Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Real Debate: What it is, and Isn't

"For too long I have been deafened by the silence of doctrinal debate in Southern Baptist life." When I first read those words, penned by Dr. Jim Richards of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, I was elated. He is right! Meaningful doctrinal discussion and debate has been sorely missing within Southern Baptist life, and the recent IMB trustee issues, while unpleasant for all sides, give us a grand opportunity to debate and discuss issues like salvation and the doctrine of the church as we believe the Scriptures teach them. With excitement I then read his editorial article further, hoping to be encouraged, enlightened, or even challenged concerning my own views of the issue. Regrettably, my excitement soon waned and disappointment set in. And in the end, I seriously wondered whether Dr. Richards and I would even have the same understanding of what constitutes "debate."

Make no mistake: Although my position on the recent IMB issue was made clear several weeks ago on this weblog, my disappointment with Richards' article is in no way related to his apparent support of the new IMB guidelines. I have read other's work with which I strongly disagree, yet appreciate the "back and forth" and the "iron sharpening" dynamic that comes from being challenged to re-examine my own position. Also, I concede that I could be wrong, and stand waiting for anyone to show me from God's Word if I have erred in my judgment. But waiting for such a challenge from Jim Richards left me feeling as if I had gotten ready for the game only to discover that the other team didn't even show up! I found Richards' editorial heavy on accusations, and light on substance supporting those accusations; loaded with much condescension, but without sufficient attention directed toward the actual issues under discussion; a few propositional statements of faith, but virtually no exegetical support for his contentions.

In fairness, Jim Richards is not the only one who seems to be defending the new IMB policies with only empty rhetoric. Dr. Ergun Caner, the popular Professor of Theology at Liberty Seminary in Lynchburg, VA, has been showing up on various sites around the blogosphere to throw his considerable intellectual weight around in cyberspace. Yet in the end, his defense of the policies is frankly disappointing. Honestly, I would have expected much more from a man the national media calls "the intellectual pit bull of the evangelical world." Caner, like Richards, seems long on rhetoric, and even longer on sarcastic generalizations, but short on sound argument.

I'll also admit that the immediate jump by many who share my view of this issue to cry "Landmarkism" reflects an immature assessment of the situation at hand. Still, with so much heat and so little light being given to this issue, I have begun to reflect afresh on the question of what constitutes genuine debate. And in my reflection, it has become clearer why so much of what is being said about this issue seems lacking.

I. Real Debate Sticks to the Real Issues. Those listening to some supporters of the new policies could easily come away with the idea that those of us opposing the policies have all but rejected historic Baptist ecclesiology, and jettisoned our theological compass. For example, Richards states "If we have an inerrant Bible then there are specific doctrines the Bible teaches." I know of no one opposing the new policies who would take issue with this statement. The real point of contention is that Southern Baptists delineated what we believed to be the essential doctrines of the inerrant Word in 2000 with our latest confession of faith, and many believe the new policies go beyond our common confession. No one is disputing the importance of doctrine. On the contrary, we are trying to preserve what we believe God's Word teaches about baptism by opposing a policy that we believe re-directs the Biblical focus and intention of that ordinance.

Similarly, Richards continues by saying, "The Baptist Faith and Message says baptism is a church ordinance. The local church is the custodian of the ordinances." Again, this is not the issue. We who oppose the policies believe strongly that the local church is the guardian, or "custodian" of the ordinances. We agree that the local church is the final arbiter concerning the validity of a person's baptism, which is exactly why we oppose a move by the IMB to seemingly usurp that role and decide for our churches whether the missionary candidates sent to them experienced a valid baptism. The IMB has their directive from our churches via the Baptist Faith and Message. They should enforce this understanding of baptism in respect for our common confession, but they should not assume that they have the authority to go further, and we who oppose the new baptism guidelines do so because we believe they did go further.

These are but two examples of the seeming inability of some to stay on point. If Richards and others truly desire the return of sound and robust doctrinal debate among Southern Baptist conservatives, any subsequent contributions they aspire to make to such a discussion will have to avoid speaking to issues already settled among us, and deal with the actual points of contention.

II. Real Debate Appeals to the Real Authority. Supporters of the policy rightly contend that New Testament churches are doctrinally defined. But to date, they have failed at demonstrating from the text of Scripture the necessity of certain doctrines they believe essential for identifying a body of believers as a church. Richards states that "one of the identifying marks is that a New Testament church will teach security of the believer." In short, Richards and other supporters of the IMB policies believe that a church that rejects eternal security isn't preaching the Gospel, and therefore, is not a New Testament church. As a result, any baptism performed in a church of this nature is automatically invalid.

But efforts to find examples of tying the validity of baptism directly to the doctrine of eternal security have only resulted in demonstrating such a move to be devoid of historic precedent among Southern Baptists. Moreover, assertions that baptismal validity is dependent on whether the baptizing authority affirms eternal security have yet to be supported by sound exegesis. The assertion that bodies who believe salvation can be lost are not true churches to date remains unaccompanied by any Scriptural evidence substantiating such a claim.

Text after text describing baptism points to this observance as a metaphor for a converts "immersion" into Christ Jesus. Certainly we want our International missionaries to affirm Baptist doctrine, including eternal security. But supporters of the new policy have failed to demonstrate how re-directing the focus of baptism from Jesus Christ to the doctrine of eternal security will reinforce this affirmation. More importantly, I have seen no exegetical presentation sufficient to explain how such an unprecedented move is faithful to the Biblical meaning and purpose of Baptism.

Of course, much evidence of rejecting "alien immersion" can be found in Baptist history. But endorsements of slavery can also be found in our history! Ultimately, our ground of authority must be Scripture, and Scripture alone. Both sides of this debate will be addressed by conservatives who affirm Biblical inerrancy. The issue here concerns our hermaneutical conclusions, not our hermaneutical approach, or our doctrine of inspiration. But if we agree on the final authority, why can we not both appeal to that final authority? I

III. Real Debate Involves a Real Exchange of Ideas. A former seminary colleague who practiced law prior to his ministry calling once told me that there were three rules in a courtroom: 1. If the law is on your side, argue the law. 2. If the truth is on your side, argue the truth. 3. If neither the law or the truth are on your side, attack your opponent. Real debate deals with the honest differences of opinion between people of principle, and is short-circuited when personal attacks and false caricatures place substance on the "back burner."

Richards seems at first to realize this principle:

"Of course those who want individual autonomy on the practice of baptism have started name-calling. They will say if you believe in local church authority for baptism you are a “Landmarker.” Those of us who stood for inerrancy were called “Norrisites.” When someone cannot defend his position he usually attacks the other person."

One would think that given this statement, there could be some confidence that Richards would not resort to this same tactic, and one would be dissapointed! Says Richards: "Liberalism, neo-orthodoxy and existentialism had an impact on how many people approach the practice of Christianity. This approach would place the highest value on the individual’s experience and personal opinion. You see baptism is not a personal issue. It is not about “how I feel about my baptism.” It is not just the sincerity of the candidate. It is about scriptural authority. The question is whether baptismal authority is individual or congregational."

Though more implicit, the attempt to associate the views of those who oppose the new policies with these three aberrant theological approaches would be highly offensive to me, were it not so utterly ridiculous. No serious objector to these policies is seeking to ground baptismal validity in the feelings of the candidate, and the suggestion that we have fallen prey to existentialism is as absurd as the contention that all supporters of the policies are "landmarkers." Yet this stereotypical typecasting of those who oppose these policies does nothing to encourage honest discussion of the real issues.

But when it comes to sarcasm, name-calling, and stereotyping, Richards is an amateur compared to Ergun Caner! Responding to a blog written by Hershael York in support of IMB policies, Caner contended that those opposing the IMB on this issue were simply ignorant of Church History and Baptist Ecclesiology. In a similar discussion on Tom Ascol's blog, Caner stereotyped all Calvinists as "unevangelistic," and in the context of discussion about the new tongues policy, referred to Charismatics as "Barnacles." Along with Calvinists, Caner contended that Charismatic groups "creep into vibrant churches and attach themselves. They do not grow their own movements- they attach themselves to others."

I find this statement interesting. Any casual observer of Global Missiology would know that Charismatics comprise a strong majority of what is happening in worldwide evangelism. Although we Baptists obviously differ with them concerning our respective understandings of the Holy Spirit, lets face it: Our Charismatic brothers and sisters don't need to "attach themselves" to anything to grow. They are doing quite well on their own!

I have found these, and other of Caner's brash remarks to be offensive, generalizing, and ultimately empty. While his tactics probably earn him debate points and higher viewer ratings on MSNBC, they do nothing to promote substantive discussion. Frankly, a man of Caner's obvious intelligence should be contributing to this discussion in a way conducive to further understanding. But stereotyping is not conducive to genuine debate, and labeling and name-calling are not acceptable substitutes for a substantive, well-reasoned and Biblically based argument.

Again, the issue here isn't whether you support or oppose the new IMB policy and guideline changes. The question at hand is whether when you come to the table with your view you have more in your intellectual and spiritual arsenal than tradition, generalization, and sarcasm. Dr. Richards is to be commended for his call to doctrinal debate and discussion. But given his latest offerings to the debate at hand, I sincerely pray that the quality of this conversation improves!

But what would sound doctrinal debate look like? Hershael York, a supporter of the IMB policies, gives us a snapshot. Commenting on debates he has participated in with Florida Pastor and Founders Ministries Director Tom Ascol, York gives the following description:

"Tom Ascol's recent critique of my defense of the IMB baptism policy reminded me that this is not the first time Tom has publicly criticized something I wrote. Not only am I not offended by that, I welcome it. Iron sharpens iron and, even when I disagree with him, I find his position brilliantly argued, well reasoned, and presented graciously as a brother in Christ."

How about that? This statement reflects Dr. York's strong belief in the rightness of the IMB policies and the welcoming of fruitful conversation balanced with recognition for the doctrinal soundness and sharp reasoning of his Christian brother. This is the ideal context for the kind of debate I hope Jim Richards aspires to. It is the fire in which all iron comes out with a finer edge. And it deals with the real issues, appeals to the real authority, and results in real exchange. God grant us the wisdom, and respect for those who disagree, to create an environment conducive to these kinds of fruitful discussion


Spencer Haygood said...

Hear, hear!

Enough of these contentious, impetuous and divisive turf wars. More, please more, of humble, compassionate, patient, focused, Bible-driven debate about matters that matter.

Thanks, brother.

Oh, by the way, nice motorcycle!!

Wes Kenney said...

This isn't really on point, but more a comment on your comment on Wade Burleson's blog.

With no disrespect intended toward you or Wade, I think your encouragement to him is a little over the top. What he is doing, while it may be very important, is not really on a level with defending the diety of Christ.

Joel Rainey said...

Thanks for pointing that out, and giving me the opportunity to clarify. My point was not to suggest that these discussions are in any way as profound as that of Athanasius.

But as I'm sure you know, the context of that phrase suggested that Athanasius was willing to stand against everyone if neccesary to defend what his conscience compelled him to believe. While the issues Wade is discussing aren't nearly as seminal as Christ's deity, the resolve with which he is pressing on is, I think, worthy of an enouraging reminder that he is but one in a long line of resolute defenders of what is right.

And yes, you are off point. :) Nevertheless, thanks for allowing me the opportunity to explain my intent.

Wes Kenney said...

Maybe not so much off point in that you decry in a general sense the use of hyperbole.

As to your clarification, I agree with you that what Wade is doing now does require a great deal of courage.

I do have a couple of comments that actually relate to your very well-written post.

First of all, your primary point is that "Real Debate Sticks to the Real Issues." Yet in your introduction, you wrote, "the recent IMB trustee issues...give us a grand opportunity to debate and discuss issues like salvation and the doctrine of the church as we believe the Scriptures teach them [emphasis mine]."

It seems to me you yourself have wandered from the point. This is understandable based on the recent Founders Blog 'debates' that quickly degenerated into soteriological mudslinging, but unless I am mistaken, views of salvation are not really in play with regard to the IMB issues Dr. Richards was addressing.

Agreeably, this is a minor point, and I join you in eagerness for debate on a wide range of issues, but your mention of salvation jumped out at me. Why would that be?:-)

The second issue I would raise has to do with your criticism of Dr. Richards' use of the phrase "Liberalism, neo-orthodoxy and existentialism had an impact on how many people approach the practice of Christianity."

I will agree that this was a clumsy and unfortunate way for for him to get to his point, because it seemingly assigns any who disagree to one of those camps, and that is certainly not good for debate.

But I think his point has some merit. He wrote, "It is not just the sincerity of the candidate. It is about scriptural authority. The question is whether baptismal authority is individual or congregational." I think these are valid concerns, given the current debate among (not just Southern) Baptists. Dr. John Piper's ill-fated attempt to accept paedobaptisms under certain conditions was based on just such an individualization of baptism. While I can't quote Dr. Piper, I recall him saying something to the effect of not being comfortable requiring baptism of someone who believed their infant sprinkling to be scriptural.

Wade Burleson has mentioned a young man in his church who was baptized in his (the young man's) home country entirely outside the authority of any church, and who refused to be re-baptized and was as a result disqualified from IMB service. In relating the story, Burleson emphasized the fact that this young man believed his baptism to have been scriptural. While I will stand with Burleson against anyone who says his church had no right to accept this baptism, I believe the IMB is justified in not accepting it, as the majority of churches supporting the IMB would have rejected it as well.

My point is that in both of these examples, the individual experience seems to have been elevated above the church's common understanding of these doctrines. While Dr. Richards was somewhat tactless in mentioning heretical viewpoints, in the end I think he made a good point.

I appreciate the opportunity to write way more than I intended, and hopefully to contribute to Real Debate.

Joel Rainey said...

Thanks again for the opportunity to respond to your concerns:

First, you wrote:
"It seems to me you yourself have wandered from the point. This is understandable based on the recent Founders Blog 'debates' that quickly degenerated into soteriological mudslinging, but unless I am mistaken, views of salvation are not really in play with regard to the IMB issues Dr. Richards was addressing."

Actually, soteriology is the very reason some of the trustees told me they voted for the new baptism policy. Their belief, in essence, is that a church that doesn't confess and affirm eternal security is preaching a "works salvation in reverse" (to quote exactly from my correspondence with one of the trustees). So yes, while ecclesiology is the main issue here, there is a connection to soteriology that supporters of the new policies are appealing to in order to make their case. Reading back over my article, I can see how you would think that I had gone "off point," but I honestly haven't.

Also, you wrote:
"My point is that in both of these examples, the individual experience seems to have been elevated above the church's common understanding of these doctrines. While Dr. Richards was somewhat tactless in mentioning heretical viewpoints, in the end I think he made a good point."

On example #1 (Dr. Piper) you have my absolute agreement!

On example #2? Not sure about that. Let's look at the church member Wade speaks of here. Was he converted prior to baptism? Was his baptism by immersion? Did his baptism serve as his public profession of faith in Christ Jesus (given the fact that his family disowned him, I'd say you can't have a profession more public than this)? Was the baptism a symbolic picture of Christ's death and ressurrection correlating to the candidate's own death to sin and rising to walk in newness of life? If the answer to all these is yes, then in light of Romans 6, how can we not call it a Scriptural baptism?

As a pastor, I would examine his baptism in light of the above criteria because I believe (in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message) that the church is the final arbiter of the validity of a person's baptism, and is to judge that baptismal experience in light of Scriptural teaching, not personal feeling. But again, that authority belongs to the church, not the IMB. And this contention isn't based on anything like existentialism. It is based on the exegetical conclusions of a local body of believers.

Again I will say that those who oppose the policies aren't speaking about issues like that happening in Dr. Piper's church. Those who haven't been Scripturally immersed should not be deployed to the field. But if they have been Scripturally immersed, then it is a perversion, not only of Baptism, but also of the Gospel baptism is meant to symbolize, to insist that a "re-Baptism" take place. Show me from Scripture where the validity of a person's baptism is dependent on whether the church that performed it believes in eternal security. If you can, I'll conceede and never write another word on this subject.

Joel Rainey said...

One other thing to which I neglected to respond. You wrote:
"While I will stand with Burleson against anyone who says his church had no right to accept this baptism, I believe the IMB is justified in not accepting it, as the majority of churches supporting the IMB would have rejected it as well."

Honestly, I think you are wrong here. Who knows? But I believe that the majority of Southern Baptist churches would have accepted this baptism as Scriptural. But more particularly, the IMB has no authority to go beyond the Baptist Faith and Message, and if a local church has decided a baptism is valid, and that baptism meets the SCriptural qualifications in the BFM, that person should not be held back.

Wes Kenney said...

I do see the connection you make with salvation, as some arguing for the policies would hold that without a proper understanding of security, you don't have the gospel. I guess what I was thinking when I saw that word in your context was more about the Calvinism debate ongoing, and that perception on my part was probably a result of the very things I suggested had led you off topic.

I have written in my own blog that I think the appeal to church autonomy is not applicable here (I won't post a link; this comment is shameless promotion enough). And I do think that the IMB has the right to set policies beyond what is spelled out in the BF&M, as it is purposefully silent on some major issues (divorce, for example).

Wade Burleson has ably articulated that trustees are accountable to the convention. It is the job of the convention to hold trustees they have appointed accountable for the policies they implement, and I would argue that that job is being done now, and will be done in Greensboro. If a majority of Southern Baptists agree with you that the policies go too far, I am confident that they will be rescinded.

I think the disagreement about the validity of the baptism we were discussing does come down to the administrator, and I don't mean by that a person but a church. Most of the "in-the-pew" Southern Baptists in my experience wouldn't have a clue what Landmarkism is, but they would read the words in the BF&M with which you claim agreement and see a requirement that baptism be administered under the authority of a local church. As far as the scriptural basis for this, we could argue all day long (as some have) about who were the recipients of the great commission, and not settle that. But the BF&M does allow for that interpretation, and one could be faithful to it and still require re-baptism for someone who was immersed, after conversion, and who didn't trust that immersion to save them, if that immersion was administered outside the authority of a local church. And neither is this argument based on anything like existentialism, but rather on the belief that all things should be done in good order, and that if baptism is not administered under this authority, chaos is invited. Again, this is based on their understanding of the phrase "Baptism is an ordinance of the church." It is not, by this reasoning, given to individuals to administer on their own, and this is what I think Dr. Richards was originally getting at, albeit clumsily.

I haven't really organized my paragraphs into any logical order here, so I hope I have made some sense.

Again, thanks for the debate. God bless you and your ministry.

martyduren said...

Great post...as usual.

Did you notice that you use point "II" twice?

Joel Rainey said...


In Baptist preacher-fashion, the use of the Roman numeral II twice in this blog was an effort at justified long-windedness. Sort of a subliminal attempt, if you will, to keep people with me while droning on and on without stopping.

But after your keen observation, I realize that nothing is going to get past you! I'm still looking for a blog on the Outpost exposing my use of this tactic and challenging me to the realization that I'm not fooling anybody, and . . . .

. . . .you know what? I just goofed! Thanks for pointing it out so I could correct it! Love ya man!