Friday, June 19, 2009

An Interview with David Dockery on the Identity and Future of the Southern Baptist Convention

The Annual Meeting for the Southern Baptist Convention begins this coming Tuesday (June 23, 2009).

Crossway has just published Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future, edited by David Dockery. Contributors include Al Mohler, Russell Moore, Timothy George, Ed Stetzer, and a number of other SBC leaders.

David Dockery serves as President of Union University, in Jackson, TN--an outstanding school dedicated to the principles of being excellence-driven, Christ-centered, people-focused, and future-directed.

(Dr. Dockery is a prolific author, but one additional book to mention is his 2008 volume, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal.)

Dr. Dockery was kind enough to answer a few questions from me about the SBC--on its strengths, challenges, and future--including questions that puzzle an outsider (like, how can Southern Baptist say that "regenerate church membership" is an irreducible essential for their identity while the numbers suggest that 6 out of 10 church "members" in SBC churches don't even attend services). I think you'll find, as I have, that Dr. Dockery is a wise and insightful voice who has much to teach both those within and outside the SBC.

What do you hope that Southern Baptists will take away from this book?

Southern Baptists are at critical juncture in our history. For the past 165 years, the history of the Southern Baptist Convention has been dotted with tension, concerns, and at times outright heresy. In recent days, those tensions have seemed magnified. For the third straight year we have seen a statistical decline in our work, which is symptomatic of deeper spiritual problems and ecclesiological challenges.

The past thirty years have been characterized by a very public controversy. In so many ways, there have been many good things develop over the past three decades including the recovery of the gospel and a renewed commitment to the truthfulness of Scripture. But the programmatic uniformity and cultural homogeneity that held us together for so many years has almost entirely evaporated. The controversy over first-order doctrinal issues has seemingly degenerated into ongoing infighting over secondary and tertiary matters, resulting in a fragmented and even balkanized convention. As one person so astutely put it, the problems facing the SBC of 2009 seem much more “Corinthian” than “Chalcedonian.”

I pray that the book can be used of God to help bring about a new consensus that will be accompanied by an authentic spiritual renewal in our lives individually and corporately. I pray that somehow our shared work in our churches, in associations, in benevolence agencies, in educational entities, and in our missions organizations can be strengthened by a reflection on the matters addressed throughout this volume. I believe that a large number of the challenges facing Southern Baptists are cogently addressed by seasoned Baptist leaders as well as by some of the insightful fresh voices in our convention. I can only hope that as readers interact with the important theological and historical perspectives discussed in this volume that God’s Spirit might bring about a new enablement for the work of ministry in our churches, as well as all of the various entities throughout the various levels and aspects of our convention life.

What do you think non-SBCers (like me!) can apply to their own contexts by reading a book about the history, identity, and challenges of the SBC?

Southern Baptists are the largest non-Catholic denomination in the country. With 44,000 churches and a membership that greatly exceeds any other Protestant group, we recognize that the challenges that face Southern Baptists in many ways are the same ones facing other evangelical denominations and groups, but they are often magnified in the SBC due to our size.

I think most all of us recognize that we find ourselves at a different moment in American Christianity, and in world Christianity in general. What is happening in Southern Baptist life is not taking place in a vacuum. Contemporary culture is being overtaken and submerged by the growing trends toward secularism. American Evangelicalism at large in many ways then mirrors many of the challenges facing the SBC.

Just as has become true in Southern Baptist life, so the intactness in many denominations has also started to unravel because of the rapid changes in our culture, the challenges to our theological commitments, the growth of multiple Bible translations, the impact of parachurch groups, the expanding diversity of music, and varied worship patterns. We cannot lose sight of the reality that many of the “church models” and “heroes” for Southern Baptists come from outside the SBC and thus Southern Baptists and non Southern Baptists already share many of the same strengths as well as weaknesses. In many ways we all live in a less sectarian and less parochial context and thus our challenges, for good or ill, are less and less denominationally specific.

We chose to subtitle the book “An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future.” We did so exactly for the reason expressed in your question, which is that Southern Baptists are typical in many ways of other denominational groups. We therefore hope that the things discussed and explored in this volume will illuminate the way not only for Southern Baptists, but also for all Evangelicals facing similar challenges in the 21st century.

Let me mention a few of your helpful, provocative quotes from the book, and ask you to give us a brief explanation of what you mean by them.

“Southern Baptists are at once beneficiaries and victims of tradition.”

We have been blessed as Southern Baptists by a wonderful heritage that has been characterized by faithfulness to Holy Scripture. For years, Southern Baptists have been called “A People of the Book.” We have also inherited a commitment to missions and evangelism and a spirit of cooperation in our shared work that has been duplicated in few other Christian movements over the past century. Thus we are beneficiaries who receive nurturing truth and wisdom from God’s faithfulness that has been passed on to us from previous generations.

We are also victims by assuming that certain programs and strategies are the only way that these commitments to missions and evangelism can be carried out. We have substituted a cultural homogeneity for genuine biblical fellowship, and a programmatic uniformity for intentional and strategic engagement of the culture and world around us. We now take for granted things that possibly or probably need to be questioned or reexamined.

We are therefore simultaneously beneficiaries of good, wise, and sound traditions, as well as victims of poor, unwise, and unsound traditions. The Bible must be the “last word” for us in sifting through our traditions and our challenges. Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 seem helpful to me in that regard as a guide for us at this important moment in SBC life: “Test everything. Hold on to the good.” It would be naive for us to think that the answers to the current challenges we face in the SBC are simple or that we are the only ones facing such challenges as I mentioned in the previous question. We can thus learn from others, even as we hope others can learn from us, and ultimately I trust that we will all test our various traditions and approaches by the authority of Holy Scripture as Paul exhorts us to do.

“We will need to distinguish between markers of Southern Baptist identity and markers of Southern Baptist consistency.”

I was privileged to know and learn from the 20th century’s leading evangelical voice, Carl F. H. Henry. I have adapted this idea from his writings (as I have done at other times on other subjects). Dr. Henry in articulating his early vision for the advisory board of Christianity Today included a broad array of evangelicals. He defended his actions by differentiating between evangelical identity and evangelical consistency. He argued that these advisors need not dot every “I” or cross every “T” the same way. He wanted people whose commitments were characterized by the evangelical markers regarding the Gospel and the full authority of Holy Scripture.

Adapting that thinking to Baptist life, I would like to call for us once again to focus on matters of Baptist identity such as a commitment to the Gospel, to the full truthfulness and authority of Scripture, to the autonomy of the local church, to a regenerate church membership, to religious liberty, to the priesthood of all believers, believer’s baptism, and other important tenets of Baptist identity. I am fearful that we will fragment further with calls for Baptist consistency, wanting a kind of uniformity on matters of doctrine and ecclesiology that have not been characteristic of Baptists through the years.

Historically we have allowed for Calvinists and non-Calvinists; we have allowed for different views of eschatology; some have opted for open communion and some have not; and some have contended for church government with a plurality of elders within congregational polity and others have argued against such a model. I think that some of our current problems are the result of a desire for a kind of Baptist consistency that really has not been characteristic of our history since the beginning of the Baptist movement in 1609.

Thus, it is my hope that we can explore issues of Baptist identity, while seeking to establish a new consensus, lest we drift apart. Such a consensus must be centered around the Gospel and must be connected to the churches. In doing so, we can emphasize primary and core convictions. We cannot, however, ignore boundary markers. While there may not be just one way of being a Baptist, there are certainly not infinite ways of being a Baptist.

So, understanding confessional boundaries is important, without getting bogged down in an unrealistic call for Baptist consistency around secondary and tertiary matters. It is important for us to remember that the ultimate danger to the Gospel lies not in the nuances of our differences, but in the rising tides of liberalism, neo-paganism, and postmodernism that threaten to swamp Southern Baptist identity in cultural accommodation.

“We need both collaborative cooperation and convictional confessionalism. . . . Choosing between compromised beliefs or a cantankerous spirit is not an inviting option.”

We certainly celebrate and give thanks that this generation of Southern Baptists has received the truth of the Gospel and recognizes the need to pass on this body of truth to the next generation. Our responsibility is to faithfully pass on what we have received from wells that we did not dig and from gardens that we did not plant.

Unfortunately, we now find ourselves in a culture which often fails to recognize that there is an identifiable body of truth, and that truth is the Christian faith. We therefore need a renewed commitment to confess and teach that truth in congregations, academic institutions, and agencies across the SBC, and literally around the world. We acknowledge that there remains a sector of Southern Baptist life that is quite hesitant to acknowledge the place of normative, doctrinal confessions for fear of its resulting in creedalism. Behind much of this fear is a misplaced emphasis on individualism and a misunderstanding of soul competency that has produced a false dichotomy between “a living faith” and “a confessional faith.” While we would never want to put any confession on the same level as Scripture itself, or confuse a doctrinal statement about Jesus with a dynamic trust in Jesus, it is certainly a misunderstanding of our Baptist heritage to deny the importance of a confessional faith.

We need a convention characterized not only by a confessional and convictional faith, but by a collaborative and compassionate sense of cooperation. The recovery of a convictional confessionalism has kept Southern Baptists from going the way of so many mainline denominations who have become untethered to Scripture and have lost their way. Yet, in so many ways, the call of this hour for Southern Baptists is the need to regain a spirit of collaborative cooperation.

I know that some wonder if we can find a way to cooperate together – after all, our differences often appear to be great. For as we have already mentioned, no longer can a cultural homogeneity or a programmatic pragmatism be the foundation of our cooperation. One of the things, however, that will get the attention of the world and authenticate our confession will be the way that we love one another, the way that we celebrate our ethnic and geographical diversity, and the way that we serve and worship together in harmony.

Some who think that conviction is important neglect cooperation. And those who emphasize cooperation often fail to recognize the importance of conviction. I believe that we need both collaborative cooperation and convictional confessionalism. Those who emphasize cooperation are prone to compromise. Those who emphasize conviction are prone to cantankerousness. So choosing between compromising beliefs or a cantankerous spirit is not an inviting option.

I think we would do well to hear again the words of Carl F. H. Henry. About 60 years ago he maintained that our witness to the world will be stronger when the church is united. Cantankerousness, he claimed, often leads to additional and unnecessary fragmentation, thus diminishing opportunities for cooperation and collaboration, as well for reform and renewal.

I wonder if I can ask about the issue of membership and attendance within the SBC. You refer in the book to “regenerate church membership” as “a historic and foundational Baptist tenet.” Al Mohler refers to it as one of the three principles that constitute “an irreducible minimum of Baptist identity.” He says that when it’s compromised or denied “whatever is left may call itself Baptist only by asserting a lie.” And yet the numbers I have heard suggest that even though the SBC boasts 16.2 million church members in good standing, only 38% of them attend their church’s primary worship service each week. If what you and Dr. Mohler write is true about how essential this principle is for Baptists, does this not point to something of an identity crisis for the SBC?

One of the reasons that Southern Baptists now need to ask the hard questions about a regenerate church membership--a historic and foundational Baptist tenet--is that people have confused the Christian faith for substitutes. The Christian faith is not mere moralism; it is not faith in faith, some subjective amorphous feeling, nor is it some kind of a self-help theory. The Christian faith is the manifestation of God's truth revealed in His Son and made known to us today in His Word.

We must also sadly acknowledge, as you have noted in your question, that over the course of the past six decades or so, Southern Baptists have allowed our priorities to gradually shift from Christian faithfulness and spiritual maturity to numerical growth and programmatic efficiency. Not that a concern for numerical growth or efficiency is wrong in any way at all. The shift in priorities was probably quite unintentional at first, but slowly, almost unconsciously, a greater disparity has developed between our reported total membership and the actual number of active and participating members in our churches.

The result is that we developed two categories that are foreign to the New Testament: non-resident members (those who held membership in the church, but have moved away from the meeting place of the church) and inactive members (those who are on the membership rolls who no longer attend the congregation with any sense of regularity). Without ignoring the importance of numerical growth or efficiency, Southern Baptists need to refocus on what it means to be a Baptist church and what it means to be a member of a Baptist church, along with a concern for the importance of faithfulness and maturation of church members.

While there are some reasons for non-attenders to be kept on a church membership roll, those situations ought to be the exception and not the rule. I am afraid that far too many churches don’t keep up with people who stop attending to find out why and to see if they can be re-engaged in the life of the church.

If a person does not attend a church over a certain period of time, then the church has the responsibility to find ways to make contact with that person to ascertain the reasons for the prolonged absence. If the absence is for health reasons, then the church must find ways to minister to those needs, especially if the member is home-bound. If the absenteeism is the result of spiritual lethargy, then hopefully there can be ways of initiating discipleship opportunities.

If the non-attendance continues apart from some legitimate reason -- and if there are no ongoing indicators of spiritual life -- keeping someone’s name on the church roll is unhealthy for everyone involved. It seems to me that we are doing harm to the person and to the church by allowing them to stay on the church roll. One thing worse than people being lost in their sins is people who think they are saved because their names are on a church roll.

The problem runs deeper than just having non-attenders on the membership rolls. A church isn’t plateaued in membership and falling off in baptisms only because of people who no longer attend. We need to think afresh about what it means to be a covenant member of a Baptist congregation. We need to think about the importance of faithfulness and maturation of church members. Helping people understand the Gospel, helping guide them to faith in Christ and leading them to become church members is paramount, but helping them understand the biblical expectations of faithful Christ-followers in covenant with one another is also extremely important.

Engaging non-attenders about involvement in church life and challenging attenders to “walk in a manner worthy” of God’s call on their lives (Ephesians 4:1) would make a great improvement in the spiritual health of our churches. We need to reflect once again on the biblical teaching about the new birth and discipleship and develop new member orientation processes for those who desire to join our churches.

This will mean that churches will need to highlight the foundational matters and expectations of church membership. We need not only a fresh understanding of the Gospel, but a fresh reminder of the relationship of saving faith to sanctification, maturation, and spiritual faithfulness. Beyond these things, we need to recover the New Testament’s teaching on church discipline.

We must attempt to implement a Baptist doctrine of regenerate church membership in a way that is applicable for the context of our churches in the 21st century. We need to turn once again to the New Testament to ask important questions about what it means to live faithfully before God as individual believers, as congregations, as Baptist associations, as Baptist state conventions, and as a national convention.

I hope that in the days to come that Southern Baptists will ask:
  • What does the New Testament say about regeneration, baptism, Christian commitment, and church membership?
  • What does our Baptist heritage say about church membership?
  • Have we allowed numerical growth and efficiency concerns, perhaps unknowingly and unconsciously, to become higher priorities for us than questions of faithfulness to the New Testament and to our Baptist heritage?
As you have noted in your question, Justin, I think that Southern Baptists must repent of our lack of concern for biblical faithfulness in our concern and care for church members. We need to repent of the way we often allow people to join local churches without stressing the covenantal aspect of membership. We need to repent of the fact that we have largely neglected any aspect of church discipline that would have helped us begin to address some of these important matters.

Finally, dealing with our reported membership total isn’t a simple matter. State and national conventions only report the numbers reported to them by the local churches. Given the autonomy of local churches, it is hard to have a uniform way of implementing a call for renewed attention to church membership totals. I do believe that we need to ask questions as Southern Baptists about how we count members and report these statistics. While in our Baptist polity, associations, state conventions, and the national convention can assist with this process, these questions must be initiated at the local church level. We must simultaneously affirm the doctrine of a regenerate church membership and the Baptist doctrine of the autonomy of the local congregation.

What are some of the key questions facing the SBC about its future and its identity?

As we gather in Louisville for the annual convention on June 23-24, 2009, there will be many questions for us to consider as a convention. Many of these have already been highlighted in your questions.

You will also hear about a call for a Great Commission Resurgence, with a renewed emphasis on North American church planting and global missions. Such a call involves not just committing ourselves to missions and evangelism, as important as that is. We will need to commit ourselves foremost to the Gospel, to the message of missions and evangelism, the message that is found only in Jesus Christ and His atoning death for sinners.

We must address the matter of unity and collaboration in the midst of our growing fragmentation. We need to recover the biblical emphasis from John 17 and Ephesians 4, as well as the historic confessions about the church as one, holy, universal, and apostolic.

We must address matters of cooperation and partnership. The Cooperative Program has been an important funding process for Southern Baptists since 1925. The call to cooperate in 2009 differs from the Southern Baptist world of 1925, but we must reclaim that spirit for our day.

Moving into the second decade of the 21st century, Southern Baptists also need a new spirit of mutual respect and humility to serve together with those with whom we have differences of conviction/opinion/preference. It is possible to hold hands with brothers and sisters who disagree on secondary and tertiary matters of theology and practice, and still work together toward a common good to extend the work of Southern Baptists around the world and advance the kingdom of God.

We need God’s Spirit to bring about a new spirit among us, one that calls for humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance with one another in love, and a diligence to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3). We need to expand our horizons with a renewed dedication to ethnic diversity and racial reconciliation, looking forward to a day in which a great multitude from every national and all tribes, people groups, and tongues shall stand before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).

As I have said before, Southern Baptists must work to build and establish a much-needed consensus around the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is time for us to move from controversy and confusion toward a renewed commitment to cooperation. In such a spirit of consensus and partnership, we must ask questions about structure and programs:
  • How do associations, state convention entities, and national convention entities relate to one another?
  • How do churches relate to these various entities?
  • How can these entities be funded effectively with the least amount of duplication possible?
Finally, 21st century Southern Baptists need not only to affirm the Bible’s truthfulness and the saving power of the Gospel, but we need to evidence our concern for these matters by careful biblical interpretation, serious theological reflection, faithful churchmanship, proclamation, worship, repentance, and prayer. We must trust God to bring a fresh wind of renewal to Southern Baptist theology, evangelism, missions, worship, education, and service. We can then relate to one another in love and humility, bringing about true fellowship and biblical community not only in our orthodoxy, but in our orthopraxy before a watching world.

How can we be praying for the Southern Baptist Convention?

I would ask that you and others who read this interview join us in asking God to grant to us a renewed commitment to the Gospel, to the church, and to the truthfulness of Holy Scripture that will help forge and shape a new consensus among us, bringing about genuine spiritual transformation and a renewed spirit of cooperation among the various entities of SBC life. To those ends we will pray that God will allow us to see a new generation of Great Commandment and Great Commission churches who will both exemplify and proclaim the good news of the Gospel to a needy world.