Some Calvin Miller Videos

A recent comment on this site as well as the fact that a friend of mine is now reading The Singer has led me to think again about Calvin Miller.  What a wonderful and unique voice Calvin had!  He is sorely missed by so many of us who have benefited from his ministry.  He was an amazing writer.  He was also a fascinating preacher.  I’ve found a few videos of Calvin that I’d like to post here.

Calvin Miller does not need to be forgotten…not that there is any danger of that happening.

“Heaven” – Dr Calvin Miller from Westside Church on Vimeo.

Dr. Calvin Miller from CrossPoint Community Church on Vimeo.

Calvin Miller Evening Sermon – November 8, 2010 from CrossPoint Community Church on Vimeo.

“Chesterton and the Baptists”: A New Article

GKCover300The Chesterton Review has published an article I have written entitled “Chesterton and the Baptists” in Volume 41, Issue 3/4, Fall/Winter 2015.  As it is currently for sale only, I will not post it here, but it can be purchased here if you are interested.  I have also updated the sidebar publications menu to include this article.

It was joy to be able to look more closely at what G.K. Chesterton had to say about Baptists.  I am grateful to The Chesterton Review for publishing it.

What Went Right in Baltimore

sbc14logoartHaving already expressed some concerns about what happened in Baltimore at the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention, I’d like to share some thoughts on the things that struck me as right, good, and encouraging.  I am not offering these to try to offset my earlier critiques.  On the contrary, it struck me at various times during the week that, despite my own cynicism, I really am happy to belong to the family called Southern Baptists.  At numerous points I turned to my wife and said, “That’s just awesome.”  I thought I’d share some of the reasons why I felt that way.

  • The music and the worship was strong and God-honoring and inspirational.  All of the different kinds of music were strong:  from big names to unknowns.  Beautiful!
  • Having Naghmeh Abedini there to represent her husband, jailed Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini, was particularly moving and really put a face on the persecuted Church.
  • Having the pastor of the Canadian church plant, La Chapelle, as well as a young musician who had recently come to Christ present was beautiful and was a poignant reminder that almost-completely-unchurched regions cannot stop the advance of the gospel.
  • Russell Moore’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission report was strong, passionate, and very encouraging.
  • Hearing the story of the two churches that merged, and having Ray on the stage, an elderly man in the original church that was declining, was sweet and showed me that we never have to lose our passion for Christ or our willingness to change.
  • Seeing old friends and making new ones reminded me of the sweet ties that bind us together in the Southern Baptist Convention.
  • Being a large body in which people are free to speak their minds – no matter how odd-sounding at times – is a blessing.  The Free Church tradition, with all of its quirks, is a wonderful tradition to which to belong.
  • Seeing committed stands on biblical authority and orthodoxy and seeing an absence of wrangling over the core theological tenets of our faith is a fresh reminder that whatever weaknesses we might have, a lack of solidarity around the gospel is not one of them.
  • Seeing Southern Baptists given the opportunity to ask questions of denominational leaders is critical, and this was in evidence in Baltimore.  Whatever controversies may be currently discussed in the Convention, it is a strength that nobody is beyond open questioning.  This kind of transparency must be safeguarded.
  • Seeing the presence of various and diverse subgroups presented in the exhibit hall, even around sometimes conflicting secondary and tertiary theological issues, is a strength and shows that there is room in the Southern Baptist Convention on issues deemed adiaphoric.
  • There appeared to be a larger number of young people at this year’s Convention.  At least my wife felt this way.  I think I agree.  This is hopeful and encouraging.
  • There were some tremendous sermons delivered at the Convention this year and some genuine passion for the salvation of lost people exhibited.
  • My wife, Roni, points out that Fred Luter did a wonderful job in his final year as President.  I agree 100%!
  • Roni also points to the increasing ethnic diversity present in the Convention.

Yes, there are many things that went right in Baltimore.  We are very glad we went!

An Interview with Dr. Ray Van Neste on “The Lord’s Supper in the Context of the Local Church”

Dr. Ray Van Neste is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies and Director of the R.C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University in Jackson, TN.  He is also one of the pastors of Cornerstone Community Church in Jackson.  He has authored numerous works on the Bible and the church.  His website is “Oversight of Souls.”

An Interview With Ray Van Neste on

“The Lord’s Supper in the Context of the Local Church”

rayDr. Van Neste, I would like to thank you for your insightful essay, “The Lord’s Supper in the Context of the Local Church,” found in the 2010 publication, The Lord’s Supper (Broadman & Holman Academic).  You begin your essay by pointing to a diminished appreciation for healthy ritual and symbolism among modern Southern Baptists as a factor in our frequently weak approach to the Lord’s Supper.  You also mention the negative and morose approach we often take to the Supper.  I wonder if you would include a kind of neo-gnosticism among these factors, of the type that Harold Bloom and Philip Lee mentioned some years back?  Is there a gnostic anti-materialist strain in Baptist ecclesiology and soteriology that favors the impartation of knowledge through non-material means over the physical elements of worship?

Yes, I believe so, though I don’t think this is a position which is thought out or often explicitly argued. But it is “in the air” so to speak. We seem to turn away from the earthiness of Christianity (and of life in general) in many ways. Somewhere C. S. Lewis spoke well of this issue noting specifically the earthiness of the Lord’s Supper. We are so drawn to an otherworldly, often monastic, view of spirituality. Losing our Reformational (and scriptural) moorings, too many people think of growing in godliness as withdrawing from day to day life. This has a lot of negative implications for us. C. S. Lewis has been very helpful to me in this area.


I wonder if you could react a bit to Luther’s statement (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he would rather drink blood with the papists than mere wine with the enthusiasts.  Are you sympathetic to the sentiment behind this assertion?

It can be tricky to align yourself too quickly with some of Luther’s retorts! But, in general, there is a significant problem in Baptist churches of being more concerned about what the Lord’s Supper isn’t than what it is. When we stress merely what it isn’t, then we leave people wondering, “Why bother?” It isn’t anything real. It’s only a symbol. It’s not necessary for anything it seems, so why bother? As Millard Erickson has said, Baptists have produced the doctrine of the real absence of Christ!

We need much more constructive theology discussing what the Supper is, what it is supposed to communicate and how it aids us.


Must Baptists be Zwinglian in our approach to the Supper?

There is some debate as to how “Zwinglian” Zwingli was, though I am not up on the most recent aspects of that conversation. I do think, with Zwingli, that the Supper is a memorial, that is, it functions to cause us to remember. Jesus said this. The question, though, is whether or not there is more going on. Numerous Baptists through the centuries have affirmed a view of the Supper closely akin to Calvin’s view, that Christ is spiritually present with his people at the Table. So, Baptist views have varied.

I think the “fellowship” language in 1 Cor 10:16-17 is quite strong, suggesting this is not a mere memorial. It is at least profession of faith.


I’m struck by your use of sacramental language.  In what sense is it appropriate to refer to the Lord’s Supper as “a sacrament”?

Yes, I chose to use this language as I noticed that prominent Baptist authors in the past (e.g. B. H. Carroll) had readily used it. When I use this term, like Baptists before me, I do not mean the Roman Catholic sense that the action in itself causes grace. I am concerned that Baptists, in reaction to Catholic overstatement of what happens at the Table, have downplayed what happens there. You often here much more about what it is not than what it is. Along with other Protestants, we can affirm that the sacraments are sure witnesses of God’s grace toward us. They are God ordained means of God’s blessing as they bear witness to the gospel.


Your call for open communion seems to go against the grain of many current conservative Southern Baptist academic voices.  I found it refreshing, and I agree with you.  I found your arguments to be among the more persuasive that I’ve read.  Why do you believe that British Baptists have been more open to open communion than American Baptists?

Thank you. That is probably the most controversial portion of my chapter, though a key part in my mind.

This is a good question, but one I’m not sure I can answer. I haven’t looked into this enough to provide a sure footed answer, but I’ll make a couple of observations. Some will probably note that British Baptists on the whole are far less conservative than Baptists in America and suggest this explains their openness to open communion. However, I don’t think this argument will work since open communion can be found among British Baptists well before the slide to a more liberal theology took place.

Another possible contributing factor could be the impact of Landmarkism in the US and the fact there was no similar impact in the UK. The strength of Landmarkism kept many in the US from addressing the issue along the way. This would still not be a full explanation, but perhaps it is a contributing factor.


Finally, the one part of your essay that gave me pause was when you noted that, in your opinion, it is not appropriate to take the Lord’s Supper to homebound members as that would be an un-churchly observance (my phrasing there, not yours).  I appreciate your own humility in saying that.  You were not dogmatic about it.  I also get the logic of what you are saying.  But I am thinking about a time some years ago when a brother in Christ flew with me to visit another church member on his deathbed in a hospital in another state.  I took the Lord’s Supper to him.  The three of us had prayer together, read the Word, and observed the Supper.  It was a powerful, moving experience that my friend and I still speak of.  I am not trying to elevate feeling above clear inference here, but it did seem to me that, at that time, the church had gathered.  For instance, there are churches with scarcely more than 3 or 4 people in them.  Respectfully, I’m curious to know how what we did in that hospital room differs from a small church of the same number of believers meeting and observing the Supper?  

Yes, as you noted, I am more tentative here as we are working from inferences. I don’t want to be adamant where the Scripture is less explicit. We are here considering issues of best practice.

However, if it is a church ordinance, then the difference between the hospital gathering and a small church is that the small church recognizes itself and is recognized by others as a church. The hospital gathering is not so recognized or structured.

I recognize the tension, but I also wonder what sort of parameters we have if this moves outside the gathered worship of the church. Can families observe the Supper at home as they see fit? What about retreats, conferences and seminars? The scriptures do not say only pastors can administer the supper (as most Baptist documents recognize), so we could have a few students in a dorm room celebrating Communion.

Communion in Scripture seems to be rooted in corporate worship and it seems best and safest to me to keep it there.

Daniel Turner’s A Modest Plea for Free Communion at the Lord’s Table; Particularly Between the Baptists and the Paedobaptists. In a Letter to a Friend

Daniel Turner of Abignon, England, wrote A Modest Plea for Free Communion at the Lord’s Table; Particularly Between the Baptists and the Paedobaptists. In a Letter to a Friend. under the pseudonym “Candidus” in 1772.  He did so in conjunction with John Collett Ryland of Northampton who released essentially the same document (with some minor changes) under the pseudonym “Pacificus.”  (A nice summary of this particular skirmish in the controversy surrounding the question of open and close(d) communion can be read here.)  Turner’s little book has been reproduced in this print edition of the “Eighteenth Century Collections Online” “Religion and Philosophy” series.  It is a nice little facsimile addition to anybody’s library who is interested in such things.  It can also be read online, for free, here.

I am drawing attention to this work because it is a helpful summary of the “open communion” position (i.e., defined as allowing all who are believers in Christ to come to the Lord’s Table, regardless of their mode of baptism) Turner’s writing has a surprisingly modern feel to it, and I suspect that any who would read it would do so with profit.  (The only adjustment you would likely have to make, by the way, is making sure that you do not mistake the older English “s” for an “f” ((minus the crossbar)) since the latter is how they communicated the former ((except, apparently, when they used “ss” which appears, roughly, as “fs”)), but it’s an easy enough adjustment to make.)

Turner writes, he says, because he has heard “that I, and the Church under my care, have been severely censured by several of our stricter brethren of the Baptist denomination, for admitting Poedobaptists to commune with us at the Lord’s Table” (3).  He then gives his reasons for allowing infant-baptized believers to come to the table.  These reasons include:  because all who are saved “must have an equalright to ALL the privileges of the Gospel,” because he doesn’t feel that they have a “sufficient warrant” to exclude these believers, that excluding such believers from “the means of his grace” makes them “guilty of invading the prerogative of Christ,” because Jesus accepts infant-baptized Christians “at his table,” because if Jesus overlooks their mistake on baptism, so can we, because “we are expressly commanded to receive the weak in faith,” and because showing charity to those with whom we differ may go a long way towards building unity and opening doors of conversation.

Turner then moves on to answer some objections to their practice.  He upholds “the right of private judgment” and the need not to disobey conscience in interpreting scripture.  Problematically, in my opinion, he write thus:

“If my Poedobaptist brother is satisfied in his own mind, that he is rightly baptised, he is so tohimself, and, while the answer of a good conscience attends it, God will, and does own him in it, to all the ends designed by it, so that while he considers it as laying him under the same obligations to holiness in heart and life as I consider my baptism to do me, why should he not commune with me at the table of our common Lord?”

Obviously, this opens Turner up to the charge of subjectivizing truth itself, which he anticipates in the next objection, which he expresses in these terms:  “that the allowing of this free and open Communion, is the way to beget a cold indifference to the cause of truth, and by degrees entirely ruin it.”  To this, Turner argues that such an assertion is merely theoretical, that this destroying of truth itself has not been witnessed in churches that practice open communion and that, on the contrary, showing charity to differing interpretations tends to earn the truth itself a greater hearing, not a lesser respect.

I remain concerned, however, about this particular train of thought.  I think Turner is at his best arguing for charity and pointing out the lack of a command excluding infant-baptized believers.  To suggest, however, that if a person is baptized in their own mind, they are indeed baptized, opens a Pandora’s box for the kind of grotesque relativizing of truth we see in our own age.  Let me quickly add, however, that I think this is simply a weak argument, or one that he did not flesh out enough, not that Turner himself was a relativist.  It is clear enough that he believed in truth and that he was, in fact, a Baptist by conviction.  Again, this is simply not his best argument.

Finally, Turner draws an interesting parallel between the Baptists and paedobpatists and the Jewish-Gentile conflicts of the first century.  He argues that Jews and Gentiles who came to know Christ had to learn to love one another and honor one another within the same church, even with their differences.  So too, he says, those who differ on baptism must do the same.

This is a helpful and interesting work on a topic that remains relevant to this day.  I would encourage you to read it.

Baptist Theology with Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr.

The following interview with Dr. Garrett took place on March 2, 2009.  The occasion for the interview was the publication of his Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study in January of 2009.


Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr. has been a Baptist theological educator for over fifty years.  He has taught primarily in three Baptist institutions: Southwestern Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Baylor University.  He was at Southwestern Seminary from 1949 to 1959 and from 1979 to 1997 with post-retirement teaching until 2003. 

We really do appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today, Dr. Garrett.

Thank you, sir.

Dr. Garrett, I hope you will indulge me for just a moment.  I wanted to share just a brief word of appreciation for you as a former student, if that is ok.  I thought I might do so by sharing just a small paragraph from Paul Basden’s chapter on you in the 2001 edition of Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (Broadman & Holman).  Paul Basden wrote this:

“For five decades now James Leo Garrett, Jr. has taught and written about Baptist theology.  Given the size of the schools which he has served, one can only begin to estimate the number of students whom he has influenced to think biblically, historically, and theologically about the Christian faith.  Who knows how many young seminarians had their minds broadened in his introductory theology courses or received flashes of inspiration in his famous ‘after-lecture’ discussions, or first encountered the mystery of the Trinity in his beloved patristics elective, or learned to grapple with Luther or Augustine in one of his doctoral seminars?  Who knows how many times he invited classes into his home for a meal or recommended former students for church positions or faculty appointments or counseled confused young ministers about their calling or career?  He has had an enormous influence on Southern Baptists during the past half century.  Beloved by students and fellow professors alike, Garrett is recognized by many of his peers as the most knowledgeable Baptist theologian living today.” (p.298)

Dr. Garrett, I just wanted to say here at the beginning that I share in those words of Paul Basden and just want to thank you here at the outset for your life, your ministry, and your work.  As a former student, I owe you a great debt of gratitude as do so many others.  So, thank you very much.

Well, Pastor Wyman, those words, I am sure, are vastly exaggerated, but I am grateful to have had you as one of my students.  Thank you very much.

The occasion of this interview is the publication in January of this year, two months ago, of Dr. Garrett’s new book, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, which was published by Mercer University Press.  I have only recently finished reading the book and it is a kind of education in and of itself.  So let me begin, Dr. Garrett, by asking this question:  “Why this book?”

Well, Pastor Wyman, I will answer it in two ways.

First of all, I will give a more personal answer.  In 1950, when I was a very young instructor at Southwestern Seminary, the faculty allowed me to introduce a new elective course in the curriculum called “The History of Baptist Theology.”  I taught that course at Southwestern during the 50’s and again, later, in the 80’s and 90’s and at Southern Seminary during the 60’s and early 1970’s.  That course involved having students write papers on many subjects.  Then, after my 2nd retirement from teaching in 2003, I began an intensive reading of all of these sources and a research project which eventuated in this book.

Now, why this book?  No book of this kind, of this nature and scope, on this subject, had ever been written in the history of the Baptists so far as I knew.  I did not know when I started that William Brackney would write A Genetic History of Baptist Thought and that it would be published in 2004.  I did not know that when I began my book and I’m sure he did not know, when he was writing his, that I would be writing mine.

So these are the only two books that have attempted to cover comprehensively Baptist confessions of faith, Baptist theologians, and theological movements and controversies.  There have been books on each of those three areas, many books, but only these two on the whole field.

It is a massive book, well over 720 pages of text, not including the index of names, and I imagine when you sit down to begin to write a Baptist theology covering four hundred years that you have really got to think through your methodology and your approach.  What was your methodology in writing this book?

As I just said, it sought to cover in an integrated, not a segregated, interpretation, the major confessions of faith adopted by Baptists, the major theologians among the Baptists, and the major theological movements and controversies that have affected Baptist life.

Now, I tried to do this by using both what we call “primary sources” and “secondary sources,” that is, the original writings of the people we are discussing and then what’s been written about them.  Take two examples:  one is John Gill, back in the 17th century, the other, E.Y. Mullins, at the beginning of the 20th century.  Both of those were very influential Baptist theologians and it’s important to read, study, and interpret their own writings.  But because of their importance, there have been many things written about them, both favorable and unfavorable, both positive and negative.  So it is important to look at those assessments as well as what I would say in interpreting these.

Then we tried to let the authors speak for themselves before I attempted to make any assessment of their work.  Then, too, I operated on the basis of a five-continent or a six-continent view of Baptist history.  It depends on whether you include Australia and New Zealand in Asia as to whether you have five or six continents.  When I was a very young seminary student, I bought Latourette’s seven-volume History of the Expansion of Christianity, which was the first comprehensive missionary history of the world from a Christian viewpoint.  It greatly influenced my life.  Then, working with the Baptist World Alliance, as I have since 1965, I was intent on having a book that would include more than Britain and North America.  Dr. Brackney confines his work to Britain and North America, and Dr. McBeth, in his history of the Baptist movement, included North America, Britain, and continental Europe, but not the other continents of the world.

So that’s what I would say about methodology.

It is an interesting look at Baptist theology over the last four hundred years, and I am just curious to know why the world would need such a book on Baptists appearing in January of 2009?  Why Baptists in 2009?

We need the book, first of all, because we haven’t had this kind of thing before.  Dr. Brackney and I have, in that sense, been breaking new ground.  We needed an overview.  We need to rise above the particulars.  Some people would understand the 17th century and some might understand the 19th century, but we need a view of Baptist theology that is comprehensive.  That is why the effort was made.

Now, Baptists need that for their own self-understanding.  This is a great need today in our churches:  that people understand what the Baptist identity is.  What are the distinctives and what are the beliefs that Baptists share with other Christians?  So there was a need for the book for Baptists and, then, for others to know what theology Baptists have had.

At one time there were people saying we did not have any Baptist theology.  Theology was only written by Roman Catholics or Lutherans or Anglicans or Presbyterians or somebody else.  But this book is, I think, quite clear evidence that that is not true.  So, the Baptist movement with its distinctives- -its religious freedom, separation of church and state, the supremacy of Scripture over tradition without rejecting all tradition,  the tendency to want to go back to the New Testament to recover apostolic or primitive Christianity,  the baptism of believers only by immersion and, with that, the goal of a regenerate church membership, the priesthood of all believers, congregational polity, and a strong emphasis on evangelism and missions; these are some of the things that are important for Baptists.  Sometimes these distinctives have been taken by other groups.  They are not altogether distinctive of Baptists today, but the mix of these distinctives is what has made the Baptist movement distinctive.

You mentioned regenerate church membership, and you have written on regenerate church membership.  I know of at least one article you have written specifically devoted to the issue of regenerate church membership and, of course, you have published on the issue of church discipline as well.  Let me just ask you about your thoughts concerning the recent discussions that have taken place in the Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings concerning an effort to see a resolution passed, that was ultimately passed last year, to call churches back to a regenerate church membership.  Do you think this is a favorable development?

Yes, I do.  I think that the Convention cannot mandate that, of course, because that is a decision that the local churches have to make, but to advise and counsel and encourage is certainly in order.  I am very grateful for the good work that you have done in the field of church discipline.  I think what you have written is the most practical set of helps that we have out there, available today, to help existing churches recover some sense of church discipline and positive discipleship.

So, yes, I think the regenerate church membership goal is a worthy one and it means, of course, that in the last century or so, many Baptist churches have been very loose in terms of their membership rolls and this is what they are trying to address today.  It is at the front end, in terms of members being received, and then it is a continual problem of authentic membership in the years that follow.

Let me ask you to generalize just a little bit.  You are a historical theologian, and you cover, obviously, a very long period of time, four hundred years, in your study of Baptist theology and much longer, of course, in your two-volume Systematic Theology.  But I am curious to know, as you look at four hundred years of Baptist history, who you would see as the top three or four Baptist figures, from any time period, whose work, in your opinion, ought to be carefully studied by Baptist pastors and laypeople today?

Well, Pastor Wyman, I have a hard time limiting my answer to your requested three or four.  I tend to want to identify more.  Initially, in responding to you, I might be prone to say, “Oh, we have so many of the older works of Baptist theologians that are not in print.”  But then I have to reckon what the electronic revolution has done.  I have been told, on good authority, that almost all the works of Baptist theologians that are more than seventy-five years old are now available electronically.  And through Google search, most of them are free, and there are other places where you have to pay for the text to be produced.  So the availability will not be a big issue in my answer.

I would say, if we’re going back to the 17th century, that John Bunyan is the one who, above all, should be read.  Not because he is necessarily right on all points, but here was a man who, with limited formal education, but with a passion for God and for the Bible, was able in rather remarkable literary form to write on many theological themes, not only in his famous Pilgrim’s Progress.  We have today a wonderful thirteen-volume edition from Oxford if you want to buy the whole thing, but I believe you can get it free electronically.  So I would say, from that early century, John Bunyan.

From the next century, I would take John Gill and Andrew Fuller, especially Andrew Fuller.  His works have been republished in recent years.  He was a very practical theologian, a pastor.

From the 19th century, I might want to mention John L. Dagg, whose work is in print.  He was a Southern theologian.  Then the sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon are still filled with theological content and can be read widely because they were preached from a pulpit in Spurgeon’s day.

In the 20th century, I would speak of people like Carl Henry, Bernard Ramm and Millard Erickson.  Most of these works are still in print.

And then, of course, in my book I have a group of baby boom theologians that certainly have works in print.  So I’ve given you a broader answer, but these are some of the ones that I think would be worthy of attention.  Now, that is not to say there are not others.

This may overlap a little bit, but let me ask you more personally, for yourself, who the Baptist figures are who have had the greatest impact on your own thinking and work?  Let me put it another way:  do you have favorite Baptist authors that you return to time and time again?

Pastor Wyman, as you may know, I was a student of W.T. Conner, the theologian at Southwestern for thirty-nine years, and my own teacher during the last days of his teaching career.  When I began as a young teacher, of course, he had shaped my own thinking.  I had read his works.  I wrote my dissertation on his theology.  So it would be important for me to list him as the number one influence in the early formation of my own theology.

In the 1950’s we did not have many evangelical theologians writing at that time.  Non-Baptists like Emil Brunner, for example, were greatly helpful to me as I struggled with the teaching of theology.

But then we had to deal with Landmarkism, which was alive and well at that time in Baptist life, still exerting quite an influence.  So I had to read J.R. Graves even though I didn’t always agree with Graves.  I had to interact with him.

And later on, as I began to be more mature in my theology, I had to rely on people like A.H. Strong as well.  Then I was colleague to Dale Moody at Southern Seminary, and nobody who lives with Dale Moody could be unaffected by Dale Moody.  And then, of course, Carl Henry was very active.  When I came to write my own theology, beginning at the age of 63, I had to deal with Millard Erickson, who had already written his Christian Theology.

So these were some of the people who were very formative.  Now, I read others.  I read P.T. Forsyth.  I read E. Y. Mullins.   I read Luther.  I read Augustine. I read Calvin. I read Schleiermacher.  I taught Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, in seminars. But for Baptist theologians, these would be the first.  And then I would say, as far as biblical theologians, I think I was more greatly influenced by H.H. Rowley, as an Old Testament theologian.  In the New Testament field, Ray Summers, my teacher, was very influential on my views of last things, or the doctrine of eschatology.

This is likewise a bit of a personal question, along the same lines, but I am just curious about your own reading habits.  Do you read daily, every day?

I usually read something, yes, every day.  There will be days I do not because of schedule.  Right now I am reading the festschrift honoring my colleague Leon McBeth, which was published late last year, called Turning Points in Baptist History.  I am reading that and will be finishing that shortly.  That is a book that has theological as well as historical significance.

I know you are retired, but do you have any other writing projects in the wings?

I cannot answer that with a clear affirmative.  For some years, Dr. Malcolm Yarnell and I have contemplated co-editing a history of the doctrine of the priesthood of all Christians.  I do not know if we will ever get that done.  He has done considerable writing on the Reformation period, and I have done some writing on the patristic period.  If we can ever get the medieval and modern sections done, we may be able to have a book.  There is no comprehensive, good, reliable history of that doctrine.  But Yarnell has other priorities, and I am not as well as I used to be; so we do not promise anything in that area.

There might be some things I wish I had done in the past.

Well, that raises another question:  are there any books that you have not been able to write that you wish you would have written?  I guess, perhaps, that would be one, to this point, that you would like to see done.

There are two others I will mention.  When I was at Southern Seminary, I gave an inaugural address on the methodology for the history of Christian doctrine, or historical theology, in which address I proposed that the best way to do this today would be to have an international, interdenominational team of scholars to do a comprehensive history of Christian doctrine.  No sooner had I given that address and it was published in the journal Review & Expositor that I received a letter from Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan at Yale University telling me that he was launching a big five-volume history of Christian doctrine and, by implication, he was saying that my project was not needed.  My later move to Baylor with different duties meant that I was not teaching the history of Christian doctrine for a while.  After coming back to Southwestern and resuming that teaching in 1980, although I gave some serious consideration to doing something myself, I gave up the project because there is so little market out there since most seminaries require systematic theology but not  historical theology.  So I did not attempt that big project which I originally had proposed as a massive cooperative effort.

As for the other, for many years I taught a course at Southwestern on the theology of the American cults.  We treated Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, the Unification Church, the Ba’hai World Faith, and various other movements that have been deviations from either Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.  I, at one time, contemplated a textbook in that area.  But, you know, each one of those religious movements is a field of specialization itself.  You can be very good on the Mormons and you may be much less competent on Jehovah’s Witnesses at the same time.  One needs to be competent on all of these in order to  write a first-rate text, I felt that I never got to the point where I could do that like I wanted to do it.  So I retired, after many years of teaching, without producing a book in that area.  We still do not have a very good textbook in that field after all of these years.

Let me go back for just a minute to this letter you received from Jaroslav Pelikan.  I know he passed away just a couple of years ago.  Is that customary scholarly habit to receive a letter saying that your proposed writings are not necessary because it is being done?

I do not think the letter was quite that specific.  I think it was more of an indirect statement.  I must say, of course, I have never received another letter like that.  I did not feel any resentment about it at the time.  My wife seems to remember the incident more than I do.  I do not know how common that is, because I never experienced it in any other setting.  But evidently he was wanting to be a little protective of his own interests.  He produced a very important five-volume set, which is very topical rather than chronological.  Therefore, it was not the method that I used in teaching.  Mine was more chronological than topical.  So I never did use his book in my classes, but certainly I have used the volumes.  They are a very important contribution to the literature.  There was never any ill-will between Dr. Pelikan and me.

Dr. Garrett, I really do appreciate, and I know that readers of this interview will appreciate, your taking the time to answer some questions and, God willing, if you will   allow it, when the next book comes out, we will talk again.

Well, let me say in closing, Pastor Wyman, that I appreciate talking with you and having these questions from you.   I would like to say to you as pastor of your congregation there in Dawson, GA, and other church people who should read or ponder these words, that I think one of our greatest challenges today is in the local Baptist church: to recover a sense of Baptist identity, to teach our heritage, to share with our people our stories, our heroes, our heroines, our triumphs and our tragedies, and to make being a Baptist Christian a much clearer and more responsible thing in today’s world.  I believe every local Baptist church has that challenge today, and I know if anybody can meet that challenge, you can do it there in Dawson, GA.

I appreciate that so much.  Thank you so much.  Let me just encourage, in closing, readers of this interview to consider purchasing Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study.  It is a great resource and would be a great help in the teaching of our distinctives and our identity and heritage in the local church, wherever you are.  I encourage all of you to get this book.

The Formation of Christian Doctrine with Dr. Malcolm Yarnell

Wyman Richardson:  Dr. Yarnell, I’d like to say from the start that your book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine, was refreshing insofar as it constitutes a unique and singular contribution to theological prolegomena from a free-church perspective.  You note in the work the relative absence of prolegomena in our tradition (while acknowledging that some, like Millard Erickson, have made substantial contributions).  Why is this?  Is there something germane to the free-church tradition in particular that makes intentional and substantial attempts at theological prolegomena either undesirable or difficult?

Malcolm Yarnell: I am glad that you enjoyed this aspect of the book, for it is central to understanding the purpose of the monograph. First, let me be clear that there have been free churchmen who have written theological prolegomena, the discussion of theological method. What makes this book different from previous attempts is that it intentionally looks to the confessional practices of the free churches (more particularly, the believers’ churches) for their theological method. I do not think there is anything inherent within the free church tradition that makes such an attempt undesirable or difficult. Rather, the lack of previous attempts indicates the historical placement of the free churches amongst the state-churches.
Believers-only churches were not only disallowed prior to the widespread establishment of religious toleration in the West, they were often severely persecuted. It was difficult for free church theologians to live (one thinks here of martyred theologians such as Balthasar Hubmaier and Michael Sattler), much less have the leisure to reflect upon the difficult problem of theological method. Disclosing the free church theological method is not undesirable to the free churches; rather, historically, the free churches have had to plead for the very right to exist against the persecuting churches of the Roman and Protestant traditions.
Even after toleration of dissenting churches was allowed, our people were kept out of the universities. It was not until the last two centuries that free church theologians began to receive the theological training necessary for such an exercise. Unfortunately, after such training, those theologians in the free churches who were even minimally interested in theological method tended to think in the magisterial manner of the academy in which they were educated, rather than according to the manner of the free churches from which they were called. My hope is that the book will serve as a clarion call for free church theologians to cease forsaking their own churches in favor of an alien paradigm. I have little doubt that some will not like it, precisely because it calls into question their fundamental presuppositions. However, God has never given this particular preacher a comfortable ministry.

Wyman Richardson:  You say on pages 115-116 that the original impetus for this book was the desire to see a free-church response to Cardinal Newman’s famous An Essay on the Development of Doctrine.  As one who is intrigued by Newman’s approach, I found this fact fascinating. You do note that this book is merely a first step and not a complete response to Newman.  I wonder if you feel that such a free-church response is essential today?  Why is this important and do you intend to pursue a more exhaustive response to Newman?

Malcolm Yarnell: John Henry Cardinal Newman is probably the most underrated theologian in the modern era. Most systematic theologians, especially in the Protestant tradition, tend to look toward authors who intend at the most to critique the church rather than build it up, or at the least who construct a theology that the church cannot live. Newman intentionally set out to build up the church and his theology was one that his church could utilize, although in his lifetime this was not always evident. (It was not until after World War II that many Roman Catholics began to see that Newman’s theology was helpful for bringing the Roman Church into conversation with modern humanity.)
Unfortunately, the sheer genius of Newman proved not only beneficial to Roman Catholicism, something that Benedict XVI also recognizes, but it proved attractive to those Protestants seeking a firmer though ultimately elusive historical basis. The brilliant thesis of Martin Luther was in showing that a return to Scripture did not entail submission to Rome; the brilliant thesis of Cardinal Newman was in showing that a return to truth might occur through submission to Rome. (Newman liked liberalism as much as Southern Baptist conservatives do.) In my opinion, Newman’s greatest legacy may be the intellectual subversion of the Reformation, a subversion that occurred while he wrote An Essay on the Development of Doctrine. The crisis of Reformation theology, especially with the current wholesale trend towards ecumenical theology, is found in Newman and his doctrine of doctrinal development.
This is why I believe there must be a response to the English Cardinal. As the free churches have become more aware of the history of the churches in general, they have discovered that Christians in other churches and at other times are not necessarily as depraved as they had sometimes led themselves to believe. This deepening historical awareness, a positive movement, also brought a sense of ecclesiological insecurity, a negative byproduct compounded by a loss of preaching upon biblical ecclesiology. As a result, some free churches have suffered loss of members to the Anglican, Reformed, and Lutheran communions, or even more radically, to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Unless the free churches regain their theological foundation, we will continue to see the loss of our distinctives. If this were merely a historical loss, I would not be so exercised. The problem is that it entails the loss of what I believe to be the proper foundation of theology.
Do I plan to address Newman’s ideas with regard to development more deeply in the future? It would be an honor if that were my task. However, Newman deserves a worthier opponent than this middle-aged obscure theologian. When Newman is definitively answered, it must come from a wisdom that I fear I do not yet possess, if ever. However, perhaps someone will see fit to use my preliminary attempt as a basis for addressing Newman. For the sake of the New Testament churches, I believe it must be accomplished.

Wyman Richardson: You rightly bemoan the gutting of the term “evangelical” and the reduction of this word to a kind of “mushy middle”, lowest-common-denominator position that lacks clarity and force.  You also note how the term was originally bound up with ecclesiology but has now been divorced from any polity structure. In reaction, you use the term “evangelical” in its original sense and association with Magisterial Reformation polity and ecclesiology, thereby declaring your own apprehension with applying the term to Baptists.  I was curious, however, about why you did not mention perhaps the most well-known definition of “evangelical,” the Bebbington Quadrilateral?  Doesn’t Bebbington’s definition have more force and substance than the weak, tepid, and market-driven construct that you rightfully reject while at the same time providing a definitional construct that crosses denomination and polity lines?  Cannot a Baptist in good conscience hold to this idea of “evangelical” and not compromise his Baptist identity or lapse into the vacuous approaches that the term popularly carries with it today?

Malcolm Yarnell: Wyman, I appreciate this question tremendously, for it lets me address the evangelical problem from the perspective of modern evangelical historiography, a field upon which whole careers are made and broken. (Did I use the terminology “mushy middle”? I hope not, for that would belittle my respectful concern regarding where the movement may be going.) If I were providing an encyclopedic taxonomy of “evangelicalism,” which was not my intent in the preface, I most certainly would have included the work of David Bebbington. This premier historian’s fourfold definition of evangelicalism as crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism is both historically viable and religiously attractive. If “evangelicalism” were to be authoritatively defined, then Bebbington’s construct would be most attractive. However, for all its merit , the problem is that it is an historical definition and an historian’s definition. As an historical definition, which is all I imagine the professional historian Bebbington meant for it to be, it is subject to the vagaries and variances inevitable with the movement of history; as an historian’s definition, it carries no authority beyond those academics and others personally persuaded by the writings of Bebbington (and I am one of those). Bebbington’s definition has gained wide and deserved credibility among historians of the evangelical period from the late-eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth century.
But ultimately, the definition of “evangelical,” even by such an accomplished historian as David Bebbington, is subject to the same problem outlined in my preface: it lacks ecclesiological normativity. Unless a church decides its own meaning of “evangelical,” it will always be subject to shifts in meaning, according to whatever the latest poll and the reporting pollster indicate. Sociology is a poor substitute for biblical theology, as I pray church leaders will increasingly discern. Academics, whether historical, sociological, or theological, for all of its helpfulness, possess no ecclesiological authority whatsoever. Jesus Christ established the churches as his agents of reconciliation with the world, and no para-church institution or employee may lay claim to such divine mandate. As a result, it would be grossly presumptuous of any Christian academy to assume for itself theologically normative authority. As to your last question in this group, a Baptist church as a free church can do whatsoever it desires with the term, “evangelical.” Wisely, most have preferred to leave the matter alone, perhaps because they intuitively recognize that the term is unstable. Theology deserves a firmer foundation than that.

Wyman Richardson: I’m curious about your methodology. You choose to speak throughout the book through association with various figures and positions.  As such, your proposals are presented somewhat vicariously through representative persons and episodes within historical theology.  I wonder what you see as the particular strengths of writing theology in this particular manner? Why did you choose to write the book like this?

Malcolm Yarnell: The particular strength of writing a biblical systematic theology with great respect for the contributions of history is that it helps keep a person honest. When theologians claim undue creativity, they are contradicting the preacher (koheleth) of the Old Testament: “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The sensitive theologian will recognize that the biblical exegesis that we attempt is really just a new presentation of some old problem. Moreover, I personally believe it is wise to rely upon our theological forefathers. The truly great theologians are those who recognize the exegetical contributions of those who came before us. Respect for one’s elders seems to be a lost virtue in this emergent age, following closely upon the heels of the self-sufficient liberal age. When we theologians assume that we can read the Bible apart from the witness of the churches through the ages, we display a despicable pride.
Finally, as I indicated in the preface, theology is best done in community. The great thing for the modern historian is that the works of the early fathers, the medieval theologians, the Reformers, the modernists and fundamentalists, and those who do not fit well in a particular period are so widely available. Why not ground one’s theology in the Great Tradition, even as one provides a biblical critique of the various traditions that are grounded in the movement of God throughout history? Historical theology at its best is biblical theology conducted in conversation with the great Christian thinkers that have come before us.

Wyman Richardson: Methodist theologian Tom Oden has introduced a number of younger Baptists (like myself, ironically, in a Southwestern Seminary chapel service) to the Vincentian Canon through his paleo-orthodoxy programme.  You are sympathetic to the importance of antiquity, universality, and consent, noting that theological neophilia is an act of “hubris.”  Yet you are ultimately skeptical of the idea of a “patristic consensus,” pointing instead to the numerous conflicts, contradictions, and variances in patristic thought.  Yet Oden and others are quite passionate about the existence of a “classical Christian consensus” (Oden’s term).  Granting the maddening variety in patristic thought, was there not a core consensus or recognized orthodoxy on a number of key issues? Is consensus really so elusive when one considers the patristic writings?

Malcolm Yarnell: Thomas Oden is one of the greatest theologians alive this day. A few years ago, I had the privilege of hosting him as the guest lecturer for our annual Day-Higginbotham Lecture series at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I have an abiding appreciation and hearty approval for his efforts to encourage what he refers to as “young fogies,” by which he means younger theologians who are highly interested in orthodoxy. And I would classify myself as one of those who encourage our students to know and ground themselves in classical Christianity. I do this in two ways: First, at the basic level, I utilize the major orthodox creeds (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Formula of Chalcedon, Quicunque Vult) and encourage my students to know them, even memorize them. Second, at the more advanced level, I lead my fellow students, who have graciously allowed me to shepherd them, to read the major theologians of East and West, including Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, for instance.
However, I want my students, while they appreciate the brilliant contributions of the early church theologians, to see that they were not perfect. Like theologians today, they had their blind spots. What Protestant or free churchman can truly justify the sacerdotal system constructed by Cyprian, a system that has distracted many from the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross by focusing upon the sacrifice of the priest? What true Christian really wants to excuse the persecuting society that Augustine clearly justified in his theological innovations? The point I try to make in the book is one that is largely bypassed in the current rush to patristic theology: Although I personally believe we should hold to a basic Christian orthodoxy, which the early church fathers worked through especially with regard to Trinity and Christology, I also believe we must read the fathers critically. When we treat one theologian or synod or historical period with singular authority, we have in effect undermined the biblical canon.
Similarly, when it comes to the various periods of historical theology, although I have two degrees in Reformation theology, I refuse to treat the Reformation uncritically. This is why I do not measure orthodoxy through the ancient creeds alone or by the Synod of Dort, etc. And this is why I argue that the free churches must be willing to listen to the church fathers, the medieval schoolmen, the Reformers, as well as the modernists and fundamentalists. However, standing in judgment above every theologian, every council, and every period is Jesus Christ, who reveals Himself through the Bible. If we look at theology or theologians or their books or their conciliar decrees other than through the cross of Christ, we will err. We must ever be careful to follow Christ alone as revealed in the Bible alone through the illumination of the Spirit alone in the midst of the gathered body of Christ.

Baptist Catholicity with Dr. Steve Harmon

You’ve provocatively titled your book Towards Baptist Catholicity.  There will be those who see that title as being roughly analogous to something like Towards A Square Circle.  Aren’t the terms “Baptist” and “Catholicity” contradictory?

In the popular mind, those probably are contradictory terms—they represent the extreme poles on the spectrum of types of churches or denominations, in the way most people understand them.  I suppose only “Pentecostal Catholicity” might seem even more contradictory, unless it occurs to one that adherents to both of those traditions actually expect something supernatural to happen when they gather for worship!  At any rate, the title was intentionally provocative.  If it made anyone wonder how the book would put those things together, the title did its job.  A fellow Baptist theologian thought I should have titled it No Creed But the Bible?—with the question mark—since in the book I repeatedly called that mantra for some modern Baptists in the United States into question, but I’m satisfied with the title.

Where did the term “Baptist catholicity” originate and can you give a summary definition of what “Baptist catholicity” is?

In a 2004 paper presentation that served as the basis of a published essay that in turn was revised as the first chapter of Towards Baptist Catholicity, I employed “catholic Baptist” as a descriptor for an emerging movement among younger Baptist theologians who have been dissatisfied with the theological categories bequeathed by the recurring skirmishes of the twentieth-century Modernist/Fundamentalist conflict in Baptist life and who have sought a “third way” that values both the community gathered under the Lordship of Christ and the continuity of this community with the larger Christian community through the ages.  These Baptist theologians therefore have an interest in the tradition of this larger community, the creeds and forms of liturgy that have transmitted this tradition, and the sacraments that belong to the embodied life of this community.  I didn’t coin the label, however; Curtis Freeman, director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, had suggested the label “catholic baptists” in an essay in his co-edited book Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision.  Freeman’s lower-case spelling of “baptists” reflects the usage of James Wm. McClendon, Jr. in his Systematic Theology with reference to a larger pattern of Free Church Christianity of which Baptists, upper-case, are representative.

When I wrote of a “catholicity” towards which I thought Baptists ought to move, I had in mind the ancient sense of the Greek katholike employed by Ignatius of Antioch early in the second century to describe the pattern of an incarnational, sacramental, embodied form of fully orthodox Christian faith and practice that distinguished catholic Christianity from Docetism, Marcionitism, Gnosticism, and all manner of other heresies and sects—a qualitative catholicity.  This is a fuller notion of catholicity than the etymological sense of “pertaining to the whole”—catholicity in a quantitative sense—which is sometimes associated with affirmations of the universal church, understood as all the redeemed of all the ages.

I’d like to ask you about the accessibility of the terminology you and others have used.  Do you feel that the term “catholicity” might ultimately be an impediment to the proposal getting a fair hearing among Baptist laity as well as a number of pastors?  Do you think that the proposals of the programme will be heard over the prejudices that many hold surrounding the root of the word “catholicity”?  If so, do you think that an alternative way of stating the case would be helpful?

Some folks will probably not be able to get past the anti-Catholic prejudices that the term “catholicity” may arouse.  Another of my fellow Baptist theologians has called anti-Catholicism the last remaining acceptable prejudice among Baptists.  I think this prejudice needs to be tackled head-on instead of sidestepping it by employing a less troubling term.  I have similar thoughts about the practice of replacing “catholic” in the Apostles’ Creed with “Christian,” as in “I believe in the holy Christian church.”  When Luther substituted christliche for katholische in the vernacular version of the Creed—a substitution unfortunately retained in the worship books of the Evangelische Kirche in Germany today—he was trying to undercut an association of the church with a particular form of institutional life.  Today it only serves to reinforce anti-Catholicism, I’m afraid.  For that reason, while I was thrilled that the Centenary Baptist World Congress in Birmingham, England in 2005 recited together the Apostles’ Creed as an act of solidarity with the historic and global church (as the first congress of the Baptist World Alliance did in 1905), I was not thrilled with the substitution of “Christian” for “catholic” in the version they recited.  When Alexander Maclaren led the first BWA congress in confessing the Creed, it included the confession of belief in the “holy catholic church.”  We should have done likewise in order to confront anti-Catholicism in our midst instead of acquiescing to it.

On p.19-20 you acknowledge that the “catholic Baptist programme” seems to be being discussed almost exclusively among “academic theologians,” but then you state that it could be that these theologians will ultimately have the greatest effect on whether or not Baptist catholicity ever reaches the laity.  I’m curious to know how hopeful you really are that the proposals of Baptist catholicity will ever receive anything like a widespread hearing among Baptist laity?

This has to happen first in the context of theological education.  The future ministers of the church must be formed in such a manner that they see the need to recover our catholic roots in the worship and Christian education of local congregations.  A few of us are trying to teach with these things in mind; we’ll have to let a future generation be the judge as to whether we’ve succeeded in having some impact.

Is it unfair to suggest that you have introduced a careful and highly nuanced theological proposal in the midst of a church climate that appears to be increasingly a-theological?  Do you think that a great deal of foundation-work is going to have to happen before many are even able to give such a proposal a fair hearing?

The current church climate is indeed increasingly a-theological, and you’re right that this can hinder reception of the book’s proposals.  But I don’t think the solution is necessarily to hold seminary-like theology classes in the local church (though that’s not such a bad idea).  I think that instead of simply emphasizing the teaching of second-order theology in the churches, we need to invest ourselves in doing well the first-order practices that, if done rightly, can be the primary things that form Christians theologically: worship and catechesis, both of which should be informed by good second-order theological reflection even while remaining first-order practices of the church.  But I suppose if that happened, then much of what I hope Baptists will move toward will have happened, whether or not the specific proposals of my book have been received.

You’ve called for a “thick ecumenism” (p.16).  Is “Baptist catholicity” simply a synonym for “Baptist ecumenism”?  I have read one criticism of your work that seems to assume this to be the case.

The recovery of a catholicity to which all other traditions are also heirs does have important ecumenical implications, but it would be wrong to equate my call for “Baptist catholicity” with a mere call for Baptists to have more positive relationships with other Christian traditions.  Many Baptists associate ecumenism with “thin ecumenism,” the unity-via-lowest-common-denominator sort of ecumenism I decry in the book because it takes away any motivation for an earnest contestation of a shared tradition.  For that reason I prefer to write and speak of a Baptist catholicity that involves a thick ecumenism in which the doctrinal reasons for our divisions are not insignificant and must be contested on the basis of a mutual reading of Scripture and the tradition.  Some have called this perspective “particularity in the service of unity.”  I resonate with that, and I would add that an open-minded revisiting of the early history of Baptist particularity will reveal some surprising connections with a more catholic pattern of faith and practice than what now characterizes many expressions of Baptist life today.

You’ve spoken in your book of a “Baptist tradition of dispensing with tradition.”  Are you suggesting that tradition is unavoidable?  Are you suggesting that Baptist churches in fact have a liturgy, a traditioned hermeneutic, a traditioned ecclesiology?  If so, does not the very suggestion of the inescapability of tradition conflict with the frequent Baptist self-designation, “people of the Book”?

In a public radio interview with Jaroslav Pelikan on “The Need for Creeds” a year or two before his death, Pelikan observed that “The only alternative to tradition is bad tradition.”  Baptists do have a tradition at all the points you mention, but I fear that when we claim to be doing without tradition in doing worship, reading the Bible, and advocating a certain form of ecclesiology, we’re doing those things on the basis of very bad sorts of tradition.  In many expressions of Baptist life here, that unacknowledged tradition is a highly individualistic stream within the political tradition of American liberal democracy.

Now to be a “people of the Book” is in fact to be a people committed to a tradition.  To be committed to this Book, and not another book or another variation of that Book, is to be committed to a traditioned faith that has already ruled out Gnosticim, for example, as a viable configuration of faith and practice; thus the Book to which Baptists are committed does not contain the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, or any number of other alternative gospels that ended up in what Robert Grant called the “rubbish heap of the second century.”  A preacher in the most self-consciously progressive Baptist church imaginable is not likely to stand in the pulpit, read a text from the Gospel of Thomas, and then preach a sermon on the basis of that text.  That this is not a likely scenario illustrates the enduring power of the patristic traditions that configured our Bible, even if they are unacknowledged.

In your third chapter, you confront what you call a “radical Sola Scriptura hermeneutic.”  You suggest that this approach to Scripture is, in some sense, the-other-side-of-the-coin of postmodern deconstructionism.  Are you suggesting that the phrase “me and the Bible alone” is, in fact, a heresy?

In making the comparison with deconstructionism, I’m suggesting that certain radical applications of the Sola Scriptura principle treat the classical Christian tradition in precisely the same way that deconstructionism does; the only difference is that the commitment to the authority of Scripture keeps the Bible itself, at least in theory, from being subjected to the same deconstruction.  In both cases the individual who is reading the tradition is superior to the tradition; the tradition has no claim upon the one who interprets it.

“Me and the Bible alone” can lead to heresy if it represents an insistence on determining Christian faith and practice for oneself apart from the larger community that is also under the Lordship of Christ.  Last spring I attended a lecture by Richard Hays, whose New Testament scholarship many Baptists admire, delivered as part of the program of the conference on Preaching, Teaching, and Living the Bible sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and Duke Divinity School.  Dr. Hays’ address had to do with reading the Bible as the authoritative text of the church, and a question from the audience after the address asked about implications for more individualistic approaches to reading the Bible—no mention of Baptists in the phrasing of the question.  Dr. Hays responded, “What some Baptists do with the concept of ‘soul competency’ is a dangerous heresy that the rest of the church ought to resist.”  (My apologies for any inaccuracy in quoting.)  I think he’s right—though I think one can legitimately speak of the competency of the Spirit-empowered, church-equipped, socially-embodied soul.  If that’s what one means by this language, I have no quibble with it.  But if it means something like “All you need is a brain and a Bible,” then I think the end result of that is “All you really need is a brain,” since the Bible in that case will mean whatever you end up deciding it will mean, and this interpretive decision will probably reflect the way you already understood the world quite apart from divine revelation.

On p.43-44 you note that adherence to Sola Scriptura ironically accepts “the authority of at least one post-biblical doctrinal tradition” because it must depend on the Church that canonized said Scripture.  Is it fair to say, then, that all Baptists are, in fact, already catholic in a sense?

Yes—in the sense that the Christian canon (with both Old and New Testaments) is already qualitatively catholic, for it is an anti-Docetic, anti-Marcionite, anti-Gnostic canon.  It is catholic in the Ignatian sense of catholicity I mentioned earlier.  We simply need to be more conscious of the catholicity of our biblical faith.

You say this on p.59:  “The retrieval of tradition does not have to be an uncritical return to past doctrines and practices.”  Does this not open up a Pandora’s box, however, and place the individual above tradition, thereby once again falling into the “Enlightenment individualistic rationalism” that you criticize on p.56?  Will not those whose churches are more consciously associated with “The Great Tradition” see this as a kind of sola-ex-machina whereby we still get to pick and choose at the end of the day when things aren’t to our liking?

I grant that this is a problematic aspect of what I propose, and I have to admit that I’m not entirely comfortable with where this leaves us.  How do we go about determining which aspects of the tradition need retrieving and which ought to be left in the past?  Who should do that?  We run into the question of teaching authority in the church—magisterial authority, in other words.  It may be that communities in the free church tradition will need to look to the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communions for liturgical guidance, for example, rather than borrowing from the liturgical tradition in a very eclectic and idiosyncratic manner.  We could take a cue from Karl Barth’s patterns of interacting with theological dialogue partners in the Church Dogmatics, in which he privileges communal sources—the ecumenical creeds and conciliar decisions—over the contributions of individual theologians.  And it may be that those in the free church tradition should develop the habit of reading papal encyclicals and bishops’ letters as models of communal moral discernment, since we lack a tradition of this sort of ecclesial ethical reflection.  Free church Christians could thus regard the communion of the saints as something like a magisterium of the whole—but that still returns us to the problem of who will decide what to appropriate from these sources of guidance, and how.

You seem to be fairly appreciative of Thomas Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy project, yet you’re uneasy with the blind-spots of the Vincentian Canon (p.48-49).  Is consensus really so elusive?  Has there not been a rather surprising degree of consensus on the core of the faith, “mere Christianity”?

Again, I think Barth offers a model in his handling of the tradition.  And if we take stuff of early Christian doctrine as essentially narrative in character and the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed as concise summaries of the Christian narrative, then I think the creeds should qualify as expressions of fundamental consensus.  The broad outlines of the Christian story, summarized by the creeds still in essentially narrative form, can be considered “mere Christianity.”

I’m curious to know whether or not you are calling for the creation of a new Baptist confession on p.85:  “A Baptist confession conceived as an exposition of the Creed would flesh out the plot of this narrative summary with a Baptist spin on the story.”  Would you like to see this happen?

Baptist confessions have historically sought to accomplish at least two things: to demonstrate to non-Baptists that Baptists are in fact in continuity with historic Christian faith, and at the same time to set forth the points at which Baptists differ from other Christians.  More recent attempts at Baptist confessionalism have tended to be preoccupied with who the “real” Baptists are and have not had the ecumenical audience of the confession in mind.  I don’t know what sort of Baptist ecclesial body would do it or when it could happen, but I would indeed like to see some Baptist group adopt the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed as the expression of the convictions Baptists share with other Christians, supplemented by commentary on the Creed that sets forth distinctively Baptist beliefs and practices.  Some of the European Baptist confessions approach this, notably the confession of the German Baptists that affirms the Apostles’ Creed in the introductory section as a sufficient statement of the beliefs Baptists share with the rest of the church.

It seems to me (in the conversations I’ve had with non-Baptists about your proposals) that baptism, or, more specifically, re-baptism is “ground zero.”  The common sentiment I hear is that any attempt at “catholicity” that would require the re-baptism of somebody who was baptized as a baby is utterly vain.  You seem to be sympathetic to this when you write (p.126):  “At the very least, the ancient Christian consensus on the unrepeatability of baptism ought to give Baptist congregations pause before quickly requiring those whose infant baptism in another Christian communion was joined with subsequent faith to be re-baptized when joining a Baptist congregation…”  What will you say to the Baptist who says that this is not, strictly speaking, re-baptism since the person was never baptized in the first place?  Do you not have to sacrifice a Baptist distinctive in order to even use the phrase “re-baptize”?

I myself am convinced that Baptists ought to commit themselves to the call for mutual recognition of baptisms issued in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (WCC, 1982) and embrace the theological rationale offered therein for mutual recognition.  Not all Baptists agree, and I grant that most early Baptists (with a notable exception—see below) would disagree with this.  But if what the early Baptists insisted on was a baptism joined with personal faith, and they were convinced that Anglican infant baptisms, for example, did not always join the act with personal faith, then there may be more room for convergence on the basis of historic Baptist principles than one might imagine.  BEM insists that infant baptism must be joined with subsequent personal faith; for that matter, the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that infant baptism must be joined with subsequent personal faith.  With this we can agree, and on the basis of this we ought to be able to say, “we recognize your baptism as a valid baptism.”  If we do not, then we are really saying, “your church that administered your baptism is not a valid church,” and if we do not believe their church is not a valid church, then the theological implication of this is that we do not really believe they are truly Christians.  Much has been made in the media about recent re-assertions of the Catholic teaching that ecclesial communities not in communion with Rome are not, strictly speaking, churches in the fullest sense.  But the fact remains that if I decided to seek reception into the fellowship of the Roman Catholic Church, I would not be re-baptized; I would only be chrismated, and my Baptist baptism would be regarded as a valid baptism, as an instance of the one baptism of the church.

How sympathetic are you to early Baptist attempts (i.e., John Bunyan) and modern attempts (i.e. John Piper) at removing re-baptism as a condition for membership in a Baptist church?

See above!

I take it that “closed communion” is utterly incompatible with “Baptist catholicity”?

Not necessarily.  The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, it should be noted, are also “closed communion.”  Whatever else may be said about the Landmark Baptist tradition, its emphasis on closed communion represented a high view of the importance of the sacraments—or “ordinances”—of baptism and the Lord’s Supper for the life of the community, and I respect that.  Nevertheless, I myself do advocate that Baptist churches invite all baptized Christians to participate in the supper.

You say on p.152-153 that the “greatest contribution that a Baptist retrieval of patristic Christianity may make to the renewal of contemporary Baptist life is not through the retrieval of specific patristic theological perspectives…but rather through the recovery of worship as the primary means by which people are formed in deeply Christian faith and practice, accompanied by the recovery of particular patterns and practices of worship that are patristic in origin yet have great potential for forming the contemporary faith of the church.”  Why worship instead of theological renewal?

Theological renewal is indispensable, but unless that translates into a renewal of worship so that the practices of worship form Christians deeply in the faith, the average layperson who will never go to seminary but who will attend Sunday worship faithfully will remain unaffected by theological renewal.

Do you find it odd that many Baptist churches celebrate Mother’s Day with a passion bordering on violent, but not Lent?

Indeed I do.  I’ll do you one better: frequently Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost, coincides with Fathers’ Day.  Guess which one gets attention and which gets ignored?  And the result, of course, is that most Baptists have heard little, if anything, in church about the concept of God that sets the Christian understanding of God apart from all other understandings of the divine.  As fellow Baptist theologian Curtis Freeman has observed, “Most Baptists are really Unitarians who haven’t yet gotten around to denying the Trinity.”

You have called for a measured-sacramentalism regarding the Lord’s Supper.  Do you feel that Zwinglianism has had a hold on Baptists for too long?

I would be happy if Baptists would only recover the fully-orbed sacramental theology of Zwingli himself, who would never have claimed that the supper is “merely symbolic,” as have not a few modern (and mostly American) Baptists.  For Zwingli, there is an inseparable bond between the symbol and the thing signified.  The reductionistic version of Zwinglian memorialism embraced by many recent Baptists breaks that bond and reduces the bread and wine to nothing more than symbols.  Interestingly enough, Calvin had a much richer sacramental theology that featured a form of real presence that didn’t depend on an Aristotelian metaphysic of substance, and there are possibilities for retrieving this from the stream of the early Baptist tradition that was more heavily influenced by Calvin’s theology.

I’m deeply appreciative of your work here and am thankful that you’ve taken the time for this interview.  I wonder if you could close by sharing your own thoughts about the future of Baptist theology and church life.  What hopes do you have for the spread of “Baptist catholicity”?  How optimistic are you?  What do you see on the horizon?

And I’m grateful for your interest in my book.  I have no aspirations of launching a movement; in Towards Baptist Catholicity I have reported some surprising trends in that direction among Baptist theologians and situated my own work within those trends.  Since the publication of the book, however, I’ve received correspondence from quite a few Baptist Ph.D. students in theology and related disciplines out there who found that I named some perspectives at which they’d arrived independently.  And this is happening not just among Baptists proper, but in other free church/evangelical traditions as well.  The last few years the Evangelical Theological Society has sponsored a patristics working group at their annual meeting, and more and more seminary students from those traditions are choosing to go on to do Ph.D. studies in patristics.  This really wasn’t happening before the past decade; who knows where it will lead?  I’m encouraged by the possibilities.

Church Discipline with Dr. Mark Dever

Dr. Dever, we do appreciate you granting us this interview.

Thank you very much.  I’m delighted to spend the time with you.

We will be referencing two things rather frequently throughout this interview, so I suspect we need to offer some definitions up front.  Dr. Dever, if you don’t mind, could you give us a definition of (1) church membership and (2) church discipline?

“Church membership” would be the concept that there are a certain number of people who have committed themselves before the Lord and with each other to the service of God in a particular local assembly, in a particular local church.  “Church discipline” is really the larger idea of us as Christians realizing that in that church part of the function is for us to help each other grow up in Christ.

Commonly, when people use “church discipline,” they don’t mean it in the formative sense, but only in the corrective sense.  But really, technically, it would be all of the training we do:  Sunday School, preaching, everything.  That would be considered formative, the positive side.  Negatively, when you correct somebody, it’s called “corrective church discipline,” and that’s usually taken from Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, and elsewhere, but mainly from those two texts about how we should try to realize that our brother’s or sister’s sanctification is partly our responsibility also.  Then, when we confront them, if they don’t change, as Jesus says in Matthew 18, after being confronted by us alone, and then by two or three others that come with us, then finally, our appeal is to the ecclesia.  That’s the word that’s used there in Matthew 18.  It’s to the church.  And so we take it not to the Southern Baptist Convention or not to simply the pastor and staff or to the board of deacons, but we take it to the church.  And so it’s called “church discipline.”

You have dealt with the topics of church membership and church discipline in your book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and also in the book Polity, which is a collection of writings. But you contributed an essay to that and edited it.

That’s correct.

Why have you felt led to focus so much on these two topics?

Well, because when I look at the gospel in America today, I think one of the main roadblocks is not our lack of telling people, though I want us to tell people more, but it’s what our churches look like when they’re full of people who say they know it and believe it.  And I think our churches are one of the main roadblocks to our evangelism.  So I don’t think we need one hundred more churches doing Evangelism Explosion.  I think we need one hundred more churches practicing church discipline.  And once those churches begin to look distinct from the world, then all of a sudden the verbal witness that all of the Christians give starts to mean a lot more.

Would you mind sharing with us a little bit about the steps you have led Capitol Hill Baptist Church to take towards reinstituting meaningful membership and church discipline?  And could you speak a little bit on how the church has received this move?

Yeah.  The steps I’ve taken, there have been a lot, some very overt, some pretty subtle.  I’ve been honest all the time.  I was clear with people initially, when we first started talking about this, that I thought the Bible was very clear on this.  Now, I didn’t know how we could get from where we were to where we needed to be, but I was clear about what the Bible taught about where we needed to be, and they could help me think through about how we get there.

After I had been here a couple of years, we ended up trying to find all of the members that we had, that we couldn’t find, who didn’t come along regularly.  We had five hundred members, about one hundred and thirty attending.  And so we talked to old members and tried to find people.  So finally I sent out a letter.  The deacons knew about it.  I should have probably had the deacons do this, but I just did it.  I sent out a letter I think on February 1 of 1996, sending out a copy of our statement of faith and our church covenant, saying, “Look.  If you sign this and return these, we would appreciate it, knowing that you are still with us in faith and practice.”  And we sent that out to people who were here every Sunday and to people [who] nobody even knew who they were.  We sent it out to the whole membership list.  And we said in the letter, “If you haven’t done this and returned them to us by May 1st, that you would be subject to a motion to remove you from membership in the church, in this local church.  And we hope you are well and that you are involved in another local church and just had neglected to tell us.”  Something like that.

So we did that and then in our main members’ meeting we actually voted out, out of our 500 members, 256.  And that was a big step towards meaningful membership.  And then, since then, it’s just slowly but surely gotten better and gotten more refined where now we have about 249 members I think and about 500 attending.

That seems to be rather different from the average Baptist church which has just the opposite, 1,000 people on roll and 200 attending.

Well, it’s rather different from the average Baptist church today.  It isn’t different from the way Baptist churches were one hundred and one hundred and fifty years ago.  Baptist churches used to be famous for looking after their membership.  So what we’re now probably the worst about we were definitely the best about.  This was a distinctive of Baptist churches.

What do you think has contributed to the decline of this?

Oh, a lot of things.  I mean, spiritually, people’s affluence, people wanting to be served, consumers moving to urban areas where churches are close enough to where they compete for members, pastors not being taught this.  I’m sure any real abuses that happen, and, of course, there were, anytime sinners like you and me are involved, any time abuses happen in church discipline, I’m sure those were repeated endlessly.  And so I’m sure those stories would have been used against practicing it at all, because to practice it at all would have been in some way to have been involved in some kind of abuse of it.  Now, I’m sure it’s just a combination of things like that.  Also I think the theology changed and churches became more and more man-centered.  I think people more and more misunderstood what it really meant to be converted. I think our evangelistic practices watered down the gospel.  I think we started taking responses very quickly.  We started baptizing people at a much younger age.

You know, I’ve been reading a lot of Baptist biographies in the last couple of years and noting baptismal ages.  And if you look at all the Baptist leaders in the nineteenth century, they were all baptized at 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21.  It’s when they get out of the home, or they have their first job, that’s when they’re baptized.  Baptists these days baptize children at 12, or at even 8, or younger.  It’s very hard.  I mean, I’ve got kids.  It’s hard to look at the kids who are pretty obedient, love their parents, and want to have the approval of their parents, it’s hard to know whether or not they’re really born again.  I mean, of course they’re being sincere when they tell you something, but people can be sincere and be wrong, and I think we’ve just lost a lot of that subtlety of judgment.  It’s not been encouraged among the pastors in our churches.

Do you think a church can move towards instituting church discipline if that church does not seek to redefine membership itself?  Why or why not?

No.  No, no, no.  That’s a great point Wyman.  No, not at all.  No, and even there, before you seek to redefine membership, you’ve just got to define what it means to be a Christian.  You’ve got to be clear on the gospel.  You know, “Repent and believe.”  Those were the words that Jesus used again and again.  They’re used in Acts again and again.  You really are going to have to look at the gospel and your practice of evangelism.  Yeah.  Discipline comes a bit more down the line I think, part of a package I should say.

Can you share with us some practical steps churches can take towards making membership more meaningful?

Well, I think the place to begin is with the pulpit.  I mean, the two key places are the pulpit, where the pastor is committed to expositional preaching.  Teach people God’s Word.  Tell people the truth.  Tell people what He says in His Word.  Commit yourself as a pastor.  Just lash yourself to the Word, that you will go through it and that you’re not going to have another agenda, there are not other things that you are trying to do.  You’re not just going to stick on, you know, prosperity or how God helps you improve your self-esteem, or a series on your favorite topic, theologically.  No, just preach the Bible to people.  And [secondly], as a pastor, just be careful about taking in members.  Look at the way your church takes in members.

Yeah, it is interesting that in the average Baptist church anyone can just walk the aisle and they’re pretty much voted in and no one knows anything about them.

Yeah, and people need to realize how new that practice is.  I mean, you’ve got people in your church probably who are old enough to remember when it wasn’t like that.  I’ll bet you back in the early seventies and late sixties they would at least leave those members until the next members’ meeting, even if they would call one, a special one, the following Wednesday night.  But see, those practices have changed, really more recently than we may realize.

Even at our church, we started using our church covenant.  We have everybody sign the statement of faith and the church covenant when they join.  The members only, the members of the congregation stand and read it before we come to the Lord’s table.  Well, when I first proposed this to the congregation back in 96, we had an older lady in her 80’s, she’s since gone to be with the Lord. She’d been here since the 1930’s but she had come from a small town in Mississippi.  And she put up her hand and said, “Oh, Dr. Dever, this is the way my church did it when I was a little girl back in Mississippi.”

I looked in my own church’s church minutes, here in Washington, D.C., which was founded in 1878.  They used to have what they called “Covenant Meetings” the Thursday before communion.  Anytime they would have communion, they would have a “Covenant Meeting” the Thursday night before, just for the members of the congregation, to come, reaffirm their covenant together, to prepare themselves for the Lord’s table.

I mean, these things are not that distant in the past in our churches.  We’ve taken what went on in the 70’s and 80’s as traditional Southern Baptists.  When I got here, I started doing membership interviews with somebody before I would bring them to a members’ meeting for a vote, where I would just meet with them, hear their understanding of the gospel, get their own testimony of faith, hear about how they came to know about the Lord.  And sometimes I would find that the people weren’t Christians and then I’d do a Bible study with them.  Some of them I saw come to know the Lord and they’re now members of the church.  Others, on the other hand, most of them were Christians, but it was just giving me a chance, as a pastor, to get to know them, to make sure that they understood the gospel and could express it to others.  Well, providentially, just as I was working on doing this, I started this membership form and I had had some questions about it.  I found a “Membership Interview Form” from the Metropolitan Baptist Church, which is what ours was called then, in January of 1895, exactly a hundred years earlier to the mark, which was completely unrelated, I didn’t even know they had done it.

Hard to argue with that, I would think.

Well, it’s sad that Baptists find it harder to argue with tradition than the Bible, but yes, at least you can’t say it’s un-Baptist.  Now there’s still the question of is this consonant with Scripture?  But if you want to know what Baptists have done, well actually I tell people all the time, “I don’t have any new ideas.  I’m just telling you what your great-grandparents were all doing and you’ve just all forgotten.”  But they were a lot healthier churches than the churches we have had for the last couple of generations, which I think make it in many ways very difficult to evangelize this country.  When you’ve got a small town with fifteen Baptist churches and between them you have more members than you have in the population of the town, and you have people singing in your choir who are known to be lousy bosses or extorting or adulterers, and nobody says anything about it, I mean, I’m going to go become a Muslim or a Mormon or somebody that means what they say.  What I’m going to do is associate with those people.

What is the biblical justification for this?  I mean, if you look at Acts 2, just a surface reading there seems to suggest that after Peter’s Pentecost sermon they believe and become members of the church.

Well, you’ve picked a difficult thing there to use as a paradigm, and I think we can use it in a lot of ways.  I mean, it’s the very first time where the Holy Spirit is poured out.  You’ve got to keep going with the New Testament to see these things develop.

Right.  Well, what would you look to scripturally to find a biblical justification for having some requirements on the front end of membership, before people are accepted fully into the church?

Ok, good question.  Well, even in Acts 2, they’re repenting and believing and being baptized.  And yet that baptism I don’t think is essential for the forgiveness of sins.  You know, our Church of Christ friends tell us that that “eis” there in Acts 2:38, “into”, means that that makes it effective.  Well I don’t think that’s true at all.  The baptism doesn’t save us in that sense.  Peter says in 1 Peter 3 it saves us in the sense of it’s an appeal of a clear conscience toward God.  It’s our conscience being cleared by the Holy Spirit, by His forgiving us, that saves us.  When Paul talks about baptism, he doesn’t mention it as saving.  He’s very clear it’s faith alone that saves.  And yet, baptism is what happens when you become a Christian.  So apparently there are lots of things that are really important that are not essential for our salvation.  We tend to forget that.  We tend to think as modern pragmatic Americans that if it is not essential for our salvation, then it’s unimportant.  Well Baptists should be, of all people, the ones who know there are actually a lot of things that are very important that aren’t essential.  So I think my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, many of them are Christians.  I love them.  But I don’t think they’ve been baptized, and they can’t join this church if they’ve only been baptized as an infant because I don’t think that’s baptism biblically.  They have to be baptized as a believer.

So, anyway, that would be one example.  Baptism would be a good example of that.  That seems to be presumed in the New Testament, that that’s what you do.  The clearest idea where you get this requirement is it’s just a fleshing out of what it means to repent and believe.  So, in Matthew 18, with the brother who sins against the other brother, and he won’t repent of it, his lack of repentance is essentially falsifying his claim to be a Christian.  And the Christian community as a whole then, is called on to treat him, or that local assembly is called on to treat him as a “pagan or a tax collector.”  And then in 1 Corinthians 5, where this man has apparently slept with his dad’s second wife or something, Paul is calling on that church to exclude him.  Well, that presumes that there was a certain definite community from which he’s excluded.  Paul specifically says, “Look, I’m not saying don’t have anything to do with adulterers at all.  Then you’d have to go out of the world!”, he says in 1 Corinthians 5.  “But, if they call themselves a Christian…”  And in Corinth, of course, there weren’t 17 churches, there was just the one, and Paul’s probably writing to it pretty soon after it was founded.  Well then, for them to associate with that local church, that means that they get to own the name of Christian.

What Paul is saying is, “Look, that man may be confused in his own mind, but to try to clarify that confusion for him, to try to clear it up, and certainly to clear it up for outsiders, and certainly to clear it up for your own members so that they don’t get confused about what it means to be a Christian, you put that man out of the assembly.  ‘Hand him over to Satan’ so that you hope his soul will be saved.  So that you’ll see this.”  And we hope that that is what actually happened, because in 2 Corinthians 2, if you go on and read that, in the next letter that Paul writes to the Corinthians, in the second chapter of it, he writes to them and, we don’t know if it’s the same situation, but he says in chapter 2 verse 6, “The punishment afflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him.  Now you ought to forgive and comfort him so that he won’t be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”

So it sounds like this guy must have repented and yet the church was having some questions about readmitting him.  But even there it’s interesting.  It says, “by the majority”  in verse 6.  There’s the assumption that there’s a certain group of people, and these are the members of the local church.  They’re a definite, known group.  And we know the early church had lists for widows and other people.  We know that from the pastoral epistles.  So it looks like here also there is a certain, definite group of people that make up, if you will, the electoral roll of the church.  They were members of the church.  They vote, and the majority of these had voted him out.  And now he’s appealing.  He’s saying, “Come on guys.  You need to vote him back in.  He’s repented.”

I would like to play devil’s advocate here and present to you a number of objections to the practice of church discipline.  I would like to ask you to respond to these objections as I present them.

Objection 1 – We are all sinners.  Therefore, we can never bring church discipline against another without making ourselves hypocrites at the same time.

First of all, if that sentiment is ever offered from a genuine spiritual sensitivity then it’s a good thing.  That’s a good concern to have.  But I don’t think that that person who is making that objection would understand church discipline very well, because you never discipline somebody merely for sin.  In that case we would be hypocrites because we should all be disciplined for sin.  There’s no question about that.  But that’s not why we discipline.

We discipline for unrepentant sin, for persistent sin.  That’s what we discipline for.  And there, no, it’s not hypocritical, because, you know, Wyman, if you’ve got some sin in your life that you’re deliberately holding on to, not that you continue to struggle with that, that’s different, but that you are, as Christians in the past used to say, “high handedly” sinning, deliberately sinning, holding on to it and continuing on, then that’s something that you do need to turn loose of, especially if you want to keep calling yourself a follower of Jesus.  And if you won’t do that, well, that’s why you commit to other Christians.  That’s why I’ve committed to these other Christians in Washington, saying, “Look, if I start committing adultery on my wife and I won’t stop, I want you guys to come after me.”  I want for me to realize, for my wife to realize, for my kids, for the church, for the watching world around me to realize that what I am doing is not what it means for someone to live as a Christian.  And, of course, the church cannot speak ultimately to the fate of my own eternal soul.  We don’t do that when we discipline somebody.  What we’re saying is, “You are living like a non-Christian.  You are living like somebody who doesn’t know the Lord.”

Objection 2 – Church discipline is a violation of Christ’s admonition against judging others and, specifically, of his treatment of the adulterous woman in John.

Again, these are just misconceived…first of all, in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not lest you be judged,” Jesus clearly doesn’t mean there that you should never make critical statements about anybody.  What He’s trying to say there is particularly that you’re not in the place of God, that you should not put yourself in the place of One who is going to make the final, eternal judgment about somebody.  So, I think that’s what He means with the Matthew 7:1 passage.  People misuse that all the time, and I think as Christians we’ve got to be particularly careful not to encourage any kind of idea that judging is always wrong.  That really bounces back on us.

In Romans 13, the state is called to judge.  We certainly know that God judges and we don’t think that He’s wrong to do that.  I mean, He should judge.  You know, He’s judged us for our sins.  And we know from Romans 1:3 that everybody is under judgment.  The prophets are all about God judging His people and the nations.  And we know that God is going to judge our own work, so it’s going to be declared “wood, hay, and stubble.”  We know that He disciplines His own children in Hebrews 12, and we’re supposed to want that if we’re a Christian.  He is righteous in His judging.  We have the really strict stories of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 where God judges them for their sins and in the Old Testament, in Joshua, with Achan’s sin, where he and his family were judged.  And Jesus Himself, who said that, is going to be the judge of the self-righteous.

You look at Matthew 23 where He’s talking to the Pharisees.  It’s clear that Jesus, where He said, “Judge not lest you be judged,” well, He clearly does not mean that in a way that a lot of people mean that today, because the Prince of Peace is pretty big on saying, “There must be righteousness.”  You know, He came not to bring peace, but a sword.  And finally, of course, that culminates in the Bible with Revelation where you see there is going to be this final judgment.  And we even know from Luke’s gospel that there are “greater” and “lesser” judgments, depending on how much knowledge somebody has about a sin.  So there’s no question that Jesus Himself acts as a judge even though He said, “Judge not.”  The woman at the well, He kind of challenges and encourages, but yet the rich young ruler, who people think was probably a little more moral and we would let teach a Sunday School class, Jesus sees self-righteousness in him.

Some people will say, “Ok, God can judge.  Jesus can judge.  But what about ourselves?  I mean, we can’t do that.”  Well, we’re called to judge ourselves.  You know, before we come to the Lord’s table, in 1 Corinthians 11, “Examine yourselves.”  In Proverbs, the very way we’re called to have wisdom all the time.  And then, we are called to judge each other.  In 1 Corinthians 4 and 5, those very passages we’ve been thinking about, or even in chapter 6 of 1 Corinthians, where he tells them, “Look, you’ve got disputes between you?  Appoint judges from among you,” he even says.

Now, we’ve got to be careful about doing it.  One of the problems in Job is that his counselors judged him wrongly.  So it can certainly be done wrongly.  Or when the guy is born blind in John 9 and the disciples say, “Who sinned?  Him or his parents that he should be blind like this?”  Well, they were wrong in that.  So, we’re certainly not like God.  We’re certainly not unerring in our judgment, but we are called to judge.  Jesus is the one who gives that teaching in Matthew 18, the brother who sins against you, what you’re supposed to do.  So that’s the same Jesus who said, “Judge not lest you be judged.”  We don’t go for vengeance or revenge.  That’s the Lord.  And we can certainly be wrong.  But we are certainly called to be discerning in teaching.

Paul praised the Bereans in Acts 17 because they searched the scriptures to see if it was true.  Peter in 2 Peter 3 exhorts the Christians he’s writing to to “be on your guard against the false teachers.”  Most of the New Testament letters are written about that.  So these Christians were expected to judge the teaching of people who were presenting themselves as Christian teachers.  So that would mean that people in your congregation, Wyman, are supposed to be judging your teaching.  They are exhorted to do that in the New Testament.  And you are to encourage them to do that.

But not just the teaching, but even the living, and this is where people maybe feel more uncomfortable.  But, that “expel the immoral man” in 1 Corinthians 5 that we just talked about, that’s so clear.  And in 1 Timothy 3, certainly church leaders like you and me, we’re supposed to have a good reputation.  We know in James 3:1 that we’re going to face a stricter judgment.  We have a stricter accounting that we’re going to have to give.  We’re teachers of God’s word, publicly.

The other story you mentioned is the woman caught in adultery.  Certainly we’re to show mercy.  Mercy is a wonderful, Godly attribute.  But you don’t use mercy to run off the road something like church discipline.  Mercy is what you do in the context of all these other things.  It’s certainly not what you use to short circuit them, all this other clear teaching of Scripture.

Objection 3 – Church discipline is an interesting idea, but it will not work in modern American society.

Well, again, if their spirit’s good, I would say, “Brother or Sister, I understand!  I’m not sure if I could get it to work in a lot of places too!”  But, if I’m going to act like that, I’m probably not even going to be a Christian.  The Christian life, how are we supposed to do this?  I mean, the Christian life is a supernatural life.  And what is supposed to go on in the local church is it is supposed to be a supernatural community, a community that you cannot explain without the Holy Spirit of God and His activity.

Objection 4 – When you remove somebody from membership in a church, you also remove the possibility of seeing that person overcome their sin.

Ok, that’s the worst objection yet.  That person needs to think a bit more about what causes repentance.  They need to realize that they are just straight up disagreeing with the apostle Paul and Jesus, because Jesus said, “Treat them like a pagan or a tax collector.”  Paul is the one who seemed to think, in 1 Corinthians and in writing the Pastorals, that handing them over to Satan could actually lead to their repentance.  So, the idea that they need to be in church…now, I think that when you take that name away from them, if you say to them corporately, “Look, you, individual who is in unrepentant sin, will not change, will not turn loose of it, you may not keep calling yourself a Christian with our consent.”  Now, we’re not trying to take away your civil rights in this country.  You can go around calling yourself a Christian all you want, but we’re just giving a public witness and a witness to you that you are not giving evidence of that in your life.  So we want to stand in contradiction to that and we want to be praying for you.  So you’re welcome to come.  We hope you do come.  We’re not trying to keep you out of the meeting of the church.  We’d rather you be here than any place in the world, but you certainly will not come to the Lord’s Table, will not be a member of this church, will not be regarded as someone who is.  You know, you certainly will not be a member, you certainly will not be voting, and we will be public and clear about the fact that you are separating yourself from what it means to be a follower of Jesus by your attachment to this sin and your refusal to repent.

Let’s talk a little bit about elders.

Ok, whole different topic.  You can have elders and no discipline and you can have discipline and no elders.  I think the one helps the other, but they’re not essential to each other.

Ok, that’s what I was going to ask.  What role do your elders play in the process?

Well, they’re very helpful.  We have 350 members.  I’m just one guy.  There are six elders, six of us who are elders, including myself.  We have one difficult situation I can think of that another brother is following up right now, looking into.  It takes time.  These are difficult issues.  You don’t need to move quickly on these kinds of things.  You know, bring them in, you pray with them, you talk with them, and you work with them for months on things like this usually.

Well, I’ve heard it argued that church discipline can be and maybe ought to be handled among the elders privately.

Well, that’s a good Bible church or Presbyterian position.  And certainly if there is repentance, well then that’s fine, then you’re at Matthew 18, as long as you’re not talking about a leader of the church.  If you’re talking about a leader of the church, 1 Timothy 5 would demand it be public I think.  But, if you’re talking about just anybody else, who’s not an elder in the church, then I think, yeah, if they’re repenting, that’s great.  But, if they don’t repent, well then Jesus in Matthew 18 doesn’t have that final court being the elders.  He has it being the assembly, the congregation.

Well, it would be a lot easier if it were just the elders, I would think.

But it might not be as effective.

It would be easier from the standpoint of just dealing with a situation privately, but the ultimate rule would…

But, you also, you look at the teaching opportunity you’re missing.


I mean, my congregation has gotten to see me standing in front of them weeping because of my love for a brother who went into adultery and would not repent.  So, just think of all those things those hundreds of people will learn about the Christian life, about the importance of their marriage, about the importance of their vows, about the depth of love they’re to have for one another.  I mean, just so many things.  So, I understand, believe me, my flesh understands the convenience, the desire to avoid the possibility of any kind of lawsuit, the desire to avoid bad blood.  I understand all of those kinds of things.  But as a Christian, and particularly as an elder, as somebody who reads Hebrews 13:17, and realizes that I’m going to be accountable before the Lord for these people.  I desperately want them to be taught well.  And I can understand why, just like in a family you go through difficult things, but we learn through them.  Well, I can understand why God wants the family to see this when it happens.

Has your church been involved in legal situations that have arisen from church discipline situations?  I don’t know if you can address that.

Sure I can.  No, not yet, not that I’m aware of.

Have you taken measures to…

Well, you know, there’s actually some pretty good precedent in churches on the books legally in various places around the country, for churches having the right to discipline.  That’s also been challenged.  In some ways, that’s the mean reason we have religious freedom in this country.  You know, the Baptists pushed for separation of church and state in large part because they didn’t want the state interfering with their own practice of church discipline.  That’s what’s behind it.  It’s not Barry Lynn, Americans for the Separation of Church and State, or just trying to say, “We need to make sure we have a kind of secular, neutral state.”  No, their concern was for the church.  And I don’t know what Barry Lynn thinks.  I should say that.  But, certainly in that kind of position, the more left wing position that’s often talked about…no, the concern at the founding of the country, as far as I can tell in reading it, was from religious folks like John Leland, the Baptist leader of Virginia and Isaac Backus in New England, who very much desired Baptists to be free to associate together and to practice their own discipline without harassment from the state.  So, Ken Sande, with Peacemakers Ministries, has information on this.

And generally I think if you get someone, particularly if you teach in your membership introduction material and if you get someone to sign a document in which this is taught, then you should be fine as long as you’re not doing anything abusive with it.  And if we come to the point in this country where we’re not, and that could certainly happen within our lifetimes, the country seems to be moving in a very bad way legally, if it does come to that then I still don’t think we have any choice.  We’re not here to have a tax exempt status.  We’re not here to follow Jesus just as long as we don’t get thrown into jail.  If we’re Christians, we follow Jesus and the circumstances that happen to us in this life, well those are up to the Lord.

Is there not a potential danger that church discipline will denigrate into cold legalism?

I can certainly understand that with a prideful human heart legalism is always a problem.  “Cold”?  I don’t know what I’d do with that adjective, “cold.”  All of this needs to be coming out of the fount of expositional preaching where you’re teaching God’s Word.  I certainly wouldn’t want to go into a very legalistic church and just start saying, “Hey, you need to start practicing church discipline on top of that.”  I would first want them to understand that they are sinners, that they deserve hell, that God’s being really nice to them not to send them to hell the day they were born.  He continues to be nice to them every day that they have lived as they have sinned against Him.  And once you get them understanding their own debt to God, that they’re in no position to go casting stones at anybody, once they understand that they’re entirely dependent upon God’s grace and they are at His beck and call for what He calls us to do in His Word, that’s the context out of which you practice church discipline together, not out of any kind of self-satisfaction.  So that would be part of addressing a larger question, “Well, how is the church being fed?”  So, yeah, I would probably try to improve the health of the church just with good feeding before I would ever touch a topic like church discipline.

How are churches to guard against members attempting to use the formal structures of communal discipline as avenues for settling personal grudges against other members?

Well, in the past, in Georgia in the early 1800s, if you’ve read Greg Wills’ book, Democratic Religion, in which he talks about Georgia Southern Baptist Churches in the 1800s, that was a problem sometimes because you had these small rural towns where everybody lived and always lived and everybody knew each other.  And you didn’t move and everybody agreed to practice church discipline and everybody was practicing it.  So I could understand how it could happen in those kind of contexts.  Even there, church discipline was practiced and was practiced well.

But certainly in our context today, our difficulty is just all on the other side.  Our’s would be, “How on earth would you ever get anybody on earth to agree to this?”, not “How is this going to work so well that people could actually target people with it?”  Again, I think that’s less likely, and you’re certainly going to need to do this if you’re going to do it well in a church that understands grace.  So that rebounds back to the pastors, your own teaching.  Your teaching has to be good and healthy and wholesome on what it means to be a Christian, to follow Christ.

I think Wills says in his book, if I recall, that in cases where that happened and was proven to be happening, church discipline would be brought against the people who were trying to misuse church discipline.

Sure.  Oh, yeah.  Of course.

Which is an interesting idea.

But again, that’s like a bunch of Arminians sitting around worrying about hyper-Calvinism.  Well you can do that but that’s probably not your main problem right now.  Let’s worry about that when we get a little closer to it, and we are nine miles from that problem.

Could you please speak to the issue of restoration?  Specifically, how are churches to restore members who have been removed and later repent of their wrongdoing?  Is there some sort of probation period?  Are they restored completely?

Well, you know, Scripture is not clear on this.  2 Corinthians 2 seems to make it clear that Paul was saying about whoever that was, whether or not it was the same guy, that this person should be restored.  So we know it can happen.  So I think we’re just called to look at principles in Scripture and move forward.  Certainly we want to see repentance for sin and depending on what kind of sin it is that can be very hard to get evidence of.  But that’s why you’ve got to have godly leaders, maybe like elders, who can take the time to look at something very carefully.

Well, we certainly thank you for your time.  You’ve been very helpful and very insightful.

Well thank you.  You might want to go the [9 Marks] website,  There will be a lot more information there.