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Theological Symposium: FAQ

W. Jackson Watts

As Program Chair for the Commission for Theological Integrity, I’m responsible to promote our annual Theological Symposium. Typically we issue what’s known as a “Call for Papers.” This appears on our website and in print publications such as ONE Magazine. This is designed to generate awareness and foster interest in potential presenters and any who would attend and benefit from this free event. However, as potential presenters begin contemplating ideas for the Symposium, I thought it might be helpful to put together this Frequently Asked Questions post to help people make plans to join us this fall.

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Where and when is the Symposium held?

The campus of Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee. This year our event is a week later than usual: October 28-29.

How are presenters chosen?

We review the papers and proposals that are submitted each year and select those which are well-written and thematically suitable. Sometimes we solicit papers from people if they have recently completed some scholarly work that they are interested in sharing with a broader audience. The only other detail approaching a “requirement” is that presenters must be members of a Free Will Baptist church.

 What can I write on?

Typically we will receive and consider papers on any topic that are broadly theological in nature—biblical studies, systematic theology, philosophy of religion, ecclesiology, etc. This year’s theme is “The Doctrine of the Church,” so preference will be given to papers that deal with some aspect of ecclesiology whether it be church government and polity, the ordinances, preaching, or a related sub-field.

Must I have an advanced degree to present a paper?

No; While most of our presenters have received graduate theological education, it is by no means a requirement.

Where can I stay?

There are several area hotels which provide a reasonable rate to those in town for Welch-affiliated events. Hotel information will be published later this year.

Why attend in person when live-stream is available?

Two main reasons: First, we don’t guarantee live-streaming every year, and even if we do live-stream we may or may not post video content on our website after the event is over. We have done this in the past, but it is a year-by-year decision. Second, attending in person allows you the chance to ask questions in person to presenters, hear the discussion and dialogue following each presentation, and connect with other Free Will Baptist pastors, scholars, and laymen. I’ve seen many fruitful relationships form and develop as a result of this event.

If I am interested in presenting, what are the specific requirements and deadlines?

You can email fwbtheology@gmail.com for a fuller list of what we’re looking for in terms of paper content and format. Concerning deadlines, all ideas and inquiries about presenting should be submitted to this email address prior to July 1. Abstracts/proposals should be submitted by July 15. Submissions for review should be submitted by August 15. The final draft should be submitted by September 15.

Thank you for your interest in this event!

Hawkins to Address the Challenge of Genetics

by Theological Commission

On Monday afternoon of the 2019 National Convention in Cincinnati, the Commission for Theological Integrity has invited Dr. Ian Hawkins to address an emerging scientific challenge. The title of his seminar is: Genes Made Me Do it! The Implications of the Genetic Revolution for Adam and Eve, Original Sin, and Free Will.

In the past 15 years the historicity of Adam and Eve has come under fire in academic circles. This new debate has been caused by recent work in genetics that has called into question whether the human race could have come from only two individuals. Not only does the idea of a non-historical Adam and Eve call into question doctrines such as creation, but it has a profound effect on doctrines like original sin and free will. This seminar will discuss recent objections to these findings, as well as how science can be used to support a historical Adam and Eve, original sin, and free will.

Hawkins has taught at Welch College since 2007, where is he is Chairman of the Department of Arts and Sciences, and Science Program Coordinator. He has a master’s degree in molecular biology from Vanderbilt University, and a Ph.D. in Chemistry Education from Middle Tennessee State University. Hawkins is married to Katie (Stewart). They have two sons: Joseph and Luke.

Note: The Commission’s annual seminar is always held at 2:00pm on Monday. It is an hour and a half given the substantial nature of the topics, and also to allow extensive audience response and questions afterward. Check your programs once arriving at the Convention for the exact room location of the seminar.

 

Multi-Site Church Polity: Congregational or Episcopal?

Matthew Pinson

Recently my pastor and colleague at Welch College, Jesse Owens, texted me a tweet by the eminent Australian evangelical scholar Michael Bird, who tweeted the following about multi-site churches:

“Thesis: Multi-site churches are not congregational, they are episcopally governed, the senior minister is a de facto bishop, in fact, multisite churches are more centrally  controlled than any Catholic or Anglican diocese in church history.”

Bird also has written a blog post on this entitled, “Multi-Site Churches: An Evaluation” that is very insightful. While I have important disagreements with Bird on some basic issues of evangelical theology, I agree wholeheartedly with the statement above.

I first made an observation similar to his at an annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society many years ago. After a paper on Baptist-congregational church government, I remember standing in the hallway talking with Chad Owen Brand and Stan Norman saying basically the same thing: “Multi-site churches are a violation of the congregational church polity that is part and parcel of Baptist ecclesiology. They’re more like an episcopal diocese.”

There are many online resources that critique the multi-site movement from a Baptist perspective. Mark Dever and 9Marks have been at the forefront of raising awareness and concern over this development through a Baptist lens, from biblical, theological, historical, and practical vantage points. There is also an excellent treatment of the multi-site phenomenon by the president of Cedarville University, Thomas White, Franchising McChurch, which I discussed several years ago in ONE Magazine. Thus, I do not feel the need to give a full-orbed critique of the multi-site phenomenon here but only to focus on the very narrow question of whether it fits with historic Baptist polity.

I remember being on a panel discussion at Southern Seminary a few years ago with Orthodox Presbyterian pastor and professor Carl Trueman. He was surprised that the only other person on the panel who agreed with him on the ecclesiological problems with multi-site churches was an Arminian Baptist! Yet he and I agreed, on that panel, that a late-medieval phenomenon similar to the multi-site movement was responsible in large part for the anti-clerical fervor that led to the Protestant Reformation: pluralism and non-residency (i.e., congregations that had no preaching pastor [priest] to give them pastoral care, and priests that were assigned to more than one congregation). Trueman and I agreed that the multi-site thrust was a violation of both Presbyterian and Baptist-congregational polity.

This is a concern I have for our own Free Will Baptist Church. I frequently have ministers ask me what I think about having a Free Will Baptist multi-site church, from the vantage point of our faith and practice as Free Will Baptists. I always explain it in what I see as the only way one can explain it in terms of the Free Will Baptist Treastise of Faith and Practices, and that is in line with Bird’s comment above and people like Dever’s and Trueman’s approach: It is not in harmony with Free Will Baptist polity.

Now we must understand that Free Will Baptists have some important differences with the wider Baptist tradition of church government. We tend to give more power to the conference or association, e.g., the authority for presbyteries to examine and ordain ministers, so that churches in good standing with a Free Will Baptist conference or association cannot ordain their own ministers without the authority of the presbytery or ordaining council of a local conference or association.

However, on issues that touch this question of multi-site churches, we would be in agreement with Dever and other Baptists. Free Will Baptists have historically believed that local congregations should be self-governing. That means, among other things, that they must choose their own pastor(s) and deacons and their own officers and teachers, do their own discipline, have control of their own property, have the freedom to separate from one conference and unite with another, have control of their own finances, etc.

This self-governance principle has always opposed the episcopal and Presbyterian models of church government that give ecclesiastical bodies or individuals outside a local congregation control over the internal elements of governance of that congregation such as those things listed in the previous paragraph. So, whether it be a diocese or a bishop or a synod or a presbytery, these bodies/individuals cannot control the internal governance of a local congregation.

Again, historic Free Will Baptist polity, as I show in my pamphlet Free Will Baptists and Church Government, stipulates a stronger relationship between the conference or association and the local church than most Baptist polities. The conference or association has historically been responsible, for example, for the examination, ordination, and discipline of office bearers (ministers, and, the further back you go in our history, deacons). Furthermore, associations and conferences have the right to involve themselves in local church disputes, and often do so. But they have the right only to advise, never finally to arbitrate, in those disputes. Their ultimate recourse is only to remove fellowship from an erring congregation. So I do not wish to minimize the differences between historic Free Will Baptist polity and other Baptist polity.

However, all Baptists agree on the congregational governance of the local church: (1) It is the entire congregation, not the pastor(s) and deacons, who govern the local Baptist church; (2) It is the congregation, not a body outside that congregation, that governs the local Baptist church.

This is borne out in the Free Will Baptist Treatise, which places within the self-government of each local congregation “full authority to transact its business, choose its pastor and officers, receive, discipline, and dismiss members, hold free title to all its properties, and conduct all its internal affairs” (Part IV, Chapter I, Section I.B).

Sometimes ministers who’ve read a lot about multi-site churches and hope to experience growth in their ministries ask me, “Would there be a problem with me having a multi-site church?” I always tell them this: “If different congregations arise out of your church, and you can find a way to keep them together somehow without violating the Treatise (which Free Will Baptists believe is based on New Testament polity), then by all means do so!”

When they ask what this does and does not mean, I explain that each gathered body of believers needs to have the sole authority to do those things that lie within the power of the local church that are enumerated in the Treatise. So you need to ask the following eight questions:

  1. Will this gathered body of believers have sole authority to transact its own business?
  2. Will it have sole authority to elect, maintain, and dismiss its own preaching pastor(s) who leads, feeds, and cares for it (i.e., leadership, preaching, and pastoral care), and not be answerable to the preaching pastor of a higher authority or church outside itself, or any religious body outside itself?
  3. Will it have the sole authority to elect, maintain, and dismiss its own deacons chosen from within its own membership who serve it?
  4. Will it have the sole authority to receive its own members in the way it wishes to receive them, or will there be another higher authority outside it that determines how members are received or who is received?
  5. Will its pastor(s) and deacons have the sole authority to administer baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the washing of the saints’ feet, and other ordinances in the congregation?
  6. Will it have its own policy and process for disciplining, excommunicating, or dismissing members, administered solely by its own office bearers without control of an outside body?
  7. Will it have the sole authority to decide where to meet, and if it owns property, will it hold title to that property with full authority to sell it or to purchase additional property without permission from a higher authority outside itself?
  8. In short, will it have sole authority to conduct its own financial affairs and all other internal affairs, and not have a higher authority control the outcome of any of its internal affairs?

These are simply the eight questions that naturally arise from an examination of the Treatise. And, as I tell ministers who have asked me about this, if you can answer all these questions in the affirmative about the congregation of believers that you are spinning off from your main congregation, you will be in line with historic Free Will Baptist polity.

Yet an affirmative answer to the above eight questions is a direct violation of the whole point of the multi-site movement, as it is to other episcopal approaches to church government.

Then, often, a subsequent question comes up, “Well, President Pinson, if I have enough church growth to be able to spin off other congregations, is there anything I can do that would not be in violation of the Treatise and historic Free Will Baptist polity? My answer is always, “Yes! Plant churches!” This is the answer Jonathan Leeman gives in his 9Marks article “The Alternative: Why Don’t We Plant?”

That’s the answer that’s in line with New Testament polity and with historic Free Will Baptist polity as outlined in the Treatise: We plant churches! Of course, a church cedes power and control when it mothers a church and then encourages the church to go self-supporting, self-governing. But that is the New Testament model, and the model that fits our Free Will Baptist faith and practice.

Of course, there is a lot of room for variation in the church planting model. For example, just as Free Will Baptist North American Ministries often sponsors a mission for many years before it goes self-supporting and becomes its own self-governing church, so a local congregation that has the means to plant a church can do the same thing. A new local gathering can be a mission of the church that planted it for several years before it becomes self-supporting and self-governing. In these intervening years, there is room for differing models of control that still lie within the bounds of Free Will Baptist practice.

Another positive of planting a church is that it can be done with the advice, assistance, and accountability of a Church entity like Free Will Baptist North American Ministries (NAM)[1]. The church plant I am involved in currently, though a self-governing plant, is in cooperation with NAM. Its pastor, Jesse Owens, is an associate church planter who receives training, counsel, and prayer support from NAM, as well as the ability to raise non-salary financial support through NAM.

Furthermore, I have even had some ministers ask me, “Is there a way to have a network of these churches that grow out of my church?” I say, “Yes. That’s what we call an association or conference.” Of course, when at all possible, it’s healthy to unite with conferences or associations who can stretch us out of our comfort zone and help us experience the diversity of the body of Christ within our Free Will Baptist theological confines. So I encourage these ministers to be active in broader associations: We need Free Will Baptist conferences and associations, not cultural niche associations. We don’t need to divide ourselves up by our cultural preferences, where it’s almost like we’re in an association where everybody likes either sushi or fried chicken, or everybody likes either bluegrass or indie-folk, or everybody wears either skinny jeans or khakis to the ministers’ retreat.

However, that said, let’s pretend that a large Free Will Baptist church over a period of fifteen years planted ten successful Free Will Baptist congregations, and over an eight-to-ten-year period, each one of those churches became self-supporting and self-governing, and they all associated with the original church that planted them, meeting together for fellowship, encouragement, accountability, and other ministry, say, once a quarter. This would be much like what has happened throughout 400 years of Free Will Baptist and wider Baptist history. It’s called a conference or an association. But, in this concept, the original, larger congregation that planted all the other congregations would have no more power or sway over what happened in the association, or in the internal governance of each of the local planted congregations, than any of the planted congregations.

I think it is imperative that we Free Will Baptists be ourselves. This means drawing from our own rich biblical and historical resources of church polity rather than from trends that might seem successful at the moment, but really represent a departure from our Baptist faith and practice and an embrace of the faith and practice of non-Baptist religious bodies. And that is precisely what multi-site is: a move away from our historic Free Will Baptist and Baptist polity toward an embrace of episcopal church polity.

My prayer is that we will avoid this theological misstep and that we will do what we see in the New Testament and Free Will Baptist history and plant more New Testament churches!

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[1] Free Will Baptist North American Ministries is also sometimes still known as Free Will Baptist Home Missions.

Conferences, Podcasts, and Piper on Sovereignty: A Reply

W. Jackson Watts

I was recently listening to some online sermons that were given at the Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference. All of the speakers were household names, and none more familiar than John Piper. Piper is now retired from active pastoral ministry after decades at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. However, he has continued what has been a prolific writing ministry, and he also speaks regularly at conferences.

I have benefited immensely from Piper’s ministry from afar. I was first exposed to his work when in 2004 I took the course Biblical Discipleship. His bestselling book Desiring God was one of the assigned texts. I did not agree with all that he said in the book then (and I’m sure I didn’t understand it all either!), but I remember thinking, “He is saying something really profound here for Christian spirituality.” Since that time I’ve read more of his work and heard probably two dozen of his sermons.

While I came of age theologically before the full burgeoning of the podcast/online sermon era, I was shaped by it. No doubt I have been influenced by giants like the MacArthurs, Kellers, Carsons, Devers, and Pipers. As best as I can tell, these men exude an authentic commitment to Christ, His church, and His Word. For that I am grateful.

Some Broader Concerns

Where my concerns have persisted is that the preponderance of those who are influencing younger evangelicals is almost always five-point Calvinists. Let me define here what I mean and don’t mean by “concerns.”

First, I do not mean that we should be surprised that so many popular conference speakers are of this theological persuasion. When we consider the books published annually and the authors’ theological commitments, Arminians need to be honest: our theological tradition, in its best version, is in the minority (by a lot!). We have a lot of work to do in getting the word out about the God-centered, Scripturally-based Arminianism that we espouse. We should not then be surprised that publishing trends correlate to how well known some are in evangelicalism.

Second, I do not mean that our principal goal in Christian ministry is to see how well known we can personally be because of our theological stances and speaking circuit credentials. How easy it is to be known first as Arminians or Calvinists, and not as sincere, Spirit-filled men and women of God. How easy it is for us to relish (by whom we admire) or reinforce (by whom we invite to speak) the speaking circuit idolatry that promotes the same handful of people over and over. We should repent of where the spirit of this present age has shaped us in this way.

I do, however, have two interrelated concerns: (1) Seeing that it is part of our goal to spread biblical Christianity as far as the curse is found, it is unfortunate that many theologically serious Christians have come to believe that Calvinism is the only live option in town; and (2) What has partly, but significantly fostered this belief is the massive platform that influential speakers have to promote this error. While Calvinism and its entailments is not a heresy in the historic sense of that word, the way it is taught often leads to confusion and can foster the belief that those who are believers but not Reformed—in the narrow way most Calvinists mean that word—have a deficient theology for life and ministry.

A Specific Concern

The broader concerns I have articulated here are exemplified in many places, but especially in some remarks Dr. Piper shared in his otherwise very good sermon at the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference. He preached Mark 8:31-38, a quite familiar passage in which Jesus reveals his coming sufferings. Peter rebukes Jesus, but then Jesus rebukes him for contradicting the plan of God. Piper spends several minutes (around the 19:00-24:00 minute mark) reflecting on the word “must” in verse 31. This deals with the necessity, in the plan of God, for the Son to die. Piper then observes how the sovereignty of God—defined as God controlling and determining everything in history and human existence—is integral to the Gospel itself.

Piper asserts that some people try to disconnect “the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the innocent suffering, the sinful rejection, [and] the wicked murder of Jesus.” Millions, he says, make a concerted effort to disconnect those two. Yet he is encouraged. He explains,

            “I’m saying that in the last 50 years millions of people around the world are seeing that that effort is futile, unbiblical, [and] undesirable. It is a rending of the precious fabric of the Gospel, because they see, over and over again, in Scripture the sovereignty of God  is the stitching that holds the Gospel together.”

Characteristically, Piper says a lot here. However, I’ll focus on two key points. First, Piper describes a changing evangelical landscape in which Calvinism has blossomed over the last half century. More believers have become convinced that God is sovereign in the sense that He controls (read decides) everything in human life, including who will or will not be saved. The second point is an extension of the first: this vision of God’s sovereignty is said to be not only an element of the Gospel, not just “how one comes to be in a state of grace,” but it is a theological essential that “holds the Gospel together.”

This assertion is not startling for those familiar with Piper’s work and like-minded Calvinists. Where it is somewhat attention-grabbing is that he is implicitly acknowledging the success of preachers, authors, and institutions in spreading the good news of Calvinism. This isn’t just a recent phenomenon, but has been happening for decades. Such Christians see God’s sovereignty, defined by the construct of determinism, as just as essential to the Gospel as grace or faith itself.

A Response

I offer two replies to Piper, first to his demographic claim, and second to the theological one.

First, I wonder which millions of believers around the world Piper has in mind. Thank God that the Gospel is reaching the nations! But much of the data reflects that this growth is in sub-Saharan Africa, China, and South America, to name a few places. I wonder if Piper’s remark lands the same way there as it does to his conference listeners. Much of the growth is within Pentecostalism. No doubt some Pentecostal Christians are Calvinistic in their soteriology, but the vast majority of them are not. In fact, when we consider the expansion of many other traditions abroad such as Anglicanism, Wesleyanism, and Lutheranism, just to name a few, suddenly five-point Calvinism looks rather small. The all-too-familiar, North American, evangelical narrative about Calvinism’s massive expansion must be significantly revised, at least if we’re being honest with the data.

Moreover, many Christians abroad belong to communities where having a Bible in their own language is a rare and cherished fact. To hear the Gospel itself is an all-too-rare privilege. How plausible is it that a theological system as sophisticated as five-point Calvinism is on the radar of those millions in quite the same way that it is for young Americans who have the disposable income to buy books, download sermons on their Macs, and attend conferences? This is mainly a sociological query on my part, not a moral judgment.

Second, I wonder how many listeners to Piper’s sermon, whether in person or online, have taken the time to study the concept of sovereignty in Scripture or in Ancient Near Eastern thought. More specifically, how much thought have they given to the philosophical concept of determinism? Somehow I imagine that Dr. Picirilli’s excellent, thoughtful, and brief Free Will Revisited isn’t selling as well as Dr. Piper’s books. Now let’s ask ourselves: Why might it be the case that some questions aren’t asked, some topics aren’t pursued, or some books aren’t read, while others are? I fear that one evangelical sub-culture, partly embodied by the conference circuit context, is reinforcing people in existing perspectives without challenging them to take a hard look at their theological assumptions, or the theology of the church’s history.

As I have attended multiple seminaries, meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society (national and regional), and interacted with assorted local church pastors in my community, the reactions are always interesting to the name “Free Will Baptist” or “Reformed/Classical Arminian.” I find that the most close-minded or hostile individuals are those who don’t really get out a lot. They’ve rarely interacted with Christians in other regions or denominations. Crossway is the only publisher they’re familiar with. They tend not to know much about church history before 1517 (perhaps it began in 1517?).

On the other hand, people who are open to and even accepting of a vision of sovereignty in which God doesn’t meticulously determine everything (although He did purpose to send His Son! Jesus wasn’t wrong when he said, “I must do these things.”) didn’t go to a conference. They either simply (1) read the Bible as a believer in a straightforward way, or (2) when confronted with sovereignty, free will, and soteriology, they got interested in the topic and really sought to understand both sides of the discussion. Most Arminians I know who do not have a Free Will Baptist background like I do came to their beliefs through one of these two paths.

Some Concluding Reflections

I cannot or will not pretend to speak for all Arminians. However, having swam in these waters a while, I’ll offer a few concluding reflections on the vision of sovereignty that I believe Scripture presents us with, or is consistent with, and what it might look like to place that vision in dialogue with the one Piper has presented:

  • I do not think it is theologically careful or spiritually responsible to communicate: “You don’t get the Gospel if you don’t understand sovereignty this way.”[1] It’s no overstatement to say that Piper believes it is not only unbiblical to not see deterministic sovereignty as “the stitching that holds the Gospel together,” but people who do so are theologically reckless and spiritually impoverished.
  • For less charitable interprets who would take this criticism of Piper further, let me be clear: Piper is not saying that non-Calvinists don’t believe the Gospel, and are therefore not saved. He does not go that far. He specifically says that many Christians try to disconnect the all-controlling sovereignty of God from the Gospel. So in making this observation/criticism, he is at least acknowledging the empirical existence of such believers. However, Piper leaves himself totally open to this other charge when he says, “There is no Gospel apart from the sovereignty of God, the all- controlling sovereignty of God.” If he means that the way he states it, then it would imply either (a) non-Calvinist Christians who believe the Gospel are ignorant of some of its central content, namely all-controlling sovereignty (At best they’re inconsistent); or (b) Non-Calvinists are in fact not saved since they, by definition, do not accept the precious stitching of the fabric of the Gospel. I believe Piper would claim option a.
  • Meticulously determining every aspect of human existence is but one construal of divine sovereignty. In other words, it is not the only way for God could exercise sovereign control over His creation. Here I think of people who, when they hear the word “authority,” only think of a hierarchy, even though hierarchy is but one way for authority to operate.
  • It is very difficult to adopt theological determinism without coming to terms with its philosophical entailments, and that would involve facing up to issues of free will and moral responsibility, and the problem of evil. Determinists do have some options on how to answer those, but I don’t believe many Calvinists have fully wrestled with those.
  • Some Calvinists would reply to the last assertion by saying “Biblical claims trump philosophical tensions or inconsistencies.” Of course, this reply ignores the 2,000-year relationship between philosophy and theology. It is a complicated, but important one. The best of the Christian tradition, in my view, has seen philosophy as not a Master of theology, but a handmaiden or servant to it. If philosophical terms and concepts have been widely used in understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, why not learn from it when it comes to how foreknowledge, free will, and the future might relate?[2]
  • God could have designed the world in any way He desired, but we don’t expect that  world and the way humans act in it and respond to God to contradict the way He reveals His character and will in His Word. So Arminians like me agree with Terence Freithem: “The divine sovereignty in creation is understood, not in terms of absolute divine control [determining every detail], but as a sovereignty that gives [permits] power over to the created for the sake of a relationship of integrity.”[3] Our inability to even imagine such a kind of sovereignty reflects our impoverished theological imagination being shaped in modern evangelicalism. Our unwillingness to do so reflects a lack of attentiveness to the breadth of the Christian tradition.

Much remains to be said about this discussion, and I pray it will be an honest, fruitful, Christ-like dialogue. I remain thankful for the ministry of John Piper and many Calvinists like him. It speaks to the sovereign grace of God that He would allow ministries like these to flourish, and for Arminians like me to freely choose to learn from them. But in the end, a sovereign God can exercise comprehensive control over a realm without also meticulously forcing every state of affairs. God is aware, He permits, restricts, and can certainly carry out his purposes for his church in a world that must choose Him.

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[1] This is not a direct quote, but rather my way of stating what I think Piper has at the very least implied, and all but stated explicitly.

[2] Some Calvinists espouse a theological (and philosophical) construct known as Compatibilism in which Divine sovereignty (understood deterministically) and free will are somehow compatible. D.A. Carson would be example of one such theologian. However, this view was not the view of Calvin or Edwards, nor is it the view of Piper.

[3] Terence Fretheim, “Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1 (Nashville, Abingdon, 1994), 346.

Clergy Sexual Abuse and Church Polity

Matt Pinson

Recently my colleague Dr. Darrell Holley sent me a link to an article in First Things by Dale Coulter entitled “Evangelical Apocalypse.” The article is primarily about clergy sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention reported by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. It might be easy for our smaller, Free Will Baptist denomination to think we are immune to these concerns. But we need to pay attention.

What Hath Church Polity to Do with Sexual Abuse?

I found particularly interesting Coulter’s tie-in to church polity, or church government. This is of interest to me because of the differences between typical Baptist polity as it developed in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and traditional Free Will Baptist polity. Coulter points out that “local church autonomy present in Baptist polity has allowed sexual predators to move freely from church to church.”

Now before some readers get nervous, let me affirm local church autonomy as rightly considered historically by Free Will Baptists: the ultimate right of self-governance by a local congregation. This definition of autonomy—self-government—is the way Free Will Baptists have historically used the term rather than the typical way it is used: independence.

I have discussed these issues in my pamphlet, Free Will Baptists and Church Government. Free Will Baptists have typically held that every New Testament congregation is self-governing. Thus it has the absolute right to leave the conference or association of which it is a member and affiliate with another. [1] However, we have traditionally not viewed associational affiliation as an option for the local congregation, but as a mandate.

The Free Will Baptist Difference

That approach to church government is different from the one that developed in most American Baptist groups. (However, early non-Free Will Baptist associations like the Charleston or Philadelphia associations had a polity much like Free Will Baptists.) What is especially different about traditional Free Will Baptist church polity, which is still practiced in almost all associations today, is this: The examination, ordination, and moral and theological accountability of ministers is delegated by the local congregation to the presbytery (body of ministers) of the conference or association.

Furthermore, traditionally, Free Will Baptist conferences and associations were more concerned about the discipline of local churches. They cared about what went on in those churches. Yes, the congregation could disregard the conference’s counsel (which would usually result in the conference removing the church from fellowship). Yet the conference was concerned about local churches and felt free to ask questions and give counsel to local churches.

Passing Errant Ministers from Association to Association

How does all this relate to clergy sexual abuse? Coulter goes on in the article to say, “Another issue is how easily Baptist ministers are ordained. Since local churches ordain, one has only to secure the endorsement of any church in good standing with the convention, regardless of how small or remote it is.” Yet Coulter states that the problem is not just in the Southern Baptist Convention, because ministers accused of sexual abuse who are “dismissed from one denomination have simply gone to another for credentials. . . . These open networks for ministerial movement from one part of evangelicalism to another allow sexual abusers to escape judgment and start over.”

I have heard many ministers in the Free Will Baptist Church state something similar: Errant ministers often move from one conference to another within the denomination without repercussions. It is amazing to me how that, historically, Free Will Baptist conferences and associations were much more vigilant about checking out ministers who applied for ministerial credentials than we are today. This is despite the fact that trains, horses, and wagons were the only transportation rather than planes and automobiles. And the Pony Express, rather than telephone, email, and Facebook, were the only means of communication.

The Means at Our Disposal

We have tremendous means at our disposal today for keeping morally and theologically errant ministers from seamlessly moving from one area to another. What’s more, we have a built-in polity that is part of our tradition—still “on the books” in our denominational documents—that can, if consistently utilized, keep us from having the problem Coulter describes.

What happened traditionally when an errant minister attempted to transfer from one Free Will Baptist association to another? The presbytery or ordaining council would carefully check out his credentials. They would be proactive about it, even if the church he was ministering in did not request it. They knew that if they waited too long, they would lose the church. What if the minister refused to submit to the authority of the conference? The conference would state publicly that it did not recognize the minister as a Free Will Baptist minister. [2]

This approach would help us today. It would help us not only to deal with ministers whose doctrine is not in keeping with that of the Free Will Baptist Church, but it would also aid us in dealing with sexual predators and other charlatans or criminals. Like all biblical church discipline, it would make a statement to the world that the Free Will Baptist Church is not going to tolerate sexual abuse or any other deviation from Scriptural norms. [3]

Helping Local Congregations

Another positive mark of a stronger associational polity is that because congregations are more involved in each other’s lives, they know what is going on in each other’s congregations. So if there is a problem in a local church that needs the help of the other churches in the conference, the other churches typically will know about it. This type of polity also provides more organic resources to help local congregations’ lay search committees. With more help and counsel, lay committees are less apt to recommend a minister who falls short of the conference’s ethical and doctrinal standards.

Our wannabeism when it comes to the Independent Baptist movement (on the right) and the non-denominational megachurch movement (on the left) is coming home to roost. [4] These movements have eroded our commitment to our historic associationalism. This erosion has left us as isolated churches without the resources we need to maintain our theological commitments and the moral leadership of our ordained clergy.

Our traditional Free Will Baptist polity will help us guard against the sort of thing that has been happening with clergy sexual abuse. Furthermore, it will help us guard against morally and theologically errant ministers taking churches out of our denomination. Again, because we believe in the self-government of local congregations, nothing we do can ultimately keep a congregation from leaving if it is committed to that decision. Yet our polity will help.

Obviously, a stronger church polity is not in itself a foolproof method for discouraging and dealing with these problems. After all, the Roman Catholic Church has an extremely strong church government, but it has not done so. However, I believe there is a powerful argument that the balanced polity we have guards against the sorts of concentrated church hierarchy that has swept clergy sexual abuse under the rug. Our biblical church polity has just the right balance. This balance allows it to avoid the problems of the power of a church hierarchy vested in a few people, on one hand, and the lack of accountability that plagues the independent-church models on the other hand.

Renewing our Church by Retrieving the Associational Principle

What we must do is to recommit ourselves to the biblical church polity that is already at our disposal. This will mean renewing our churches and conferences through retrieving our tradition of biblical Free Will Baptist church polity. It will mean not yielding to the temptation to mimic the anti-associationalism and anti-denominationalism of the Independent Baptist and non-denominational megachurch movements. Those movements seem to have numerically larger and more successful congregations, and sometimes we are sorely tempted to sell our souls for numerical success. But recovering our internal resources will help us not to give in to that temptation.

I am witnessing the growth of a generation of younger ministers who are solid, conservative Free Will Baptists. These ministers believe in our traditional associational principle and are ready to bring renewal and life and biblical accountability back to our conferences and associations.

I pray that we middle-aged and older Free Will Baptists will not discourage them from doing that. If they succeed, it will strengthen our churches and denomination and our commitment to biblical truth. It will help keep our denomination and its distinctive theological witness from dying. It will also tell the world that we are not willing to tolerate sexual abuse and other immoral conduct that displeases our holy God and brings disgrace on the church and the gospel it proclaims.

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Editorial Note: An earlier version of this post was published on Wednesday morning that was different, though only slightly, from the current version. This was done accidently by a site administrator. Our apologies to our readers. 

[1] Today, all local gatherings of Free Will Baptist churches are referred to as conferences or associations. So I am using these terms interchangeably. These have been the majority terms in our tradition for the past two hundred years. Yet historically they were used alongside other, less-used synonyms such as union meeting, connection, general assembly, general council, and district.

[2] This essay is not meant to suggest that Free Will Baptist polity is the only cure for the problems discussed herein, but an important part of a larger solution.

[3] The thrust of this paper is not to absolve lay pastoral search committees at local churches of the responsibility to check references and do proper checks on pastoral candidates’ backgrounds but rather to provide aid to local congregations without a pastor, many of whom unfortunately do not engage in extensive research on pastoral candidates.

[4] Dictionary.com defines a “wannabe” as “a person who tries to be like someone else or to fit in with a particular group of people.”