Stetzer’s warrior children
To many, Ed Stetzer has become the proverbial gadfly in the Southern Baptist Convention. Both willing and able to pose questions that make many people very uncomfortable, Stetzer’s provocations fall on the ears of both young and old alike as a new voice talking about very old ideas. By training, he is a missiologist—a person who makes his living researching and talking about Christian missions through a theological prism supported by demographic data and sociological observations. As president of Lifeway Research, he has been able to formalize studies which have become the subject of controversy.
Privately, some have questioned not only his tactics, but his goal. With all of his various musings and statements that have now become somewhat legendary (“swinging at a low hanging piñata on cinco de mayo”), what exactly does Stetzer want? Is his hope the complete demise of the Southern Baptist Convention? Is he anti-SBC or anti-denomination in general? Is he working for the demolition of the Cooperative Program—the funding stream of the SBC’s infrastructure?
At the opening session of a conference on the campus of Union University in Jackson, Tenn. specifically designed to address the questions surrounding Southern Baptists, evangelicals and the future of denominations, Stetzer provided both his allies and critics with some shocking admissions. Is Stetzer against denominations? No. In fact, he believes denominations are inevitable. He is ever ready, however, to chide those who are overly enamored with denominational life: “There are some, too many I think, who are impressed with the denomination,” he said to a packed room filled with many SBC officials. “Being consumed with the denominational machine can distract us from the mission for the church.”
Stetzer is candid about his belief that the local church should be the focus and chief concern for all denominational efforts and initiatives. Denominational officials who believe that local churches should “pay, pray and get out of the way” are completely wrong in their understanding of the very purpose of why Christians originally denominate together. This from a man who led every church he planted to give 10 percent of its receipts to the Cooperative Program. Stetzer is unabashed in stating that “churches should plant churches” and when denominations become consumed with their own mission to the exclusion of the local church, it is time for a radical refocus.
Is he simply purporting new fads driven by younger generations of evangelicals? To the contrary, he publicly chided the modern evangelical culture which seemed to be
“obsessed with young people” and the new ways of doing ministry. Is he against the overall machinations of a formalized and aged denomination? Yes and no. He is aware that the “machine” of a denomination can easily overcome and even change the “mission” of the denomination to such a degree that something radical must take place to actually shock the entire system back to its original intent.
And so with typical Stetzerian delivery (very fast) he mobilizes his thoughts around some very controversial issues. For those familiar with Southern Baptist politics, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 became a lightening rod for many both inside and outside the SBC when it was first introduced and adopted by the SBC. Another formalized statement of confessional boundaries (the SBC adopted earlier iterations of the BF&M in 1925 and 1963) did not go down well with many who had been raised on a Baptist mantra rehearsed for decades—“no creed but the Bible.” What Stetzer now finds interesting is that almost a decade after the BF&M 2000 stands as the confessional requirement for all who in SBC agencies, there are those in the denomination who demand more stringent doctrinal standards which place formal boundaries around certain Christian doctrines and practices which are not officially articulated in the BF&M 2000.
Stetzer freely admits there are those in the SBC who are theologically “to the right” of the BF&M 2000. Yet, he called on them to allow for the freedom of those who might disagree on certain non-essential doctrines to minister in the SBC without fear or intimidation. “If an SBC leader says he cannot be in the same denomination with a contemporary church leader because of his or her personal convictions, then he or she needs to leave the Convention” as that person has established a “more narrow standard that the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 states,” he said.
Giving many present “something to complain about,” he proceeded to explain that he did not believe expository preaching was the only method of preaching which could or should be used by preachers in the denomination. Stetzer admitted he preached “sermons which were verse by verse,” but he also preached topical sermons (said with a shudder to the laughter of the audience) that were effective in the communication of the Gospel and maintained the intent of the biblical text. He believes that to break fellowship with those who do not always practice expository preaching is to move beyond biblical boundaries and resort to a dangerous practice of legalism.
Addressing issues of contextualization, he maintains that by demanding doctrinal uniformity and “preaching out” of the denomination those who employ methodological strategies different from the traditional Southern Baptist congregations will only serve to marginalize the SBC in the future. Stetzer ended his remarks with reference to the Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen. As a theological warrior for truth, Machen was unsurpassed in the early 20th Century in his defense of Christian orthodoxy against liberals who sought to eviscerate Scripture and redefine the Gospel. The result, however, was a splintering of the denomination over issues “that were much less important” than the original fight against liberal theology. Quoting John Frame’s essay on Machen’s Warrior Children, Stetzer stated, “that being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.” He went on to observe “the harsh reality is that these fundamentalists ate their young.” For Stetzer, Southern Baptists stand in that same precarious position. “If we die on every hill, no one will be left to cooperate to proclaim the good news of the Gospel to a lost world.”