost of being forced out of the Southern Baptist Convention. I am reminded that Luther, who did not desire to leave the Roman Catholic Church, was eventually excommunicated. Furthermore, the 17th century Puritans who sought to reform within the Church of England (the original “halfly reformed” denomination), eventually suffered under the Great Ejection, imprisonment, and even death.

Yet, we would be wise to consider the outcome of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England today. Who is blogging a tribute to either of these wings of Christendom in the 21st century? Now think of the legacy of Martin Luther and the Puritan Divines who, although dead, yet still are speaking and influencing scores of Christians across the world hundreds of years later (of whom I am in the ranks). Should the Lord tarry, has any of us given thought to what the legacy of the Southern Baptist Convention would be 490 years from now?

The fact is my generation in the SBC is positioned to see a reformation take place that could shape the legacy of the SBC for years to come. Southern Baptists will have to make the decision, however, either to follow in the path of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England in rebellion to reformation, or to chart a course in history that embraces reform and builds on the resurgence we have experienced for the past three decades. Jesus, who has shown Himself sovereign in history and Lord of the Church, will continue to build His Church. I pray that we as Southern Baptists would be so postured as a people who understand the importance of semper reformanda that we would not miss what He has in store for generations to come.

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  • Andrew Walker

    Timmy, great post and more than anything, I appreciatene the audacity and boldness in publishing it.

    After reading your post, I reflected on what I see damaging to the SBC- uninformed ecclesiology. As you mentioned, this is reflected in church government, but I also see it reflected in what we define as “church.” Programs, conferences, pastor- celebrities, efficiency- all of this hovers around the target, but essentially misses the target. I find that the oft quoted statement by Benjamin Franklin is too prophetic in the case of the SBC: What is insanity? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

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  • Adam Brown

    Andrew makes an excellent observation. SBC churches are largely corporate type groups who have “ceo” pastors who are working their way up the SBC ladder and would never dare to say anything that would be seen as rocking the boat. As the leaders portray themselves in this light, it trickles down to the smaller churches and that in turn influences younger men in churches who later go into full time ministry.The bottom line is that if somebody in the SBC leadership does not stand up with others following and say ENOUGH, let us do what the inerrant Scriptures say!!!!, than the convention will either die or most likely become a useless group. That is what I love about our church here. They preach the pure, organic Gospel of Jesus Christ that I believe has been largely lost in the SBC. I’m not sure we are even halfway reformed.

    Any prophetical BAMA , LSU predictions????

  • http://christian-apologetics-society.blogspot.com Timothy

    >”Yet, we would be wise to consider the outcome of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England today. Who is blogging a tribute to either of these wings of Christendom in the 21st century?”

    Um, these may not be the best examples. While it is true that the CoE is undergoing schism and has been losing members yearly in North America, not so the Catholic Church.

    The worldwide Catholic Church grows at a rate of 17 million every years. 17 million is about the size of the entire SBC. The U.S. is actively becoming more and more Catholic every year and may likely become a Catholic majority country by the end of this century. BTW, the growth is not limited to the Latin (Roman) Church, the Melkite Catholic and Orthodox Churchs of the East are also growing in the US.

    Numerous bloggers are blogging tributes and spreading the Catholic faith. Catholics are seeing a revitalization of the Church with increased evangelization. Combined with the presence of Catholic readio and television in most US communities, the trend is towards growth. (Personally, to me it appears Christ is healing the schisms of the Reformation and the Great Schism and re-unifying His Church. We are becoming one again.)

    Love your blog. Its how I keep up on all things SBC. God bless…

  • http://timmybrister.wordpress.com/ Timmy Brister

    Timothy,

    Thanks for the kind words about the blog. Regarding the Reformation and the RCC, if they believe that entrance to the kingdom comes by other means than by justification by faith alone in Christ alone, then I believe there is a disconnect in being a member of the kingdom of God and being a member of the RCC. This is especially true after Vatican II, who, under the influence of leading scholars like Karl Rahner, have promulgated the idea of “anonymous Christians” (which include even atheists). I am not trying to sound polemical here, but the point is not just the size or growth of a segment of Christendom but also their fidelity of Scripture. If you stumble over the entrance to the kingdom and the heart of the gospel, then whatever else said is subsequent to that reality. While I believe in the unity of the church and the prayer of Jesus that we be one, I also believe that such unity of ecumenical nature that marginalizes truth is a unity without a center–something that many Protestants and evangelicals simply cannot agree.

  • D.L. Kane

    Timmy,

    The more I read the more confused I get. I would greatly appreciate your comments on some of my thoughts below:

    I have read just about everything there is to read on church authority and submitting to church leadership and cannot for the life of me reconcile this with “sola scriptura”. Frankly, I don’t see how we can have it both ways. Either the bible is our authority or the “church” is. Of course that begs the question, “which church?” How can a Christian be under the authority of local church leaders, when great men of God cannot seem to agree on very important (but not “essential” doctrines)? Look what’s going on with “baptism debate”.

    If we love the Lord and His Word and our convictions are based on that very thing, don’t we all feel that we cannot submit to church authority when it differs from our own understanding and convictions? Oh sure, one can find a church where they can (in good conscience) submit to church leadership; they need only find one that agrees with them. With the smorgasbord out there, this is a relatively easy task, if one is willing to drive a little ways.

    So, back to the question, how can we have it both ways in the day in which we live? Which church leaders must I submit to? The ones a block away from my house, the ones I drive an hour to reach each Sunday because they are of my denomination, the ones whose church I joined because their convictions line up with mine?

    Perhaps I am a simpleton, but it seems to me that we have gone beyond defending the pure gospel and are now more interested in justifying and affirming our own convictions. We have lost confidence and faith in God’s Word to correct and rebuke and unite and now believe that unity will only occur if we defend and promote our own personal convictions. Luther’s attempt to reform “the church” has failed miserably and so have we.

    “Unless you can convince me by scripture and not by local church leaders, theologians, and scholars, who have often contradicted each other; unless I am so convinced that I am wrong, I am bound to my believes by the text of the Bible. My conscience is held captive to the Word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Therefore, I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen”

    The sad reality is that those “convictions” went beyond the Gospel. In fact, Luther’ s attitude regarding unity (when debating with Zwingli on the Lord’s Supper) was “We can have unity as long as you agree with me!” Is that our attitude? Is that your attitude? Where do we draw the line? Perhaps if we go back to preaching and teaching “Christ and Him Crucified” God will bless this generation and take care of purifying His church by His Spirit and His Word. He doesn’t need that much help from us, you know.

    The only real unity that exists in the church today is the “mystical” one. I suppose that is the one that really matters. However, in the meantime, a lost world is looking at us (and via us, Christ), and laughing. Can we blame them. Why should they take Christ or Christianity seriously?

    Can someone tell me which church needs “reforming”, the Baptist church down the street, the Church of England, the Lutheran Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, he church I attend….I will no longer pray for “reformation” –we have come to far for that and I would have no idea how and what to pray for. What we need, and what I will pray for is a God led, Spirit-driven “awakening” and “revival” of God’s people to get us back to the power and beauty of Christ and the Cross and the convicting power of the Word of God to bring sinners to repentance and redemption. Perhaps then, and only then, will lost sinners actually see the “unity” of the faith (even if they reject it) and believers will actually experience the peace, joy and power of God in their lives and among their brothers.

    We are to defend the “Gospel” against error not our view of eschatology or covenantal theology. The sad reality is that we have failed miserably at that. The largest percentages of those who wear Christ’s name don’t even have a firm grasp of who He is and Why He came.

    As I said, “perhaps I am just a simpleton”

    Blessings – For His Sake