Despite purging “liberalism” from the Southern Baptist Convention through the “conservative resurgence” of the 1980s and 1990s, today’s Baptist witness is “besieged,” “under assault” and faces “potentially debilitating challenges” from within, a conservative scholar warned in a recent white paper.
Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, warned that the battle that waged between moderates and fundamentalists for the heart of the nation’s largest Protestant faith group pales in comparison to challenges that lie ahead.
“The Controversy or Conservative Resurgence of the late 20th century is a mere precursor to the battles for theological integrity which face us, some of which will make that episode look like child’s play,” Yarnell said in sermon first preached for leaders of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and subsequently for students at Criswell College.
The sermon was published as a paper by the Center for Theological Research in December 2005 and posted on the Internet. Yarnell preached the sermon again at Founder’s Day at Southwestern Seminary on March 9.
Yarnell said E.Y. Mullins, president of Southern Baptist Theological Century in the early 1900s, “has done some good,” but his attempt to define Baptists according to “soul competency” had the unfortunate effect of encouraging theological liberalism.
Southern Baptists today, Yarnell said, are committed to the belief that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, extending “not only to the most important matter of salvation, but also to matters of history and science.”
Yarnell said the Southern Baptist Convention “must not lose vigilance” against resurgent liberalism, but pointed to a more imminent danger of “biblical ignorance in the pulpit and the pew.”
“The preacher who refuses to let the Bible preach itself in an expository manner threatens his people with the state of spiritual and moral anemia,” he warned.
A second danger facing Southern Baptists, Yarnell said, is the “Calvinist-Arminian” debate between predestination and free will. While “low-key” debate on the issue can be helpful, Yarnell said, “the debate can become quite unhealthy when some Baptists demand that others advocate their particular position.”
“Hyper-Calvinism,” for example, “is becoming a real problem in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Yarnell said, in a trend in some churches not to extend an invitation to accept Christ at the end of a sermon.
“It matters not exactly how you conduct the invitation, but we must treasure the divine command to be instruments in the calling of sinners to repentance and faith,” he wrote. “The invitation is not to replace baptism, but an invitation to Christ is nonetheless necessary.”
Yarnell warned of a third danger of “toying with Presybterian structures” in churches, such as the use of “elders.”
“These are minor concerns, but a problem really occurs when they allow eldership to limit
congregational oversight,” he said. “We must retain our foundational congregationalism, which results from a regenerate church evidenced by believers-only baptism.”
A fourth critical issue is a lack of “intentionally orthodox” preaching, he said, such as weakness in articulating doctrines about the Trinity and Divinity of Christ.
A final critical issue, Yarnell said, is a “loss of missiological clarity.”
Yarnell opposed “the rise of missionary methods that call for a Nicodemite secrecy rather than a bold witness to the lost.”
Some, he said, propose a “Camel Method” of witness in Islamic and Hindu cultures, where “new Christians are encouraged to hide their faith, continue attending mosque or temple, and otherwise act like Muslims or Hindus.”
Some mission experts, he said, “apparently consider baptism a Western rather than a
Yarnell insisted that “inward conversion to Christ must be followed by an external believers’ baptism, and that one cannot separate Christ from His church.”
“Christians who do not practice baptism are simply not Great Commission Christians,” he said. “Southern Baptist missionaries should firmly rebuke other missionaries who do not completely fulfill the Great Commission.”
Baptism, along with speaking in tongues, is at the center of a recent controversy embroiling trustees of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. Last fall the IMB tightened baptism requirements for new missionaries, saying they must have been baptized in a church that “practices believer’s baptism by immersion alone” and teaches “eternal security” of believers–a view that once saved Christians cannot lose their salvation, sometimes called once-saved-always-saved.
Critics of the change, led by Oklahoma trustee Wade Burleson, said the change was unneeded and goes beyond broader parameters on baptism in the Baptist Faith & Message. Fellow trustees censured Burleson for airing trustee differences over the Internet.
On Wednesday IMB trustees voted unanimously to rescind an earlier vote asking for Burleson’s removal from the board at this summer’s SBC annual meeting in Greensboro, N.C., but barred him from serving on committees and adopted new rules preventing trustees from publicly criticizing fellow trustees or staff.
“Baptists, of whom Southern Baptists comprise the healthiest part, are besieged,” Yarnell concluded in his paper. “Our faith is under assault. In the culture, in the ivory tower and in the churches, we face huge and potentially debilitating challenges.”
To be quite honest, Baptists could be frightened for their future,” Yarnell said. “Did Baptists not have a sovereign God Who providentially cares for His people, despair would arise.
“Fortunately, God is in control and true Baptists will ultimately survive and gain the victory by His grace.”
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Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.