December 30, 2010

Christian Realism regarding Christian Unity in Paris

Late last month, I was in Paris, France, to deliver a lecture for La Société d'Histoire et de Documentation Baptistes de France (SHDBF), co-sponsored by the Centre Mennonite de Paris. The subject provided by my hosts was "Baptists: Are We Calvinists or Non-Calvinists?" That lecture will be published in their journal, so I have refrained from disseminating it. Nonetheless, I would like to discuss one critical subject that arose in that paper and that came into sharper focus for me during my short sojourn in France: Christian unity.

I have been involved in a number of ecumenical conversations over the years, somewhat formally between world Baptists and Anglicans and between American evangelicals and Roman Catholics, as well as many informal conversations at Duke and Oxford universities and elsewhere. Ecumenical conversations have proven beneficial for my own theological development because they allow one to hear from other Christian traditions and to reflect upon one's own tradition, from within and from without. When engaged from a realistic viewpoint, ecumenical conversations clarify both convergences and divergences between the various Christian traditions, helping to shed light on the glories and inadequacies of each.

And that viewpoint--let us call it 'Christian realism'--provides for difficult though beneficial conversations. On the one hand, there is the hope that Christian divisions may be overcome; on the other hand, there is the constant reminder that significant differences remain. The divisions between the various Christian traditions persist due to apparently irreconcilable historical, theological and ecclesiological foundations. The doctrine of papal primacy is not a mere inconvenience keeping Christians from learning to worship together--it is a sublime Spirit-given truth to the one and a gross human imposition to the other. The doctrine of infant baptism is not a secondary or tertiary roadblock on the highway to Zion--it is a necessary theological building block to the one and a tyrannical violation of human conscience to the other. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not a mere historical footnote--it is a fundamental aspect of biblical inspiration to the one and a puzzling theological claim to the other. No matter what our personal or ecclesial desires, the theological facts on the ground remain: although we may each claim the name of Christ, Christians from the various traditions possess fundamental reasons to retain our divisions.

And yet, because this 'Christian realism' is 'Christian', it is replete with the expectation that these divisions will be overcome by and in Jesus Christ, the one Lord that Christians commonly proclaim. The lack of unity among Christians is not a cause for celebration but for mourning. This reality was brought home to me palpably during this lecture delivered in a Baptist church building at 123 Avenue du Maine in the Fourteenth Arrondissement of Paris. In the audience that evening were Baptist, Mennonite and Reformed Christians, laity and clergy, from across Europe, Africa and the Americas. I had historically and systematically laid open both the convergences and divergences between all three Christian groups, and the divergences seem to be so intractable. Towards the end of my lecture, while reminding us of the divergences, I fell back upon Scripture for hope:
The unresolved nature of this dispute--over what is and what is not 'necessary', 'essential' or 'fundamental'--lies at the root of the continuing division between the churches of the Reformed and the churches of the baptizing tradition. Until that is resolved, it is doubtful there will be a reunion. Ultimately, however, there must be reunion, for Christ is our Lord and He has prayed for our unity (John 17). Surely, there will be no divisions at the great supper of the Lamb as the universal church gathers to worship Him who died for the atonement of our sins, who arose from the dead for the redemption of our bodies, and who will one day return for our glorification (Rev 19).

Christian realism regarding Christian unity. The 'reality' is that the divisions between Christians cannot be quickly papered over or glibly bypassed with some temporary emotional sentiment accompanying a facile theological equation. The divisions between the Roman Catholics, the Reformed, and the baptizing churches are deep and, more importantly, they are fundamental. This is the reality we must face. However, our realism is also 'Christian'. And Christ calls His disciples to display their unity in love. He promised such unity would lead the world to see Him in us (John 13:34-35). The Christian hope is that our divisions will be overcome, and they will be at the least eschatologically, but we must do whatever we possibly can to overcome them now, with integrity, on the basis of His will and for the sake of evangelism.

These ideas continued ringing through my head and heart the next day as I visited the Faculté Libre de Théologie Évangélique in Vaux-sur-Seine, which serves theological students in the evangelical free church traditions from both France and Switzerland. Professor Alain Nisus, their primary systematic theologian, invited me to deliver lectures and take questions on free church ecclesiology, and it was a pleasure to get to know this rising theologian, from whom I hope we will hear more. I also enjoyed my conversations with Professor Neal Blough, whose work on Pilgram Marpeck I have long greatly admired. As I sat through worship and a meal with Professors Nisus and Blough, and their academic dean, Professor Jacques Buchhold, I was reminded of those fundamental truths that hold the evangelical free churches together. (The Paris seminary, whose leading scholar is the highly respected Calvinist theologian, Henri Blocher, has an evangelical confession. You may consider her history here and her confession here.) And yet, even among the free churches, we must admit that we maintain ecclesiastical divisions. I pray these, too, will be overcome, for the sake of our witness to the gospel.

October 21, 2010

Christian Profiling?

One of today's big news items is that National Public Radio, an entity supported with American tax dollars, fired Juan Williams, one of their long-standing news analysts, for making the following statements,
“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I've got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Whether Mr. Williams deserved to be fired, or not, and whether this liberal news organization should be supported by taxpayer dollars, or not, are important though mundane issues that should be addressed. However, what I would like to consider is what should be my attitude as a Christian in such a situation. Should a Christian ever engage in profiling? Before I answer the question, please allow me to relate a story of a similar incident to that of Juan Williams, a relevant incident that happened in my own life.

A short time after the horrific events of September 11, 2001, I started flying again in order to fulfill my responsibilities as the Academic Dean at Midwestern Seminary. It was the first time on the plane again for many of us and the nervousness was palpable in the terminal and only increased as you traversed security and approached the gate. Moreover, as we began boarding the airplane that day, suddenly a half dozen armed police officers descended on the gate and soldiers could be clearly seen in the background brandishing automatic weapons. The object of their concern was a big olive-skinned man with a long beard wearing middle-eastern clothes and a close-fitting hat. They took him to a side hallway and began thoroughly searching his carry-on baggage. The rest of us began to board the airplane.

As the plane filled up, it became apparent that the flight was fully packed and, later, that we were not leaving the gate any time soon. After a while, the stewardesses began to look around and check through the passengers. Then, their eyes settled on me and a hushed conversation ensued. This was followed by one stewardess coming to my row and asking the lady in the center seat next to me if she would mind being moved. Time passed and we all watched as the big olive-skinned man with the long beard wearing the middle-eastern clothes and the close-fitting hat was escorted to his seat. Everybody in the plane turned to look at him the entire way as he came to the center of the plane and then sat next to me.

Needless to say, my own thoughts at that point probably should have been the same as what Juan Williams expressed, and I have to be honest that I did wonder whether I had taken out enough life insurance for my wife to care for herself and our children, in case something were to happen to me. But the Bible resting in the seat pouch in front of me said that all things were providentially guided by God: my life and my family's lives were in His hands, and my only fear should be toward Him. So, I stood up from my aisle seat and the man made his way through to sit next to me. He was obviously shaken by the whole encounter as the perspiration dripped profusely from his forehead.

As we settled in, the continual furtive glances from around the plane, looking back from this point in time, were almost comic. I began to wonder what people were thinking of me as well as him, then I remembered that a 6'4" 260-lb man with a trimmed beard wearing a suit and tie must look like an authority figure. I laughed about that because I come from a family of police officers but personally have neither pretension nor desire to exercise governmental authority. By the way, two big men sitting next to each other on an airplane is always an uncomfortable experience, and this was perhaps the closest I have been to another man for an extended period in my life.

As the plane took off, I took out my Bible and began to read, and he took out his own book, written, yes, in Arabic script, and seemed to withdraw into himself. The woman seated on the other side of my new co-passenger was as close to the bulkhead as she could get and could not take her eyes off of the window. This poor man had obviously just been through a grilling security search and suddenly my heart leaped out in compassion for a fellow human being. There was little doubt in my mind, or anybody else's on that day, that this man was subjected to such a search because he was dressed as a Muslim from head to chin to toe. This was an instance of racial profiling, whatever one thinks of the practice. But, Muslim or not, he deserved to be respected as much as the big Caucasian guy seated next to him.

As I prayed quietly, I discerned that this had to be the most important and obviously preordained appointment of my day, so I might as well use it to the full advantage. God had arranged for an American professor of Christian theology to sit next to a devout Muslim immigrant to the United States; God wanted me to comfort a fellow human being and offer him the succor of human conversation, including conversation about the gospel. Moreover, looking at the shrinking violet on the other side of my new co-passenger, I was obviously the only nearby person secure enough to speak with the man. So, as you can see, I had engaged in a little Christian profiling. Yes, I admit it, I saw this man, recognized he was most likely not a Christian and knew that God intended for me to share the gospel with him.

It was a great experience. He was so thankful that somebody would even speak to him at that point, and he was most definitely open to hearing about the gospel. And because nobody in our immediate area was even daring to whisper, it became an opportunity for me to raise my voice ever so slightly as I engaged with him in discussing what the Bible had to say about God, about human sin, and about the sacrifice that Jesus had made for our sin. He was fascinated to hear about the gospel of Jesus Christ and all the nearby passengers could not help but hear, too. (Yes, I admit it, that too was Christian profiling. How do I know some of them were not Christians? I didn't, so they all needed to hear the gospel, too.)

I also was privileged to hear about his beliefs. You see, this man was a Sunni Muslim who practiced a form of mysticism known as Sufism. The book he was praying from was the Dala'il Ul Khayrat, a sort of Arabic book of common prayer, if you will. He really was a peaceful man who was trying to be true to his culture and beliefs in the midst of a vastly different culture. He even shared with me that he did not believe the way to happiness was through violence against non-Muslims. So, here in the midst of a very tense situation, two large men from two different cultures practicing two different religions found comfort in their common humanity and shared their respective faiths peacefully with one another.

After the flight, we kept conversing with each other, even as every eye in the plane and then in the terminal followed the two of us, me with my Holy Bible and him in his Muslim dress with his holy prayer book. We exchanged cards and both went on our way. When we parted, it was as if a part of me left with him, and judging from the letter he later sent me, which now lies before me, he felt the same. Sadly, from my perspective, my new friend did not receive Jesus Christ as His personal Lord and Savior that day. However, happily, I was obedient to my Lord and shared the gospel with a fellow human being and all those tense human beings around us.

As I think about Juan Williams' statements and his unfortunate firing from NPR, I also think of how I as a Christian should respond in situations where I encounter other human beings, including human beings who are radically different from me. From a Christian perspective, every human being--no matter how alike or different his or her culture--needs to hear the gospel, and every Christian must find them and tell them that Jesus died on the cross to atone for their sin and that He arose from the dead so that any who believe in Him can find forgiveness and have eternal life in communion with the God who is love. Christians ought not engage in racial profiling, but we ought to engage in witness profiling, taking every opportunity to tell others how we had the burden of sin lifted away by the free grace of God in Christ.

Today, I pulled out the copy of the Dala'il Ul Khayrat that he mailed me and his letter fell out on the floor of my office. As I think of my friend, the devout Muslim with the Muslim beard in the Muslim dress carrying his Muslim book, I pray that sometime soon he will pull out the copy of the Bible that I sent him. And I hope that he remembers that I respect him as a fellow human being. Moreover, I hope he will recall what I said: that because God loves me, a sinner, I know God loves him, too. And because of Christ, I love him, too, no matter how different we are. I long for the day when I will meet people from every culture before the throne of God. And, more than anything else in my life, I long for my Lord to say these words to me, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."

October 15, 2010

The Empire of the Holy Spirit

Michael A.G. Haykin has drawn upon a lifetime of biblical studies, spiritual experiences, and focused scholarship to write a popular volume on the Holy Spirit and spirituality entitled The Empire of the Holy Spirit: Reflecting on Biblical and Historical Patterns of Life in the Spirit, published by BorderStone Press. This is perhaps the most important book yet written by a prolific author. In eleven chapters, beginning with a discussion of why Christians believe that God is Trinity and the Holy Spirit is one of the three persons sharing in the Godhead, Haykin demonstrates how orthodox theology may be presented in a popular format.

There are four things to note about Haykin's sources and methodology: First, Haykin exposits Scripture at length with regard to its teachings about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. I did not discover one instance in which I found the author to have missed Scripture's presentation of pneumatology, including matters of emphasis. Second, Haykin has read the early church fathers deeply but wears his profound knowledge of Patristic history and theology with humility and without any trace of pretension. Even as he draws upon Irenaeus, Basil, and Hilary, the citations are always appropriate to the discussion and always illuminating. Third, Haykin draws upon his long interest in the eighteenth-century Puritans, especially the pioneers of the missionary Baptist movement. The illustrations from this period do not dominate the text, though his studies therein have dominated his career for many years. Fourth, Haykin engages with contemporary expressions of spirituality, both Christian and non-Christian, evaluating them with both judiciousness and gracefulness. If you want to know what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger contributes to postmodernity or where the pop spirituality of Eckhart Tolle has gone astray, Haykin provides a succinct and accurate Christian response.

At 180 pages, this slim volume was not intended to function as a systematic exploration of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in all of His glorious deity and powerful works, but nevertheless it does touch upon much of what a traditional systematic text would. Many of the chapters were presented in other venues, both spoken and written, but the book does not read as a compilation of chapters but rather flows seamlessly from one subject to the next. What is unique about the presentation is that more contemporary issues are not addressed until the end of the book, which means that some of the more culturally relevant portions will not be discovered until the book is nearly completed. And yet, this may also be a strength, for the book is biblically relevant from cover to cover.

Although I might quibble with some of the matters presented herein, such as Haykin's construal of the Spirit's movement of grace in salvation as "irresistible," I found myself in almost wholehearted agreement with nearly every word. While Haykin acknowledges that he was once involved in the Charismatic movement popular in the 1970s and is involved in the Calvinist movement that is currently the rage, these are merely secondary even tertiary matters in this book. Haykin has not set out to prove or disprove Charismatic theology or Calvinist theology, but to bring the reader closer to an understanding of what true "spirituality" is. And that true spirituality is, according to Haykin, a biblically-faithful, God-honoring, personally-embracing love for God and His church through Christ in the Holy Spirit.

This little treasure, The Empire of the Holy Spirit: Reflecting on Biblical and Historical Patterns of Life in the Spirit, comes with my highest recommendation.

October 6, 2010

A Lecture on "Foundational Theology" or «Систематичне богослов’я»

Карл Барт та Герхард Ебелінг, двоє заслужено відомих німецьких богословів 20-го сторіччя, вони давали однакове визначення богослов’ю як «критичному віддзеркаленню проповіді церкви». ...

Thus began my plenary lecture on "Foundational Theology," which was delivered this past June to the faculty and students of the Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary. The seminary has campuses in both Lviv and Borislov, Ukraine. The lecture was kindly translated into Ukrainian, for which I am thankful. Lviv is the cultural capital of Ukraine and is one of the most intriguing cities with regard to Christian art and history that I have ever visited. For more on UBTS, a conservative Baptist seminary intent on spreading the gospel in Ukraine, follow this link.

October 1, 2010

HCSB Study Bible: God's Word for Life

The HCSB Study Bibleis now available and comes with this reviewer's studied recommendation. The importance of this recommendation should be evident since, after considering other popular study Bibles, I chose to give a leather-bound version of the HCSB Study Bibleto my middle son in order to encourage him further in his Bible reading. Before proceeding to a discussion of the Study Bible apparatus, we will consider this new translation.

The HCSB Translation

HCSB, Holman Christian Standard Bible, seeks to fill a recognizable hole among modern English translations in seven notable ways. First, the translators utilize the most recent critical editions of the Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts of the Old Testament and the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Second, the translators did not insist upon revising previous translations, as has been all too common, but they sought to provide "a new translation for today's generation" of English-speaking peoples.

Third, the translation philosophy of the HCSB is neither that of "formal equivalence" nor that of "dynamic or functional equivalence." Formal equivalence seeks to retain the exact equivalence of word and sentence structure from the original languages, but this sometimes results in awkward English translations. On the other hand, dynamic equivalence seeks to bring across the thought of the original into modern English forms, but this sometimes results in the loss of formal meanings affiliated with the original text. Recognizing the difficulties with both of these older translation philosophies, the translators chose to follow the practice of "optimal equivalence," retaining the original forms as much as possible without also sacrificing English comprehension.

The fourth notable fact about the HCSB is that the translators retained the original gender distinctions of the biblical text, a matter of no small consequence in today's egalitarian culture. Fifth, the HCSB has chosen to translate the names of God as closely as possible to the original, which means, for instance, that the personal name of "Yahweh" actually appears in the translation, a practice long overdue. Sixth, some special formatting features, such as marking quotations of the Old Testament in the New Testament in bold, are very helpful. Seventh and finally, textual footnotes regarding alternate readings or more literal readings are provided.

These seven aspects of the HCSB translation make it a worthy addition to any Christian's library and a worthy gift for any unbeliever interested in hearing about the Christian Bible. One of the few complaints I have with regard to the translation itself is its continuation of transliterating the Greek words for immersion rather than translating them. This is a peculiar decision for a translation coming from a Baptist organization and one that runs against the grain of the HCSB's own stated translation principle of "fresh translation." Nonetheless, the translation is one that should continue to be tested and grow in usage.

The HCSB Study Bible

Now, we proceed to the commentary apparatus known as the Study Bible. There are seven notable features to the HCSB Study Bible that make it a worthy addition to the Christian reader's library. First, other than the introductions and essays, the publisher has chosen to make sure that the biblical text itself is highlighted on the typical page of the book. This is intentional, as it gently reminds the reader through text placement and font size that the Word of God is authoritative while the commentator's study notes are of entirely secondary status. Second, each biblical book is preceded by a short but informative introduction regarding the book's circumstances of writing, message and purpose, and a helpful structural outline. There is also a chronological timeline with each introduction.

The third notable feature of the Study Bible are the study notes that accompany the text. These study notes provide historical, linguistic and theological comments upon the biblical text prepared by highly-qualified Christian scholars. For instance, Andreas Kostenberger contributed the introduction and notes for the Gospel of John and Paul's letter to the Colossians, while Terry Wilder wrote the introduction and notes for 1 Peter, 2 Peter and Jude. The fourth notable feature are the essays scattered throughout the text, also written by highly-qualified Christian scholars. For instance, George Guthrie contributed a compelling essay on "How to Read and Study the Bible," which I recommend every Christian read, not only for its hermeneutical instructions but for its spiritual maturity and practical encouragement. The reader will appreciate the other essays, including such small jewels as "Christ in the Old Testament" by Craig Blaising, or "The Bible and Civil Rights" by Kevin L. Smith.

Fifth among the notable features of the Study Bible are the word studies and bullet points. The individual word studies bring the reader summary information regarding the historical and theological significance of important Hebrew and Greek words. The bullet points refer the reader to an appendix for definitions of important common scriptural words. The sixth feature concerns the helpful maps, charts, photos and illustrations that are scattered throughout the text.

The final notable feature of the HCSB Study Bibleregards the intention of the publisher and the contributors (and, yes, I am one of them, having written the introduction and notes for the epistle to the Hebrews). As Jeremy Howard notes in his introduction, the contributors seek to be "servants to the text" so that people might be encouraged to engage God's Word "on a deeper level." We believe that all human beings "are sinners in need of reconciliation with God, and that this reconciliation comes only through faith in God's Son who paid our sin debt on the cross." This is why the reader will repeatedly be encouraged to encounter God in the Word by the power of His Spirit.

Yes, I would have written some of the notes and essays differently from my colleagues. (The most disconcerting example being the general editor's choice to impose a Calvinist meaning in his comments upon the text through the theologically loaded language of "effectual," including the authoritative use of unexplained quotation marks, to describe the calling of Romans 8:30.) However, that said, this Study Bible is worthy of purchase and use by the average Christian, as long as it is remembered that our commentary upon Scripture is fallible while the Biblical text itself remains absolutely trustworthy.

The HCSB Study Bibleis available in hardcover, imitation leather, bonded leather and leather. The HCSB Study Bible also may be accessed through the internet at, and a very nice application is available for use on iPhones and iPads.

September 30, 2010

A Rich and Fulfilling Legacy: The Editors of the Southwestern Journal of Theology

Since January 2007, I have had the extraordinary privilege of serving as the Managing Editor of the Southwestern Journal of Theology. The privilege comes not only from the trust placed in this particular editor by the current administration and by the current accomplished and recognized faculty, but also because of the memories of a stellar faculty that contributed editors to our academic journal during prior years. There have been two series of the journal. The original series started in 1917 under the editorship of C.B. Williams and the new series began in 1958 under the editorship of James Leo Garrett, Jr.

To review the list of previous editors is to be reminded of the high standards toward which Southwestern Seminary's faculty have always aspired. (It was personally interesting to discover two things from this list. First, although I only turned 48 two days ago, I was shocked to realize not only that I recognized all of the names on this list, but that I actually have personally known most of these giants. Second, I was surprised to learn that, with this semester's issue, only two of the 16 editors--Al Fasol and William M. Tillman--edited more volumes than the current editor.)

There are three major reasons that remembering these previous editors strikes this theologian as bequeathing us a particularly fulfilling legacy. First, I have read many important theological, historical, pastoral and preaching monographs written by these men. These monographs include but are not limited to: W.T. Conner's foundational systematic theology texts, which helped propel the exponential growth of Southern Baptists in the twentieth century; H.E. Dana's ecclesiology, which was the last major book on the doctrine of the church written by a Southern Baptist for over five decades; James Leo Garrett's systematic theology, Baptist theology and ecumenical theology texts, which have set the standards in all these areas and which have yet to be surpassed; William R. Estep's work on the Anabaptists, which is still in print and still invaluable as an introductory text. The list could go on, for the theological contributions of these editors, as well as the writings of many quality Southwestern faculty who were not editors, are so numerous and so profound as almost to defy the imagination.

The second reason that this group of editors presents a fulfilling legacy is that, as a Master of Divinity with Biblical Languages student in the 1980s, I sat in many of these men's classrooms. I can still remember how their biblical, theological and missiological knowledge--a knowledge gained both through extensive practice and sustained reflection--shaped my own formation. Even more than that, I remember how each of these professors modeled for all of their students a profound spiritual maturity. These faculty members were never well paid and were sometimes maliciously and ignorantly maligned by uninformed controversialists, but they were more interested in godliness than either wealth or fame, and as the years pass their selfless Christlike stature will properly grow. It should therefore be no surprise that these professors also evinced a deep and increasingly rare social maturity. We students learned, as we watched them, what it meant to be Christian gentlemen (and gentlewomen) and servants of the churches. Many of us who are active in the Southern Baptist Convention in the current generation (including the present writer) may not have lived up to their high standards, but one day perhaps, with God's grace, we shall.

The third reason that this legacy is fulfilling is that, ten years ago, I had the incredible privilege to join their number. I can still remember the day in 2000 when I was elected to the faculty under the leadership of President Ken Hemphill, Dean Tommy Lea, and acting Dean William Tolar. On that day in the summer of 2000, I knew that it was a distinct privilege to be classified no longer only as a Southwestern student (itself a high honor), but also as a colleague to these giants of the faith. Over the years since then, some of these men have approached me to tell me how much they have appreciated my contributions. One even did me the favor of publicly taking me to task when I gave a paper that he thought was not yet complete--he was correct, and I supplemented that paper before it was published! As I grow older, and as I survey the many highly gifted faculty members now serving through my alma mater, I pray that we will discern how rich is the legacy of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I also pray that we will strive to stand upon their shoulders and advance our seminary's rich legacy even more.

Below is a list of our journal editors, along with the volume and issue numbers over which their tenure began. If you are a graduate of Southwestern or are knowledgeable of Southern Baptist theological achievements, perhaps remembering their accomplishments as well as their personal demeanor will bless you as much as it has blessed me. Theirs is a fulfilling legacy worth remembering, celebrating and emulating.

Old Series
C.B. Williams (1.1)
W.T. Conner (3.4)
H.E. Dana (8.2)

New Series
James Leo Garrett, Jr. (1.1)
J. Gordon Clinard (2.1)
William R. Estep, Jr. (6.1)
William L. Hendricks (10.1)
Leon McBeth (14.1)
F.B. Huey, Jr. (17.2)
Bert B. Dominy (20.2)
James A. Brooks (23.2)
Dan Gentry Kent (27.1)
Al Fasol (29.2)
Dan Gentry Kent (30.2)
William M. Tillman (33.1)
Al Fasol (40.3)
Douglas Blount (46.1)
Malcolm B. Yarnell III (48.2)

September 22, 2010

Creativity & Discipline

Discipline is necessary to accomplish almost anything worthwhile in this life. Christ Jesus, we are told, 'learned obedience', most likely a reference to his humanity, as an ascription to the divine nature would call into question his constancy and omniscience. So, the human Jesus learned obedience. He grew in his knowledge of the divine will, bringing the human will into conformity. Here is an argument for a free will, a will exercising true freedom in obedience to God. How did he do it? 1) As the revelation of God, he knew the divine will. For us, this requires constant exposure to divine revelation, finding our life in the living word that gives life, exulting in the presence of God in our ears, on our lips, in our hearts, hearing, confessing, believing. 2) He obeyed the divine will, submitting himself to the will of the Father, even when it brought him duress in extremis in the garden. For us, this requires divine grace, since the human heart, having sold itself into wickedness, is locked in its depravity. By faith (itself a grace) we accept this grace into our lives and are thereby saved, being saved by grace, holding onto our salvation until its completion by grace. Christ 'learned obedience' and the restoration of a truly free will among the redeemed is manifested in a similar learning of obedience to God. This obedience is through the Word in the Spirit unto the Father; this obedience is by the Word in the Spirit from the Father. (The mystery of free grace and human response is again before us.) This obedience is otherwise known as discipline, discipleship, taking up the cross and following Him. So far, discipline.

And yet, as beings made in the image of the God who creates, we humans, male & female, also share in creativity. Do we as creatures fashion ex nihilo, out of nothing, as God did in the beginning? No, but we do fashion that which God has made. Surely, God finds joy in his image mimicking his creative acts. Like God's Word, we also use words to name creation--God found delight in Adam naming animals. Like God's Spirit, our spirits become one in the flesh of man & wife and we marvel at the mystery of the gift of a new breath coursing through the body of a newborn child. Beyond these acts of creation, is not work itself, for which God made us, by nature a creative activity? Whether it be the subduing of the earth in rows of corn, or the reporting of responsible capitalism in the columns of an accounting ledger, or the brushing of the swirls of an approaching storm splashed upon a taut canvas, these are acts of creation. Creativity from a human perspective involves taking two or more related yet often seemingly irreconcilably conflicting created things and bringing them together into some new created thing, 'new' in the sense of not previously recognized in our experience. And in that moment of creative action, the artist, the pilot, the scientist has a sense of exhilaration that is fundamentally pleasurable. As when God declared such and such to be good at the end of its creation, we too mimic him. The 'aha' of the creative work of man is a statement of discovery that echoes the 'it was good' declaration of God, an echo diminished qualitatively by the depravity of man, but an echo of goodness nonetheless.

So, what has creativity to do with discipline? Discipline brings the creative acts of male & female closer to the 'it was good' of God. When a human musician disciplines her fingers to pluck the strings of a classical guitar, chords of the divine symphony orchestrating creation throughout all time whispers mystery into our ears. When the architect disciplines his eyes and hands with his mind to connect this line with that circle at that particular angle in a reflection of the perfection of a divine thought, we glimpse behind the maker of the building another Maker whose glory is at the same time overwhelmingly awesome yet only vaguely perceived now. And when Christ disciplined his body and his mind to glorify his father, we see him take with divine authority the most gruesome deformation of wood & metal devised by human depravity for the sake of human torture, the cross of death, and through his human discipline, which he learned, transform that grotesque instrument by his own blood into the most glorious means by which his humanity, our humanity, reaches out and fully embraces and is embraced by the perfection of the God of love who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The discipline of the man who was God recreated humanity again into the image of God. And what cannot a humanity recreated by the cross of Christ itself create to bring us closer to the knowledge of his perfect formation of creation? Greater works than the miracles he performed in his first ministry upon the earth he promised his people would do. The key to the grace of creativity is the grace of discipline, a discipline with its eyes set on the revelation of God in Christ, and its hands wrapped around the pain of brokenness of whatever cross he lays upon his own, and its feet moving whither the Spirit would take them, and its mouth opening to speak nothing but his Word, for his glory, by his power. This is the discipline of Christian creativity. What ugliness, Lord, would you have transformed through the instrumentality of this body, which is learning the beauty of discipline to your will? Speak, Lord, your servant is ready to be disciplined for the sake of your creation.

(I offer this piece only at the encouragement of my bride, who read this entry from my private diary.)

September 20, 2010

A New Treatment of the New Testament Church

For nearly a century, the Baptist doctrine of the church did not receive sustained consideration. Providentially, over the last decade or so, there have been a number of monographs and collections of essays dedicated to rediscovering and restating the Baptist understanding of the biblical witness about the community established and ruled by the Lord Jesus Christ. Into this growing conversation enters again a group of theologians affiliated with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who have contributed essays to Upon This Rock: The Baptist Understanding of the Church. What makes this particular work unique is the sustained treatment given by ten authors to the doctrine of the church as delineated in the official Southern Baptist confession, the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000. Each author takes one aspect of the New Testament church and demonstrates its scriptural basis, its historical development and its contemporary application. It is this common confession that holds the book together as a unitary presentation.

Among the authors are David Allen, who defends the necessity of the autonomy of the local church; Bart Barber, who demonstrates why a denomination of churches is both biblical and useful; Emir F. Caner, who grounds the local church in the covenant of faith; Jason Duesing, who draws upon John A. Broadus to explain why Baptists must present their distinctive beliefs; James Leo Garrett, Jr., who explains why Baptist churches necessarily follow democratic processes under the Lordship of Christ; Byron McWilliams, who paints a compelling picture of the church and its officers from a pastor's perspective; Paige Patterson, who argues that churches should observe the two ordinances not as mere symbols but for the sake of sanctification; Thomas and Joy White, who consider the relation of gender and office; Thomas White, who distinguishes the universal and local church; and, Malcolm Yarnell, who explains the seminal ecclesiological passage of Matthew 16 through a sustained theological exposition. Upon This Rock: The Baptist Understanding of the Church, a new treatment of the New Testament church established long ago by our Lord and Savior, is now available.

September 9, 2010

The Danger Facing Systematic Theology

As you contemplate the task of moving from Scripture into systematic theology, please consider the following warning from Irenaeus about how the heretics known as the Valentinians distort Scripture to support their ideas. Note that Irenaeus is not against systematic theology; rather, he is against imposing an unbiblical system upon Scripture; he prefers to allow the “order” or “proper connection” of Scripture to assert itself. As we know, this is a perilous but necessary task, and this is why we should be constantly reading Scripture and hearing it, letting its order and proper connections form our theology. (Taken from Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1, chapter 7, in ANF, volume 1):

Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should re-arrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.

August 17, 2010

A Lament regarding Christian Infidelity to the Great Commission

This is a lament recorded by Sir William Petre, one of Edward VI's privy councillors, in a letter to Sir William Cecil, in 1551:
We which talk moch of Christ and his holy worde have I feare me used a moch contrary way, for we leave fysshing for men and fyssh agayn in the tempestuous sees of this world for gayne and wycked mammon.

While lamenting the acquisitive activities of so many leaders in the Edwardian government, it seems that Sir William Petre was reminded of the calling, failure, and re-calling of the apostle from whom his surname derived.

In Mark 1:16-18, Christ called Peter to become a fisher of men. In Mark 14:66-72, Peter denied his Lord three times. In John 21.3, Peter went back to fishing. In John 21.15-17, Christ again set Peter back upon the road of Christian service.

If there was hope for Peter (and there was!), then there was hope for Sir William Petre, and there is hope for you and me! Let us leave our carnal concerns behind and go back to fishing for Christ, today!

June 23, 2010

Voting for a Genuine Great Commission Resurgence

A number of people expressed disappointment when I informed them of my planned absence from this year's Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Orlando, Florida. Indeed, two different pastors offered to provide funds for my attendance. I am very grateful for their proposed largess, but alas there were other matters calling for my attention. Because of my nearly month-long responsibility to be away each summer with the Oxford Study Program of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I must limit my summer travel severely. If, that is, I am to enjoy any family time with my beautiful wife and our five children.

Ultimately, the choice came down to attending the Southern Baptist Convention in mid-June, on the one hand, or participating in a mission trip to the Ukraine in early June, on the other hand. The choice was originally difficult, for I am very interested, from a personal and vocational perspective, in seeing a genuine Great Commission resurgence among the free churches of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). God has called me to minister among these churches and I desire the best for them, and the best is found in fulfilling His commission by going to make disciples, baptizing and teaching (cf. Matthew 28:16-20).

There is little doubt among those of us who keep our eyes on the health of our local churches that we as a convention of churches are simply neither as fervent in our efforts nor as blessed in our fruitfulness as we once were. Discipleship--understood as submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every area of the Christian life, inclusive of evangelism, worship, church life, etc.--and its initial visible manifestation in baptism are suffering from a long-term malaise. I would like to see that turned around and am convinced that the best way forward is through a genuine Great Commission resurgence.

Because of this personal commitment to a Great Commission resurgence, I suppose it would have been best, from one vantage point, to attend the SBC meeting in Orlando, and cast my ballot for an amended version of what the GCR Task Force was proposing. As you may know, the GCR Task Force has generated much discussion among Southern Baptists over the last year. First prominently advocated in a resolution carefully written by Jeremy Green for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention in November 2008, then championed in a major way in April 2009 by Dr. Danny Akin of Southeastern Seminary, the idea of a Great Commission Resurgence resonated with many hearts in the Southern Baptist Convention. In June 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a motion for the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Johnny Hunt, to appoint a task force to study how Southern Baptists can work "more faithfully and effectively together in serving Christ through the Great Commission."

The history of that task force during the period between June 2009 and June 2010 was marked by some speculation, sharp controversy, and increasing education in Southern Baptist polity. Ultimately, however, the specific recommendations made by the task force, except for the definitions used to describe church contributions to Southern Baptist causes, did not strike most of those involved as particularly controversial. Moreover, the evangelistic sentiments expressed by both proponents and opponents of various recommendations were often similar. Indeed, when reading widely diverse views of the Task Force's work over the past year, I was struck by the unified desire of almost everybody involved to see a Great Commission resurgence. Any disagreement has been over the methods proposed by the Task Force rather than its actuality. From an historical perspective, however the responsible state and national agencies finally interpret the amended recommendations of the SBC in June 2010, stirring up sentiments for a Great Commission Resurgence will likely be the most important fruit of the Task Force's work.

This brings me back to my earlier dilemma. Should I get involved (again) in Southern Baptist politics at the Southern Baptist Convention while serving as a messenger for my local church? Or should I go on a mission trip? Ultimately, I came under conviction that the most important action I could take in June 2010 for a Genuine Great Commission Resurgence would not be political but missionary in nature. Yes, I did contribute an essay or two to the debate, trying to remind us of the biblical and historical nature of a genuine Great Commission resurgence, but even those pieces were not terribly political in nature. And, yes, I still do believe in the necessity of sanctified political activity on the part of faithful Baptists in the convention. However, in June 2010, my presence was simply not needed in Orlando, Florida, but it was needed on the other side of the planet.

And I am so glad I chose to vote for a genuine Great Commission resurgence, not with a ballot but with my feet, from a long distance away! I was given opportunity to witness repeatedly to the gospel on the streets of Kiev and later in London, to preach before an established church and a church plant, to work with Dr. Keith Eitel and Mr. Art Savage in persuading an important civil leader to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior, and to witness the public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ through biblical baptism by several former Muslims from a Middle Eastern country. I was also pleased with the gracious response I received from the plenary lecture on theological foundations delivered to the president, faculty and students of the Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary in Lviv and Boryslov, and by the opportunity to discuss the nuances of Eastern Orthodox theology with an Eastern Orthodox priest as well as a dozen students from Southwestern Seminary. Finally, and perhaps most poignant of all these blessings, I witnessed my middle son, Matthew Garrett, minister to the children of Kiev and later disperse hundreds of gospel tracts to people he will likely never again see in this life, but hopefully will see in the next.

So, yes, I am all for a Great Commission resurgence! However, I am also convinced that sometimes, for some of us, ecclesiastical politics is best put aside, for the Lord has determined that His gospel would be active when we speak it (Romans 10). And I must speak the Word of God everywhere I can, whether among unbelievers in Ukraine or among unbelievers in the United States. It is only as we become more active in our verbal witness--to Jesus Christ as the God-man who died on the cross for the sins of all who will believe and rose again for our eternal life. It is only through the necessary activity of witnessing to Jesus Christ that we will see a genuine Great Commission resurgence. Let's get started, Southern Baptists, here in the United States and around the world. Let's vote with our feet and with our tongues, now that the ballots have fallen away from our hands.

March 26, 2010

GCRTF VIEWPOINT: What does Scripture say?

By Malcolm Yarnell
Mar 26, 2010

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--The Southern Baptist Convention's decision last June to create a Great Commission Resurgence Task Force was motivated by our growing realization that the baptisms within our churches are slowing. The highly anticipated interim report from this blue-ribbon committee chaired by pastor Ronnie Floyd recently fostered much debate. However the upcoming national and state convention meetings receive the final recommendations, one must agree that we are all becoming more aware of our God-given responsibility to fulfill His Great Commission. It cannot be stressed enough how important this is. The study committee and its respondents are providing a great spiritual service in highlighting the Great Commission. Let us thank God that He is fostering a renewed concern for His will.

Historically, we began our existence through a similar renewed concern to fulfill those Bible passages identified with the Great Commission (especially Matthew 28:18-20, but also Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:45-49, John 20:21-23 and Acts 1:8). The Anabaptists and early General Baptists referred to such passages as the "rule of Christ." A 16th-century Particular Baptist, Benjamin Keach, popularized the term "Great Commission" through his many writings. Later, William Carey used the Great Commission to rebuke hard-line Calvinist views among 18th-century Baptists, thereby launching the modern missionary movement. The first Baptist convention in America began with a sermon on the Great Commission by a leading southern Baptist, Richard Furman, and missionary Southern Baptists often have returned to the Great Commission in their zeal to please God. Thus, historically, the Great Commission is part and parcel of what it means to be Baptist. But tradition, as inspiring as it is, is not what motivates Baptists; Scripture does.

The Biblical Basis for a Resurgence

This brings us to ask: Where in Scripture might a Great Commission Resurgence be discussed? If we peer over the desk of the late Herschel H. Hobbs, we discover that the New Testament letter to the Hebrews was written in order to challenge its readers "to go on in the fulfillment of their divinely given mission -- to be a people of evangelism and missions" (Hebrews: Challenges to Bold Discipleship). In other words, the Hebrews had reached a crisis point: Either they would fulfill the Great Commission of their Lord Jesus Christ or they would fall away into obscurity. Hobbs again remarks, "A given group of God's people, a church, or an individual Christian may so rebel against God's world-mission as to lose the opportunity of being used in it." These are sober and frightening and relevant words, indeed.

Has our generation of Southern Baptists reached a similar crisis point? Is God reminding us of His commission, warning us to fulfill His will or be bypassed? This is not the same question as apostasy; rather, it is a question about our churches' obedience to the Lord. Are we willing to recognize that Jesus is the Lord of His church and He alone determines her membership, her structure, her gifts, her leadership, her ordinances, her mission, her methods and her message? Are we willing to hear His Great Commission and obey it, precisely as He put it forward in the Bible?

These are questions that we in the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention must ask ourselves. Before continuing, we must admit these are not really questions for the denomination, as good as it has been and still is, for Christ did not establish denominations. The only redemptive institution established by Jesus Christ in Scripture is the church (Matthew 16:18), and she is seen now only in local covenanted gatherings of believers (Matthew 18:18-20). Denominational entities exist only for the cooperative purposes of the churches and carry no dominical claim whatsoever to be church. A denomination is dependent upon and subservient to its churches. It may surprise us, but in the end the Lord will not ask whether our denominational entities were obedient to His Great Commission, for He did not give this responsibility to them. Our churches are directly responsible to Jesus Christ to fulfill the Great Commission, and we may not empower and release that responsibility to even the most efficient entity.

Where Do We Begin and How Do We Proceed?

The Great Commission Resurgence must be fulfilled first and foremost in the local churches. The primary question is, therefore, not about the denomination's structure, but the local church's structure. If we in the local churches do not look like what Christ established and the apostles practiced in the New Testament, we must reconsider our structures. The denominational structure, a human innovation, only comes into consideration as a secondary or tertiary matter. Our first concern must be with Christ's institution: Is my church New Testament in its structure, methods, etc.? Denominational structures are relevant only insofar as the God-given priorities of the local churches are honored, maintained and promoted. From this perspective, the more ties an extrabiblical entity has with the local churches, the better; the fewer contacts, the worse. So, the resurgence must begin locally.

If there is to be a Great Commission Resurgence, it must start within the churches. But where do the churches start? Hebrews 5:8-14 compels us to look to Christ Himself as the perfect example of obedience and to proceed into theological and ethical maturity. Growth into Christian maturity begins with making sure that the foundation of our faith is right. After the foundation is set, theological maturity is found in obeying the Word of God, not piecemeal, but completely. According to Hebrews 6:1-2, our foundation doctrines include repentance and faith unto salvation, the proper practices of baptism and laying on of hands, and the eschatological teachings on resurrection and eternal judgment. It is only when these essential doctrines -- noticeably inclusive of baptism -- are maintained that we may press on to maturity. Let us make sure we always maintain the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, but we cannot remain there.

Hobbs points out that Hebrews 6:4-6 is a commentary on the events of Numbers 13-14, where the people of Israel "were failing to fill their place in God's world-mission." The church must learn from Israel's mistakes and not forget its mission. What is the church's mission? Our Great Commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20. The primary command is to "make disciples," but also included are the imperatival participles of "going" on mission, "baptizing" the new converts as a public witness to their faith, and "teaching them all" that Christ has commanded. There will be no Great Commission Resurgence as long as any of these commands, or their sequence, is dismissed as non-essential. We absolutely must cross all ethnic and geographic boundaries to make disciples. We absolutely must baptize new disciples. We absolutely must teach everything that Christ commanded, committing ourselves to lifelong Bible education.

Matthew 28:18-20 commands that we "make disciples," and the other passages help complete the picture as to how that lifelong process must begin. Common among the renditions of the Great Commission is the need for Christians to proclaim the words of the gospel of Jesus Christ -- words available only from the Bible. Christians must be verbal witnesses, and their words must: focus on the God-man Jesus Christ (John 20:21; Acts 1:8); include the good news of His death for our sin and resurrection for our life (Mark 16:15; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8); call for personal repentance and promise forgiveness (Luke 24:47; cf. Romans 10:9-10); and be directed individually to every human being on the planet (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:19-20). This great responsibility is incumbent upon all Christians and is impossible for any one congregation to fulfill on its own.

The Greatness of the Great Commission

In other words, Christ's Commission is "Great" because it cannot be completed unless every Christian in every church receives it as a personal and congregational responsibility to share the New Testament gospel verbally with every lost person. Why a verbal witness? Because God ordained that faith would be engendered in the human heart through the proclaimed Word of God. God has chosen our tongues to be the instruments that carry His Word. And the churches are to train and send out their members to proclaim it (Romans 10:14-17). The particularity of this task (giving a personal verbal witness) alongside its universality (providing that witness to everyone everywhere every day) demands our entire attention and drives us into each other's arms.

We cooperate together because the commission is too great for any one church to fulfill alone. The Great Commission, as noted, is also found in Acts 1:8, where the Jerusalem church is given responsibility not only for Jerusalem, and for Judea and Samaria, but also for the "remotest part of the earth." When a local church hears Christ's command, she receives responsibility for proclaiming the gospel to her local community, in her state and to all the nations of the world. Yes, every local church is responsible for preaching Scripture within every geographic category of our earthly existence. My church in Fort Worth is responsible to make disciples in Fort Worth, in Texas and the United States, and in Afghanistan and everywhere else.

Note two truths here: First, the local community and the state have no more priority than the rest of the world. Second, the local community and the state have no less priority than the rest of the world. The entire world is our emphasis, and no place, near or far, may be excluded or diminished in importance. This comprehensive calling is why Southern Baptist churches have historically cooperated in amicable relationships through local associations, state conventions and the national convention. The churches understood that friendly cooperation is necessary at all levels in order to penetrate the world's darkness. All of our denominational levels and their entities -- mission boards, seminaries, colleges, children's homes, soup kitchens, etc. -- are intended to help us be better Great Commission churches. Jerusalem is just as important as Judea and Samaria, and both are just as important as the uttermost ends of the earth. The Great Commission demands universal geographic application beginning with one's community.

The all-encompassing nature of Christ's Great Commission should drive us into one another's arms for mutual help, but not because we see what others might contribute to our various personal or institutional priorities. We should be driven into cooperation because we see Jesus Christ in each other, and that vision of Him reminds us of Who the Great Commission concerns. The Great Commission compels us because it comes from our Lord, Who gave Himself totally for us. We respond by giving ourselves totally to Jesus and for His glory alone. The Great Commission is great because it is from Jesus and because it is for Jesus. Jesus wants His churches to make sure the foundation is correct and to mature by fulfilling His mission to a lost world. We all need each other to accomplish Jesus' Great Commission.

Will We Really Have a Great Commission Resurgence?

Knowing the Hebrew church needed a Great Commission Resurgence, the author expressed grave concern. Like Israel, that church was given so much, but they were tempted to suppress their witness in difficult times. The apostle warned them that when God works in mighty ways in a community, He expects it to bear fruit. "But if it yields thorn and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned" (Hebrews 6:8).

Hobbs lamented that when Christians refuse to proclaim the gospel, they "negate God's redemptive purpose. Thus they join with the crucifiers." God will then choose another people or a different generation to accomplish His world-mission. This is a dire warning to my generation of Southern Baptists today. However, on the bright side, the apostle also said, "Beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation" (Hebrews 6:9).

So, does Scripture have anything to say about a Great Commission Resurgence? Yes, indeed, it does. The question now is whether we will obey our Lord's commission. Will we follow Him? Will we let Him rule His churches as He commands in Scripture? Will we make sure that we have all the fundamentals established? Will we then grow into the full maturity of His Great Commission -- by going, making disciples, baptizing and teaching all His commands? Will we proclaim His Word faithfully?

Will we see everyone everywhere every day as our personal responsibility? Will we call them to repent from sin and believe in the resurrected God-man Jesus Christ, and then call new disciples to obey Him starting with baptism? Will we be faithful to implement Jesus' will completely in His churches? Will we cooperate together in our local associations, our state conventions and as a Southern Baptist Convention for His purposes? Will we obey His Great Commission? I pray we will, and I am convinced that God will bless our churches as we fulfill Christ's Great Commission completely for His glory alone as authoritatively relayed in the Bible alone.


Malcolm Yarnell is associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

© Copyright 2010 Baptist Press

Original copy of this story can be found at

March 22, 2010

Oxford 2010 - A Study Tour

Open to students and friends of the seminary. Applications close as of 31 March 2010. Space is still available but limited. Please contact Madison Grace for more details: or 817-923-1921, ext. 4495. See also

February 19, 2010

Book Cover - Upon This Rock

The prospective book cover for "Upon This Rock: A Baptist Understanding of the Church," being published by B&H Academic, is:

February 8, 2010

A Poignant Visit to an Old Church in England

On this rainy, with spots of sunshine, Saturday, 19 May 2007, I sit in the church occupied by my forefathers: St. James Church, Oddingley, Droitwich, Worcestershire, England. The sense of history is, if I may say so, palpable. The church is not very large, though perhaps deemed quite respectable in the 15th century (ca. 1460), when a window above the altar, was dedicated to John and Joanna Yarnold. Yarnold, which derives from the Norman words for "eagle's rule," has been spelled also as Yarnell and Yarnall.

The Yarnolds/Yarnells/Yarnalls of today may trace their ancestry from this small church in the west of England. It is a quiet place with a wonderful view, being set on the side of a hill looking over a valley through which a small canal flows. The horses run at their leisure in a field to the north, a large home is located to the southeast and fields of various types stretch into the distance. One can only imagine why the Yarnells left this paradise on the northwestern edge of the enchanting Cotswolds, if one were to realize that persecution will often drive people of conscience to change their location rather than their religion.

The Yarnells of the 15th and 16th centuries were at least nominally faithful children of the medieval and then Reformation church of England. But in the 17th century, they were swayed mightily by the preaching of the Quakers. Some of the Yarnells then immigrated to the new colony established by the wealthy Quaker, William Penn. The largest cluster of Yarnell families in the United States thus may be found in Pennsylvania and the surrounding states. There are significant branches represented in Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, and now Texas, too.

The Oddingley stained glass window, in the left part of the trifold, shows a middle-aged couple richly but chastely dressed, bowing in prayer to God. His head is uncovered, his hair is neatly cut, his eyes are raised heavenward, and his hands are gently opened as in supplication. Her head is covered, she is somewhat shorter than him, her eyes are raised heavenward, and her hands are positioned as her husband. The window above them is occupied by a queen, standing with a sword under her left hand and a wheel under her right. The window below them is occupied by a tonsured cleric in prayer. They are the only ones in the stained glass window to have their hands open in prayer, while the rest have their hands closed. The middle portion of the window is occupied above by saint Matthew with a bishop’s staff and below by another monarchical clerical figure with a cross. Both figures have their right hands raised in blessing (two fingers raised, two fingers lowered. The right part of the trifold is occupied above by a king. In the center of the right part is another couple praying with a monk below in prayer. The arms on the left and on the right, above the king and the queen, are unknown to me. (The window was obviously damaged at some point, for the right and central portions have pieces that have been rearranged in reconstruction.)

The Yarnold window asks in Latin for the observor to pray for the souls of John and Joanna. And so I shall, though perhaps not in the way intended by these pious medieval Christians. For, though I am no Quaker, I am a fellow free churchman among the baptizing churches. I have a history of Christian piety in my family, alongside a history of military servants, and I pray that this tradition will continue among my children and theirs. Although the destiny of our ancestors is determined already by their faith or lack thereof in Christ, we may pray for (and witness to) those who are alive now or are yet to be born. Medieval society was divided between those who pray, those who fight, and those who work. It seems that my ancestors have included all three estates, though not very high in any, except in the new world, which opened the door for meritorious achievement, including ministers, the calligrapher for a very famous writing by Thomas Jefferson, as well as admirals, physicians and managers.

Thank you, Lord, for allowing me this poignant moment in the beautiful countryside from which my family descended. It is nice to know that there were people who were respected in society as being faithful in your eyes in the past, stretching at least into the 15th century, and perhaps far beyond. Interestingly, not only is the window dedicated to Matthew, but a recent grave to the left of the entrance door is occupied by an Elizabeth Joy Fabricius who lived to see grandchildren and was beloved. My own Matthew and Elizabeth Joy would find that of interest.

January 20, 2010

What Did Jesus Think of Scripture?

A decade ago, Paige Patterson addressed the subject of Jesus' own view of Scripture. It is an excellent presentation for a popular audience of the high view of Scripture which Jesus held. According to Patterson, Jesus believed that "the Word of God as revealed in Old and New Testaments is without error, scientifically, historically, philosophically or theologically." In other words, a high Christology and a high view of Scripture are necessarily interdependent. Enjoy!

Patterson looks to Jesus' standards to determine beliefs about Bible
By Tammi Reed Ledbetter
Sep 5, 2000

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)--How Southern Baptists answer the question of "how you know what you say you know is true" is reflected in their statement of faith, said Paige Patterson, speaking in the closing chapel of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Week of Preaching, Aug. 29-31.

Taking students through a Bible drill, Patterson described evidence that Jesus believed in the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Bible, as well as its infallibility and inerrancy.

In his first sermon of the week, Patterson spoke of "three profound, defining moments in the history of Christianity," referring to heresies that spawned "intellectual activity and spiritual concern." Each era led to the adoption of a conclusion widely accepted within Christendom, Patterson explained, regarding Christology, soteriology and epistomology. (News coverage of all three messages is available at

"After having occupied the first seven centuries of the church's history discussing who is Jesus [the field of Christology], it then became necessary in the Reformation to decide how it is you get to Jesus once you've decided who he is [soteriology]," Patterson said. "The soteriological controversy determined whether or not the church should be viewed as the lifeboat or the lighthouse." And with the Enlightenment came the question of whether such conclusions about Jesus Christ were true (the arena of epistemology).

The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, Patterson explained, added two statements that had never been used in previous confessions of faith by Baptist groups. The Bible was presented as a record of revelation, with Jesus Christ as the supreme standard by which the Scriptures should be judged, Patterson said.

"On the surface, both of those seem to be perfectly understandable. The Bible is certainly a record of revelation. And certainly the standard by which the Scriptures are to be judged is Jesus Christ, the ultimate revelation." Patterson asked, "Why were they put into the 1963 statement and why were they taken out of the 2000 statement? And why is there so much commotion about it?"

Patterson cited the influence of followers of philosopher Immanuel Kant in wanting "wiggle room" to "kick all faith into the upper story" and say there is no way to verify one's faith. "And since we cannot reduce it to any of the phenomena that we know, therefore it is purely a faith matter," Patterson said in explaining the position of the 1963 revisionists. "And faith is basically up to the individual and there are no guarantees" of its truth, he further recounted, as compared to the scientific verification available for the law of thermodynamics.

"I'm glad we took it out," Patterson said of the 1963 language. "We needed to take away the wiggle room."

Borrowing the language of critics of the 2000 revision who insist that Jesus must be the standard by which Scripture should be judged, Patterson asked, "Do we not do the right thing to believe about the Bible what Jesus believed? Whatever it is Jesus thought and said about the Bible is what I ought to think and say about the Bible."

Traditionally, evangelicals have said four things about the Bible, Patterson said, dealing with verbal and plenary inspiration as well as infallible and inerrant content. In order to show that Jesus believed in these same principles, Patterson directed his audience to Matthew 22. Jesus demonstrated his confidence in the verbal inspiration of Scripture on the basis of the Holy Spirit directing David to call his descendent Lord, Patterson observed.

"If they'd known the Scriptures they could have said this one is both the root -- gives rise to David and was before David and Abraham and everybody else -- but in incarnation becomes a son of David born to Jewish parents in the line of David, so he is both the root and the offspring of David."

Turning to Luke 24:25, Patterson asserted Jesus' belief in the plenary inspiration of Scripture, the belief that all of it is inspired of God. Jesus referred to the foolishness of the men for being slow to believe Moses and all the prophets, a typical Jewish reference to the whole of Scripture, Patterson explained.

"I never called anybody a fool for not believing everything that's in the Bible," Patterson emphasized. "Let the record show that was done by Jesus the Christ. I just read you what he said. That's all. He said that a man who doesn't believe all that is in the prophets is a fool." Quoting Psalm 41:1, Patterson reminded, "'The fool has said in his heart there is no God.' And another kind of fool says, 'Yes, there is no God, but we don't know for sure that you can trust anything that he claims to have said.'"

Patterson asked, "How much of the Bible did Jesus believe? Every single solitary syllable of it. Don't tell me you're a disciple of Jesus Christ and you're following him and he is the supreme standard by which the Scriptures can be interpreted, and then take a view contrary to that of Jesus concerning the Word of God."

Moving on to Jesus' perspective on infallibility of Scripture, Patterson said it means "the documents in the Bible properly understood and interpreted will lead to God and it will never lead you astray."

Pointing to Jesus' statement in John 5:39 as evidence that "the scriptures are they which testify of me," Patterson reminded that almost nothing is known of Jesus except what is said in Scripture. Those who say they don't follow Scripture so much as they follow Jesus should be asked, "Which Jesus?" Patterson said. "If you're following the Jesus who's the real Jesus and not some Jesus manufactured by the Jesus Seminar or Albert Schweitzer in years gone by, then you follow the Jesus of the Bible because the only place we know anything about Jesus is from the Bible."

In John 5:45, Jesus declared that Moses wrote of him (Jesus), questioning how they would believe his words when they didn't even believe the writings of Moses, Patterson recounted. He then paraphrased Jesus' response in John 5:47, stating, "The truth is, you don't believe me. The reason you don't believe me is that you didn't believe those who wrote about me."

From Matthew 5:17-18, Patterson argued for Jesus' belief in inerrancy, defined as a belief that "the Word of God as revealed in Old and New Testaments is without error, scientifically, historically, philosophically or theologically." Patterson acknowledged poetic license, metaphor and figures of speech which served as "normal human language" by which the Bible could be understood.

Noting the use of a double negative for emphasis, Patterson said the text conveys the sense that "under no circumstances never" will any part of Scripture pass away. "Now Jesus said," Patterson began, interjecting, "mind you Paige Patterson didn't say, Adrian Rogers didn't say, Jerry Vines didn't say, Al Mohler didn't say ... Jesus said it," he continued with a reminder that Jesus is "the supreme standard by which the New Testament and Old Testament will be judged." He continued, "Jesus said the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet found in the Scripture shall not pass until heaven and earth pass away. That's a pretty powerful claim."

He described a "tittle" as an extended line on the end of the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. "You say, 'My goodness, a tittle couldn't be very important.'" Patterson admonished, "Don't you dare leave your tittle off! If you leave your tittle off, you didn't write a Beth [the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet] at all; you wrote another letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And because most Hebrew words are in three radicals, you changed the whole meaning of the word. You may have changed the whole sentence, the whole meaning of the paragraph just because you didn't watch out for your tittle."

To get a better sense of the size of a tittle, Patterson joked, "I got my Kittel and my ruler and I measured my tittles." He concluded, "Jesus is saying, 'Under no circumstances never shall the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet or a little mark of one thirty-second of an inch pass from my Word until all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth will pass away before that will happen.'"

Recalling Martin Luther's defiance of the Pope during the Reformation, Patterson recalled that he determined that "the boy that drives a plow shall know more of the Scripture than the pope does." He added, "That's what Reformation Christianity is all about. That's what biblical Christianity is all about. What Christ is all about is a sure word and revelation of God in the living word, Jesus Christ, and in the written word, the Bible, which is never to be separated from the Jesus, the living Word."

© Copyright 2010 Baptist Press

Original copy of this story can be found at

January 18, 2010

A Southern Baptist's Pilgrimage From Racism

Below is the first non-academic theological essay which I wrote as a pastor, back in 1996. It was originally accepted for publication in the Christian Century, if I would modify the language of inerrancy. I refused and it remained unpublished. In commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr., I offer it here for the first time publicly. 

It Started in Panama 

Parked in a shady spot near a gas station along a highway in the Central American country of Panama, I noticed a dark object in the road a little bit away in the opposite lane. Four-year olds often perceive what others may miss. That ebony object in the road was not a dog or a wild animal, but a human being. What was amazing to my little mind was that a truck came barreling along and ran over that man's body as if it was nothing. I can still see the indentations in his flesh where the wheels of more than one automobile had crushed him. I had often taken my toy cars and pushed tracks into the wet mud in a similar manner. I looked to my father, "Daddy, why doesn't anyone stop?" He turned, surveyed the scene, and quickly hustled my brothers and me back into the car. He drove away without a word, but with an inexplicable look upon his face. How do you tell a three young boys that a black man's life is cheap? 

Some months later, my father drove us into the "wrong" section of Panama City. There were several black boys who began throwing rocks at us. My father quickly turned the little red car around and gunned it out of danger. "Daddy, why did they throw rocks at us? We didn't do anything to them!" Again, no answer. 

My daddy was from the mountains of central Pennsylvania, a stronghold of abolitionist Quakerism, but where few minorities dwelt. However, my mother was from the swamps and hills of northern Louisiana, a stronghold of racial segregation, and a deeply divided black-white population. My father was a life-long military man. Since he was transferred quite often, we were exposed to numerous cultures on the North American continent. We lived for periods of one to four years in New York, Panama, Louisiana, Illinois, Alaska, Maine, Indiana, and back to Louisiana again. 

In the military of the 1960s and 1970s, the official policy was racial desegregation, and as we grew up in the same schools, most Air Force "brats" took little notice of the differences between our races and originating cultures. That is, until we were exposed to the local, native schools. In the north, they used to ask me to talk so they could hear my southern accent. The local bullies would jeer, "Hey, listen everybody! He's going to say 'ya'll' again!" 

I became sensitive to being different. With every new move came a sense of depression. I lost old friends and had to make new ones all over again, an agonizing process for an introverted child. It was as if God arranged my life to make me empathetic to those who do not fit the mold, or who do not find it easy to change like chameleons with new situations. I learned to take people as they are, trying to suppress misconstrued, cultural judgment. 

How? I learned to lean on the Jesus of my mother and father. This Jesus came to me in songs, songs like "Jesus Loves Me" and another old favorite,

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, 
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, 
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Like most children, I took those songs and the red, printed words of Jesus in my Bible quite literally. Jesus spoke of loving your neighbor. In the story of the "Good Samaritan," I learned that my neighbor was anyone who was near me. So I loved anybody near me. Color did not matter. In my foolish, simple, little mind, that was the way it was supposed to be. You can imagine my confusion when a young friend and I were beaten up by a group of black boys in North Chicago because we happened to be the wrong color and had accidentally missed the bus home that day. 

You can imagine my confusion when I heard the kids in the high school in Maine denounce each other with racist slurs. The walls shook with invective. I thought Jesus commanded us to love each other. Soon, I learned that not everybody revered the words of Jesus. Unbelievers could be excused to a degree for their hatred, perhaps they just did not know any better. 

However, my confusion increased a hundredfold after I became pastor of a medium-sized church in a transitional neighborhood on the edge of a major city in Louisiana. Before that, at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, we were presented with the Church Growth Movement as the ultimate expression of a vital church. 

Yet I pastored a new mission into existence in a run-down western Fort Worth apartment complex. We had forty or more black and white adults and children to serve. Nobody really noticed the dissimilitudes. It is hard to notice "otherness" when you have to fend off drunken fathers, addicted mothers, swarming cockroaches, absent landlords, and excruciating poverty. In such circumstances, people tend to rely on others who may help you, no matter their external oddities. God moved powerfully in that human-forsaken place.

Louisiana and Racism 

But in Louisiana, the differences were profound--the old segregation remained. I led Lakeview Baptist Church to begin reaching the neighborhood for Jesus Christ. Some of our youth wanted to know if they could invite their black friends. The very question shocked me. Why not? So, the black youth came. Then came the whispers, but I had heard whispers before and survived them. Why would anyone object to a black boy or girl coming to know Jesus? Doesn't he love the little children? That's what the Bible said. That's what the songs said. 

I did not realize it, but I violated a strong cultural more--blacks and whites do not mix in church. They may go to the same schools, the same stores, the same jobs, but they must not worship on the same sacred ground. In the 1950s, both Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. expressed disgust that "eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." These two giants did what they could to rectify the situation in their own ways. Surely, by the 1990s, things had changed. Sadly, they had not. The church watched as the youth brought their friends and the grumbles progressed towards a roar. Try as I might, the Lord would not let the situation settle quietly down. 

During preparation for a revival, we took names from anyone who wanted the church to pray for the conversion of their family and friends. One black youth offered up his sister's name. We prayed for her along with forty or fifty other people--be careful about what you pray for. Soon after the end of the revival, on September 26, 1993, his sister came to church. She was twenty-three years old, seven months pregnant, and wore no ring on her finger. During the invitation, she came down the aisle. 

I knew the trouble this might cause. So when she told me she was being called by God to join the church in baptism, I became very tough on her. "When were you saved?" I queried. This was going to be just the first of many questions. Such a question was not bad in and of itself. Rather, these questions should be asked. But in my first years I had not asked any other convert such specific questions. Her answer still shakes me to the depth of my bones. "On the eighth of this month," she said so meekly. And then . . . well, then, she began to cry. I had never seen such a genuine display of Christ in my life. All I could think of before was how to keep her out, and now God had given me a new child to disciple, a child I I thought we were not prepared to handle. But God is sovereign.

When I presented her for membership, the church was still in shock and many voted yes. Others sat in their comfortable seats, arms folded, staring mutely. There was no open dissension, yet. Realizing my own sinful attitude, I felt the need to involve someone who could hold me accountable. Many white pastors in such a situation usually contact a local black pastor and quietly shuffle the convert into a black church--an older, white pastor encouraged me to take this very route. Every member of that church would have applauded or excused me if I had done so, but that was not the way of Christ. Moreover, she was convinced that God called her to Lakeview Baptist Church. There was no meanness or point to be made on her part. She was just humbly convinced this was God's will. Who am I to argue with God? She needed baptism, discipleship, and loving fellowship, and God had sent her to bless Lakeview Baptist Church. 

I called Rev. Milton Boyd, pastor of a black Southern Baptist church plant. I considered asking him to take her off my hands--that was my temptation. It would have been easier to put her off, save my career, and seek a means to put a salve on my torn conscience. But what I asked him to do seemed to come off the top of my head. "Milton, you don't know me. But I know you, and I want you to hold me accountable. I am the pastor of a white church and a pregnant, black, unwed teenager has just come for baptism. Will you meet with me on a regular basis to make sure I treat her no differently than I would anyone else?" Milton needed no time. His answer was simply, "When do we get started?" 

Pragmatically, I should never have done such a thing. We lost a number of families, tithing families. I faced a myriad of dilemmas, social and theological. The questions from the congregation were almost always of a social nature. How do we keep the white girls from marrying the black boys? How do we keep "them" from taking over "our" church? These questions loomed larger as blacks continued to join the church.

Church Growth Movement 

I had violated one of the cardinal rules of the very church growth I had been taught to implement, the homogeneous unit principle. One church growth guru listed the violation of this principle as the third of eight "growth-inhibiting diseases,"
People-blindness occurs when churches do not recognize the important cultural differences which glue large social groups together and which can become barriers to the communication of the Good News. The notion that "our church can win anybody" is good rhetoric, but poor church growth thinking. God has given your church the ability to reach only a limited number and kind of people, and this you should be doing well. That is why I mentioned that, in writing a philosophy of ministry, you need to be explicit about the sociocultural profile of your congregation. While biblical ethics do not permit a church to develop a racist or segregationist philosophy of ministry, they do not prohibit narrowcasting the gospel and giving priority to certain market segments. At the same time, efforts need to be made to see that other churches are established which qualify for reaching each one of the segments of society. In that way the total body reaches the total population.
Was Peter Wagner right? Had I violated a cardinal rule of the Church Growth Movement? I soon came to realize that such a gospel as this is not the gospel preached by Jesus and the apostles. Jesus did not come to divide people into "market segments" based on "sociocultural profiles." Rather, he came to break down the dividing wall of hostility. 

Paul, a Jew who brought uncircumcised Gentiles into the synagogue, seemed to have a parallel situation to my own. In his liberating letter to the Galatians he seemed to speak directly to the Church Growth Movement's homogeneous unit principle. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, . . . for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Furthermore, anyone that "narrowcasts" the gospel necessarily changes the very nature of that gospel. He aptly wrote, "If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed" (1:9). Finally, Paul said that bearing another's burdens is not a "growth-inhibiting disease," but a divine commandment (6:2). 

Other thoughts invaded my mind. Had I done a great disservice to my church? Was it going to be destroyed because of my childlike faith in a God who is no respecter of persons? I was thrown back on my Bible and the loving God revealed there. It seemed that every other support was failing. Most of my friends thought (and still think) I was too cavalier with tradition--"He's a little too prophetic, too confrontational." However, my Southern Baptist background bequeathed me another more important principle than the Church Growth Movement or my genteel, southern culture: an inerrant, authoritative Word.

The Inerrant, Authoritative Word of God 

If God's Word cannot err and if that Word provides the norm for the Christian life, what does it say about such a crass approach to reality as my childlike faith in a loving, reconciling God who ignores the differences between black and white? Should I really try to pastor a multi-racial flock? A rapid survey of Scripture revealed the thoughts of God on the subject:
I discovered that racists used the curse of Ham in Genesis 9 as one of many proof texts for racial hatred. But my theological mentor, James Leo Garrett Jr., demonstrated that such interpretations are clearly errant denials of the unity of mankind. 
In Numbers 12, Miriam objected to Moses' marriage to a black woman. A narrative reading of the text suggests that God responded, "If you want to be white, Miriam, I will give you white!" He then struck her with leprosy. 
In the book of Jonah, God dealt harshly with a prophet who had forgotten the Abrahamic covenant. YHWH wants to bless all the families of the earth through his chosen people (Genesis 12:3). 
The prophet Jeremiah was pulled out of the sewer, and a certain death, at the behest of a black man (38:7-13, 39:15-18). 
Jesus broke down the walls of Jewish particularism. The Jew prayed, "Thank God I was not born a Gentile, a woman, or a dog." Jesus let the crumbs of grace fall to the very "dog" which the Jews despised. 
Jesus went out of his way to point to the faith of a Roman centurion whose trust was greater than any Israelite's. 
God allowed a black man the privilege of carrying Christ's cross to Calvary. 
It was a Samaritan, a despised half-breed, who became the prototypical neighbor. 
Philip, the liberal prophet--liberal, that is, in spreading the Word of God--took the Word to an Ethiopian and baptized him. He even took the Word to the despised Samaritans (Acts 8ff). 
Paul was taken to task several times for his willingness to offer the gospel freely to those of other races and cultures. 
Peter received the revelation of the sheet to open his heart to the Gentiles. 
Yet later, Paul was compelled to remind Peter of the universal scope of God's grace (Galatians 1-2). 
Finally, in the Revelation, we see around the throne, people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. There are no "market segments" in glory! 
And on earth? Well, Jesus tells us to pray, "on earth as it is in heaven."
It seems that the inerrant Word tears down racism, particularism, or the homogeneous unit principle, whatever one may call such wall-building. Any individual or church which takes the Word of God seriously cannot harbor racism of any kind in their attitude and ethics. 

When I realized the Biblical message, I immediately preached a sermon to my congregation and confessed my sin of racism. I begged God for forgiveness because I had treated this precious child of His harshly because of her skin color and because of my fear of an irate congregation. He gave me the strength to do what was right and love my neighbor. Many in the congregation fled to other churches. Many repented with me. Miraculously, providentially, the congregation actually grew in numbers and in faith. 

A Theology of Image and Koinonia 

Ultimately, the question must be asked, do people who are different than me have souls? Most certainly, they do. They, too, are created in the image of God. We learn in Genesis that God created humans in his image (1:26-27, 5.1). If murder is the destruction of that divine image (9:6), can exclusion by reason of race be anything but exclusion of the divine image? Furthermore, since destruction of the divine image is deserving of death, should not one practicing exclusion be punished by exclusion, too? Since God made humans in his image, all humans are greatly valued, no matter the color of their skin. 

The only way to bypass such a Biblical argument for universal dignity and love is to deny that someone is human. This is what the Nazis did to the Jews in World War II. They were designated as "sub-humans." It seems that the easiest way for any "Christian" to deny love and respect to another human is to deny their humanity, a path all too familiar for Southern Baptists, who, themselves, were born in reaction to anti-slavery sentiments in the north. The steps from sub-human to animal to inanimate object are easy once the step from human to sub-human is taken. 

In addition to the theology of image, there is the theology of koinonia. In his first epistle, John gave his readers a method by which they could judge their assurance of salvation. There are three primary measures: obedience, confession of Christ, and koinonia. John spoke in stark times of light and darkness, love and hate. He equated koinonia, fellowship, with God and fellowship with God's people. "He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light. . ." (I John 2:9ff). The implications were clear. If I love and fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ, black or white, I have love and fellowship with God (cf., Jesus' new commandment, John 13:34-35). If I do not koinonia with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I do not koinonia with God. 

The "M" Group 

Milton and I met with Mark Eakin, a white pastor, on a Thursday morning in the first part of October 1993. Mark was invited by Milton with my permission. We met at the Freestate Diner in the northern industrial section of Shreveport. Soon, Milton Boyd, the quintessential organizer, invited Milton Huston, a black pastor in transition between churches, and Mel Brown, black pastor of a mission sponsored by Highland Baptist Church in Shreveport. There never really seemed to be any question but that we would continue to meet for prayer, fellowship, accountability, and encouragement. We eventually called ourselves the "M" group because all of our names started with that letter. Others came and went, but these five remained the core of the group, meeting weekly. 

We discovered much about ourselves, the sinfulness of our cultures, and the graciousness of God in those meetings. I have never felt such intense fellowship in my life. There was an unfilled void in my heart after I was called away to pastor in North Carolina and further my education at Duke University. What made the "M" group special? I think it opened several doors and kept some rather weak men strong. (It also became a dynamic witness to other patrons of the restaurant.) 

First, it provided a deep, Christian fellowship. We brought our problems openly and humbly to the table and received encouragement and exhortation. Milton Boyd made sure that nothing was ever glossed over. He became our undesignated leader. His spiritual gift is definitely administration. Mark, a compassionate man, encouraged us with the gift of mercy. Milton Huston came to have a special place in my heart--he is a hero of the faith. He once invited us over to his home for breakfast. He cooked, his wife was our excellent hostess, and when his sister began to sing, heaven came down and glory filled our souls. Mel and I were the prophetic ones. He and I could butt heads with the best. We each shared Biblical insights, sermon materials, and illustrations--some sessions were downright sermonic. My preaching and devotional life improved tremendously. 

Second, the "M" group was special because it allowed us to see life through a different set of lenses. I had no idea of the respect which a black pastor commands in his community. It makes most white pastors, who find little reason to challenge the status quo out of fear for the loss of face and income, look kept. I also had no idea of the pain of being treated as a second-class citizen at best and sub-human at worst. Rarely, in these days, is such treatment overt, but it exists nonetheless. Mark and I were taken out of our privileged, white, middle-class, Republican-voting backgrounds and introduced to the vagaries of a segregated existence. 

Third, the "M" group was special because it kept our theology straight. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the few Christian martyrs of Nazi Germany, once attended Union Theological Seminary. He could not stand the irrelevant preaching in the mainline churches in the area,
One may hear sermons in New York upon almost any subject; one only is never handled, . . . namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, of the cross, of sin and forgiveness. . . .
Bonhoeffer found a black church in Harlem--the Abyssinian Baptist Church--that taught the gospel faithfully. There, Bonhoeffer says he became a Christian. He subsequently returned to Germany under a divine burden and became a lone voice crying for the German church to deny Hitler and his antichrist laws. Like Bonhoeffer in Harlem, we discovered that the "M" group exposed the cultural accretions to the gospel we were preaching. Like barnacles attacking a ship, churches of all types have been left increasingly dead in the water because of their sanctification of cultural ideals. As black pastor and white pastor came together, we learned better what was culture and what was Christ. As different aspects of our theology and ethics revealed themselves to be profane or sacred, we adjusted our preaching and activities accordingly. 

The "M" group helped me to see the gospel for what it really is--the grace of the eternal, incarnated, crucified, triumphant God. I also learned that I wanted to be instrumental in the growth of the Church of Jesus Christ, and not just be another hired hand in a God-forsaken social club. I discovered that white pastors will preach against the sins characteristic of the black community while glossing over their own. Similarly, I heard from my brothers that black pastors are also tempted to preach against the sins characteristic of the white community while glossing over their own. Those pastors who address the true problems of, and true grace available to, their people are few and far between. 

Finally, the "M" group was special because it let me see the black community as part of the flock which God has given to me to minister the Word. I sense as much compassion for the black community's struggle with the appeal of the sword of Islam (in its many forms) as I do for the white community's struggle with the machine gun of Aryanism (in its many forms). I sense as much responsibility for the salvation of my black neighbors as I do for that of my white neighbors. When God calls a man to preach, He does not limit his audience by race. 

A Final Word 

Now that I am an adult, I will never again stand by and watch a man desecrated because of his parentage and the low price the dominant culture puts on his skin. Never again will I stand idly by while the name of Christ is proclaimed in the interest of racial superiority. Never again do I wish to preach a sermon to a congregation to confess my own sin of racism. Racism may continue to grip this nation, north and south, in its politics and in its individual and communal ethics, but this pastor will be a voice crying out against such sin. 

Mark and Milton led their respective churches into fellowship and cooperating covenants with one another. Milton and Mel continued their dynamic ministries. The "M" group continued to meet and grow after my departure. As for me, I will never trade my experience of pastoring an interracial church, and I will never forget my true friends, these pastors, my brothers in Christ. 

Soli Deo Gloria.