This week in Memphis Tennessee, Calvinists sat down to eat with Arminians. Premillenialists spent time in prayer with Amillennialists. Cessationists teamed up with Continuationists. All Southern Baptists, this diverse group, made up of roughly thirty pastors and laity, came together in a time of prayer and repentance, and left Memphis with a unified statement calling for cooperation under the Lordship of Jesus Christ to advance His Gospel in the world. In doing this, they not only provided Southern Baptists with a glimpse of the kind of unity that should permeate our denominational culture, but they also exemplified the epitome of Southern Baptist's deepest and most pressing need: Spiritual authority.
I admit at the outset that when I first heard of the meeting that would take place in Memphis, I was concerned. I know personally many of the men who participated. I share their strong conviction that narrowing the parameters of cooperation in our Convention will be detrimental to the advance of the Gospel, and deadly to our continued participation in extending the reign of Jesus Christ in the world. I'm also convinced that while a course-correction away from such a tendency comes primarily from planting and growing healthy churches, systemic change cannot take place apart from addressing the system as it exists. Yet while working in Chicago this week, I prayed often for my brothers, that their meeting would not be perceived as an attempt to grab power and control. After seeing the results of their time together, my concerns are not only alleviated, but I have a fresh hope for where Southern Baptists can go from here.
Presently, the Southern Baptist Convention is in danger of falling prey to theological and ecclesiological myopia. The recent policy and guideline moves at the International Mission Board, while the most visible examples of this danger, are merely symptoms of a greater problem. When you are the largest Protestant denomination in America, it is easy to think that your size indicates your superiority and significance. Those meeting in Memphis understood that there is a fine line between standing resolutely on your own convictions, and aggressively, or even passively, degrading the convictions of others. Within, our arguments have been over whether God's election is conditional or unconditional, whether the milennium is literal or figurative, whether the "sign gifts" ceased with the closing of the canon, or have continued to the present day. Since 1845, such arguments have not only remained "in house," but also "off" the mission field. Our brothers and sisters who met in Memphis want to keep it that way.
Still, it is possible for one to be right in the wrong way, and the wrong approach to addressing these volatile issues could have easily caused a schism within our ranks. Given the strong convictions that exist regarding these issues within the Convention, the Memphis Declaration could have resulted in the taking of "sides," and forwarding another theological battle similar to the inerrancy debates which took place two decades ago. But those writing the declaration chose not to take sides. To be sure, they stated their convictions with clarity, but not in a polarizing way.
Instead, in the tradition of Ezra, this group of faithful Southern Baptists wrote a public statement of repentance. Realizing that the Gospel is the great unifier, this group wrote a declaration that resists looking at all the current issues as a division between "heroes and enemies" and instead forwards a statement that emphasizes the sin in all of us that causes ungodly conflict, and the grace of God that empowers us to unity in spite of our differences.
This is refreshing for several reasons. For one, the Southern Baptist Convention for the past two decades has been led primarily by "positional" authority. Yet all this time, I have been convinced that "spiritual" authority has been thriving beneath the surface, empowering the SBC to continue its Great Commission task. Spiritual authority, as Gary Mayes describes it, is "quality found in leaders who speak with an authority beyond themselves." Examples of such authority are seen in the Apostles (Acts 4:13), and Jesus Himself (Matthew 7:28-29). Mayes goes on to state that to possess spiritual authority, one must surrendered to God, alligned with His will, broken before His presence, and vulnerable to the point that His spirit can work through us with complete freedom. As I read this document, these are the characteristics that I strongly sense. I know a few of the folks who were in Memphis. Though I love them, and though they are good men, I can assure you that such a humble statement did not come from them alone (and had I been there, they would have said the same thing about me). It is obvious to me that these men and women literally spent two days with Jesus.
The Memphis group has stood only on Scripture, only against darkness, and is seeking to stand with as many Southern Baptists as will agree to join them in repentance. And this is one Southern Baptist who will. Shortly after the public release of this document, I was contacted and asked to sign it. I declined at first, not because of any objection I have to its contents, but in order to do some introspection. After taking the time to do this, I am willing to own my part of the sin in our denomination. In the past, I have been guilty of marginalizing people without personally meeting them. I have spoken before having all the facts. I have used the label "liberal" because it was easier than getting to know someone who differed with me theologically. I have allowed "guilt by association" to deter me from developing genuine friendships with people who have turned out to be godly and righteous. I admit to my own contribution to the problems present in the SBC. As a result, my signature will soon be affixed to the document.
Spiritual Authority is what turned the disciples into commandos. It is what permeated the hearts of the martyrs. It has been at the heart of all the great revivals the world has known for the last 2000 years. And spiritual authority can empower the SBC to be a leader among other evangelicals to transform the world for the sake of the Gospel. But if we want to be first, we have to be last! This is, I believe, at the heart of the "Memphis Declaration." I join my brothers and sisters in endorsing its content, and invite my readership to do the same. To add your name, send your request to Mary Duren at email@example.com, with your name, church membership, and city. The Declaration is pasted below for your review.
There are lots of folks expecting a fight in Greensboro. Pray instead for spiritual authority that will take our theological, methodological and missiological diversity, and create a unity that glorifies God.
MEMPHIS DECLARATION: MAY 3, 2006
We, as men and women who share a heritage of Southern Baptist identity, declare that we stand together and confess Jesus Christ as the one Lord to whom we must reckon an account for our words and motivations in this gathering.
We further acknowledge that the Word of God is the sole basis of our confession and cooperation, and we are confident that God has sufficiently revealed in it all that is needed to direct Southern Baptists in fruitful cooperation toward Kingdom ends that bring glory to Jesus Christ, who is himself the focus of divine revelation.
We publicly declare before all Southern Baptists that we believe the unity, mission, and witness of our denomination is seriously threatened by the introduction of the narrowing of cooperation through exclusionary theological and political agendas that corrupt the healthy and mutual fellowship we enjoy as Kingdom servants. We believe that the parameters of Baptist cooperation in missions and evangelism must be consistent with our rich theological heritage, and that all attempts to impose excessively restrictive criteria on participation in Southern Baptist missionary work are counterproductive to the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because we desire to be and to remain faithful to our confession of Jesus Christ and his Word, we do not keep silent, nor shall we, since we believe that we have a common message to speak in this time of great need for unity and Kingdom focus in our convention. In view of this shared conviction, we declare the following:
1. We publicly repent of triumphalism about Southern Baptist causes and narcissism about Southern Baptist ministries which have corrupted our integrity in assessing our denomination bureaucracy, our churches, and our personal witness in light of the sobering exhortations of Scripture.
Therefore, we commit ourselves to a renewed pledge to integrity demonstrated by accountability in our denomination, both before God and each other, lest in preaching the meekness of our Lord to others we ourselves will be found guilty of wicked, sinful pride.
2. We publicly repent of an arrogant spirit that has infected our partnership with fellow Christians in the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ, without the hearing of which men are incapable of conversion.
Therefore, we commit ourselves to a renewed pledge to partner with Great Commission Christians for the glory of Jesus Christ, who is proclaimed with power when his disciples are at peace with one another.
3. We publicly repent of having condemned those without Christ before we have loved them, and that we have acted as judge of those for whom Christ died by failing to live with a redemptive spirit toward them.
Therefore, we commit ourselves to engage culture actively at every level by living redemptively as the Body of Christ in the world.
4. We publicly repent of having forsaken opportunities to reason together with those who share our commitment to gospel proclamation yet differ with us on articles of the faith that are not essential to Christian orthodoxy.
Therefore, we commit ourselves to building bridges where there have been none, in listening more and talking less, and in extending the hand of fellowship to all who share our confession of Christ and our commitment to extend His Kingdom.
5. We publicly repent of having turned a blind eye to wickedness in our convention, especially when that evil has taken the form of slanderous, unsubstantiated accusations and malicious character assassination against our Christian brothers.
Therefore, we commit ourselves to confront lovingly any person in our denomination, regardless of the office or title that person holds, who disparages the name of our Lord by appropriating venomous epithets against our brothers and sisters in Christ, and thus divides our fellowship by careless and unchaste speech.
6. We publicly repent of having misplaced our priorities on the building and sustaining of institutions of secondary and far inferior importance than the local church.
Therefore, we renew our pledge to the local church as the primary focus of our ministry and service to advance the Kingdom of God and bring glory to his Son.
7. We publicly repent of having disrespected the sovereign grace of our Lord Jesus Christ by falsely presuming that our strength as a people of God is found in uniformity rather than unity within the parameters of Scriptural authority.
Therefore, we commit ourselves to honor our identity as people of one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, whose affirmation of biblical authority does not necessitate absolute uniformity on all matters of doctrine or practice.
8. We publicly repent of our inattentiveness to convention governance by not seeking to hold trustees accountable to the body which elects them to preserve our sacred trust and direct our entities with the guidance, counsel, and correction necessary to maintain the integrity of those entities.
Therefore, we covenant with one another to assist in the preservation of our convention's sacred trust and fulfill our biblical responsibility to hold those trustees elected to serve our entities accountable, and to pray for them as they seek to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities.
Finally, we believe the conversations that have begun in these days express our desire to preserve the Southern Baptist Convention should God, in his providence, so choose to sustain our witness and strengthen our commitment to these ends. We pledge, therefore, to one another that we will continue this dialogue by inviting others in our respective spheres of influence to participate with us by seeking to renew our commitment to denominational accountability, institutional openness, moral and ethical integrity, and properly prioritized Kingdom efforts.