Our Issues Are Not Largely Doctrinal

The American church in general, and Southern Baptists in particular, have issues.  And while all issues at their core are theological, the substance of these issues fall into many different categories.

There are the “culture war” issues that most evangelicals come together around.  Issues such as the sanctity of human life, and the definition of marriage motivate us to action – and rightly so.  It is easy to preach to these issues because many of the people in our pews are ready to agree.

Then there are doctrinal issues.  Whereas evangelicals find wide agreement in the culture war, the doctrinal hot buttons are creating division.  This division, in my opinion, is not the necessary division Paul speaks of in 1 Cor 11, but the ungodly and destructive division he cautions churches against.  Yet we persist in these debates and controversies, grabbing attention and making headlines.

While these two categories occupy 75-90% of our attention and effort, these are not the issues that will shape the church in the coming generation.  (While I admit these percentages are arbitrary, they communicate the dominant nature of the aforementioned issues yet allow for a reasonable range of perception.)

Let me say that another way… the things we spend the majority of our time talking about are not the things that are going to define us in the coming decades.  Therefore, so far as our controversies go, we are wasting our time and risking our future.  It is easy to preach culture issues because this earns approval and applause.  It is easy to preach to controversy because this receives attention and headlines.  Meanwhile, the important, difficult conversations are being neglected.

Our most formative issues are not doctrinal or cultural, but methodological.  The rise of pragmatism and corporatism in the church is our generation’s greatest challenge.  We must recognize this larger issue while not neglecting the others.

What are our real issues?  To name a few: much of our preaching is anemic… many of our evangelism practices are dishonest… most of our church roles are meaningless…  These issues, and others like them, will shape the future of our churches.  We must ask tough questions, such as:

  • What does the sufficiency of Scripture mean for my preaching?  Do my methods undermine Scripture’s authority (even as I proclaim it)?
  • What does genuine conversion look like?  What do my views say about the Gospel and salvation? Where do the differing soteriological positions agree?  How do they complement one another?  What can I learn from those with whom I disagree?
  • What does discipleship look like?  How am I building believers for the glory of God?  Are the believers in my church reproducing faith in the lives of others (especially in their families)?
  • How is my church structured?  Am I connecting believers together or dividing families apart?  Is fellowship more than covered dishes and seasonal gatherings?  How do I cultivate community and interdependency that is evident of a people united by the Gospel?
  • How do I do church membership?  How do people get on the church role?  How do they get off the church role?  What is my responsibility to those who are “members”?  What about accountability?

It is not enough to ask these questions; we must be willing to wrestle together in love as we have differing opinions (something we show little evidence of doing at present).  We need one another.

Methods are not neutral.  Numbers do not necessitate effectiveness.  Just because bottoms are in the pews and dollars are in the plate, it doesn’t mean we are faithful.  Just because some tell us we are doing a good job, doesn’t mean we are.  Awards, recognition, titles, attention… these things are all temporary.  The Word of God is to be our authority, not only as to what we preach, but how we preach it.  It is not only the foundation of the Church, but its support as well.

I suppose my challenge is this:  To myself and to all church/denominational/ministerial leaders, stop seeking your own glory and popularity and comfort.  Let’s roll up our sleeves and tackle these vital, formative, and neglected issues (while not neglecting others).

To be honest, the doctrinal controversy that is occupying our energies is easy.  To be brutally honest, it is also cowardly.  These doctrinal debates (of late) require nothing of us — all we need to do is prove ourselves wittier and smarter and right.  These debates result in nothing more than farther division as we earn the praises of our “camp.”

These other conversations demand that we love and listen.  They will challenge us beyond the status quo and will necessitate discomfort.  Real change and investment will be demanded.  And sometimes the only praise we will hope for is, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”


Filed under Theology

12 responses to “Our Issues Are Not Largely Doctrinal

  1. Theodore A Jones

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    And you dare say Baptist have no doctrinal problems!!? A church on the corner of each block and several more in between those and the fact that there are only a very few that ever find the small narrow gate and you have no doctrinal problem? Sheezesh man Jesus and Paul must be ly’in. But they ain’t and that is really your problem.

  2. Mr. Jones,

    Thanks for stopping by the blog. I don’t think we have ever met, and consequently, really know nothing about you or your background, and so I am really at a loss at how to respond.

    First, let me acknowledge that the SBC (I don’t know whether to include you in this or not) does have doctrinal issues. Early in the post I recognize that even “non-doctrinal” issues are, at their core, doctrinal. I believe everything an individual or a church does is grounded in their theology, whether they know it or not.

    The purpose of this particular article is that while SBs debate issue such as cessationism and Calvinism, their are other more pressing issues. We need to have conversations about church membership and structure, discipleship and accountability. It is issues like these (I argue in the post) that will shape our convention over the next generation. And while I categorized these issues as “methodological,” I do recognize they are fundamentally issues of doctrine. Again, the point of the post however was to distinguish them (and elevate them) from the purely doctrinal debates currently raging in the SBC.

    Yet, looking at your post, it appears that your larger argument is the Baptist understanding of salvation, as you assume that most Baptists are still lost in their sins. Is it a Grace vs Works issue? I would be interested in knowing our particular position.

    Thanks again for stopping by. If you are local in east Texas, call the church or send me an e-mail and we can talk over coffee.

  3. Theodore A Jones

    Thanks for your reply and the invitation for a face to face. No I do not reside in E. Tx. But since I travel a great deal a sit down with you is not out of the question.
    There is no Baptist that isn’t lost, but it this is not exclusive to the Baptist.
    To my mind it should be apparent to a Baptist that redundancy in regard to a “gospel” having to be taught endlessly to same people, that that “gospel” has already been taught to the previous week, that the cause of this factoid is not with those being taught. Yes indeed you really do have a doctrinal issue and it is much more than just serious. And unless YOU change your mind first, as you continually implore everyone else to do, your problem will not lessen but increase in magnitude.
    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    You have the same Bibles that I do. Is that man’s statement true or is it false Yes or No? No matter which answer you pick, friend, the strong man of the house is bound.

  4. Mr Jones,

    Thanks again for your response and your forthrightness.

    Might I ask what church tradition you worship in? It may help me understand your perspective a bit more. I admit, it is shocking that you count me lost though you know little if anything about my personal beliefs. On top of that, the declaration that every Baptist is lost seems not only untenable but irresponsible and inconsistent with you previous comment. Nonetheless, I will answer your question in good faith that you are genuinely open to dialogue.

    Your question concerning Paul’s question, “Is that man’s statement true or is it false” The answer is clearly, true. Paul, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, spoke the truth. Not a word in the Scriptures is untrue.

    Let me ask you a question in response… “who is able to obey the law?”

    The only answer… and the point Paul is making in Romans is that there is not one human being who can. No one obeys the law; all are guilty before the Lord. That is why Paul says later in the letter:

    For by works of the law no human being1 will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. Romans 3:20

    And again in Galatians:
    “…yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law…” Galatians 2:16

    Paul spends the first part of Romans shutting everyone up in sin (Jew and Gentile) so that he can provide the only true remedy… faith in Christ and His atoning work.

    Because we are bound under sin and by nature children of wrath (Eph 2), our only hope is Christ. We cannot, Paul makes clear, acquire a righteousness of our own. He makes equally clear that all who trust in their own righteousness are lost.

    Thus Paul says elsewhere:
    “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Romans 3:28

    “…yet we know that a person is… justified… through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Galatians 2:16

    “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith…” Ephesians 2:8

    Again, if I may ask another question, are the statements of this man true or false?

    The only hope we have is that Christ’s righteousness be applied to our lives. And indeed for those “in Christ” through faith that is what happens. God makes Christ who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor 5). Christ, is the only man – having been God – who was able to keep the law perfectly, dies a death we deserved and we are credited with His righteous life. All this is applied by faith.

    God works salvation in such a way so that we cannot boast.

    “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.” Romans 3:27

    For us to work salvation in our own righteousness through the law is not only to allow for boasting, but it nullifies the cross of Christ (Gal 2).

    This glorious gospel is preached every week not because it is ineffective, but because as saved people, the gospel remains our only hope for continual change and growing holiness. (Galatians is fundamental here). The gospel is not only how we come to faith in Christ, but it is how we grow in faith in Christ. It is the Word implanted in our souls that produces the holy life God requires (James 1:19-27; John 17:17).

    I trust that not only clarifies my understanding of salvation and the Gospel, but also why I preach it every week. I hope it also sets Romans 2 in its proper context. Thanks again for you correspondence.

  5. Theodore A Jones

    The assumption that I do not know of your personal beliefs is in error. I know them very well. Secondly the question isn’t Paul’s. It is what I asked you and your answer is a contradiction. For it is those who OBEY the law who will be (future tense) declared righteous. But you reverse that truth to defend your personal beliefs and asked “Who is able to obey the law?” because you fully well know you haven’t. However the law referenced in Rom. 2:13 isn’t what your beliefs have lead you to erroneously conclude that it is and that factoid is why you are lost.
    Yes I am very open to dialogue. Very much so but are you? Just because one thinks he isn’t lost does not mean that he is saved. There are only a very few that ever find the narrow gate, i.e. Way, that the crucifixion of Jesus has perfected for salvation and his Way does require obeying a law like it or not. For it is not those who, only, hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight.

  6. Mr Jones,

    I completely agree that “just because one thinks he is saved does not mean that he is saved.” Indeed, in a culturally religious context, I preach that very message almost every Sunday. It is also why I diligently search the Scriptures to understand what it is the Spirit of God has spoken. We have no other authority other than the one given to us; everything must be guided by and in agreement with the Word of God.

    Whether the question was yours or Paul’s (as you did ask it with Paul’s words), I did answer it without contradiction. I answered the question in a straight-forward manner without qualification. You did not show me how my answer was in contradiction, nor did you deal with the biblical context of Paul’s overall presentation. Is Paul in contradiction to himself when he says just one chapter later that no human being will be justified by the works of the law? My answer takes into consideration the entirely of Romans and not just one verse. It also is informed by the rest of the New Testament.

    Furthermore, I acknowledged that I have not obeyed the law, nor can anyone (as Paul makes clear in Romans 3). If you are implying that you have obeyed the law, then you are the one in contradiction to Scripture and not I. The only hope anyone has for salvation is by grace and through faith (demonstrated in the other verses referenced that you ignored). We must be declared righteous by the work of Christ. His law then written on our hearts is the fruit of our salvation, it cannot be the root of anyone’s salvation. In other words, those who believe that works merit our salvation are in gross contradiction to the clear teaching of Scripture for works cannot merit our salvation they are meant to give evidence of a salvation given by grace. The law saves no one (that’s also in Romans) but is a schoolmaster that shows us our need for Christ (Galatians). The law in the heart of a believer reveals God’s character that we might live under His lordship, pleasing Him in all things. Again, we are saved not BY good works but FOR good works (Eph 2:8-10). Or, as Luther said, “We are saved by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone.” True faith produces good works; good works are the evidence of our salvation not the grounds of our salvation.

    It is from this understanding of grace and law, works and faith, that the believer must operate. Yes, there is a law I live by (you claim to understand my beliefs but in your argument you show no such understanding), but that law shows (1) my dependence on Christ and (2) the character of my God. “For the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending His own Son…” (Rom 8:2-3). Therefore, I not only look forward to being declared righteous (the future tense you highlighted), but I am also amazed by the grace of God that counts my righteous (in the present tense — see Rom 1:17 and 5:19).

    You didn’t answer my question about where you worship… what church are you apart of?
    Also… can I ask on what basis you claim to understand my beliefs?
    Finally, you have yet to address the host of other Scripture by which I understand Rom 2:13. So far your argument has been based solely on one verse (ripped out of context) and your indictments have been superficial and unfounded — based in faulty characterizations and assumptions and not centered around actually stated doctrine.)

  7. Theodore A Jones

    The law he references in 2:13 is not the law he references in chps. 3&4.
    The law he references in 2:13 is one that has been added. No person can, has nor will be declared righteous by God by the faith of observing the written code. And he will only be declared righteous by God if he has the faith to obey the law which has been added. “The law(singular) was added so that the trespass (singular) might increase.” Rom. 5:20
    Every person who is a member of the church Jesus is head of knows exactly why Paul wrote the Rom. 2:13 statement. You on the other hand say it is true and then turn around and say it can’t be true. The Baptist says “Who me!? I ain’t gotta obey no law to be saved.” Yeah right. The law of the Spirit will only set you free from the law of sin and death, the written code, if you have the faith to obey the law of the Spirit by the faith of complying to what it demands of you. However if you refuse to obey that law you will commit a sin that is not forgivable. In other words you commit a violation of the law by law that is beyond recovery.

  8. Mr. Jones,

    A few questions…
    (1) Are you a member of the Mormon church?

    Whether you are or not…
    (2) What textual reason do you have for believing that Paul is using the word “law” in chapter 2 differently than he does is every other time he uses it?

    (3) What am I saying is true and then not true? I am simply understanding the Scripture in the plain straightforward way it which it was written. You are the one using slight of hand to define words against their intention to make them say what you are wanting them to say. To take the position of “secret knowledge” that is only available to “an enlightened few” is intellectually dishonest. Those manipulative tactics are, frankly, employed by intellectual bullies who distance themselves from those they try to control so as to avoid accountability and scrutiny.

    If you can argue, from the plain meaning of Scripture and from sound reason that there is a “secret law” then we can continue to dialogue. If, however, you want to hide behind redefinitions and delusions of enlightenment (both of which do violence to the clear meaning of Scripture), then we cannot continue to talk. I only ask that you evaluate the teaching of Scripture as it was written.

    And if you hear nothing else please hear this…
    God inspired Scripture so that He could reveal Himself to us. He is not cryptic in His Word. Yes, some things are hard to understand, BUT taken in counsel with the rest of Scripture, He teaches us about Himself and His intentions and His expectations, and the provision He makes in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    You twist my words into a straw man argument and neglect the verses that don’t fit your doctrine. I cannot nor can any person fulfill God’s law unto salvation… however, those who come to Christ by grace and through faith, trusting His work on the cross (and not trusting, even forsaking, our self-centered and prideful attempts to merit salvation before a holy God), to them He gives new life. All who trust Him for salvation are given a new heart and a new nature. Their lives change and become conformed to the image of Christ. There is no salvation apart from Christ… the Scripture teaches this in PLAIN language for all to understand.

    You said if I refuse to submit to the law then I commit an unpardonable sin. I can only assume you mean the “other” law that was added. Can you tell me where in Scripture in speaks of an added law and where it describes what that “added” law consists of? Or is that only something with “secret” knowledge has access to. (Yet, the Word of God in 2 Timothy 3 clearly and plainly states that God’s Word has everything we need to know about following Him). Again, you reveal you do not understand my beliefs; I do not refuse to live according to God’s law. I love the law as it shows me my need for a Savior and as it expresses the holy character of my Lord. I seek to obey it, not to merit salvation, but to please my God who saved me by His amazing grace. Any attempt to merit salvation diminishes the holiness of God who will judge every sin, disregards the cross of Christ (again Galatians 2:21), and declares the autonomy of Man.

    One last verse I would like you to consider. In Galatians, Paul says that if ANYONE, them or even AN ANGEL FROM HEAVEN were to preach another gospel, he was to be cursed. He says a few verses later that they came to know Christ by faith and that they must continue by faith. Paul stated that they could not be perfected by the works of the law.

    I pray that the deception you have fallen into will be dispelled by the living and enduring Word of God. Don’t believe any who profess a “secret knowledge” that only they know. Scripture was written to plainly point us to God through Christ. Self-exalting teachers cannot be trusted, but only those who are submissive to the authority of God’s Word.

    Any conclusions I have come to have been from the plain meaning of the Bible. If anyone corrects me, by the plain meaning of the Bible, I hear them, reason with them, and if convinced, will change my opinions. I do not hide behind anything special in myself, no secret knowledge or added insight — nothing other than what God has plainly spoken. Even the “mysteries” Paul spoke of in the New Testament were revealed mysteries that in the light of Christ were now made clear. Again… Scripture clearly and plainly speaks. Just read it for yourself and ask, “What is the natural, plain, ordinary meaning of this passage.” In that practice, I pray, you come to the truth.

  9. Theodore A Jones

    Let me assure that I am not in any way affiliated with Mormonism and never have been at any time.
    In regard to your question (2) about Paul’s use of the word law, but chp 2 is not the only time in Romans that he is referencing a law that has been added vis a vis the preexisting written code. As Peter said about Paul “some of the things he writes are difficult to understand”.
    There are four textual citations I’ll cite, but they are not the only ones.
    Isa. 51:4 “for a LAW shall (future tense) proceed from Me”
    Heb. 7:12 “,there is made of necessity a change also of the law.”
    Acts 7:53 “received the law that was put into effect by through angles, but have not obeyed it.”
    Gal. 3:19 “The law was put into effect by angles by a mediator.”
    In regard to the fact that Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the law this fact limited any modification of the law to only making an addition to it.
    Therefore your salvation from serving the penalty of eternal death is predicated upon the faith that a law has been added and that if you have the faith to obey this law complying to what is demanded from by law you will be granted the grace to escape serving the penalty of eternal death.
    “For it is not those who hear the law (which has been added) who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law (which has been added and put into effect by angles) who will be declared righteous.”
    If you refuse to accept that it is true that the law has been modified by making an addition to it AFTER Jesus’ crucifixion, even tho you’ve admitted there is a law of the Spirit, It will be a waste of my time to continue to answer your further questions. The actual purpose for Jesus crucifixion can never be understood without understanding that the law has been changed by adding to it because of the sin Jesus’ crucifixion.

  10. Mr. Jones,
    It appears that from your perspective I have wasted your time. The PLAIN teaching of Scripture — as the author would have communicated, as the original audience would have heard it, and as Scripture informs Scripture — does not indicate that there is any “added law.” The Scriptures you have mentioned have plain meanings that do not lend themselves to your interpretation. The Acts, Galatians, and Hebrews passages are all speaking of the law given on Sinai. The Isaiah passage speaks of a law (or teaching) that will go out, He is speaking of the coming of the Messiah and the inauguration of the New Covenant in Christ. The truth is Scripture proclaims the opposite.

    Scripture speaks of the grace of God, the mercy he offers, the corruption of our hearts and the need for a Savior who provides a righteousness that we cannot earn. You continue to weigh one verse against another and in so doing you have made yourself the arbiter of truth determining for yourself which verses are superior to others. Scripture must be understood as a comprehensive and integrated whole. Scripture informs Scripture it does not battle against Scripture.

    Again, I entreat you to read the Bible from the plain meaning and you will find that the Gospel is not cryptic but something available to all.

  11. Theodore A Jones

    And I thought that the Baptist have been taught to believe that the term “the priesthood of the believer ” is a truism?
    What is the sin, and it is only one sin, that was repented of in order to obey the Acts 2:38 command? No person will be allowed the grace to enter the kingdom of God on any other basis. Lest you forget it is only a very few people who ever find the gate into the kingdom of God. Salvation is predicated upon the faith to use that gate even tho the Gentile judges it to be foolishness. “Make every effort to enter by it.”

    If your last response is true that the citations I referenced are not referencing the fact that a change was made to the law by adding a word to it. Then the Rom. 2:13 statement to be true is only stating that obedience of the written code is sufficient to be declared righteous by God. Therefore for your response to be true there is no reason for Jesus’ crucifixion. As I said to you upon beginning this exchange. Is Rom. 2:13 a true statement? And what did you write as your answer to that question? The crucifixion of Jesus Christ has only perfected the Way you must have the faith to use to save yourself or your whole being is gonna fry for not using what he has perfected by law.

  12. Mr Jones,
    Thank you for your time, I am closing this comment thread. Instead of restating much that I have already said I want to simply close with a plea and a warning.
    (1) the plea – I encourage you again, read the Scriptures as they were plainly written to be understood. Do not put one Scripture against another but, instead, let Scripture interpret Scripture.

    and (2) the warning – in your last statement (whether you realize it or not) you said something very revealing. You stated that one must “have the faith to use to save yourself.” It believe in a works-based salvation (not a works-producing salvation – note the difference I made above) that leaves room for boasting. This boasting is evident from beginning to end of our correspondence. You elevate yourself claiming a “secret knowledge” and callously speak of the lostness of others (i.e. “fry”) revealing both your pride and lack of love.

    Anyone who thinks they can save themselves — even if granting Jesus a perfunctory role — is deceived and does not know the truth. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament would reveal the many contradictions in your statements. Therefore, I end with the plea with which I began: Read the Scripture prayerfully seeking to understand the clear, PLAIN meaning of the text… in so doing I pray your eyes are opened and you come to know the truth.

    God Bless.