a synthesis of thoughts
6/15/2006 04:00:00 PM
I've been thinking a lot on this subject for the last few months, particularly with the issues surrounding the IMB, the SBC, the SBC Younger Leaders Group, and other who blog or comment on the matters surrounding the SBC. I hope that through this post, I will be to synthesize what I have thought on over the last view months into a single stream of thoughts so it will be more user-friendly.

Typically, Christian groups that unite themselves call themselves denominations. The word denomination usually is a cuss word for most people because of the perceived trappings of denominations which I will discuss later, but the reality is that a denomination, whether explicitly stated or implicit without using the word, is any group of churches that unite together for a common purpose. The union may be highly defined such as in the United Methodist denomination or a loose association such as Willow Creek, but both could be called "denominations." The definition I like to use is from the American Heritage Dictionary , Fourth Edition, which says a denomination is, "A large group of religious congregations united under a common faith and name and organized under a single administrative and legal hierarchy." As already stated that groups define themselves based on practice and doctrine. The definition I have tends to lean toward that in terms of "common faith" which would be doctrine, and organization, which would be practice. Groups may put more emphasis on one or the other, but generally all denominations have these two characteristics. I will speak primarily on doctrine from here forth, but I think that same analysis can be applied to practice.

There are basically two extremes that denominations end up at, and those are ecumenism that leads to universalism, and fundamentalism that leads to total isolation. Typically, groups that move toward ecumenism start with a doctrinal statement and will loosen the doctrine over time to allow more and more churches to cooperate with them. Eventually, doctrine dies and the only thing left is a group of churches that have no doctrinal statement. In that case, anything goes. It doesn't matter if a person believes in the Trinity or not. Jesus to them may or may not be the only way to salvation. This is universalism.

The other extreme aforementioned is fundamentalism. Fundamentalism in the sense I am speaking of here are groups that so narrowly define their doctrine such that nobody can cooperate with them. This causes denominations and churches to split repetitively until there is a nothing left but single church or maybe a handful. Fundamentalism though is an ambiguous term at best. Often times, Southern Baptist are called fundamentalists because we have a doctrinal statement and we don't allow churches that don't agree with the doctrinal statement to cooperate in the convention. I think this is a poor assessment, so I will offer another.

I have some general groupings for types of fundamentalism. Groups that define themselves based on first doctrine, then doctrine and practice, and lastly doctrine, practice and militancy. The first group I have already described concerning the SBC. In that sense, the SBC is a fundamentalist denomination, but I don't think that is what true fundamentalism is. The next group is those who define themselves on doctrine and practice. Unlike the SBC, these groups will say unless you agree with the doctrine and live, do missions, and do church like us, then you can't be a part. The churches then are pretty much homogenous. The SBC doesn't fit this description because a traditional, white clapboard church in the country and a storefront contemporary church are both Southern Baptist, but really are nothing alike in practice. They both, however, would agree on the doctrine of the SBC. Chuck Swindoll said this of fundamentalism:
Believe as I believe no more, no less; That I am right (and no one else) confess. Feel as I feel, think only as I think; Eat what I eat, and drink what I drink Look as I look, do always as I do; And then and only then I'll fellowship with you.
The last group are those who are not only exclusive in doctrine and practice, and are militant against anyone who does not agree with them. Unfortunately, there are groups like this in the world such as Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas that run many militant websites, picket funerals, and raise all sorts of clamor when it comes to practice. This is how the media paints all the fundamentalist groups I've mentioned, but in reality they are a very small minority.

Here is an illustration of what I am talking about. The stricter a group gets, the closer they are to the center of the circle. The size of their circle would be those who are allowed to cooperate with them. The smaller the circle, the more "fundamentalist" they are. I originally thought 3 concentric circles would be the way to go, but there is some gray here. Some of the separatist groups are not as strict as others for instance.

With these things said, I think I will attempt to address the question asked. First, as I've discussed is that there great danger in Ecumenism, because it will end up killing doctrine. Seemingly, a group that defines themselves on practice alone, not on doctrine, will end up universalisms, Doctrine is essential to maintaining the integrity of the gospel, which has the power to save lives. If Jesus isn't the only way to God, then there is no reason to evangelize, and missions are pointless.

There are those who define themselves based on doctrine and practice, as I've discussed, and with that comes a whole host of problems. Narrowing Doctrine and Practice kills cooperation, which is necessary because non one church working alone can reach the world by themselves. There is synergy in cooperation -- that is the total work of churches working together is greater than the total work of each church working separately. Second, a single methodology for doing something doesn't work in all cultures. I cannot have Billy Graham crusades on China without getting arrested by the government. I can't do door to door evangelism in Central Asia without getting shot. Practice seems to be a cultural thing, while doctrine seems to be something that transcends culture. If these things are allowed to happen, then missions will die.

Baptist churches should cooperate with one another. The SBC was established with the stated purpose of cooperating to do missions. The first two agencies created by the SBC where the Home Mission Board and Foreign Mission Board, which later evolved into NAMB and the IMB. The vast majority of the resources of the SBC go to do missions in one form or another. Here is how I believe things should work for Baptists:
  1. Doctrine has to be defined and agreed upon by all those who participate. The denomination or its agencies should never more narrowly or loosely define the doctrine without the consent of the churches that cooperate in the denomination. Naturally, doctrine needs to be updated and changed based on changing culture, because new issues arise with different generations and these need to be worked out accordingly.
  2. The denomination needs a stated purpose. This purpose will be the umbrella by which all denominational entities function, nothing more and nothing less. For Baptists, this should is missions and should exclude political advocacy groups and isolationism, both which are anti-missions.
  3. Volunteer association and contribution/democratic polity must be maintained. Churches should never feel coerced into participating in a convention or denomination, and should have equal representations in the denomination. If a church decides that it no longer agrees with the doctrine, purpose, or practices of the denomination it should have the right to leave. The church should also designate at what level want to cooperate in terms of time, talent, and treasure. The level of cooperation shouldn't be used as a device for political leverage or as a requirement for membership or to hold office.
  4. Local church should always be more important than the convention, its agencies, and people. The denomination exists for the church, not the church for the denomination. If ever a denomination becomes the end rather than the means of cooperation, then it is possible for the denomination become a means of control and a political agency with all the trappings that come with it.
  5. Practice should never be prescribed, but described. Churches should share ideas with each other, but never be told how to implement strategies to reach and disciples people for Christ.
I wish denominations didn't exists, and that the churches all over the world existed as they did in the first century before denominations, but it our pluralistic society, they have to exist in order to maintain the integrity of the gospel and reach the world for Jesus. I share Charles Spurgeon?s sentiment in this quote: "I look forward with pleasure to the day when there will not be a Baptist living! I hope that the Baptist name will soon perish, but let Christ's name last forever."

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