Friday, May 18, 2012

Baptist Denominationalism

Bart Barber, whom I consider an internet friend[1] and a biblical Christian, has recently written about “monochurches”. He also has a well-thought and well-argued chapter[2] on denominationalism in Upon This Rock: a Baptist Understanding of the Church. Nevertheless, I don’t agree with his conclusions. Reading and interacting at his blog provides the background for my discussing this here.

Hoping to represent him fairly, I’d say Bart concludes that denominations are a tertium quid, a “third thing” which stands somewhere between local church ministry and parachurch ministry (p. 134).[3] He further concludes that denominations are both biblical and useful.

Brother Barber addresses the elephant in the room that is too often assumed or ignored. What makes a denomination? How do we define it? He ties denominational barriers to the boundaries of ministerial service and membership (pp. 136-137). I will address denominations in this way. Denominations for the practical purpose of this blog post are groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention, American Baptist Churches in the USA, Baptist Missionary Association of America.[4]

I have no problem with “associations” and “conventions” as advisory councils. While I wish not to “fight” them, I believe conventions and associations as continuing organizational entities are neither biblical nor useful. Unlike councils or presbyteries which meet to conduct business/give advice[5] and cease to exist, denominational organizations linger on “to elicit, combine, and direct the energies of the denomination...”

I find three problems with denominationalism as commonly practiced by modern Baptists.

1. Denominationalism that rejects normative biblical practice is disobedient (violates orthopraxy). Here modern Baptists are distinctly deficient, and are weighed and found wanting. Baptists who once based their practice on New Testament practice now find the vast majority of New Testament practice to be “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive.” This is a nice little deflection from saying they believe their own convolutions are better than those of the apostles and prophets. “We live in a different world; that won’t work anymore.” Such a rethinking will eventually rethink Baptists out of existence, and even already has for a number of them. Are we free to develop our own organizations any more than our own orthodoxy? That is the question. Is it of any consequence that there are no national or denomination-wide organizations in the New Testament? The majority of Baptists seem to have already answered that is of no consequence – we are free to develop our own methods to suit our own needs. If so, biblical orthopraxy is of no consequence. But if apostolic practice is normative, not only our doctrine but also our practice should be guided by the New Testament. Time and again we read statements such as “so ordain I in all churches,” “as in all churches of the saints,” “be ye followers of me,” and “ye ought to follow us.” I contend that these commands direct us in seeking the old paths of the apostles and New Testament churches rather than carving out our own.

2. Denominationalism that usurps church authority is unscriptural (violates orthodoxy). The autonomy and authority of the local church is a distinct Baptist precept. Let me hasten to say that there is one sense in which Baptist denominationalism generally and consistently does not violate church authority. Baptist churches enter voluntarily into their associations and conventions, and they participate or do not participate in the part or parts of the denomination each particular local church chooses. The area in which denominations usurp church authority is that of taking on themselves the work given the churches. The majority of Baptists recognize the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) as a church commission, yet many of these same Baptists operate within organizations which do the work themselves (e.g. operate seminaries) or decide who can do it (e.g. elect and send missionaries). Also at question here is whether churches may delegate the authority given them by their Lord to another entity for that entity to carry out. The apostles never organized another entity to carry out the work given to the churches. If so, why should we?

3. Denominationalism that separates sister churches is sinful (violates orthokardy). Denominationalism separates sister churches by artificial means. The tendency is for members of a particular Baptist denomination (convention, national or general association) – unless they are highly ecumenical – to view all churches which are affiliated with their denomination (SBC, for example) as sister churches and view those outside their denomination not as sister churches. This inserts a non-biblical third party between churches as a deciding factor in whether they are of like faith and order. Instead, the biblical faith and practice of particular local churches ought to be the deciding factor as to whether they are of like faith and order. If not, we deny the autonomy and independence of local churches that we profess. Organizations should not artificially divide God’s churches. Faith and practice not according to the Scriptures should be the only matter separating churches.

This “tirade” against denominationalism is not an indictment against cooperation and interdependency of biblical churches. A scan of the New Testament shows that without any denominational organizations, autonomous churches operated in the spirit of family, love and cooperation. Without instant communication, Christians across the Roman Empire knew about, prayed and cared for one another, and labored in unison of service and purpose. Much of the so-called independent Baptist movement in the Western world has turned New Testament Christianity on its head by exalting isolationism, ignorance and self-confidence above the obvious New Testament example of autonomous interdependence. On the other hand, churches with tight denominational connections also fall short of the true New Testament practice of orthodoxy (right doctrine), orthopraxy (right practice), and orthokardy (right heart). In these cases the true denominational influence is not a bonded brotherhood but simply the common use of the same machinery which drives “fraternal” relations. With Brother Barber, I approve the “cooperative connection among New Testament congregations.” We just haven’t yet found agreement on exactly how all that plays out in denominational life. To me it might look something like this:

Ideally churches of New Testament caliber which move under the direction of the Spirit & the Word and need no organizations to elicit, combine and direct their energies. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and I don’t expect the developments of several centuries to suddenly dissolve into thin air. Yet Baptist churches that take their autonomy, independency and interdependency seriously and that exalt the Saviour first of all might learn to hold His churches in the highest esteem; to regard them not on the basis of affiliation with an organization, but rather affiliation with Christ, His Word, His faith, His practice, and His love.

Let “Back to the Bible” be our cry, as it was for our forefathers. May all false systems fall before the sword of the Spirit, the word of God!

[1] Since we’ve not met face to face.
[2] Chapter 6, A Denomination of Churches: Biblical and Useful
[3] A cooperative ministry of multiple congregations similar to an ordination presbytery
[4] In the area of taxonomy, I consider these to be “sub-denominations” of Baptists.
[5] The business of the council is to give advice.


Bart Barber said...

Thanks for interacting with some of what I've written, and thanks for the tone and the rich content of your post. If you don't mind, please allow me to interact with your major points a bit.

1. I'm going to prove to be a typical Southern Baptist at your first point, I fear. I'm going to make an inferior sort of argument in this paragraph, and I'll just acknowledge that up-front. It's going to prove nothing, but it will push you a bit to see whether you are consistent (or perhaps whether I've just misunderstood your point).

If we were to adopt a thoroughgoing primitivism, would we not have to do away with a lot more than national conventions? Wouldn't we lose Sunday School? Church meeting houses? Sunday morning worship services (NT services seemed to last much longer than that)? Typeset Bibles?

I think that the Jerusalem meeting in Acts 15 gives us New Testament precedent for even international formal connection among churches for the conduct of missionary enterprises. I do not mean to assert that Acts 15 was conducted as a Baptist convention meeting—I'm not saying that. I am, however, saying that it was a meeting of members representing multiple churches at which they reached an agreement about what they believed and about how their beliefs would inform the missionary work that was being cooperatively supported by multiple churches. I think that's as close to what the SBC is doing as the New Testament discipleship pattern is to an age-graded Sunday School.

Bart Barber said...

2. I do not believe that local church autonomy is sacrificed in our SBC system. I believe that, when our system works rightly, local church autonomy is well preserved.

As a locally autonomous church, I believe that we have three absolute missionary-sending rights that no convention can rightfully infringe. First, we have the right to support the missionaries that we choose. Second, we have the right to refrain from supporting the missionaries that we reject. Third, we have the right to provide only partial support to a missionary and to allow other sister churches to put their gifts alongside ours to support a missionary.

In the SBC, my church has the first right and it is entirely unabrogated. What if we want to send a missionary and the IMB rejects them? We can still send them. We can send them with another agency. We can send them entirely on our own. Doing so will not imperil our relationship with the SBC at all. We have perfect freedom in this regard.

In the SBC, my church has the second right, and it is entirely unabrogated. We don't have to give any money through the Cooperative Program in order to be an SBC church (and a great many of our churches are proving that to be true). We don't have to give any money to the IMB to be a member church. We can send a gift directly to a few individual IMB missionaries (or even just one) in their support if we desire to do so. We don't do that at FBC Farmersville, but the only reason why we don't do that is because we do not desire to do that. We have the right to do so.

In the SBC, my church has the third right, and it is entirely unabrogated. If we autonomously decide (as we have) that we desire to join with other Southern Baptist churches to support those missionaries who have been sent through the International Mission Board, then how has our autonomy been threatened thereby? It would indeed violate YOUR autonomy if we somehow forced YOUR church to support them. But you know that we haven't done that. Doesn't your critique amount to your questioning of my local church's autonomous right to partner with sister churches to support missions and theological education?

Bart Barber said...

3. I agree. Denominational boundaries should not separate sister churches. This is why I desire to see closer kinship among Baptists who together affirm a rightful view of the nature of scripture. As you know, I am working to try to reach across some of these denominational boundaries. It saddens me when I sit in a room with fellow Baptists, we all agree that our churches are kinfolk with one another, we all express a desire that we could be united with one another (not necessarily with a denominational label, but just in fraternal connection with one another), but we acknowledge that the inertia of past denominational schism stands in the way. This is wrongful, and you do us all a favor to point out this evil of denominationalism.

And yet, I wonder whether the SBC denominational structure truly separates you and me. If your church wished to be a part of the SBC, would my church and my sister churches who are in the SBC not welcome you with open arms?

R. L. Vaughn said...

I appreciate your comments, and will try try this one at a time, in case I don't get to everything tonight. Perhaps we can move toward some useful agreement!

1. I "work hard" to be consistent and to strain out all the lumps in the mix. But no doubt there are some cracks in the facade. On the other hand, I wouldn't admit that my inconsistency is proof of the error of my point -- just proof of my inconsistency!

Yes, I'd have to agree that if we adopt a thoroughgoing primitivism we would do away with a lot more than national conventions. From my (perhaps inconsistent) view we lose age-graded Sunday School (but not Bible study), seminaries, mission boards, to name a few. I would not apply this to typeset Bible, hymn books, church meeting houses (well maybe), or Sunday morning worship services (or computers or electric lights). Perhaps this is just my comfort zone, but I do think I have rhyme and reason here. The first I believe are an integral part of the way we work, worship and carry out the Great Commission. The second set I believe peripheral issues that relate to cultural and time. Just because Paul might have worn a toga & sandals and walked to church does not establish that practice for us. But what the apostles taught & practiced and the churches received into their way of ministry, gathering, governing, teaching, evangelizing, etc. are serious matters that could be establishing a practice for us -- whether anti-cultural, semi-cultural or cultural. What I believe I see is that we Baptists all come to this conclusion for some things, but diverge and often end up at opposite ends of the spectrum on other things.

Concerning the Jerusalem meeting in Acts 15 I think I view differently in two ways. First, I do not view it as a meeting of multiple churches -- basically two. That in itself does not negate a possible principle of the meeting of representatives of multiple churches. In fact, I don't suppose we'd disagree that representative of multiple churches can meet. It would rather be a disagreement of what we can do when we get there. But, secondly and mainly, I do not understand this as a decision made by multiple churches, but a decision made by the church in Jerusalem after a period of counsel. I would liken this closely to our presbyteries in which representatives of other churches give council to a local church regarding ordination and then the local church alone makes a decision about whether to proceed with ordination. I root this in "the whole church" being the church at Jerusalem, and the action ultimately being a corrective discipline of "certain who went out from us." Such a view, rightly or wrongly, greatly restricts my ability to utilize this to support broader denominational organization.

Are the practices and actions of a congregation of believers bound to follow some New Testament pattern? Or, are the practices and actions of such congregations open to formation by circumstance and expediency? Or, if a mixture, when do we know to "follow the pattern" and when do acclimate to our surroundings? I think this is the real devil of the details.

R. L. Vaughn said...

2. Brother, you write that you do not believe that local church autonomy is sacrificed in the SBC system. I think this is a difficult task to disprove, despite all the classes I've sat in and all the pronouncements I've heard otherwise. That is not exactly an agreement, though. This simply ties in to my earlier point that ultimately autonomy is not sacrificed in most Baptist churches because no outside entity can compel them to function in any particular way. That doesn't mean I agree that any particular way a Baptist church chooses to function is biblical.

I have no doubt of the truth that your church, or any SBC church, supports the missionaries they choose, and refrain from supporting those they choose not to support. But I would argue that it is not the system that allows you to do that, but the inherent autonomy of the local church. I haven't been in the SBC so am somewhat at a loss re specifics. But I know that the system of the ABA is geared to direct the churches' support of missionaries to those missionaries that are endorsed by the association.

My argument is not that the conventions and associations force the churches into doing things they do not want to do, but rather that the entrance itself into missionary, educational and benevolent enterprises is an affront to church authority. Perhaps relating this to baptism will help highlight my thinking (or not!). If New Testament baptism is immersion then the creation of some other mode infringes on the biblical way of baptizing, even if a particular local church continues to baptize by immersion and also uses sprinkling. Sprinkling is not the same as immersion, and is in conflict with immersion. So, if the New Testament sending agency is the church, then the creation of some other sending agency infringes on the biblical way of evangelizing, whether or not a particular local church continues to decide which of the two ways she will operate, or both. Mission board sending is not the same as church sending, and is in conflict with church sending (church authority).

You ask, "Doesn't your critique amount to your questioning of my local church's autonomous right to partner with sister churches to support missions and theological education?" I think your question must receive a qualified, "yes." Qualified in that I think that a church's autonomy ends where it's violation of Scripture begins. Typed out that comes across as a harsh statement, but I know of no way to mitigate it. Except possibly to say it doesn't question your right to do it as much as it questions your right to do it the way you do it. To be clear, my position is not against missions or theological education, per se, but that they be encapsulated within the local church. Of course, since your church is autonomous, you and not I get to decide where the violation of Scripture begins.

R. L. Vaughn said...

3. Here we come the closest in agreement. Many difficulties abound. The very doctrine of the church that I was taught was practically challenged by those who taught me the doctrine. "Churches are always local, independent, and autonomous." "But, oh, by the way, if they're not in our association we can't have anything to do with them!" If we are by like faith and order sister churches, then denominational boundaries should not separate us. Here I suppose I diverge from my otherwise general agreement with the mindset of the "anti-missionaries" in our early 1800s Baptist division. They (or at least the most influential leaders) would not be satisfied till they not only divided from those whom they believed adopted unscriptural methods but also from all those who did not adopt those methods but would not divide from those who did. (Hope that makes sense; it's getting late.) This is greatly informed by opinion, but it is in my opinion one of the great travesties of Baptist history that if you had visited anti-missionary and missionary churches in the 1850s you would likely not have detected more than a smidgen of difference in most of them at the local church level. And yet they could not fellowship one another.

Brother Bart, you ask whether the SBC denominational structure truly separates you and me. If my church wished to be a part of the SBC, no doubt your church and sister SBC churches would welcome us with open arms. Should your church "come out from among them," I'm sure we would return the favor! :-) But to me where the real question lies, assuming our churches were scripturally compatible, could one remain in the SBC, another in the ABA, another independent and still receive one another with open arms?

David said...

Bro. Vaughn,

I appreciate what you have written here and find your gentle candor refreshing. There are, however, several things that I wish to ask/respond to.

1. I agree that the classification of NT material, particularly the Book of Acts, as descriptive rather than prescriptive can be problematic. Yet that does not truly resolve the issue. Numerous events occurring in Acts are, by most people's expectations, rather extraordinary. That is where it becomes exceedingly difficult. How do we effectively and consistently differentiate between what is extraordinary and what is normal (and consequently normative)?
For example, most Baptists contend that the apostles died out with John and such apostolic authority is no longer borne by individuals. It was extraordinary, not normative. But there is no clear scriptural teaching that Ephesians 4:11 (or others) has been definitively abrogated. Conversely, most Baptists do argue that the office of bishop/pastor/elder was normative and have patterned churches that include significant (but not dominating) pastoral leadership. The real question is where do we draw the line between descriptive and prescriptive. That appears to me to be a significant part of your differences.

2. Since much of your subsequent argument draws on church authority as it relates to the Great Commission, I do wish to question you on that point. I know this is a point that was considered of decisive significance to early Landmarkers, but have yet to encounter an adequate scriptural defense of the idea. If you can provide such a defense, I would love to hear it. Or even if you could point me towards one that has been published that you find persuasive.
This point is of great importance because if the Great Commission is not a church commission, but an individual commission or a kingdom commission, then it greatly changes what is permissible beyond the direct boundaries of a local church's authority.

3. I agree that denominations can be the cause of schisms. They can separate churches that are in essentially complete theological agreement. It is unfortunately true that some of our Baptists ancestors sinned greatly in dividing from one another and those sins have often been perpetuated for many decades. How we shall ever overcome these divisions I can't really speculate, but I don't think waiting for the return of the Lord is an adequate answer!

Finally, since I don't think we have ever met, I want to disclose a few pertinent facts about myself. I grew up in the BMA, but in my adult life I have been a member of ABA, BMA, and SBC churches. However, my home has always been the BMA and I currently serve as a professor at BMA Seminary. I was also recommended to this post by Bro. Barber. He is a friend of mine who shares my interest in Landmark history and was on the doctoral committee that approved my dissertation on nineteenth century Landmarkism.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Hi, David,

Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Since there are not that many BMAA seminaries, I'm guessing you're right down the road in Jacksonville. I try to spend a good bit of time in the Kellar Library, though I haven't been there much lately. I was baptized by a former professor at BMATS, though you may too young to have known him -- Louis Asher. Brother Asher is one who fostered my love for Baptist history, but probably wouldn't have agreed with too many of my primitivist leanings.

1. Re descriptive versus prescriptive, I think we agree in principle. No Baptists I know of believe all elements of Acts, et al. are prescriptive. All Baptists I know of believe some elements are prescriptive. Where do we draw the line? That is the question. There is no simple answer. Even those who agree on "apostolic practice as normative" will come up with some different conclusions. The Sandy Creek or Separate Baptists are recognized for believing nine ordinances. Yet it appears to me that as a group they believed from two to nine and all points in between. Even these folks who naturally tended to follow prescriptive descriptions didn't all fall in the same place.

Interesting that you mention the apostles. The average Baptist only knows of apostles superficially. Even growing up in a strong Bible teaching church with pastors and teachers of biblical depth, I came to adulthood thinking there were only 14 apostles (original 12 plus Matthias & Paul). Yet others in the NT are called apostles. Nevertheless, I would agree that the apostolic office of the "twelve" was extraordinary and temporary. Probably others were only apostles in a lesser sense. In general, conservative Baptists dump a lot of the extraordinary into the "after the Bible was completed" pot. This just moves the debate to a different location. Also to some degree we follow our traditions -- never questioning that apostles are extraordinary or that pastors are normative, even though they (as well as prophets) are mentioned together in Ephesians 4:11. If we assume that the apostolic office of "the twelve" was different from the other men called apostles in the New Testament, I don't think the case is as hard. There are qualifications for pastors/bishops/elders which are intended for the churches and which can be met today. The apostles must have John's baptism and that qualification can't be met today. If we assume all the men so named apostles in the New Testament are the same kind of office, then we have a difficulty with this argument. But even if we don't, we have some difficulty explaining who these other apostles were and why we don't have them today. I don't think that is a problem peculiar to those who believe New Testament practice is normative. Most others don't know what to do with them either. Same could be said of prophets.

R. L. Vaughn said...

2. Re church authority and the great commission, you are correct that this is a point of decisive significance to early Landmarkers. I think because most Baptists substantially agreed, it was easy to follow the Landmark line of argument. If you don't agree to the foundation, then the rest falls apart. I'd also say that in a way this point is the weakest link in my threefold argument. Not because of the commission as a church commission, but because this point is not sustained if my first is not granted. You may give me too much credit as following the Landmark line here; what I think is similar to, but diverges from it. I have no illusions that I can provide an adequate scriptural defense of it to those who do not agree. I think the command of Matthew 28:18-20, et al. (great commission) is given to the church in a secondary sense -- in the sense that the apostles and preachers are set in the church and that those who fulfill the command are ultimately under church authority. Even Peter, an apostle, answered to the church at Jerusalem (cf. Acts 11:1-18).

Primarily it is an apostolic commission. Yet, it must be broader than that for it extends to the end of the age. Here my thinking continues in the line of normative New Testament practice. The great commission language of Matthew, Mark and Luke must be interpreted not just grammatically and contextually, but also by the book of Acts to understand how the apostles interpreted and understood it. That is, the entire record of the book of Acts is a record of the meaning and proper interpretation of the great commission. In Acts they are recorded doing what Jesus told them to do in Matthew 28. In principle we might agree (or not). The examples of preaching, baptizing, and teaching in the book of Acts are by ordained or sent men. I don't see how one could fit an individual commission into the historical record of Acts. There is no loosey-goosey free-for-all every man/woman for himself/herself. It would seem a complementarian would have real problems with an individual commission, but I haven't thought about it that much. A "kingdom commission" might be a different story, though you would have to explain what you mean by that expression for me to address it knowledgeably. I assume in some way it is given to everyone in the kingdom? Most Primitive Baptists, and perhaps some others, hold that the commission was given to the apostles and that it was fulfilled by them. I guess perhaps my view could be described as a commission that is fulfilled in the church through its ministers (preachers, officers). (This does not address witnessing, which is individual duty of testimony of Jesus Christ that doesn't carry with it baptizing and teaching.)

R. L. Vaughn said...

3. On the third we appear to be in agreement. Denominations separate churches that are in theological agreement; that is, just on the basis of one being in one association and one being in another. Obviously churches autonomously make this choice of separation. But I think they are often led surreptitiously down this road by pastors & leaders with an interest in self-preservation, as well as years of faulty thinking that if a church is in another association there must be something wrong with them. How do we overcome these divisions? I don't have a pat answer, but I don't think it will come from the top down, since denominational entities have reason to promote their own survival and probably view such mentality as threatening.

Thanks for the information you gave about yourself. I'm glad Bart recommended this post to you. I was actually expecting some others to comment who didn't, so I was pleasantly surprised by one I didn't expect who did! I'd be interested in knowing more about your dissertation on nineteenth century Landmarkism. I've read Bro. Bart's on Bogard. Have you read Philip Bryan's (it's quite old now)? I may have a couple of historical posts on SBC Heritage if Drew decides they are in line with their mission. You might check there. One is a short piece on the "mid-life" divisions of the SBC -- Gospel Missions, BMA, ABA. Nothing groundbreaking or earth-shattering, but possibly a few opinions slightly out of the ordinary. You may have noticed a little about me from this blog. The church I grew up in was in the ABA, but not with the strong anti-BMAA views of some around us. My great-grandfather was a minister when the BMAT & Jacksonville College was formed. He was an independent thinker, and didn't mind challenging the College president when he mispreached something when he pastored our church. But g-grandpa was a consistent, fervent and loyal supporter of all the BMAT work until his death in 1947. Yet his church stayed with the ABA and left the BMAT in 1950.

I look forward to your response. I'm headed out of town and may not be able to interact for awhile after this initial post. But I will get back to you eventually.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Bro. David, I'm getting back around to this. I want to add that I think this whole issue may also be complicated by Baptists' background in holding the regulative principle. I think we Baptists among the common folk lost contact with the principle as a distinct teaching and yet carried it on in various iterations. In our church it was that we did or didn't do certain things because that was the way it was done or not done in the New Testament. Without a clear working principle we had difficulty deciding on issues like whether or not to have bathrooms and kitchens.

Probably rambling so will stop for now. Unrelated, but you and Bart might enjoy Multiplying by Dividing: Southern Baptist Mid-life Crisis and two articles that are to follow.