Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher

Monthly Archive: July 2011

Friday

29

July 2011

3

COMMENTS

Further Thoughts on Covenanted Gospel Membership

Written by , Posted in History, Ministry, SBC, Theology

Last week, I wrote on the importance of what I call covenanted gospel membership, which I argue is a helpful way to articulate the historic Baptist principle of regenerate church membership. While the purpose of my ongoing Gospel and Baptist Identity series is to make a constructive proposal about how twenty-first century Baptists should think of their identity, as a historian I’m self-consciously drawing upon both the Bible and earlier Baptist traditions. There is a sense in which I’m attempting to apply the insights of our Baptist forebears into our contemporary context. This is most definitely the case in my arguments about covenanted gospel membership.

In 2005, Paternoster Press published a collection of essays titled Recycling the Past or Researching History? Studies in Baptist Historiography and Myths, edited by Philip Thompson and Anthony Cross. In that volume, Mike Broadway of Shaw University Divinity School contributed a chapter arguing that many earlier Baptists had a much healthier sense of the relationship between individual faith and communal commitment than is often the case among contemporary Baptists in North America (of all theological stripes). Broadway and I are tracking in a similar direction on this issue. This is what he writes about the role covenant played in church membership among seventeenth century British Baptists:

To enter into covenant with fellow believers is to place oneself under discipline. Not only the General Baptists emerging from Separatism, but also the Particular Baptists practiced covenantal discipleship. Both the First London Confession (1644) and the Second London Confession (1677) are explicit in their assertion of the ecclesiastical authority of congregations in matters of faith, morality, and order, and in this they exemplify the entire early tradition of Baptist covenantal communities. To enter into covenant is to come out of one body into another, leaving behind the world to enter into the church. It is not the same as the later conception of liberal democratic theory by which individuals freely associate and assemble. Covenant communities acknowledged God’s gracious calling and joined together as a new people, not a collection of individuals with shared interests. This covenantal heritage stands over against the individualistic ideas of recent history (p. 76).

Southern Baptists and other evangelical Baptist traditions need to recover a view of covenantal membership that understands each member to be an individual-in-community. Every regenerate church member is a person who has been captivated by the gospel and incorporated into the people created by the gospel, the church. As such, we ought to covenant to walk together with our particular gospel community, allowing the church to minister to our gospel needs, even as we use our gifts and talents to minister to others within the body. This type of intra-congregational gospel ministry is at the heart of what it means for us to be a royal priesthood that is in union with the Great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.

I’m thankful that a growing number of Southern Baptists are recognizing the importance of covenanted gospel membership. It is one important and gospel-centered way that our churches can stand apart from the world for the sake of the world, all for the glory of the God who has called us out of darkness and into the light.

Thursday

28

July 2011

0

COMMENTS

John Stott (1921-2011): Model Missional Pastor-Theologian

Written by , Posted in Books, Culture, History, Links, Missions, Theology

You’ve probably heard by now that evangelical statesman John Stott passed away yesterday. I’ve written a short tribute to Stott for Between the Times titled “John Stott (1921-2011): Model Missional Pastor-Theologian.” I hope you will give it a read. May the Lord raise up a generation of missional pastor-theologians like John Stott among Southern Baptists and other evangelicals.

Wednesday

27

July 2011

2

COMMENTS

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Christocentric Congregationalism

Written by , Posted in History, Ministry, Missions, SBC, Theology

The third traditional Baptist distinctive is often called congregationalism or congregational polity. Congregationalism is the conviction that the highest earthly authority in a local church is the congregation itself. In keeping with my focus on the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity, I want to think in terms of Christocentric congregationalism.

Christocentric congregationalism assumes a church is committed to two core priorities. First, it assumes that the congregation desires, above all things, to submit to Christ’s lordship as it is revealed in the Scriptures. Every local church is first and foremost a Christocracy because Jesus is the head of the church. Though the whole congregation is involved in a church’s most important decisions, the members must seek to glorify Christ in every decision they make. The wheels come off of congregationalism when Jesus is no longer at the center.

Second, and closely related to the above, Christocentric congregationalism assumes a church understands itself to be a covenanted gospel community. In fact, I’d argue that a failure to maintain a regenerate church membership is a key reason that so many Baptist churches practice an aberrant form of congregationalism. In healthy congregationalism, the church’s regenerate members confirm to each other Christ’s plan for their church as they seek to follow his will through submitting to his written Word.

It seems many contemporary Baptists are nervous about congregationalism. Sometimes this hesitancy is because of the influence of dynamic men who pastor very large Baptist churches that are frequently congregational in principle but dictatorial—even if benevolently so—in practice. Interestingly, unless a man was the founding pastor of his church, in most cases the church was more intentionally congregational when he began his ministry among them. Other times anti-congregationalism is due to the influence of pastors of churches in other traditions that openly affirm a more hierarchical polity. We’ve witnessed this scenario in recent years with Mark Driscoll’s and James McDonald’s respective critiques of congregational polity.

Both of the above scenarios are variations on a theme: the alleged incompatibility of congregational polity and pastoral authority. After all, Scripture makes clear in 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13 and Hebrews 13:17 that Christians are to honor and submit to their leaders. How can this be done when a pastor’s very employment is dependent upon the will of the members? I think the answer is trust.

In a church that embraces Christocentric congregationalism, it is true that the membership selects and holds accountable her pastors. So there is a sense in which the members have authority over their pastors. But it is also true that the members select pastors to lead them—these men aren’t mere employees, they are leaders who “shepherd the flock of God,” “oversee” the church, and when they do their job correctly, “rule well” (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1–2; 1 Tim. 5:17–19). So there is also a sense in which the pastors have authority over their members. The congregation trusts the pastors who lead them, and the pastors trust the members not to act in an unbiblical manner toward their leaders.

When congregational polity and pastoral authority are properly balanced, the church’s membership selects who will serve as her pastors. They then joyfully submit to those pastors insofar as these men live in a manner consistent with the biblical qualifications for an elder, teach sound doctrine, and proclaim the good news. If, God forbid, a pastor strays from godly living or sound doctrine, then the church has the responsibility to remove the man from the office due to ministerial malpractice. (I’m assuming the church would handle this in a Christlike way, since we’re talking about a healthy scenario.) In a church that is committed to Christocentric congregationalism, it should be very rare for the members to push back in a serious way against pastoral leadership, but it should be very regular for the pastor(s) to know and love the people and lead them in a way that reflects the servant leadership of Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:5–11).

While the relationship between congregationalism and pastoral authority is surely a hang-up for some, another reason many of the Baptists I know are skittish about congregational polity is because they’ve experienced unhelpful expressions of congregationalism. Some have lived through combative church conferences where the congregation showed little love for Christ or one another. Others have witnessed (or endured) mean-spirited votes of “no confidence” in the pastor or other staff members, often for unbiblical reasons. Still others have seen ineffective congregationalism where the whole church had a voice in even the most mundane of decisions.

A couple of examples should suffice. I remember serving as the interim pastor of a small church and moderating a conference where the members argued for forty-five minutes over whether they should spend $300 on a new copier or fork over $250 to fix the old one. The deadlock was finally resolved when a deacon donated his company’s prehistoric copier to the church for free; it stopped working a couple of months later. The meeting was frustrating, to say the least.

I’m also familiar with a Southern Baptist church in this part of North Carolina that has terminated three pastors in about a dozen years because of tensions over worship styles. In each case, the new pastor of this small church tried to lead the congregation to embrace a less “traditional” approach to musical worship. In each case, a minority of the regular attenders managed to force the pastor out. And how did they accomplish this feat? Their strategy was the same each time: in the days before a church conference, they would recruit inactive church members to attend the conference, “stack the deck,” and vote the pastor out. It worked every time.

I’m just as troubled by unhealthy congregationalism as anyone, but I don’t think the answer is to abandon congregational polity, which Baptists have historically argued is at least implied in the New Testament. In the earliest churches, the whole church set apart deacons (Acts 6) and enacted the final stage of church discipline (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5). While the apostles seemed to have at least frequently appointed elders in local churches, the fact that Paul wrote Timothy with a list of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 would seem to imply the church in Ephesus would play a role in vetting qualified pastors. All this to say, in the New Testament certain key decisions were made by the whole church—at bare minimum, they selected at least some of their own officers and exercised redemptive church discipline.

If a church wishes to be characterized by Christocentric congregationalism, I’d argue that the flow of her “organizational chart” should look something like this: each congregation is ruled by Christ, through decisions made by her members, under the leadership of elders, as they are served by deacons. While this approach is admittedly not absolutely identical to the New Testament, it seems to preserve biblical emphases and adapt them to a contemporary context wherein most agree there are no longer apostles who exercise binding authority over all the churches.

Congregational polity is perhaps the most controversial of the historic Baptist distinctives. But if we take seriously the New Testament’s teachings, if we believe there are no longer apostles, and if we want to be consistent in our commitment to the reformational doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, then we should hold fast to congregationalism. Gospel-centered Baptist polity is Christocentric congregationalism, and it is one of the greatest needs in many Baptist churches in the early years of the twenty-first century.

——————–

Note: This is the seventh post in an ongoing series on the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. Earlier posts in this series include:

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Introduction

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: What is the Gospel?

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Pondering Baptist Identity

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Four Categories of Baptist Beliefs

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Covenanted Gospel Membership

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Confessor Baptist by Immersion

Tuesday

26

July 2011

0

COMMENTS

The Benefits of Historical Theology

Written by , Posted in Books, History, Theology

My weekly blog post is up at Credo. This week’s topic: the benefits of historical theology. In the post, I dialog with a particularly helpful section in Gregg Allison’s fine new book Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Zondervan, 2011). I hope you’ll read the post, buy the book, and find them helpful as you think through what it means to read the Scriptures and think theologically with the whole church.

Friday

22

July 2011

6

COMMENTS

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Confessor Baptism by Immersion

Written by , Posted in History, Ministry, SBC, Theology

I have argued covenant gospel membership is the foundational Baptist distinctive, and I believe this is true. Nevertheless, I think it’s obvious that confessor baptism by immersion is the most visible of our convictions. Confessor baptism, more commonly called believer’s baptism, is simply the idea that baptism should only be applied to individuals who bear credible testimony to personal faith in Christ. Baptists argue confessor baptism by immersion is the closest contemporary practice to New Testament baptism because the word baptizo literally means “to immerse” and because there is no evidence of a known unbeliever being baptized in Scripture. (Of course some professing Christians later turned out to be false believers.)

When our pedobaptist friends argue that believers and their children should be baptized, Baptists typically respond that any attempt to argue infant baptism from the New Testament is an act of eisegesis—reading your convictions into the text rather than allowing your convictions to arise from the text. In fact, as a church historian, I would also point out that pedobaptists cannot agree among themselves on a theology of infant baptism. I know of at least four or five different reasons that different groups sprinkle babies and call it baptism. To me, this indicates infant baptism is a practice in search of a theology to support it.

Contrast that with confessor baptism by immersion. Virtually every group that immerses professing believers does so for the same reason, whether the church is Baptist, nondenominational, Pentecostal, Mennonite, or whatever. Immersion is almost always a symbolic depiction of the gospel, an outward sign of the spiritual transformation within the life of the new believer.

In the New Testament, baptism is tied to the gospel in at least two different ways. First, baptism is tied to the meaning of the gospel. The key passage is Romans 6:1–11:

1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

According to Paul, baptism symbolizes important gospel realities like union with Christ, the washing away of sin, regeneration, sanctification, and the resurrection from the dead. While some of this imagery could be represented by sprinkling babies, only the immersion of professing believers captures all of this biblical gospel imagery.

Not only is baptism tied to the meaning of the gospel, but it’s also tied to the proclamation of the gospel. The key passage here is the famous Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20:

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

According to Jesus, part of what it means to evangelize the nations is to make disciples and baptize them. The goal is not a mere decision, but a whole-life transformation that is in part evidenced through baptism. The gospel doesn’t merely win adherents—the gospel changes lives. Baptism marks the public beginning of a life changed by the good news.

I would summarize the relationship between baptism and the gospel as follows: baptism visually depicts the gospel, it is the public, personal owning of the gospel, and it openly identifies a believer with the community created by the gospel in both its local and universal manifestations. Baptists cannot retreat one inch from our commitment to New Testament baptism—the baptisms we administer say something about the gospel we announce.

——————–

Note: This is the sixth post in an ongoing series on the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. Earlier posts in this series include:

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Introduction

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: What is the Gospel?

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Pondering Baptist Identity

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Four Categories of Baptist Beliefs

 

The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Covenanted Gospel Membership