If there was ever an unpopular opinion in the "evangelical world" today, it would be this one - denominations matter to the Kingdom of God. Well-meaning, biblically-minded Christians have been lured into believing that there is really no benefit to being associated with or supporting a biblically-minded, conservative denomination. Even with the issues we're facing as a denomination, I hope that we can continue to cooperate for the sake of the Kingdom.
Some would even go so far as to say that denominations unnecessarily divide the body of Christ, pitting Christians against one another over minor issues. There are always disagreements between churches and people in any denomination, but I believe, to a certain extent, this is just a reality concerning cooperation.
Let's start with the obvious question - What is a denomination? As a church, we cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention. In this relationship, the Southern Baptist Convention is essentially a network of 46,000+ churches. We don't agree on everything, but we do agree on many of the primary issues that matter. It is a voluntary relationship; this means, as an autonomous church, we could choose to leave the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC does not tell us how to do things as much as they simply support and advance the goal of missional cooperation. Southern Baptists have sent out and continue to support the largest missionary agencies the world has ever seen. With several thousand full-time missionaries, that's a great reason to support this network of churches.
There are two important words that define this relationship - mission and theology. Mission is what brings us together. That has certainly been the case with the SBC considering that the first two institutions created in 1845 were the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board. However, the mission is guided by an agreement in theology. Everyone has to agree on some level to cooperate together. Even, non-denominational churches must decide if another church or organization is like-minded enough to cooperate with their church. Mission brings us together. Theology keeps us together. We agree to cooperate together as Southern Baptists under the summary of Biblical beliefs called, The Baptist Faith and Message. This document doesn't have the authority that the Bible has. Instead, it seeks to communicate a clear summation of what the Bible says.
What about the early church? Did they have denominations? Why should we have them now if they weren't in the Bible? Many times, people approach this issue with the false assumption that that early church was actually unified in faith and practice. Some make the false claim that there were no major splits in Christianity until the Protestant Reformation. They skip over major events like the Great Schism of 1054 and the Council of Nicaea in 325 in which there was a split between the Arians and those that embraced Trinitarian theology.
In fact, you could simply look at the first few chapters in the Book of Acts to understand that there were splits in the early church. They strived for unity, but there is clear direction from Paul and others to reject false teachers. It's not a popular idea to consider, but there were many examples in the Bible of people that were rejected in order to safeguard doctrinal purity.
In short, there were networks of churches in the early church. Paul collects offerings from other churches for the church in Jerusalem. There are people sent from various cooperating churches to help Paul in the mission in which God has called him. They may not have called it the "cooperative program," but many of the churches were cooperating.
Now, let me get to the main idea of this post - I believe we are fighting for the heart and soul of our denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. As I mentioned, mission and doctrine matter greatly in defining the terms of our cooperation. I am encouraged by how the Lord has used Southern Baptists in our mission. However, I am concerned over issues of doctrine in our convention.
Doctrine matters for all of us. The only question is this - Depending on the issue, how much does it matter? There is a red line for any group of people to determine how far cooperation goes. So, where is the red line?
I believe there is room for plenty of disagreement on certain issues in the SBC (End-times theology, Bible translations, etc). However, Denominations enforce biblical safeguards on important issues in faith and practice. Some questions on which denominations help to bring clarity - Can you be saved and then lose your salvation? Should we baptize infants or adults? What should the family look like according to the Bible? Is the Bible able to help us understand the problems of the world and the solution to those problems? Are women able to be pastors?
You may think those issues don't matter. However, every one of those questions has an implication on what we do and how we do it.
The dividing lines in the SBC today are not as clearly drawn as they were in the Conservative Resurgence. No, in true post-modern fashion they are subtle differences with great implication. In debating our views there has been a redefinition of the terms - complementarianism, biblical sufficiency, preaching, etc. That's dangerous territory.
Going into the annual meeting of the SBC in Orlando this year, here are a few things I am looking for:
- Will we reconsider Resolution 9 from 2019 which endorses Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality as tools to analyze the issues in our culture? This "tool" gives an alternate interpretation of worldview. A worldview that is not Christian, but rather born out of atheistic Marxism. We should look at the problems of this world through the lens of the Gospel. Period.
- What does the role of women look like in our denomination? I believe women are vital to the church and the mission in which God has called us. I also believe the Bible gives clear direction on the roles of men and women in the church. To embrace a biblical view of gender roles in the church doesn't hinder our mission; it propels our mission. There may be disagreement concerning whether or not women can preach to the church in gathered worship (I believe preaching is a function closely linked to the office of pastor so those qualified by God should be the ones preaching), but surely we can agree only biblically qualified men should pastor. That is clear in the Baptist Faith and Message. However, there will be a woman "teaching pastor" doing a spoken word during SBC Pastor's Conference. Read more at www.hosannawong.com. On her church's website it says that she weaves "spoken word" into her sermons. Is this what we are promoting in our churches? Is this the future of the Southern Baptist Convention?
- Will we go back to an emphasis on biblical evangelism or will there continue to be a growing trend in our convention of focusing on social justice? The answer to the ills in our society have less to do with the system in which we live and more to do with individual hearts being transformed by the power of the Gospel.
The Southern Baptist Convention matters because it helps unite 15 million Christians for cooperative Kingdom advancement. Our missionaries plant thousands of churches all over the world. Our seminaries give quality training to more pastors and leaders than any other denomination. We equip and send out one of the largest disaster relief organizations in the world. The world has been changed because God has used the Southern Baptist Convention.
I hope and pray that will be the future of the SBC as well. However, doctrine defines the terms of cooperation, and it seems as if the terms of cooperation may be changing.