Editor’s Journal: The path forward
How is it possible that the Gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the Gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.
From the preservation of Noah, his family and various animal species to Abraham to Moses to David and ancient Israel to the new covenant expression of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s unfolding plan has always centered on a people called out of darkness for His own glory. Against this backdrop, a biblical theology of the church should be recognized as each passing generation builds toward the climax of history with the return of the Lord Jesus to Earth.
The Lord Himself left behind the church as the outpost of the Kingdom of God. In local communities across the world, the establishment of local congregations is not simply the result of a carefully crafted organizational theory. Rather, it is the reality of healthy and multiplying churches of redeemed sinners who export their lives to another location in an organized expression of the ekklesia in this fallen world. So important was the primacy of the local church that the post-ascension appearance of Jesus to the exiled Apostle John on the island of Patmos centered on local churches. The word ekklesia (or its plural) is used 14 times in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation (Rev. 2:1, 7-8, 11-12, 17-18, 29; 3:1,6-7, 13-14, 22). The message of the Apocalypse, therefore, can rightly be understood as messages to local churches—correcting them and urging them on toward faithfulness in light of the reality of the victory of Jesus.
The indication of this spiritual reality is that Jesus is greatly concerned for and protective of His church. Yet, the elasticity of modern ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) has weakened the potency of local congregations to include everything from coffee klatches to para-church ministry Bible studies as the church. Examined under the light of Holy Scripture, the church is an intentional and voluntary assembly gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ who, by His power, rules by His word and Spirit in ways which create and sustain faith in the lives of all those who look to Him by faith for salvation. While debate continues as to the exact governance structure for the church observed in the New Testament, the church is led by men of God ruthlessly examined under the light of Scripture to faithfully execute their offices in obedience to the righteous commands of Jesus Christ.
The local church, therefore, should be the place of spiritual sanity in the midst of the sinful chaos triggered by the Fall. Through her ministry she provides for God’s people a refuge whereby engagement with a lost world is made possible in such a way that the corporate witness of Jesus’ people stands as an abiding testimony to the saving and sanctifying power of Jesus Christ.
In that light, the 2010 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention might long be remembered as a corporate refocus on the local church. Baptist theology and polity place the local congregation at the theological center of divine activity. To purify churches through an ever-growing awareness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the very reason the Southern Baptist Convention was established in 1845. The SBC founders established a structure that was captured by a vision of seeing the entire world redeemed by the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the words of Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, a “word-centered” and “mission-centered” gospel task was to dominate the church and radically place her in enemy territory.
In some ways, the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force recommendations sought to articulate these theological components through its research and recommendations. Yet, the debate on the floor prior to the passage of the task force’s recommendations evidenced not simply a division (although some certainly stated such), but, in the words of outgoing SBC President Johnny Hunt, a “passion” fueled by a sincere love for the denomination that manifested itself in various ways. The challenge in coming days now centers on the follow-through that has the potential to advance or stymie the change the SBC has committed itself to attempt.
The SBC exists in a cultural context of the quick-fix, but the SBC cannot simply be “fixed” by adopting the recommendations of the GCR Task Force. To state such is to underestimate the inertia caused by the anxiety of change. The thrashing evidenced on the floor of the Convention prior to the final vote was indeed “the Baptist way,” but it revealed a pronounced anxiety about the future should these recommendations come to pass. Now something far greater than debate will be required in future deliberations surrounding the path forward.
The recommendations of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force should not be viewed simply as symptom relief for a convention of churches filled with problems. The pressure of change (in this case caused by the corporate decision of the SBC) will always create times of acute pain. Christian psychologists have observed that during these seasons of discomfort, frantic attempts for magical administrative solutions often quickly overtake the long and arduous process of addressing fundamental change in ways that leave not only organizations, but also the individuals involved, healthier for having participated in the process.
Entities as large and varied as the Southern Baptist Convention have notorious track records for self-destruction. Seldom can such multi-faceted agencies and institutions remain unified toward achievable goals. Most fracture during times of change. Fortunately, members of Jesus’ church possess higher motivations than simply winning an argument. As disciples of Jesus, their commission is to be lost in His ongoing mission—a work for which He has laid down His life. The danger during the coming months is to regard the change of the SBC’s infrastructure as an ultimate issue. It is not. The Convention is nothing more and nothing less than the corporate expression of local congregations who still regard the current ministry tools provided by the SBC as worthy of their monetary investment.
In the words of the late Michael Spencer, Christian discipleship cannot become a “club membership with an outsourced mission and applause for the people on the big screen.” Ever the critic of modern church life, Spencer stated that such an environment does not help believers become more “Jesus-shaped—no matter how big the crowd.”
As the SBC leaves Orlando with a new template for action, the challenge for coming days rests solely in the hands of redeemed, yet still sinful men and women who must push past their own desires and lead in ways which mirror a distinctly gospel-shaped ministry. To be sure, such a ministry will establish protocols and processes. Yet, the future of every level of SBC life must continue to establish itself as an extension of the local church where the Gospel of Christ provides not only the vision, but also the fuel for passionate outreach to the nations for the glory of God.