View from a Southern Baptist

In his recent Under God post entitled “Southern Baptist Decline and God’s Bottom Line,” On Faith editor David Waters asks, … Continued

In his recent Under God post entitled “Southern Baptist Decline and God’s Bottom Line,” On Faith editor David Waters asks, “Shouldn’t the church find more faithful ways of measuring its success? Mercy instead of membership? Forgiveness instead of financial contributions? Baptisms lived in the world instead of baptisms recorded in a book? Justice instead of just stats?”

As an ordained Southern Baptist minister, a former Southern Baptist pastor, and current Southern Baptist seminary professor, please allow me to answer those questions, as indicated, from a Southern Baptist perspective:

1. “Shouldn’t the church find more faithful ways of measuring its success?”

Technically, please note that the Southern Baptist Convention is not a church, but a convention of autonomous churches. And, yes, you are correct: There is a more faithful way to measure success. The best measure of our success is fidelity to Jesus Christ, a measure that ultimately only He can supply. He measures the actions and attitudes of his churches through the consciences of Christians (as they read the Bible and pray), His interactions within His churches (through decisions made by the churches), His mercy and judgment in providence through history upon His churches (as He did with the Civil War regarding slavery, for instance), and ultimately before His throne in heaven. The final measure of success will be when Jesus Christ says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

This implies that one has been a servant, good, and faithful. These standards, including both issues of the heart (good and faithful) and human action (service), indicate both internal and external measures.

Some things can be measured by human beings externally, while others must await divine measure alone.

2. “Mercy instead of membership?”

Actually, we would argue that we should measure ourselves through BOTH mercy and membership. Mercy is one of the divine perfections, which in turn is to be expressed in the lives of God’s people. We, of course, both succeed and fail at this, for we are sinners even while we are being made saints. We can always do better with mercy. Oh, we could count the ways, personally and communally! But the primary act of mercy of a Christian is the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, who is the mercy of God toward humanity. And this is where membership comes in, for those who have received God’s mercy in Christ will become church members. Yes, membership, too, is important, as the New Testament itself reveals. We are commissioned by Christ to disciple the world by planting New Testament churches concerned to maintain regenerate church membership (Matthew 18:15-20, Matthew 28:18-20, I Corinthians 5, II Corinthians 6:14-7:1).

3. “Forgiveness instead of financial contributions?”

Let it be clearly stated: Southern Baptists are primarily concerned with forgiveness. We are sinners who have found forgiveness for our horrible sinfulness by turning away from sin and receiving the atoning work of Jesus Christ as our own. And as forgiven sinners, we are called to be agents of proclaiming God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. That is the temporal measure of our success: the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, which can be measured by those who receive baptism. You see, when a person receives the forgiveness of Jesus Christ as Savior, they also submit themselves as disciples to Jesus Christ as Lord. The first act of discipleship for the new believer is, of course, baptism, and baptism brings a person into a local church. Now, as Lord, He is also Lord over our finances, too. This means supporting our churches faithfully through the stewardship of our time, energy, and assets. And part of the stewardship of time and energy is to be involved in congregational decisions regarding the very finances that we give to the church, making sure that they are spent wisely and for the Lord’s purposes.

4. “Baptisms lived in the world instead of baptisms recorded in a book?”

Actually, this may be your most profound query. We as Southern Baptists understand baptism to be the symbolic testimony of a convert to their belief in Christ as the One who has died and risen again for them.

In being baptized, a new disciple is saying with the church that he or she has repented of his or her sin (died to the old way of life) and risen to walk in a new way of life. So, yes, baptism is to be lived in the world, but not from the resources of the world. The power to live in the world comes from the inner presence of the Holy Spirit of God who has bound the new believer to the church of Jesus Christ, internally through faith and repentance, externally through water baptism. A person who has merely received baptism externally and has not been born again by the Spirit internally does not apparently understand the importance of baptism. Your query should be a call for all those that have been baptized to question whether they have truly been born from above, which should be in evidence in how they live below. If baptism is not lived out in the world, it may be an indication that one’s baptism was not accompanied by faith and repentance.

5. “Justice instead of just stats?”

Yes, God is more concerned with our living just lives as we make just choices with one another than He is with the statistics of our religious activity. He made this plain through the prophets of Israel. Indeed, David was taken to task by God for his proud census taking and the people of Israel were warned that God cared more about justice than sacrifices. And yet, God does not call a Christian to forsake church activity. And human activity can be measured through statistics, can it not?

Dr. Malcolm B. Yarnell III is director of the Center for Theological Research Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Fort Worth, Texas.

  • CCNL

    As per President Harry Truman:”The Baptists] do not want a person to go to shows or dance or do anything for a good time. Well I like to do all those things and play cards besides. So you see I am not very strong as a Baptist. Anyhow I don’t think any church on earth will take you to heaven if you’re not real anyway. I believe in people living what they believe and talking afterwards…. (From a letter to Bess Wallace, March 19, 1911. Papers Relating to Family, Business, and Personal Affairs.)”

  • Paganplace

    Eh, they’re like any other ‘Church:’ claim the weight of numbers when it’s convenient: blame a few ‘bad apples’ or ‘schism’ when it’s not. They may do what they like. The world’s just watching, as all.

  • elife1975

    His mercy and judgment in providence through history upon His churches (as He did with the Civil War regarding slavery, for instance), If it weren’t for the church we wouldn’t have had to fight the civil war in the first place. The bible argues FOR slavery. How convenient of you to forget that fact.

  • furtdw

    For CCNL who wrote:”As per President Harry Truman:’The Baptists] do not want a person to go to shows or dance or do anything for a good time. Well I like to do all those things and play cards besides. So you see I am not very strong as a Baptist. Anyhow I don’t think any church on earth will take you to heaven if you’re not real anyway. I believe in people living what they believe and talking afterwards…. (From a letter to Bess Wallace, March 19, 1911. Papers Relating to Family, Business, and Personal Affairs.)”‘And …….. what’s your point?What does your above have to do with the substance of what Rev. Yarnell wrote???

  • outragex

    Huh? If this is the way Baptists explain their way of doing and being Christians no wonder they are in decline. Maybe this is good theospeak, but as a lifelong Christian layperson, the response made little sense to me and avoided the big issues suggested by the original article to which Prof. Yarnell was answering. Southern Baptists have a strong niche in the diverse group of denominations. They have a lot to teach us non-Baptists, but equally as much to learn from those denominations who practice Christianity differently in some significant ways. Prof. Yarnells response certainly didn’t make me want to visit or commune more closely with S. Baptists. It did seem bureaucratic and pedantic, but that is not what I am seeking in a church. At any rate, may God continue to bless Prof. Yarnell and his denomination as they adjust to chaning times.

  • gamiller1

    Who said that Pres. Truman was the end all in matters theological? He was a politician, after all. Despite the narrow reading of it by liberals, the Bible does not condone slavery or command it. Many, many people make this claim, including our misguided president-elect. Interestingly, they NEVER cite a verse to back it up and if they were to cite a verse, it would have to be explained in it’s context, like every book that one reads. We can all pull verses out of context, but only in it’s original context does it have logical meaning. Finally, the Apostle Paul claimed to be a bond servant of Christ, which was the same in the first century AD as being a slave – the terms were used interchangeable.

  • gwymer

    God is and has been dead for a long time. The problem here, as so well stated by Nietzsche over a century ago, is that the common man, the ill-educated herd (read, “Christians et al” like this Baptist preacher here) haven’t even realized it yet. And the beautiful irony of it all is that they themselves are the primary cause. The absolute nonsense here in these columns “on faith” demonstrate again and again this fact. The so-called church catholic is divided amongst thousands of individualized congregations with all manner of contradictory beliefs and is morally bankrupt throughout the world. This is true of Judaism as well as Islam. Do we not see this everyday in the ancient lands of perpetual hatred and war? The mindlessness of those commenting here is sickening. Will man never rise to accept his moral responsibilities in this world?

  • LeeH1

    the bible certainly does condon slavery, and supports slave owners. For some Bible verses condoning slavery, see:

  • dmills12345

    Malcolm, Very good article and expression of the biblical faith. You expressed our common faith very well against the Water’s confusion. I have been a Southern Baptist for 26 years in churches in California, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, and do not recognize the Southern Baptist Waters describes. I have known no one among Southern Baptists who measured their success merely in terms of numbers. Not one! While I do not recognize the Southern Baptist Water’s describes, I do recognize the Southern Baptist you describe. That is the one who points to Jesus Christ as the sufficient, atoning, risen sacrifice that God Himself offered upon the altar of the cross for our sins. Thank God He forgives and transforms all the humble that repent and trust Christ alone for salvation. Otherwise, there would be no hope for any of us, especially me. Keep up the good work.

  • SelahVtoday

    Thanks so much to Dr. Yarnell for expressing so eloquently the heart of my mind. I’ve been a Southern Baptist for 53 years. Among us are many who try our best to die daily to our own pride, self-centeredness and sin. We want to live as our Savior teaches in His Word. We do not always live as becoming His Light and Truth. But we do love, we do forgive, we do have mercy and we do give as we grow in our faith and commitment to Jesus. selahV

  • dmills12345

    His kind words notwithstanding, byroniac has lost track of the flow of this discussion. He complains that Dr. Yarnell’s Baptist distinctives are of no interest to the world. Well, they were to Mr. Waters who wrote the original piece to which Dr. Yarnell responded. Dr. Yarnell did not volunteer his views on Baptists distinctives but responded to a critical diatribe that first addressed them. byroniac also overlooks (or may be unaware of) the fact that conservative groups do far more social service and social ministry than liberal groups. Liberals are so few in number that they simply do not have the private funding or the private human resources to serve the needy byroniac complains walk his street. The remarkable growth of American conservative churches since WWII has fueled an astonishing advance to meets people’s social needs. Conservative biblical theology rightly applied rushes the followers of Jesus Christ into service. Finally, byroniac fails to address the significant issue embedded in Dr. Yarnell’s response, namely, the Lordship of Jesus Christ. If Christ be Lord, He sets the agenda no matter what interests or disinterests the sinful world. The task of the followers of Jesus is not to allow the world to goad it into action, but to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Like Christ, therefore, followers of Jesus must expound the truths of God’s love, human sinfulness, the certainty of judgment, the hope of salvation in Christ alone, God’s command to repent and trust Christ, and Christ’s call to follow Him. Culture and age groups are not risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father. Without these credentials, the world has no right to goad the church into its preferences. Instead of providing marching orders to the church, I suggest the world pay careful attention to Christ and submit to His right to do the ordering.