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Stetzer: Denominations have future as ‘servants’ of churches on God’s mission

Ed Stetzer speaks Tuesday during the
Ed Stetzer speaks Tuesday during the "Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism" conference. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)

JACKSON, Tenn.Oct. 7, 2009 – Although denominations are not clearly mandated by Scripture and today face significant challenges, they nevertheless have a future – but only as servants of local churches on mission with God, Southern Baptist leader Ed Stetzer said Oct. 6 at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

For Southern Baptists, in particular, Stetzer argued for doctrinal consensus around the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as a “sufficient guide” as well as methodological diversity that permits cooperation with biblically faithful churches that may preach, worship and serve Christ in ways traditional churches do not.

“If an SBC leader says that he cannot be in the same denomination with a contemporary church leader because of his or her personal convictions, then he or she needs to leave the Convention,” Stetzer said in calling for valuing of methodological diversity. “Why? Because that person has established a more narrow standard than the BFM 2000 states.”

Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research and missiologist in residence of LifeWay Christian Resources, was the first speaker for Union’s conference, “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism.” The Oct. 6-9 conference is being held in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement.

Speaking on the topic, “Denominationalism: Is There a Future?” Stetzer dismissed two faulty assumptions about denominationalism.

It is mistaken to assume “denominations are necessary or even an integral part of the mission of God. This is not to say that they are not, but, lacking a clear biblical commandment, we cannot assume that they should be,” he said.

Interpreting a role for denominations in the “life of local churches apart from the mission of God” is also wrong, according to Stetzer.

The mission of God is the key to “successfully navigating these waters of philosophical upheaval that have left many people wondering” about the future of denominations.

“Until we are assured of the role of denominations within the framework of God’s mission, we should assume them of necessity to be flexible, malleable and possibly even temporary. … If denominations are to exist, it will be for the purpose of helping churches fulfill the Great Commission and join God on his mission,” he said.

Stetzer said there are several reasons why there is a future for denominations. Denominations are “inevitable,” he said, because denominations are the best means of missions cooperation and because of their inherent self-preservation.

Stetzer said denominations are so inevitable that networks of independent churches are “proto-denominations” resembling denominations more than those involved would wish to admit.

Denominations also have a future because younger evangelicals today are “looking for a sense of rootedness in a fragmented society.”

“Whereas the Baby Boomers untied themselves from tradition and decided to chart their own course, many of the Baby Boomers’ children have begun to look back wistfully to the shore. They want the stability of a sturdy heritage,” he said.

“In a rapidly morphing age, the sense of historical solidarity and theological and ecclesial stability offered by a denominational heritage are a great value,” Stetzer added.

Doctrinal accountability rooted in confessions of faith is another reason for denominations in the future, Stetzer said, pointing to the drift to theological liberalism in independent churches and institutions.

Since there is a future for denominations, Stetzer committed most of his nearly 50-minute address to the type of denominations that should exist.

Answering the question, “What kind of denominationalism is desirable?” Stetzer cited four values: missional rather than tribal; confessional consensus; methodological diversity; and assisting churches, not vice versa.

Missional rather than tribal

“Denominations should be made up of churches that look outward rather than inward,” Stetzer said. While introspection is necessary, such should be “to focus us again on God’s global mission.”

“Tribal” denominations “deliver a message of ‘come and join us’ rather than ‘go and live for Christ.’ We focus on preserving who we are rather than proclaiming who he is,” Stetzer said.

Confessional consensus

Stetzer said there are five essential purposes of confessions of faith – doctrinal statements – for denominations: a common theology, a standard for denominational agencies, a source for local churches in affiliating and a tool for established churches, a “sentry against moving left,” and a “shield against excessive distinction” in which certain rules or distinctions are overemphasized.

Methodological diversity

Stetzer spoke at length about his concern that Southern Baptists should value methodological diversity, calling it the “mini-controversy of the day.”

“The inability to serve with churches of differing methodologies is one of the greatest hindrances to cooperation today,” he said, pointing to “those on the right of the confessional standard” as most responsible for such hindrances.

Stetzer challenged both traditional and contemporary pastors to admit publicly to their unfair criticisms of each other.

While liberal, mainline denominations value “monolithic methodology and a diverse doctrine,” he said Southern Baptists and other evangelicals should practice the exact opposite.

“Denominations that are effective for the kingdom of God unite in doctrine and diversify in methods,” he said, adding the “collapse of the methodological consensus is a reality and no amount of pining for its return will bring back the era when we all looked and worshipped alike.”

Stetzer said this year’s SBC annual meeting was an indication of progress in wider acceptance of methodological diversity, even while warning the “voices of division get louder just before unity appears.”

Expository preaching is one example where methodological diversity should be permitted, Stetzer said. Although he said it is acceptable for Southern Baptists convinced of the importance of preaching verse-by-verse through the Bible to attempt to persuade others of their viewpoint, demanding uniformity on such an issue on which the Baptist Faith and Message is silent is harmful to cooperative mission.

“The circle of Southern Baptist cooperation must line up with the circle of our confession, or else every one – and every agency – does what is right in his or her own eyes and the result is a confused, and ultimately divided, Convention,” Stetzer said – repeating the comment for emphasis.

“If our confession is to have any integrity, we need to welcome young missional Calvinists who preach verse-by-verse, contemporary church pastors who – until a couple of years ago – wore Hawaiian shirts and even emerging church leaders who affirm our confession to be a part of the cooperation while they also move forward with other methodologies which are biblically faithful,” Stetzer said.

Those who are more conservative than the Baptist Faith and Message are welcome within the SBC, according to Stetzer, but “they cannot change the rules and set new standards based on secondary and tertiary issues to determine who can truly be Southern Baptist.”

Stetzer added: “If those to the right cannot cooperate with people who might not line up with them on every jot and tittle of their personal theology, they have moved outside the realm of the Baptist Faith and Message cooperating and are operating under the independent mindset. That is their right, but they must not be allowed to undermine the ‘rope of sand’ that is Southern Baptist cooperation.”

Southern Baptists “at their best” have “healthy discourse” that leads to “unity of direction for the Great Commission. We are at our worst when we threaten to swing policies around like baseball bats at Al Capone’s diner,” he said.

Assisting churches, not vice versa

Finally, Stetzer said denominations must recognize local churches direct their affairs, not the other way around.

“An urban legend persists that says denominations exist to plant churches and call out missionaries,” Stetzer explained. “It is wholly untrue. Local churches are responsible for church planting and missionary-sending. The denomination exists to assist the local church in her task.”

The denomination must be accountable to the local churches, he said.

“There is no Baptist pontiff in Nashville, Atlanta, Wake Forest or Fort Worth. Or any in any state convention office or mission agency headquarters,” Stetzer said.

“The headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention is in its 50,000 congregations,” he added. “Denominational leaders are not the boss; they are the servants of Southern Baptist churches. If the local churches believe we can be more efficient or more effective, then ultimately, the denominational structures must bow to the wishes of the churches.”

By James A. Smith Sr.
Executive Editor, Florida Baptist Witness

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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