In an effort to better understand questions related to cooperation and doctrine, the TEXAN spoke with four Southern Baptist theologians and asked their viewpoints. They are: Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Denny Burk, assistant professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas, Ron Rogers, IMB missionary in Brazil and former assistant professor of missions and theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., and Stan Norman, who was associate professor of theology, occupying the Cooperative Program Chair for SBC studies, in addition to being the director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry before moving to his current role as vice president for university development at Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, Mo.
TEXAN: To call someone a Christian, which doctrines, in your opinion, are essential?
Denny Burk: I think usually when this question is asked, one wants to know what bare minimum is required to ensure that one is going to inherit eternal life rather than judgment. I don’t think that kind of minimalism appears anywhere on the pages of Scripture. Biblically speaking, the name Christian only properly belongs to those who are disciples.
I think of Acts 11:26. Everybody knows that a disciple is not someone who merely embraces the minimum of what is required. A disciple is one who is willing to go to the death for Jesus and the gospel. So the essential question is this: Are you a disciple? Are you following Jesus and his gospel?
Doctrines, essential doctrines, are helpful in so much as they help us to clarify who Jesus is and what his gospel consists of. I don’t think it will do just to affirm the doctrines held to be essential if you are not a disciple of the one to whom the doctrines point. Christianity cannot be reduced to a rote affirmation of doctrines. Nevertheless, right doctrine points to the biblical Christ and gospel and it’s absolutely essential for a person to be trusting in and submitting to the authority of both in order to be called a Christian.
Russell Moore: I think the question points to which Jesus one claims to believe. So I think the humanity of Christ is necessary for one to be a follower of Christ. Also, a belief in the deity of Christ, a confessing of Jesus as Lord, a belief in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus–those things the apostle Paul says he delivered to us as of first importance. And so I think that the key issue here has to do with the identity of the Lord Jesus. Who is the Jesus one claims to trust in?
I think the irreducible minimums include a recognition of Jesus in his person and in his work. And I think the question can be confusing simply because often, as Denny mentioned, we’re looking for the bare minimum. So for instance, you can have the question, can someone be a Christian and reject the virgin birth?–something that the church has always held to be foundational. Well, I think you can have people who can believe in Christ who do not yet know about the virgin birth. But I think it’s an entirely different matter to have someone who claims to be a Christian who consciously rejects the notion of the virgin birth. So I think that’s a bit of a complicated discussion. I do not think anyone can be saved who does not recognize and understand the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Ron Rogers: I would agree with the statements of the two brothers ahead of me and simply say that Christology–the person of Christ, who he is and what he did–is the very heart and soul of what it means to be an authentic Christian. I would include in addition to his deity, humanity and virgin birth something specific about his incarnation because John said that he who does not confess that Jesus has come in flesh is not of God. I think that is very crucial for us.
Stan Norman: There are two ways of addressing the question as it is stated. One is an historical, traditional way. How have people regarded themselves historically within the broad spectrum of Christianity, and probably what we’re more interested in is how is someone born again unto the life of a disciple of Christ.
Reflecting on Dr. Mohler’s article, I believe when he talked about theological triage he mentioned categories of doctrine. I think Dr Mohler has used a classical, two-model approach where he talks about major doctrines and minor doctrines. I have kind of modified that a little bit with the three tiers of doctrines, with, of course, the primary tier as the orthodox doctrines. I would put in that the doctrine of the Trinity. As has been said, if you aren’t Trinitarian, you aren’t Christian, or as a country Baptist preacher once said, if you aren’t Trinitarian, you ain’t. Of course, assumed in Trinitarian theology is the full humanity and the full deity of Jesus and along with his substitutionary atoning work–all of that in my opinion is subsumed in that first tier of doctrines, which are essential, I think, for a robust, meaningful, genuine life of discipleship. Going back to what Denny was saying, really, the ultimate quest is, are you born again?
And so I would look at those doctrines probably along with some others that tend to be classified with evangelical beliefs of conversion, justification by grace through faith and so on–those would be clustered as what constitutes a meaningful, regenerated disciple of Christ.
TEXAN: What is essential for one to be a useful, effective Christian disciple?
Moore: Well, I would say all of the doctrines revealed in Scripture are essential to authentic Christian discipleship. That’s not to say that one cannot be a disciple while having a faulty view of a number of given doctrines, but I do think that all Scripture is given for everything that is needed for life and godliness. So while we may say that there are some doctrines that are minor in a relative sense, we cannot say that there are any doctrines that are minor in an essential sense.
And that’s where I think Dr. Mohler’s theological triage argument has been so terribly confused in some quarters. What he is saying is not that there are some doctrines that are minor and therefore not to be quibbled about. What he is saying is, the doctrinal categories that are necessary in terms of agreement have to do with what a particular group or church is actually doing in terms of cooperation with other Christian groups. It doesn’t mean these doctrines are minor.
So often you will have people, for instance, say, well, we have a great deal of disagreement over minor issues such as the millennial question. Well, the millennial question is something that I think that many of us can disagree on who believe the Bible and who hold to the authority of the word of God, but we cannot say that it’s a minor issue. If the Lord Jesus spoke to us about a 1,000-year reign of Christ, then it is necessary for us to hear him and understand what it is about which he is speaking. It’s not a minor issue. Now, relatively speaking, it’s a minor issue when compared to issues such as the Trinity and justification by faith, the deity and humanity of Jesus, but it’s not a minor issue. Baptism is not a minor issue. I go can door-to-door witnessing with a paedobaptist believing him to be grievously wrong on baptism, but it doesn’t mean the issue is minor. It’s a very major issue that has been given to us by our king, our Lord Jesus.
Burk: I would agree wholeheartedly with that. I think submission to every biblical doctrine is important for a disciple of Christ. You can’t claim to be a disciple and then not be submitting to something that he’s spoken to. The Bible tells us when Jesus was led out into the wilderness to be tempted, the devil tried to get him to turn stones into bread and Jesus resisted the devil with these words: “Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. And if Jesus’ whole life was characterized by nothing less than someone who is hanging on every word spoken by his father, his disciples’ lives can’t be anything less than that. So you can’t say that any word or doctrine from Scripture is non-essential; it’s all essential for us to submit to, even though you might recognize the relative importance of it along the lines of what Russell was saying.
Norman: In reflecting on the question, the first thing that crossed my mind is: Are you asking about prioritizing doctrines as we understand them hermeneutically, or are you asking about doctrines we share in a cooperative context and how we relate to others who believe differently than we do?
TEXAN: I think the latter. How do we explain that outside the Baptist fold? To be an effective, mature Christian—things essential for discipleship but not salvation perhaps.
Burk: I would reject that distinction.
Moore: Well, I think the way Stan just worded it is actually very helpful, that levels of cooperation is really what is at stake here. So in other words, I could cooperate denominationally with churches that disagree with me about, for instance, whether a church ought to have elders. But in my own local church, that would be a situation that we’d have to have some consensus on in order to carry out our mission as a local church. And so I think the issue of levels of cooperation is really essential here. For instance, could I be involved in a Billy Graham crusade with Presbyterians and evangelical Methodists if we’re simply using a cooperative endeavor to point people toward the gospel” Sure I could. But could I plant a church with evangelical Presbyterians and evangelical Methodists? Well, no, because we’re going to have to decide who to baptize and how. So I think levels of cooperation here really is the key.
Rogers: That is also very important when it comes to our work on the mission field. You know the International Mission Board has encouraged us to be involved with other Great Commission Christians. But we have to distinguish levels of cooperation –with which groups can we cooperate at what point in getting the gospel to men and women in other cultures. And in some contexts we can cooperate with a wide spectrum of Christians to get the gospel to people. But when it comes to planting a church, we will not cooperate with people who do not believe in baptism by immersion or some of those essential things.
Norman: And when we talk about authentic Christian discipleship, there are so many ways that could be expressed. I certainly applaud Denny’s concern that he would not draw the distinction between conversion and a life of pilgrimage. I think, as I understand the question though, with regard to the level of cooperation, what are the doctrines that are essential?
There are some areas where I would draw the line on the level of orthodoxy. For example, I can’t cooperate with you because even though you might claim the label Christian and claim to be a disciple, we don’t even agree on the basic orthodox tenets of the faith. Then there would be levels of, OK, we’re evangelical. … we affirm orthodox doctrine and agree about the importance of regeneration. But then in church planting and questions of ecclesiology, my level there is even further limited by what I believe about Baptist identity and that there are tenets in that which will not allow me to cooperate with you. And then we can turn that around and in the political/social sphere, a disciple and someone who stands in a rich heritage of cultural engagement—I know Dr. Land files friend-of-the-court briefs with some people that on other matters we would never cooperate, but on that particular court case or on this particular civic matter, we have decided to cooperate for a single voice on this particular issue.
I don’t think you can just be quite so reductionistic and say in every case this is what happens. I think the level of the issue will determine the level of cooperation.
Moore: And one cultural and historical context also will often dictate the kinds of questions that must be answered. For instance, you think of the Baptist Faith and Message statement adopted by the SBC in 2000, which speaks to issues of homosexuality and abortion—issues that were not raised in the 1963 or the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message statements.
This is not because the messengers to the 1963 or 1925 Southern Baptist Conventions were pro-homosexual or pro-abortion rights. It’s simply that these issues were not assaulting the church to the degree that they are now assaulting the church, and thus they had to be addressed prophetically in terms of the cooperation of the churches.
Norman: And that may require that we partner with others in certain political engagement that the ’63 or ’25 messengers would not have conceived.
TEXAN: Considering Christ’s call for unity in his high priestly prayer, how do we obey that and at the same time contend for doctrines that we hold dear and which may separate us from other Christians groups?
Moore: I don’t think that Jesus’ high priestly prayer is calling for a global, multi-national organization. I think that what he is calling for is love, faithfulness, fellowship, and that ought to be seen chiefly in the lives of local congregations that are unified, congregations that cooperate together.
But there also is a recognition that we see in the New Testament itself, in the book of Acts, that there are going to be situations in which in this fallen world we do not yet see eye to eye closely enough to be able to cooperate on particular issues. And so when the brethren have a disagreement over, for instance, whether or not baptism is for believers or for infants, there has to be unity at that point of doctrine before those brothers can then carry about the mission of baptizing the nations. So I don’t think that Jesus’ high priestly prayer means a pseudo-unity. I think it means a genuine unity, which means there’s going to have to be contending with one another often as brothers on issues that we can debate as brothers, but we have to debate them. And we have to come to a consensus about what the word of God actually teaches.
Norman: I agree. There are two ways you could address it. One, unity ultimately is understood in the person and work of Christ. And that seems to dovetail nicely into his prayer. He is praying that we would know him and walk with him authentically and genuinely, and so true unity is found in rightly knowing who he is, rightly believing who his is and rightly serving and obeying him. But you could turn it around and say the fact that I have associated myself with a particular denomination is that I am doing so in an attempt to be biblically united with Christ and with other believers.
People often view denominations as separation, and that is true, but denominations also provide vehicles for uniting like-minded believers, unifying them and their convictions and calling as they understand Scripture and their relationship to Christ.
It kind of cuts two ways. I could justify denominational identity and separation along the lines of “I do it in a quest for being united with like-minded believers with like-minded convictions and a like-minded life of discipleship as I follow after Jesus Christ.”
Burk: And I would say I can’t be a faithful disciple of Jesus if I think that the Bible teaches that baptism is immersion of a believer in water and then I don’t submit to that word. If you are allowing all these other people to join your assembly who aren’t baptized, and you’ve defined discipleship in your understanding of the Scripture to be baptism of the believer by immersion in water, you really don’t have any choice. To be faithful means you have to submit to that word. And you can’t just say this is unimportant, this is non-essential, they’re still saved. No, you have to submit to what Jesus teaches on it.
Rogers: I’m wondering if a lot of people are looking to this term “denomination” or denominational identity as a divider when in reality I don’t think it is necessarily an indicator of division in the body of Christ.
TEXAN: First, do you agree with perception of some that there is a narrowing of doctrinal parameters in the SBC? And second, is this to a degree necessary in order to have a denomination?
Moore: I do not see an undue narrowing in the Southern Baptist Convention right now. As a matter of fact, I see a wide and growing latitudinarianism in the SBC, especially at the level of our churches. You can see this, for instance, in the way in which some people read the confessions of faith to say that as long as something is not explicitly mentioned in the confession, we have latitude to go in a completely opposite direction. I think that’s something we ought to be worried about. Often when people are charging the denomination with narrowness, they are charging the denomination with narrowness that is necessary for a denomination to decide how we continue to cooperate together in carrying out the Great Commission. That means that you are going to have new questions that emerge as the culture changes and begins formulating threats to orthodoxy in different ways.
So I don’t at this point see narrowness. Is there always a danger of an undue narrowness? Certainly there is. And we can see that in some examples of some groups that have gone before us that have divided over issues that were not essential to cooperation. But I don’t think we are in any danger of that right now.
Burk: How are you going to cooperate on the mission field if you don’t agree on what baptism is, and the convention or the IMB is going to speak to what they think baptism is. I have no problem with that at all. We need to be specific about it. You cannot disciple in a church, you can’t plant churches, without knowing what that is. So it’s not inappropriate to narrow that. And I agree with Dr. Moore. He sees some relaxing of things that are essential to being Baptist here stateside. I recall reading of a Baptist church that was going to accept as members those who had been baptized as infants. That is so contrary to Baptist understanding and I think a biblical understanding of what baptism is.
Norman: In may experience in denominational service, there have been a few exceptional occasions [where inappropriate narrowness occurred], but we can’t let occasional issues paint an entire denomination as large as ours. The gadflys are really having a profound influence in certain quadrants of our culture today, maybe far beyond what they have earned or should have.
Moore: And most of the charges that you hear of undue narrowness are coming from people, when you actually appear behind the rhetoric and ask what exactly are they talking about, you find a very pernicious agenda, an agenda that’s already been settled in the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s an issue that has to do with, for instance, gender roles, an issue that has to do with open communion and open membership in some cases in our churches, an agenda that has to do with a whole wide array of things that have already been settled in Southern Baptist life. And you have a whole group of people who could never win at the church level by speaking to the issues themselves, who if they speak in broad terms of undue narrowness believe they will gain a hearing because of personality issues and what have you that have to be confronted directly.
Norman: The case of the theology professor at Southwestern Seminary who was denied tenure is a good example. The Baptist Faith and Message speaks about males as pastor, not specifically professor, therefore the conclusion is drawn that the BF&M has been breached. And yet, that’s too reductionistic a way to ask the question. Has there been some kind of illogical and ecclesial distinction between our seminary professors and those who serve in a pastoral role in a local church? Do we have a tradition of a pastor-theologian such that the qualifications for pastor do translate into most, maybe not all, professors at the seminary? I don’t think that you can argue against that, yes, we have a long tradition. In fact, it was intentionally conceived that way by Broadus and by Boyce and by Manley. And to argue differently, well, maybe we don’t have it stated in the BF&M, but it is to argue against a long, rich tradition in Southern Baptist life.
TEXAN: Do you believe the Baptist Faith and Message should be a baseline for our denomination’s work or is it a maximal parameter beyond which our SBC entities cannot appropriately go?
Moore: The Baptist Faith and Message is a single statement of belief defining cooperation of the churches denominationally. Each entity must decide what is necessary for that entity to carry out its mission and commission. Southern Seminary, for instance, every faculty member at Southern Seminary must be in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message and also with the Abstract of Principles, the statement of faith adopted by this institution from its founding. There are some issues in the Abstract of Principles that are clarified beyond the degree to which they are written in the Baptist Faith and Message. And that is perfectly appropriate for an entity to have that level of expectation and to have employment standards for each entity that are going to take into account a wide array of issues.
Norman: We trust the trustees of each SBC entity to govern for us in our behalf, and they appoint administrators to implement the policies and procedures that the board approves. We empower them to do this for us and if they deem that there is something that requires greater specificity than what is required by the BF&M, we trust them within certain parameters to make that call. It may be an issue of do we trust our trustees as much as it is how we interpret the Baptist Faith and Message and issue of confessionalism within our denomination.
TEXAN: How should this discussion apply at the mission boards?
Rogers: At the International Mission Board, the Baptist Faith and Message is a good standard for us and I have no problem with asking all missionaries and missionary candidates to affirm the BR&M. It provides us a good parameter, doctrinal and to a degree practical, and it gives us an understanding of where we are as Baptists. So I don’t hesitate. I think it’s a good idea and I’m glad to affirm it anytime I’m asked to do so.
TEXAN: What role, if any, should church tradition play in how we interpret biblical doctrine?
Burk: I think it would be arrogant to ignore how previous generations of Christians have interpreted the word of God. I think it would be even more arrogant to subjugate the word of God to any perceived authority in the church’s tradition. And that was precisely the issue in the Reformation, the issue of authority. And I think the Protestants and the Baptists with them have always insisted on sola scriptura, the understanding that the Bible is the sole infallible authority of our faith. All tradition has to give way to that authority. Yes, tradition has a role to play. But it’s sort of an advisory role. That tradition can be revised.
Moore: The apostle Paul warns us of wolves that will come in and twist Scripture to suit their own agendas. Tradition helps us to see the strategies the wolves use. Whenever you have false teaching in the church, there’s always the taking of Scripture texts out of context and there’s always the twisting of these texts around. For instance, you think of the Arian controversies when people would say Christ is the firstborn of all creation. Church tradition helps us to see how these debates have already been carried out in the life of the church, and so we recognize these things when they come up again in for instance, Jehovah’s Witness teaching or the debates over modalism.
We’re able to recognize the ways in which Oneness Pentecostals argue. Even take church tradition from its broad sense of 2,000 years of church history. In Baptist life, look and see in a very narrow timeframe in the 20th century the kinds of strategies that have been employed. Many problems that we have now in the Southern Baptist Convention have everything to do with the fact that we’ve forgotten some of the lessons learned from the battle over biblical inerrancy in the latter half of the 20th century.
We ought to pay attention to these things and pay heed to these things not because they add to the authority of Scripture—Scripture judges every human tradition—but because they help us to see the ways in which error tends to raise its head.
Rogers: I would add to that that church tradition informs us as we formulate an interpretation of doctrine and practices but it does not regulate in our interpretation of Scripture.
Moore: And church tradition can also often show how our forebears have misinterpreted Scripture. It can be every bit as instructive as the ways in which our forebears have rightly interpreted Scripture. So there’s a great deal we can learn from the ways in which, for instance, the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention justified chattel, race-based slavery. We ought to look at those debates and see how it is that men who understood the Scriptures so rightly in some many ways could get it so wrong at this point. That can help us to look at our own blind spots and our own ways of appropriating the culture in ways that do damage to us.
Rogers: And in that way we will help to inform the future generations as they formulate their doctrine.
Norman: And tradition is a fine safeguard against novelty. There’s a fine line here because if you err too far on tradition, you will stray from biblical authority, and if you err too far on novelty, you are going to stray from biblical authority. The writer of Ecclesiastes said there’s nothing new under the sun and if someone comes to me and says, “We are anti-tradition in every single way. We’re going to formulate it all anew,” you are probably working on a cult. So there is a fine line. On the one hand we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. And we’re probably not going to concede on the person and work of Christ. We’re not going to come up with something novel to add to that. But on the other hand we don’t want to make ourselves so much to antiquity that we are unable to articulate biblical truths that speak meaningfully to our culture. We walk that line, we walk it carefully, we walk it finely, and hopefully we walk it correctly. Sometimes we walk it better than others.
TEXAN: Dr. Moore, you mentioned that it would be possible to become too narrow at some point. How would we recognize that?
Moore: I don’t think you can do it with a list of doctrines. In order to say this is the chart and these doctrines are off limits. I think it would have to be done in the context of life together, mission together in terms of local communities and denominational entities. For instance, someone may say to me, “Our church is not King James only. What should we do with someone in the life of the congregation who is KJV-only advocate?” Well, my response to that is not going to be simple. It is going to be, what’s he doing? If you have someone in the congregation who believes in the confession of faith, who believes in the mission of the church, who believes in biblical authority, who believes that the King James version is the only rightly translated copy of the Word of God today and yet that person has no problem with pastor preaching from the translation of Scripture of which he uses, he tolerates other church members who do not hold that conviction. That is an issue where you ought be able to live with one another and to be able to tolerate that kind of difference. However, if you have people within the life of a congregation who are KJV only, who are standing up and causing division among the brothers because it’s new-age Bible translations, then that is an issue of factiousness that ought to be dealt with in the life of the congregation. Often, these are not very simple but sometimes they have to do with issues within the life of a particular body or group of churches. You could take any number of issues and ask is there a point to where you could become too narrow with these? Of course there is, but you cannot come up with a blanket statement because there is always going to be issues in the life of a given organization or church in which that becomes a stumbling block in the cooperative mission of the church or the institution.
Burk: One thing that I really wish and pray that Southern Baptists would pay more attention to is Baptist distinctives. This is where I believe that we are losing ground in our denomination in terms of an insistence upon baptism and what baptism is, the immersion of a believer in water, an insistence upon a regenerate church membership and all that entails. An insistence upon church discipline. The way that we disciple and preach the gospel. I fear sometimes that we are losing those things in our press for numbers and all of these other things until we end up with a mixed multitude that’s not that much different than what you see in other churches. And it cuts directly against who we profess to be. What’s why I get so concerned about these doctrines that people put in this secondary category as not important, not essential. They are essential. They are essential for our discipleship–regenerate church membership, baptism and all of that.