"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