CHURCH CIVILITY: SBC consensus, renewal proposed

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from David Dockery’s newest book, “Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: a Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal,” released last month by B&H Publishing. It is printed here with permission.

Now that the “conservative resurgence” is complete, there is a need to reestablish the identity of Southern Baptists to point toward a helpful and hopeful future. What is needed, in light of the complex challenges in Southern Baptist life today, is a fresh look at the teaching of the apostle Paul. In Ephesians 4 we find not only an appeal to biblical unity, which Southern Baptists need to hear, but also the necessary virtues and guidelines that can help bring about this kind of authentic unity.

When we turn to Ephesians 4, we are struck by Paul’s repetition of the word “one,” which occurs seven times. Further observation reveals that the seven “ones” are grounded in the three members of the Holy Trinity (“one Spirit,” 4:4; “one Lord,” 4:5; and “one god and Father of all,” 4:6).

Believers who have been reconciled to Christ (Eph. 2) have new standards and expectations. Paul urged his readers, “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1 NIV). Five virtues are presented in Ephesians 4:2 that characterize and exemplify life worthy of the Christian calling. “Humility” points to our ultimate dependence on God and is an absolute necessity to unity, because pride often stands behind discord. We need humility before God, but also in our relationships with others, thinking of others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:1-4).

“Gentleness” suggests strength under control. Gentleness should not be associated with weakness; rather it is a work of divine grace that produces patience, quiet restraint, and submission to God. The third virtue is “patience.” Patient people demonstrate long-suffering in dealing with insulting and aggravating people, seeking to follow the example of how God in Christ has acted toward us (Rom. 2:4).

The next quality, “forebearance,” further explains patience. Forebearance expresses a mutual tolerance without which no group of people can live together in peace. “Love” is the final quality that embraces the previous four. Paul grounded the four characteristics “in love.” If Southern Baptists are to demonstrate unity before a watching world, love?as the embracing virtue and crown of all virtues?must characterize God’s people. Jesus said that love is the mark of His followers (John 13:34-35). Southern Baptists will have genuine unity only when these Christian virtues characterize our lives individually and corporately.”

Believers are to make it their business to pursue unity in the body of Christ. We are not to take a wait-and-see attitude, but we are to be eager to do what we can “to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). God’s Spirit energizes the church to exemplify unity to an observing world. When believers cultivate and practice the virtues described in Ephesians 4:2, they display and preserve the unity of the Spirit. Paul’s stirring challenge in verse 3 often falls on deaf ears. God is the Author of peace, and stirring up dissension among His people is detestable to Him (see Prov. 6:16-19). From his admonition to unity, Paul moved to the basis of this unity.

In Ephesians 4:4, “one body” refers to the church, the body of Christ (Eph. 1:23; 2:16). This “one body” is comprised of diverse people (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28). Cohesion of the “body” comes from the Holy Spirit who indwells, seals, and energizes it (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). As the body is one though its members are many, so the Spirit is one though His gifts and His operations are many (Eph. 4:7-12).
Paul continues in verses 4 and 5 of this chapter by claiming that “one hope,” “one faith,” and “one baptism exist because there is only one Lord. The “one hope” of our calling is the hope of sharing Christ’s glory. The “one hope” is the calling for all believers; the believing community has no favored members for whom better things are reserved.

The “one faith” refers to the sum and substance of the church’s belief. No Christian unity is possible unless believers share a common commitment to Christian doctrine, the “faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 3). The “one faith” of Ephesians 4:5 also points to the common experience of faith in Christ and the same access to Him shared by all believers.

“One baptism” pictures the outward expression of believers exercising faith in the one Lord. Baptism is the visible sign in water by which persons who believe the gospel and repent of their sins publicly acknowledge Jesus as Lord and identify themselves with the body of Christ (Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27).
The final emphasis of Ephesians 4:1-6 concerning the new humanity is that all believers belong to the “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (NIV). Unity is the calling that twenty-first-century Southern Baptists need to hear because we proclaim one Christian faith, share one hope, experience one baptism, and participate in one body. The infighting and discord that sometimes have characterized the church indicate how far we have fallen short of God’s expectations.

Genuine commitment to the truthfulness and authority of Holy Scripture calls for us to live as the Scriptures instruct us to do. We need once again to recognize the high priority that Scripture places on true unity among God’s people (Ps. 133:1), John 17:21; 1 Cor. 12:4-13; Eph. 4:1-5). We must confess our sins of disunity and ask God to bring renewal by His spirit to Southern Baptist churches and entities. The larger context of Ephesians 4 indicates that true Christian unity is expressed through variety (Eph. 4:7-12), bringing about maturity (Eph. 4:13-16) and purity (Eph. 4:17-32) in the Body of Christ.

If Southern Baptists truly are to be the people of God before a watching world, we must visibly exhibit an attitude of unity. God’s oneness defines the oneness of the body of Christ. As God is one in three, so the believing community is made up of different parts with a variety of expressions; yet the body is one. We need to hear afresh that visible unity grounded in truth is God’s expectation for us. Let us pray and work for renewal and unity in our theological commitments, in our worship, in our fellowship, in our educational efforts, in our shared service and social engagement, and ultimately in our gospel proclamation. Let us petition our Lord to renew the people, the churches, and the entities of the Southern Baptist convention to serve and adore the one true God. We trust that our Lord will grant us grace to move us forward together toward a new consensus. Let us all pray for Southern Baptists to be renewed so that the Gospel can be proclaimed to al the world, even as we hear afresh the prayer of Jesus, Himself: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21 NIV).

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