Number Our Days
Small Church, Small Town Ministry . . . So Many Opportunities! So Many Blessings!
Last week, I wrote about the joys and challenges of small church, rural ministry. To be sure, these kinds of ministries come with a unique set of challenges. But they also come with many wonderful opportunities. I mentioned my first ministry among the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) in Manitoba. My family lived in a Métis community of less than twenty people located adjacent to the Hollow Water First Nation, a community of about 2000, half of whom lived on the reserve, while others lived off reserve locally or elsewhere, such as Winnipeg. A paper written in 1990 suggested that when we lived in the area, there were less than 1000 people between the four communities—Hollow Water, Manigotagan, Seymourville, and Ahgaming. It was a small community.
The unique life opportunities there abounded and the blessings were rich! I spent a lot of time with the men of the community in their daily activities—fishing, trapping, cutting wood, and participating in community life. It was thrilling to live and work among them. For a time, I participated on the local school committee as a representative for Ahgaming, Frontier School Division #48. We didn’t run the school as a school board, we only provided local input to the school division. I spent time on the trapline with some of the men, went out on the lake (frozen or otherwise) when they “lifted” their nets, sat with them at the weigh scales while they waited for trucks to weigh, attended their wakes, often speaking briefly, attended funerals or marriages and enjoyed the community suppers, sometimes saying grace as the only resident minister. One of my favorite events was their annual wild game dinner—delicacies like moose, beaver tail, muskrat, lynx, wild rice, bannock, local freshwater fish of various kinds delighted our palettes. We learned much and laughed much with neighbors many of whom became our friends.
When we moved north, Rebecca and I had been recently married and we knew little of life and living in the bush. We heated our home with a wood stove. The first winter, when I hooked up the chimney pipe, I put the damper (it looked something like this but much more simple forty years ago) at the top of the pipe near the ceiling. Melvin came walking into the house laughing one evening for Bible study. My placing the damper so high meant that every time the wind blew, it would suck heated air out of the house. He informed me that the damper should be placed as low down the pipe as possible so that it would pull cooler air out of the house. The stove needed the damper to keep the wind from drawing air through the wood stove increasing the speed at which the wood burned. I just didn’t know what I was doing. Another time, he came into the house laughing, seeing that I was burning wet wood. “You have to season the wood” he said, to which my wife asked if that would make it smell better! We were so young and inexperienced. But they loved us and taught us how to live.
The women were equally helpful to my wife as a young mother. Yvonne helped my wife learn how to handle and bathe our first child. Neighbors and friends taught her how to embrace the cold winters, make bannock, cook wild rice and moose, string beads and socialize. They laughed with her and sometimes at her, not in a malicious way, but because she was so young and inexperienced. That helped her to learn to laugh at herself. Such a joyful group of people and such great memories!
In exchange, we learned their way of life, their joys and their trials. This week Pope Francis is in Canada apologizing to the indigenous peoples for the mistreatment their children faced when they were forced to attend religious schools. They were punished if they spoke their own languages while on the school grounds and they were given English names rather than using their indigenous ones. Sometimes they were sexually abused. Many died and recently mass graves have been brought to light. I once asked a man with whom I was visiting why the reserve was divided by religion. The Catholics lived at one end, while the Anglicans lived in the other direction. At one time, there were two schools on the reserve, one run by the Catholics, and the other run by the Anglicans. The man looked at me and suggested that it was the fault of my people—Christians—who had divided the reserve along religious lines. Of course, he knew I didn’t personally do it, but I heard him loud and clear. In this particular case, Christianity did more harm than good! We had work to do to win their trust.
There were occasional tensions because I was a gitchi-mookomaan, big knife, an American, but I sought to show them respect and appreciate their way of life. I worked to gain their trust. Though it wasn’t necessary to learn their language to communicate, I learned words and phrases, some of which I remember to this day. As I was learning these, sometimes the old timers would try to teach me embarassing words. Ambrose, an old fisherman, told me to walk over to an older lady and say “o-geem-shin” or something like that. But he laughed when he made the suggestion. It turns out he was trying to get me to say “give me a kiss!” It was such a great privilege to live and serve. They taught us much. The attitude of the white man was often “can all you get and get all you can.” Their attitude was to share and share alike. If someone killed a moose, neighbors showed up to get a piece of the meat. A piece was freely given, even to the waabishkiiwe.
I also helped one of the schoolteachers run a boy scout program for a brief time. I took reserve kids to camp and used my chain saw and pickup truck to help them cut wood to sell to raise money for camp. It was here that I developed my passion for cutting wood. I would cut 4–6 cords per winter, full cords, not face cords. Because I had a truck and a saw, I would help others gather their own wood. It was a great way to serve.
Before we had children, Norman, who worked for the Manitoba government, hired me and my Toyota Land Cruiser to take he and his wife up the winter road for his work to the Bloodvein First Nation and the Paungassi First Nation. The winter road literally started at our front door and went north along the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, across rivers, over the muskeg and through the bush, to connect remote communities that didn’t have an all-weather road. Food and fuel were trucked north in the winter to supply these remote areas. What an experience! What an opportunity! Thanks, Norman for the pleasure!
I was doing some work on the home we were living in and a local contractor came to see me. He saw my drywall finishing and asked me to finish drywall for him. I did a few houses. Because our home was poorly winterized when we arrived, we were without water from late November to April. I knew how to sweat copper, so I replumbed the house. Word got out that I had this skill, and I was asked to repair a rotted bathroom floor in a local man’s home. I quoted the man a price, but he had a hard time saving the money. He and his wife went to bingo regularly. When he said God hadn’t answered his prayers supplying him with sufficient funds for the job, I challenged him about his spending habits. “That’s what I like about you, you don’t always tell me what I want to hear!” was his response. Soon his floor was fixed. On another occasion, I had the opportunity to install a flush toilet for an older couple in their 70s. It was the first time in their life they had indoor plumbing!
It was a rich and rewarding ministry and one we will never forget. Was it hard? At times. But it was a great place to begin our lifetime of service for Christ. I received a number of good comments from my essay last week. One brother spoke of his father’s long ministry in a small rural church. It certainly gave a solid foundation for this brother as he entered into his own ministry. Small church rural ministry is a great place to serve the Lord if He opens the door! You might have to work hard, but isn’t life about hard work? The ministry certainly is.
The Joys and Challenges of Small Church Ministry
Recently, I had the joy of ministering to a church in a community in southern Minnesota whose posted population was 1322. The village is on a secondary road that runs north to south and is located about forty miles from the third largest city in Minnesota—Rochester. Rochester itself boasts a population of less than 160,000 so it’s a major urban center with a good base that sustains the surrounding towns and villages, but its long drive makes it impractical for the rural people in the town where I preached to attend church there. The town itself has four churches—Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic plus a Baptist church. This paucity of churches is not surprising given the town’s size. There are two other Baptist churches within twenty miles. Without the local church, people who wish this type of evangelical ministry would have a half hour drive on good days or longer during bad weather. The town is the county seat, a county with just over 21,000 people. The church is not large, with perhaps forty there the Sunday I spoke, but there was a good number of children present, plus a nice mix of adults across the ages. It may be a smalltown church, but recently, they took fifteen teenagers to camp and about the same number to children’s camp.
The brother who has been there for the last six years was converted about a dozen years ago at a similar rural church across the state. His wife trusted Christ soon after her husband when she witnessed the change in his life. Though he had no undergraduate education, he came to seminary as a special student, giving up a well-paying job, relocating his family to the seminary town. During seminary, he also had a well-paying job that allowed him to drive late model vehicles. Yet after graduation, he quit that job to accept this rural pastorate.
Spending Sunday with him reminded me of the great ministry opportunities in rural settings. These small towns can be good places to live and raise a family. While the congregations may not always be able to financially compensate their pastor with a living wage (I heard from another former student last week who is having to take a side job to help pay the bills after a year at his new church to allow his wife to quit working to care for their growing family), but the side benefits may include the occasional side of beef or half a hog (or in the case of my Alaskan friend, fresh salmon) or produce from a parishioner’s garden.
Rural pastoring can be challenging and rewarding, but it is a vital part of Christian ministry. Those brothers and sisters who choose to labor in these small communities reach many who would not otherwise be reached. Yet many brothers are fearful of smalltown ministry. They think that ministry opportunities will be limited, fellowship will be hard to come by and rural churches will often be ingrown and difficult to pastor. They fear being stuck in a place where they will have a hard time living and few opportunities for growth and development. They are concerned they will have insufficient funds to adequately care for their families.
Having served in a rural ministry in Canada—our first ministry was among the Ojibwe people in a place that had maybe 2500 people among the three or four small communities that were in close proximity—we found that life in that setting was deeply rewarding. We were able to get to know people on a very personal level that you might not attain in a city ministry. For example, our mail service was at a small Co-op store seven miles away, where you had to go to pick up the mail. Mail was usually up by 1 PM, so there would be a flood of people there to get their mail. It gave us regular opportunities to interact with many area residents. In fact, that Co-op was one of three very small stores in the community where you could buy milk, bread, Pampers, etc. Major shopping needs would require an hour to travel to a larger town or two and a half hours to an urban center. Our second ministry was in a community of about 15,000 while our final pastoral ministry was in a city with a population in excess of 100,000 and another 75,000 in the surrounding county. Of these three ministries, the rural ministry has a special place in our hearts.
Our first two children were born while we lived there, and we learn much about life while living and ministering among our small community of neighbors. They were like family to us, inviting us into their homes, to their weddings or funerals and to their community celebrations. Once a neighbor borrowed a 5-ton truck that I had to pull himself out of the snow. When the RCMP questioned me about this, I asked, “Did he put it back when he was finished?” “What’s the problem then?” It was just a different life but one we enjoyed immensely.
One of our closest neighbors was a fisherman on Lake Winnipeg who had a license to catch walleye and jack (northern pike) during the three fishing seasons, spring, fall and winter. They commercial fished in the winter, using nets that were skillfully set under the ice. A board of about six feet in length was inserted through a hole drilled with an auger. A line was tied to the board and a metal device was attached to the board that would allow the fisherman to pull the line and release it, causing the board to scoot along the bottom of the ice. When the board had travelled about 100 yards (you could either see the brightly colored board or hear it as it moved), the fisherman would bore another hole, insert a hook and catch the line and extract the jigger. I occasionally went with him on these cold days to help and I was rewarded with fresh walleye to eat. In fact, he used our freezer to store walleye fillets that he prepared for sale and always told us to help ourselves! We had fish all winter long. Once he brought me some white fish which I subsequently tried my hand at smoking. They were pretty good.
Then there was the wild rice and moose meat which our neighbors regularly shared with us. Anytime we needed meat for a guest, our neighbors shared with us. In more temperate climates, the sharing might be corn, tomatoes, pork, chicken, or beef. One friend who lived in a rural area had a farmer who would load his corn planter with sweet corn which might be the three or four outside rows of a field—just for the preacher! Our neighbors and especially our church family made sure we were cared for. Help with our children, help with our vehicles, help with our wood needs, help with understanding the community, they were always available to help us.
Now I have painted a pretty rosy picture of rural ministry, and some might say what about the problems? Unable to pay the bills? I took outside work, sometimes as a drywaller later driving a school bus and working on an ambulance. My ambulance was another great opportunity to get to know the town people. In addition to emergency work, we participated in parades, did standby at the rodeo, assisted in the small hospital when they needed additional “hands.” I received on-the-job training and became an EMT. The consequence of this was the occasional request to do a funeral. I once carried an older man in my ambulance whom I’d never met. Sadly, he died shortly after he entered the hospital. The person, not a family member, who arranged his funeral, asked me to officiate, since I was the only minister he had any recent contact with! It was a great opportunity to share the Gospel with a group of people that I might not have had the occasion to under different circumstances.
Sure, rural ministry has its challenges. Churches sometimes have families interconnected by birth or through marriage. Patience, love and wisdom will be needed to minister in these circumstances, Surely, someone needs to care for these people! The relative isolation from ministry colleagues may be difficult. The salary may be challenging, and outside work may be necessary. However, none of these things should discourage a man from answering God’s call to serve him in a place like this. I know of one man who sought for ministry but seemed pretty selective in what he would take. Consequently, he never was called to a pulpit. He seemed unwilling to consider rural ministry, despite being a new graduate. Too bad really. Many churches would have been glad to have him, and he might have had a good ministry. Rural ministry is an important place to serve. May God raise up men who will fill these pulpits for the glory of God and the evangelism of small towns world-wide.
Caring for Those Who Need It Most: A Lesson from Bethesda
They can be among the least visible people in the church. They may seem disengaged or disinterested. Their circumstances, though unseen, may be intensely demanding. They may have little time to serve and few resources to share. All their time and most of their energies are committed before they actually have them.
Who am I talking about? I am speaking of a very special “club” my wife and I belong to. It’s not a club we chose to join. If we could, we would resign our membership immediately. It’s a group we joined more than 32 years ago and the dues exacted increase annually. There are no rules, no meetings, few perks for members, but membership brings deep pain and great sorrow. Often there is little outside help. Fortunately, club members do try to help each other.
What can I possibly be talking about? Why would anyone be a part of such a group if it is so hard? I am speaking of the world of disability—specifically being the parents of a disabled child, a child who has become an adult.
Thirty-three years ago, living in northern Alberta, happily serving the Lord, my wife and I were blessed to learn that we were expecting our third child. Our first two were active, healthy children, and we hoped for another healthy baby.
Then the unexpected occurred. My wife was standing in the kitchen about ten weeks before our child was to be born when her water suddenly broke. She was transported by air ambulance from High Level to Edmonton where the doctors attempted to slow delivery so that our child would remain in the womb until he was more fully developed.
The attempted delay went on for three days, but Joshua decided that he couldn’t wait, and he entered into our world ten weeks early. His birth weight was 3lb. 9 oz. My wife remained in Edmonton, staying at a Ronald MacDonald House while I held the fort back in High Level, five hundred miles away, caring for our older children.
For more than a month, we watched the doctors and nurses care for our son, and we could chart his progress by his location in the neo-natal unit. The babies were in rows of plastic bassinets with those nearest to the main doors, the most serious. As their conditions improved, the deeper into the ward the babies were moved. The babies with the most serious needs had a dedicated nurse. By the time Joshua was ready to be discharged, one nurse cared for four to six infants.
For thirty-seven long days we waited for word that Joshua was strong enough to come home. Finally, we received word that day had arrived. Then we were told that we might join “the club.” Literally on the way out the door, one of Joshua’s doctors called us aside to give us the news. He showed us an ultra-sound of his brain and pointed out an issue of concern. A bleed had occurred during his birth. It was impossible to tell what the consequences of that bleed would mean, but very likely Joshua would have challenges as he grew. We took our son home with this heavy news ringing in our ears.
What would we have to deal with? Only the Lord knew.
Premies take a while to catch up to their peers. As Josh grew, we observed that he was different from our other children. At his first annual checkup, his pediatrician bluntly gave us the news. Joshua had cerebral palsy, spastic quadriplegia to be more specific. All four limbs were affected. Just how serious his CP would be, we would know in time. But it would be significant. It was our welcome to the “club” news. What we feared was now a reality. Could we trust the Lord for what we were facing? We had no idea of the journey that lay before us.
This news became the catalyst for us to move from northern Alberta to southern Ontario. Joshua would need considerable medical care and living in the north meant long drives for that care. During his first year, we made the eight-hour one way trips to Edmonton about every six weeks. But we couldn’t keep this up. A trip to the doctor was at least a three-day excursion and often longer. Going to the doctor with Joshua was disruptive to our ministry and our older children’s lives. But there was little we could do but attempt to care for our son as best we could.
As time went on, we could see the effects of the CP. He had great difficulty learning to roll over. He couldn’t sit up. When he crawled, he dragged his legs, doing most of the work with his arms but even then, his crawling was inefficient. Thankfully, his mind seemed unaffected. He learned, adapted, laughed, and began to talk even though the CP made him hard to understand at times.
As we visited the doctors, we soon met other families in “the club.” Some had extremely difficult journeys. Entrance into “the club” comes in many ways—CP, autism, Downs syndrome, spina bifida, or a variety of strange and rare genetic defects that leave children incapacitated and needing significant care. It can come at birth or a sudden onset later in childhood. One friend has a child with a brain tumor that the doctors have been fighting for several years. Sometimes the doctors appear to be winning, while at others, the cancer is prevailing. The family has spent hundreds of hours in the hospital. Some parents don’t know how long their “club” membership will last. Some are in “the club” relatively briefly as their children will succumb to their maladies, while others are looking at a lifetime “club” membership. This is where we are. Joshua may well outlive his mother and I, but his prospects are hard.
One of the things we have discovered throughout our years in “the club,” is that our Christian brothers and sisters have a hard time relating. There was a deacon at our church in Windsor who was upset that our son (three years old) was leaving marks on the walls in the hallway with his new electric wheelchair! Of course, he was learning to drive in tight spaces and the walls got marked up. Another lady kept our children so my wife and I could get away when Joshua was young. When we returned, she commented on how hard it was to care for him and that she “would never do that again!” I didn’t blame her. He was hard to care for. But Rebecca and I didn’t have that option. We just had to persevere through the hard days. Joshua was our son, and we were committed to meeting his needs.
More than thirty-two years later, we remain committed to meeting those needs. But we need help. As we age, his care becomes harder. The COVID crisis made finding and keeping caregivers extremely difficult. This is where the church should step in. Often, however, it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s a lack of understanding of the needs, while sometimes it’s apathy.
Ministering to families like ours is one of the least done ministries in churches. I once asked a pastor of a church with a family who had two children in powerchairs what the church did to help the family. He responded rather blankly, “What do you mean?”
My wife and I recently zoomed with the parents of an autistic child. The strain on their marriage was palpable and sad. Simply throwing verses on marriage at a couple like this doesn’t really help their situation. They need people to come along side and help them. Unfortunately, we are several states away and are unable to be that helper.
Christians need to step up and come alongside families like ours. But what can believers do to help them? Go to the store? Cut their grass? Clean their house? Is there a financial need? How can Christians minister to special needs families? I once told a doctor friend that I needed a kidney. (It was a metaphor.) He said he didn’t have one and simply walked away.
How can Christians show each other the love of Christ?
For families in “the club,” this is often not a “one and done” action. Because “club” membership is ongoing, many families require regular and ongoing support. I know of a family with a child on a feeding tube with other complications. The mother is a trained nurse, but she cannot care for the child 24/7. She recently appealed on Facebook for people with training to help her. Yes, sometimes the government has programs to assist, but truthfully these programs seldom adequately cover the needs. Shouldn’t believers who have the duty to “bear one another’s burdens” rise to these challenges?
One of the saddest stories in the Bible is found in John 5. It concerns a man disabled for 38 years. He was lying by the Pool of Bethesda hoping for a miracle. When he meets Jesus, he laments “I have no man to help me when the waters are stirred.” Whether or not there was any healing virtue in the pool, the sadness comes from the fact that no one helps him.
I wonder how many of our churches are like that community around the pool—no one helping the disabled and caregiving families in need? Our churches have ministries to our youth, and our seniors. We have outreaches to the unwed mothers and to the lost. But some among us with the greatest needs are less visible and are underserved by the church.
Brethren, these things ought not so to be.
A Chink in Our Baptist Armor . . . Baptists and Our Creeds—Do We Or Don’t We Need Them?
This week, I finished proofreading an essay I read at the Evangelical Theological Society last November on the conflicted history of Baptists and freemasonry. It will soon be published in two slightly different forms, but if you are dying to read it, click on the link here. As I reread through the paper for the umpteenth time, I reflected on a perennial problem Baptists have wrestled with over the past four hundred-plus years of our history. Do we have a creed or a confession that governs what we must believe or do our confessional statements merely reflect what a group of Baptists believe at the time it is drafted? Baptists in general and the SBC in particular has sent out conflicting signals on freemasonry. Some Baptists vigorously oppose it while others leave it to personal conscience or a particular local church to decide, thus while Southern Baptists attempted to warn churches against membership in masonry in the 1990s, there is still a significant number of masons among SBC church membership. Baptists, who argue that there is no creed that binds us, argue that your church can decide what your church should do, but our church will decide what we will do.
This question was implicitly behind some of the controversy at the recent SBC annual gathering in Anaheim about which I wrote last week. Among the contested questions left unresolved this year was the membership of Saddleback Church, founded in Lake Forest, CA in 1980 by Rick Warren. Last year, Saddleback ordained three women to pastoral ministry, prompting the SBC Credentials Committee (CC) to review their membership as a church in friendly cooperation with the SBC. Rather than coming forward with a recommendation that the SBC disfellowship Saddleback based on the clear statement on the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, chapter seven which reads in part While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture, the CC suggested the SBC commission a study to determine just how SBC churches use the term pastor. This elicited a strong opposing reaction from the floor because the SBC, it was asserted, settled this more than twenty-years previous. R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern, used the strongest of language to state this but his younger colleague Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Seminary offered an alternative suggestion that the SBC should do a study on just how much of BFM2000 a church in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC must believe. Greenway was born in 1978 near the beginning of the Conservative Resurgence, while Mohler, twenty years his senior, lived through those years as a student and budding SBC leader. He knew well the issues that surrounded the revision of the BFM in 2000, on which committee he sat, as it sought to address the ambiguities and weaknesses of the previous iteration of the BFM (1963). Because many Baptists believe that confessions and creeds have no real authority over what Baptists must believe—“the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement,” (countermotion made by Cornelius Woelfkin, pastor of Park Avenue Baptist Church, NYC, after WB Riley, pastor of First Baptist Minneapolis, read the entire text of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith  into the record at the 1922 annual meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention), many Baptists argue they are free to decide for themselves what is necessary.
As I watched the floor debate unfold in Anaheim over this issue, I texted my PhD mentor, Tom Nettles, a Baptist historian, that it was occasions like this that made me consider becoming a Presbyterian . . . briefly. While Presbyterians do have a confessional standard—the Westminster Confession of Faith (1644)—that standard is no stronger than the commitment of those who are charged with insuring compliance. The Presbyterians experienced the effects of rising liberalism in the early part of last century because many Presbyterians refused to be bound by the Westminster statement. Infamous Baptist liberal, Harry Emerson Fosdick, preaching from a Presbyterian pulpit in New York, threw down the gauntlet with his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, asserting that times had changed, and theological belief needed to change with them.
Whether it’s freemasonry, theological liberalism, women as pastors, or some other yet to be disputed issue, Baptists will continue to feel the pull of theological drift because many refuse to adhere to a doctrinal standard. I lived through the Conservative Resurgence, moving away from the SBC into independent Baptist life, but happily returning to the SBC world in 2000 when I began work on my PhD. I read widely on the “battle over fundamentalism” in the SBC both pro and con so that I might understand the world in which I was studying. I entered Southern less than a decade after a very young Mohler took the reins, but by the time I was studying there, it was a bastion of conservative thought. Nearly all of the progressives had either retired, moved on to other more liberal schools or flew quietly under the radar. Molly Marshall is an example of progressives who saw the handwriting on the wall and were forced off the faculty. In 2001, the former journal of the seminary, The Review and Expositor, published a volume “Sexuality and the Church.” SBTS Old Testament professor Joel Drinkard Jr. was the business manager of the journal and was asked by Mohler to sever his relation over the content of some of the articles. Drinkard quietly left the journal and was allowed to work a few more years until he “retired” quietly in 2008. In 2011, he became the scholar in residence at Campbellsville University. Southern seminary’s faculty are required to adhere to its articles of faith, The Abstracts of Principles, pledging to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” its clear doctrinal declarations. Despite that pledge, Drinkard remained under the radar at Southern a few more years.
This is part of the challenge of theological orthodoxy. A man may claim to believe one thing, but in reality, he believes something else. As the fundamentalist-modernist controversy raged in the Northern Baptist Convention, convention president Helen Barrett Montgomery urged Shailer Mathews to encourage seminary professors from the University of Chicago Divinity School to preach something “safe” in the local church pulpits. Divinity School theologian George Burman Foster was notorious for creating controversy among the churches promoting liberal views. In the same way, Ralph Elliott tells of “double speak” that some Southern Baptist liberals used to cover their true views and conceal their theological drift.
So, what should the SBC do with the issue of women pastors? Rick Warren said recently that it was a peripheral issue, and that Southern Baptists should keep the main thing the main thing. Reminds me of what Shailer Mathews, Chicago Divinity school dean and prominent liberal placed on a banner which was hung over the platform at the annual meeting of the Northern Baptist the year he was president—“Let’s Get Together By Working Together.” Implication—let’s ignore our differences for the greater good. If the SBC took a narrow view of the BFM2000 and requires strict, literal adherence it would surely split the convention. No one is gonna tell my church what they must believe! As I warned my professor so long ago, the Conservative Resurgence wouldn’t last because the seeds of decay were never really removed. As the world saw at Anaheim, a generation has arisen that “knew not Joseph” and the same issues are being discussed again with a finger to the wind to see which way it is blowing.
Maybe it’s time for Baptists to rethink our credal commitments and let the chips fall where they may.
Baptists and Their Polity – Reflections of the SBC Anaheim Meetings Day One
Any student of Baptist history knows that Baptists are a diverse lot—Calvinist, Arminian, independent, interdependent, women in the pulpit, no women in the pulpit, progressive, fundamentalist, liberal, missionary, antimissionary, Seventh-Day, etc. Yesterday proved no exception as Southern Baptists met in Anaheim, California for their annual convention. Watching the events unfold was an interesting exercise in viewing denominational politics and perspectives.
The annual meeting promised to be stimulating this year for a number of reasons. First, current president Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church of Mobile, AL, has been under fire since it was discovered soon after his election last year that he plagiarized sermons of his predecessor, J. D. Greear, and at least one by Tim Keller, causing him to remove sermons from his website. Despite calls for him to step down from the presidency over this ethical breach, he determined to remain but indicated that he would not seek the customary second term as president. That was not enough for his detractors as several times from the floor, the subject of sermon plagiarism was broached, only to be ruled out of order by Litton in the chair.
Also raised from the floor by Tom Buck, pastor of First Baptist Lindale, TX, and his wife Jennifer was their grievance with Danny Akin and Karen Swallow Prior. The Bucks had struggled in their early marriage and had used their story to encourage others struggling with their marriage. At one point, Jennifer considered publishing an account of their challenges and sent a draft to Prior for comment. Someone shared the draft with others and they in turn recently weaponized it against Tom, an outspoken critic of some aspects of SBC life, by releasing it for public reading. The Bucks had been trying to discover how the private essay, not ready for public view, could have seen the light of day. Both Tom and Jennifer tried to raise their grievances in connection with the sexual abuse issue from the floor of the SBC meeting but were immediately ruled out of order by Litton.
Among the big issues on the table at the SBC this year was the membership of Saddleback Church (Rick Warren) in the SBC after their ordination of three women to pastoral ministry positions, the response of the Convention to the Sexual Abuse Task Force (SATF) report recently released by Guidepost Solutions, and the presidency of the convention. As to the first issue—Saddleback’s membership in the SBC, the Credentials Committee (CC) under the leadership of Linda Cooper, submitted a recommendation to the SBC that the convention needed to further study what was meant by the use of the title “pastor” in SBC churches. Clearly the CC believe that senior pastors or preaching pastors needed to be men, but it seemed to the committee that SBC churches used the title pastor for a wide assortment of ministry positions. The recommendation was rejected at the Convention after vigorous discussion including remarks from R. Albert Mohler, a member of the revision committee of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM), and Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Seminary. Mohler argued that this had been settled in SBC life more than 20 years earlier. Greenway proposed an amendment that the SBC do a study to determine just how much of the BFM a church had to hold to be in friendly cooperation with the SBC. The Greenway amendment was received as a friendly amendment by the CC, but a vote by a show of hands on the amendment was too close to call, therefore it was put to a ballot necessitating the extension of discussion on Saddleback’s relationship with the SBC later in the day. Ed Litton, after announcing that the SBC rejected the Greenway amendment, permitted Rick Warren to take the microphone and defend his life and ministry. What followed was a recounting of Warren/Saddleback’s achievements including more than 56,000 baptisms, 90 churches started in Orange County, CA, the sending of nearly 57,000 members to do overseas work, and training more than one million pastors, more than all the SBC seminaries combined. Warren, in the end, appealed to Southern Baptists to keep the main thing the main thing and not to get distracted by secondary issues. The CC ultimately withdrew their recommendation for a study on the use of “pastor” among SBC churches, leaving the Saddleback issue unresolved.
As to the recommendations from Guidepost Solutions, attention was drawn to the fact that Guidepost had tweeted support for the LGBTQ agenda at the beginning of Gay Pride month resulting in calls from Southern Baptists to separate from Guidepost over this association. Despite these calls, the convention forged ahead to strongly adopt the report’s two recommendations—first to form an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force and second to create a Ministry Check website where the names of those credibly accused of sexual abuse can be listed as a way for churches to attempt to ensure sexual abusers cannot simply move to a new church undetected. The debate on these recommendations lasted some thirty-five minutes. Mark Coppenger, retired professor from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Louisville provided the “most full-throated” rejection of these recommendations, arguing that they were inconsistent with Baptist polity.
Finally, on day one of the convention, the presidency for 2023 was decided when Southern Baptists elected Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, TX on the second ballot. Originally four candidates for president were nominated, including Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist of Cape Coral, FL, Robin Hadaway, a former International Mission Board missionary and professor of missions at Midwestern, and Frank Cox, pastor of Olive Baptist Church of Pensacola, FL. Cox was a last-minute nominee and received few votes with Hadaway receiving less than one thousand votes cast. (While there were in excess of 8000 delegates registered, less than six thousand votes were cast in either ballot.) Barber received the most votes on the first ballot with Ascol a distant second. In the run-off vote, less messengers voted than in the first election with Ascol receiving about 150 less votes the second go-around and Barber receiving about the same number of additional votes. Barber subsequently was declared the winner with an excess of 60% of the votes cast.
The defeat of Ascol for president was among a series of defeats more conservative Southern Baptists would suffer in the early part of the convention. At the Pastor’s Conference (PC) on the previous day, Voddie Baucham, dean of African Christian University of Zambia, a strong critic of Critical Race Theory but not a Southern Baptist, lost the election for the presidency of the PC. The PC is separate from the SBC annual meeting but held in conjunction with the annual meeting. His rejection as president of the conference was a harbinger of things to come.
The question of Baptist polity came up at several points in the discussion. It is a worthwhile discussion but not one likely to be settled in the SBC any time soon. To achieve an association of the largest number of people, distinctions must be kept at a minimum. For example, one could have a club limited to left-handed men over thirty with blue eyes and blond hair. Obviously, this necessitates a smaller number of members than if removing the gender restriction of only men. Theoretically, removing that would double the possible size of the group. If the hair color requirement was removed and the left-handedness requirement, the group’s potential size grows larger.
What does this have to do with the SBC? As was clear yesterday, there is great diversity in the convention even with the BFM. Adam Greenway’s failed amendment suggests that the SBC has an identity crisis. How much of the BFM does one have to affirm to be a church in friendly cooperation? Who can be a pastor? What does pastor even mean? Apparently within the SBC, a pastor can be a man or a woman . . . at least as of today.
As for the SATF and the Guidepost recommendations, Mark Coppenger said that the procedure was not in keeping with Baptist practices. Well, apparently Baptist practices were insufficient to protect the numerous sexual abuse victims within the ranks of the SBC. Now, to be clear, sexual abuse isn’t simply an SBC problem. Coppenger, while rejecting the Guidepost recommendations offered no clear statement of how Baptist polity could fix this problem nor any explanation as to why Baptist polity had, up to this point failed to address the issue. When I first went to Canada, the Catholic church was in the midst of the Christian Brothers scandal. Independent Baptists have had their share of these problems also.
Clearly the SBC has no settled rubric for determining what a cooperating church must believe, nor any clear way to deal with a non-cooperating church. By giving Rick Warren the floor yesterday to thumb his nose at SBC concerns, the convention demonstrated its broad diversity. Even Warren’s recent announcement of his designated successor seems very unBaptistic. Isn’t pastoral leadership a church body issue? What biblical warrant is there for a pastor to unilaterally appoint his successor? Granted the church ultimately endorsed the Warren choice, but the process seems unBaptistic.
Surely Baptist polity as it developed in the 17th and 18th century did not envision the egregious sexual abuse controversy. The SBC has to wrestle with how to protect their churches from predators. This may mean Baptist polity must be adapted to a new era. After all Baptist polity was formed in the crucible of history.
Afterward: This is my first essay in about two months. I had a serious bout with kidney stones that kept me down for over a month and we took an 11-day trip out west from which we returned last Wednesday.
Are We Living in the Last Days? Thoughts on Matthew 24:1–14
I must admit, I have several potential blog essays underway. But somehow, in the light of global events, these essays just don’t seem that significant. Having been to Ukraine twice and to Russia twice on teaching junkets over the past twenty years, I have been burdened about the war Russia is waging on Ukraine. I understand the historical dynamics. Russia’s “take no prisoners” approach to this war is criminal. What to do about all this is another matter. This essay will not weigh in on the political issues. Rather, I pose the question, Are we living in the last days?
Whatever your eschatological sensibilities, if you are a Bible Christian, you believe in the reality of what the Bible calls “the last days.” Jesus, quoting Joel, spoke of “the last days” (Acts 2:17) as did Paul (2 Tim. 3:1) and Peter (2 Pet 3:3). These days connect to the coming (return) of Jesus to do something. For this essay, I do not intend to make a full-throated defense of any particular eschatological system, just attempt to address the question that is on the minds of many believers today—are we living in the last days? I mentioned on Facebook last week, that I was preaching in a couple of churches last Sunday on this text and one FB friend asked if I was “Jeff Van Straube,” a takeoff on Jack Van Impe, the late prophecy preacher who died two years ago. I had occasion to hear Jack in person a number of times in the 70s at various conferences. He, like so many preachers, talked a lot about the “last days.”
I decided to preach on the early verses from the Olivet Discourse this last Sunday because it has long been my practice as a preacher to be sensitive to the world situation and to use world events on limited occasions to prompt some sermons. Global events are heavy on people’s minds, so why not use the things they are already thinking about to draw them into the Scripture? I did this at the beginning of COVID with a sermon on Ps 90 “Learning to Number Our Days,” coincidentally the name of my blog. With the very real prospect of World War 3 at our doorstep, a sermon on the last days is certainly appropriate. Nor was I alone in my consideration. Pat Robertson has already come out with a statement that we are preparing for Armageddon. Robert Jeffress dealt with a similar topic this past Sunday at First Baptist Dallas. And I saw on FB that a Romanian colleague, a leader among the Baptists there, preached on Mt 24–25 in one of his churches. Asking if we are living in the last days seems like a reasonable question given world events, especially since “wars and rumors of wars” as one possible indicator is located in this passage that also speaks of “earthquakes in various places.” This week, Japan experienced a 7.3 earthquake off the coast of the Fukushima prefecture at 11:36 PM local time. Tsunami warnings were issued along the east Honshu coast. Are we seeing Bible prophecy come to life?
This is a reasonable question to ask, and since the disciples asked a similar one, let’s consider what Jesus answered them. In looking at Matthew 24, we need a bit of context. Jesus and the 12 have been in Jerusalem for one last preaching tour before his crucifixion. The triumphal entry has already happened and Jesus finishes up teaching in the Temple, departing with the 12 for the Mt of Olives, a Sabbath day’s journey from the Temple (Acts 1:12). As he departs, Jesus warns the 12 about the coming razing of the Temple—one stone will not be left upon another. Whether this is hyperbole to say that the building will be unusable once it happens or whether it is literal, the point is the utter destruction of the Temple (which will happen in 70 AD when Titus besieges Jerusalem and destroys the Jewish center of worship). Troubled by the prophecy, the disciples ask Jesus the logical question—when will this happen and is this connected with his coming and the end of the age?
Obviously, this will require a longer answer than this blog essay can provide but by looking at the next few verses, we can get a good idea of how to think. You will notice the very first thing Jesus says in reply to their question—don’t be led astray, by false Christs (v. 5) and, later on, by false prophets (v. 11). When we talk about the last days, we need to exercise caution lest we be deceived. There have been many false Christs—Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshal Herff Applewhite, Jr (Heaven’s Gate) that preached prophetic messages that led to the deaths of their followers—918 at Jonestown in 1978, 76 at Waco in 1993 and 39 in 1997 at Rancho Santa Fe, CA. A very real consequence to following false Christs or false prophets is death if their delusional teaching is embraced.
So, what is Jesus telling his disciples here? Yes, wars and rumors of wars will occur in the days before the end. Famines, a natural consequence of war, and earthquakes will also accompany the end time. But these are the beginning of birth pains. Just how long it will be from the beginning to the end is unclear. We simply don’t know if we are at the end of the beginning or at the beginning of the end. Is it five minutes to midnight or three minutes after midnight on the clock of human history? We don’t know and it would be dangerous to speculate. What are we then to do?
Well, what we should not do is sell our goods and move to a mountain top and wait for Jesus. We might wait along time. Two things from this text emerge that we can do and should do immediately. First, we need to endure . . . persevere to the end, whenever that may be. Perseverance is a most important doctrine for the Christian. Perseverance is something that we work at (Php 2:12) and it is something that God does in us (Php 2:13). The second thing that concerns us is the preaching of the gospel—the Gospel of the Kingdom. There is only one gospel—the good news that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead. People need to be pointed to Jesus during these uncertain days (John 3:3).
So in answer to the question I posed in the title, are we living in th last days, I don’t know. Are we at the end of the beginning or at the beginning of the end? We might even be at the end of the end; God only knows. One of the last things Jesus told us was that knowing the times or seasons is not for us to know (Acts 1:7). We are just to be ready! Lord help us to be ready for your return.