Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher

Monthly Archive: June 2012



June 2012



Some Thoughts on Associational Revitalization

Written by , Posted in Ministry, Missions, SBC

The May-June issue of the 9 Marks Journal focuses on “apostolic pastors.” If, like me, you want to know what that potentially confusing term means, according to Bobby Jamieson’s editorial,

Here’s what we have in mind: pastors who care deeply about the progress of the gospel beyond their local churches. Pastors who encourage, disciple, and partner with other pastors. Pastors who lead their congregations to link arms with other likeminded local churches for evangelism, church planting, and more. By “apostolic,” we don’t mean someone who is personally commissioned by Jesus to bear witness to the resurrection (Acts 1:21-22). Instead, we mean someone who shares some of the apostles’ priorities and concerns, even though he doesn’t share their office.

Gotcha. Not sure I would have called that “apostolic pastors,” but I’m totally tracking with the 9 Marks guys on the importance of the principle they’re underscoring. The entire issue of the journal is interesting and helpful, and I’d commend it to you.

One article that stood out to me is Matthew Spandler-Davison’s “Don’t Pull the Plug on Your Association Yet.” Upon beginning his current pastoral ministry assignment, the author learned that the local Baptist association in his area was floundering. He tells the story of how he and other pastors worked to revitalize their association so that it became a better resource for cooperating churches. Frankly, I was very encouraged to read about a group of mostly younger pastors who cared enough to not only participate in their association, but took the lead in moving the association in a healthier direction. May their tribe increase.

I confess that I’m a big fan of local associations. For almost as long as their have been Baptist churches, there have been Baptist associations. The associational principle is at the heart of how like-minded, autonomous Baptist churches cooperate together for the sake of the gospel. Even our state and national conventions are, at their core, simply wider applications of associationalism. At one time, associations were “ground zero” for Southern Baptist cooperation, though over the past century they’ve been gradually eclipsed (in most cases) by state conventions and (for some churches) the broader Southern Baptist Convention. There are many factors contributing to this trend, including the Cooperative Program (which largely bypassed associations, at least in larger states), theological apathy and declension (which affected the entire denomination to varying degrees), and advances in transportation and communications (the world is flat and many local churches have become glocal churches).

I’m convinced one crucial ingredient in ongoing gospel renewal and Great Commission advance among Southern Baptists is a renewed commitment to healthy  associationalism. I know of some very healthy, vibrant associations (often led by missions-minded, theologically driven directors of missions). I also know of some that are (to be generous) pretty stagnant. Many are no doubt somewhere in between these two poles. I suspect many readers are also familiar with associations across the spectrum.

It’s my earnest prayer that more pastors, engaged church members, and associational personnel will intentionally partner together to make associations a key resource for cooperating churches by promoting local evangelism and mercy ministries, contextual church planting, church revitalization, gospel-centered fellowship for pastors, and collaborative missions and service opportunities. I praise God as I see this sort of revitalization already occurring in many associations. But many associations still have a long way to go. Pastors, I urge you, don’t disengage from a weak or dysfunctional association until you’ve attempted to become involved and have a voice in the association’s vision and priorities. Perhaps Spandler-Davison’s article can help generate some conversations along those lines.

I also hope those churches located in areas where it would be poor gospel stewardship to partner with an existing association will resist the temptation to “fly solo”  without any meaningful cooperation with sister churches. Churches that come to the conclusion that they can no longer participate in a problematic association must work hard to cultivate new avenues for intentional cooperation with like-minded SBC churches in their area. Since this type of cooperation is, in fact, informal associationalism, perhaps it will lead to some new associations that will embrace a better way.

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June 2012



Baptist Churches and Membership Covenants

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

Matt Capps and Derek Radney have written an outstanding post on “Baptist Churches and Membership Covenants.” Matt, who is a friend of mine, is a recent graduate of Southeastern Seminary and serves as one of the associate pastors of Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC. He’s a lover of practical theology and the importance of pastor-theologians, so in my book, that makes him a keeper. Derek, whom I don’t know personally, is also a pastor in Winston-Salem.

I was thrilled to read their post because it is near and dear to my own heart. It’s also a topic I hope to engage off and on for the rest of the summer. I doubt I’ll do so as well as Matt and Derek have in their post. I want to offer a couple of snippets from among the many I could have chosen to excerpt.

On the importance of covenants:

It would seem that membership covenants are a key element to defining what the local church actually is. Historically speaking, a local church body is a group of believers who have associated by covenant and gather together around God’s word, thus distinguishing themselves from other local bodies and establishing the community to which the individuals are primarily committed and accountable.

On covenants as an expression of New Testament ecclesiology:

The authors of the New Testament always assumed that the local churches to whom they were writing had a clear understanding of who was a member of the church and who was not. A church membership covenant that has been agreed to by each church member clearly demarcates the boundary of the local church.

In addition to these and other important topics related to church covenants, the authors also answers four objections to church covenants that are sometimes raised by Baptist Christians:

1) Membership covenants are not Baptistic

2) Our only standard is the Bible, not human documents

3) Requiring that all new and current members agree to a membership covenant is too exclusive and demanding

4) By requiring new members to agree to the membership covenant, we will discourage people from joining

I’d urge you to read the entire post, especially if you care about meaningful church membership, church health, or the nature of Baptist identity. I’d also highly recommend Charles Deweese’s book Baptist Church Covenants (Broadman, 1990). Though it’s out of print, you can find used copies online.

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June 2012



What Does it Mean for an Elder to be “Able to Teach”? A Proposal

Written by , Posted in Ministry, Theology

Like most Baptists, I would argue the biblical terms translated as overseer, bishop, elder, and pastor are synonyms used to describe a man who has been set apart for the primary teaching, leading, and shepherding office in a local congregation. For that reason, in this post I’ll use the terms pastor and elder interchangeably.

One of the most frequently cited passages related to pastoral qualifications is 1 Timothy 3:1–7:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teachnot a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil (ESV, emphasis added).

Have you ever noticed these qualifications include, for the most part, a group of expectations that ought to characterize any growing Christian man? Should any brother lack self-control and be known as a skirt-chaser? Should any believer, male or female, be a drunkard? Should any Christ-follower be known as a conceited, violent-tempered money-lover? It seems to me the bulk of these expectations simply indicate a pastor should be a man whose is an exemplary Christian role model with a good reputation, both within the church and in the wider community.

The one qualification for eldership that stands out from the rest is the ability to teach. And herein lies the debate—what does it mean for an elder be “able to teach”? Well, it depends upon whom you ask.

I know some who argue teaching should be equated with preaching, so the ability to teach means the ability to preach a sermon. This view is common among those who prefer a “single-elder” model of pastoral leadership. It is also common among some who affirm a plurality of elders, but equate that group with the church’s salaried staff. I hear these views frequently espoused among my fellow Southern Baptists.

I readily grant that in many churches, especially smaller ones, the only man who is biblically qualified to be an elder is the solo pastor. I also resonate with the idea that in larger churches, at least a majority of the paid ministerial staff needs to meet the biblical qualifications of elder. After all, who wants a youth minister who’s a bad role model and can’t teach the Scriptures to teenagers?

And yet, I cannot help but think these two views artificially limit the eldership to paid pastors who are able to preach sermons from behind a pulpit during a Sunday worship service. Though the New Testament is clear that elders are worthy of compensation (1 Tim. 5:17–18), there is no mandate that all pastors must be paid. There is also no indication in the New Testament that standing up and preaching a sermon is the only way to teach the Scriptures to God’s people.

Others opt for the other end of the spectrum, arguing teaching is simply the ability to explain the Scriptures to another believer. In this model, being able to teach more or less means being able to disciple someone else. It isn’t necessary that an elder be able to preach a sermon or even that he be able to teach a class of some sort (think Sunday School).

Hopefully, every pastor is making disciples through Bible-saturated mentoring. And yet, this seems to me to place the teaching bar too low. Don’t we want to equip all men (and women!) in the church to make disciples? Virtually any believer except very recent converts ought to be able to do this type of teaching on some level or other, especially with their children.

I have one additional concern about this second option. As a Baptist, I’m worried this view brings us too close to the distinction our Presbyterian friends make between “ruling” elders and “teaching” elders, a division I believe is biblically unwarranted. Though Baptists may debate the number of elders a church should have, we typically agree all elders are to both lead and teach.

I want to offer a proposal I believe strikes a balance between the two aforementioned polarities. I would argue being able to teach means being able to publicly explain and apply the Scriptures to the entire congregation. This doesn’t necessarily mean all elders must possess the ability to preach a sermon. But neither is teaching defined so broadly that any transmission of biblical truth qualifies. All elders should be able to stand before the congregation and expound the Bible, even if some elders are uncomfortable preaching in a corporate worship gathering.

My friend Kyle recently led his Southern Baptist church to adopt an elder-led congregational polity. Currently, the church has three pastors. In their church’s by-laws, it states that all elders, whether paid or unpaid, must teach the entire congregation at least once a year. Because Kyle is the full-time lead pastor, this means he preaches forty or so weeks out of the year. But for other elders, it could mean simply occasionally leading a congregational Bible study on a Wednesday or Sunday evening. They don’t understand one form of Bible teaching to be superior to the other.

I like this approach. All of the pastors (and many other church members) are teaching the Scriptures one-on-one to those whom they are discipling. But each of the elders is also expected to at least occasionally teach the whole body. All of the elders exercise their ability to teach the Bible, though how this is done looks different for each elder. As an added benefit, each of the elders is at least occasionally put before the entire church—there are no anonymous elders. We follow this model at my own church, First Baptist Church of Durham. We currently have nine elders. Three of our elders are paid pastors who serve on our church’s staff. Six of our elders are non-staff pastors who serve without pay; I serve as one of the non-staff elders. Several of us are comfortable preaching, but all of our pastors at least occasionally expound the Scriptures to the gathered congregation in some venue. Nobody doubts that each of our elders are apt to teach, even though only some of us would probably be considered “preachers” by our church’s members.

I would encourage Baptist churches that embrace a plurality of elders to institute this sort of system in their churches. Even among those churches that chose to equate the elders with the staff, I would urge requiring staff members besides the primary preaching pastor to periodically teach the entire congregation. Youth ministers, worship pastors, and collegiate ministers should be expected to occasionally bless the entire church through the ministry of the Word. This will both help to grow the body and develop all elders into the Bible teachers the Lord and his church has called them to be. It will also help provide one benchmark for assessing prospective elders— who are godly men with a heart for shepherding who are gifted to preach and/or teach the Scriptures to the congregation?

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June 2012



Some Reflections on the SBC Annual Meeting

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

Last week, Leah and I spent four days in New Orleans attending the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting and related events. It was a chance to connect with old friends, make some new friends, hear reports from SBC ministries, and participate in the business of the Convention. As an added bonus, this year I took over teaching the SBC Annual Meeting course at Southeastern Seminary. I was thrilled to see sixty-nine SEBTS students attend the meeting in conjunction with that course, most of them for the first time. Several indicated they hope to return to the SBC next year.

What follows are some reflections on the New Orleans Convention, in no particular order. Be sure to check out the Baptist Press coverage of the meeting.

1. The election of Fred Luter as SBC president was without doubt the highlight of the annual meeting. Normally, when a candidate is unopposed, the recording secretary casts a vote on behalf of the candidate. This year, President Bryan Wright and parliamentarian Barry McCarty allowed all messengers the opportunity to stand and raise our ballots for Pastor Luter. Leah took this picture of the crowd; you can see me raising my ballot (I’m the balding chap with the glasses). I agree with Bart Barber that pastors and other church leaders need to make sure their congregations know who Fred Luter is and why his election matters. Denny Burk has compiled a helpful list of various media outlets’ coverage of President Luter’s election. I hope our leadership at every level continues to reflect the increasing multiethnicity of our Convention.

2. The SBC formally adopted the descriptor “Great Commission Baptists” as an official descriptor by a vote of 53–46%. Obviously, it was a close vote. Frankly, prior to the annual meeting I harbored serious doubts the initiative would pass. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m fairly ambivalent about this whole issue. Now that it has passed, I’d urge all parties involved to take a circumspect tone in discussing how this new descriptor will play out. There is no need for doomsday predictions or triumphalist projections. The Southern Baptist Convention will not suffer from a theological downgrade as a result of this new descriptor, nor will the SBC experience a vast church planting movement simply because some folks prefer to downplay our regional roots. I hope we can all agree to be both Southern Baptists and Great Commission Baptists, regardless of which name we choose to put on our church signs and letterhead.

3. The number of registered messengers was significantly higher than Phoenix last year, but still well below the numbers of a decade ago. According to Baptist Press, the unofficial count stands at 7868 total messengers. I don’t see the numbers increasing anytime soon. We live in a world where denominational loyalty is ebbing and pastors are increasingly spending their travel budgets on conferences rather than the SBC annual meeting. Furthermore, the generation that became engaged on account of the Conservative Resurgence is slowly passing from the scene, replaced by those with less motivation to make the annual meeting a priority. I hope I’m wrong on this one, but I suspect in ten years, 7000–8000 messengers will be considered a large Convention meeting.

4. The topic of Calvinism came up—a lot. Fortunately, with a very few exceptions, the talk focused upon unifying Southern Baptists for the sake of gospel advance. In their respective addresses, Bryant Wright and Frank Page publicly urged Southern Baptists to ignore extreme voices and unite for the sake of the gospel. This spirit of unity was also reflected in the resolutions on the sinner’s prayer, which was revised to make it acceptable to the overwhelming majority of the folks in the room, and on cooperation, which argues the BF&M 2000 provides a consensus statement on salvation around which all Southern Baptists can cooperate. Southern Baptists aren’t going to split over Calvinism. As a general rule, those who prefer to call themselves Traditionalists, those who own the Calvinist label, and lots of folks in between can and will work together to make Christ known among all peoples. Those who can’t cooperate will increasingly be marginalized, and rightly so.

5. The magic of the meeting. At the end of the day, the SBC annual meeting is a gigantic business meeting that is punctuated by occasional moments of worship and inspiration. I told my students beforehand that you never know what you’ll hear from the floor of the SBC. Every messenger has a voice, and every year a few of them are eager to vocalize via a microphone. This year, a particular messenger found himself at the microphone, ahem, frequently. I personally heard from literally several dozen Southern Baptists who were amused. I confess I found it very amusing. I doubt this is because of any elitism, though there is undoubtedly some elitism in the SBC. Rather, it’s because what I call “the magic of the meeting” is in the drama of the motions, questions, resolutions, and discussions. Every Convention is blessed with moments of democratic levity, whether it’s one of Wiley Drake’s more colorful motions, a call for a new Christian flag, motions attacking missional megachurch pastors who aren’t even Southern Baptists, or, yes, a messenger who shows up ready and raring to go with an open copy of Robert’s Rules of Order and a pocketful of motions.

6. The beignets at the Cafe Du Monde. We went two different times. On both trips, we were surrounded by a sea of SBC messengers with powder sugar mustaches. See Leah’s picture to the right.

7. Seeing New Orleans Seminary for the first time. On Monday, Leah and I drove over to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and walked around the campus for awhile. Obviously, I’m a great lover of our seminaries, so it was a special time to be on a campus that has trained so many thousands of Southern Baptist pastors, missionaries, and other ministers over the years.

I’m thankful for the chance to attend this year’s SBC annual meeting. It was a historic occasion and, on the whole, a very encouraging few days. For the most part, I think the SBC is moving in a healthy direction. I’m especially encouraged by the renewed commitment among so many Southern Baptists for church health, personal evangelism, church planting, and global missions. I also appreciate the calls for increased investment in the Cooperative Program for the sake of funding Great Commission advance. I’m looking forward to being in Houston for next year’s Convention. I’ll miss the beignets and the Cajun grub, but maybe I can catch a baseball game while I’m in town.



June 2012



My Hope for Unity in the SBC

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

I haven’t written much about the recent controversy surrounding the publication of “A Statement of the Traditional Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” While I helped draft a brief response to the document from the contributors to Between the Times, the Southeastern Seminary faculty blog, I’ve refrained from personally wading into the public discussion. But like perhaps many of you, I’ve read lots of blogs, press releases, summary articles, and even email chains related to the document and the ensuing debate. Much of it has been discouraging.

It’s not my intention to critique the statement itself; many others have done so and I share many of the concerns I’ve read on the internet. Neither is it my intention to criticize those who wrote or have signed the document; I wholeheartedly affirm the publication of any confessional statement that represents the views of some Southern Baptists. I want to simply urge all Southern Baptists of good will to be willing to cooperate with other Southern Baptists who do not share your convictions over doctrines and emphases that aren’t clearly spelled out in the Baptist Faith and Message (2000). This goes for folks on all sides of the Calvinism discussion and any other similar debate we might have.

I believe Southern Baptists can unify around a four-fold set of emphases and priorities, all of which are spelled out in the BF&M 2000:

1). The inerrancy of Scripture. Virtually all engaged Southern Baptists unequivocally affirm biblical inerrancy. This includes every missionary, church planter, curriculum writer, and seminary professor. It includes all of our elected or appointed leadership. We don’t need to go back to the days when inerrancy was a debatably issue among Baptist leaders. The concept of inerrancy is affirmed in our confession (though the word isn’t used), and it should remain a key component of our cooperation.

2). An evangelical view of salvation. I know there are some Baptists who don’t like the word “evangelical” for any number of reasons. But in this context I’m not speaking of the evangelical movement(s) so much as a broadly reformational understanding of justification by faith alone and substitutionary atonement, an emphasis on the necessity of repentance and faith for salvation, and an urgency to share the gospel with unbelievers. Baptists across the Calvinist-Arminian spectrum and those who prefer to eschew historical theological labels can affirm these doctrines, albeit some (hyper-Calvinists, Wesleyan Arminians) will be excluded because they are beyond the pale of our confessional consensus.

3). A Baptist view of the church. Baptists have always debated the finer details of ecclesiology, but this has been within the boundaries of what has come to be known as a Baptist understanding of the church. (By the way, “Baptist” is a historical theological label, though one that speaks to one’s ecclesiology rather than his soteriology.) We should continue to unite around a believer’s church, confessor baptism by immersion, congregational polity, local church autonomy, and affirmation of a free church in a free state. We should continue to emphasize the biblical priority of local churches, which are outposts of the kingdom and local embodiments of the universal church that will finally gather together at the last day.

4). A commitment to the Great Commission. At the end of the day, Southern Baptist churches voluntarily cooperate together in associations, state conventions, and the SBC itself so that we can play our parts in fulfilling the Great Commission. Other ministries have come and gone over the years, but we’ve always prioritized evangelism and church planting. Theological education, cultural engagement, publications, mercy ministries, and other ministry priorities are at their healthiest when they are means unto the proclamation of the gospel and the making of disciples among all the peoples of the world.

I well understand that there is room for debate in at least the latter three of my suggested priorities. We’re currently debating the best way to articulate an evangelical understanding of salvation, particularly the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. We also continue to discuss the most effective way to cooperate for the sake of the Great Commission, especially as it pertains to our denominational structure and funding practices. And we’re always debating ecclesiological matters, currently the propriety of “spontaneous” baptisms and the compatibility of a plural elder leadership structure and congregational polity (among other issues). I’m under no illusion that my suggested points of consensus provides neat and tidy answers for all our debates.

Nevertheless, I remain convinced that if we all agree to unite around these four priorities as they are framed in the Baptist Faith and Message, we can continue to live together and labor together as Southern Baptist Christians. We all need to be open to correction, maintaining a teachable spirit. We all need to forebear those who disagree with us over debatable matters. We need to focus the vast majority of our energies on the matters we share in common, not the issues upon which we disagree. And we need to demonstrate to the world that Southern Baptists care about more than simply fighting with among ourselves and trying to win arguments.

I continue to hope and pray for a greater sense of unity in the Southern Baptist Convention. I hope you’ll join me in that prayer.