Nine Marks and Reformed Stepchildren

rip-van-winkleReturning to Baptist life after almost ten years away, I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle.  Apparently, while I was gone Southern Baptists found something new to fight about.  Back in the day, the fight was over biblical inerrancy.  Then it was over speaking in tongues.  Then they decided to crack down on women in ministry.  I don’t really know what else–I lost interest nearly 15 years ago.  In fact, I left the SBC fold entirely.  I did something that, to my mind, was the most historically Baptist thing I could do:  I forsook denominational life and went primitive, meeting in homes with other non-conformists like myself.  We devoted ourselves to a thoroughly consistent belief in the priesthood of believers.  We had a great run for a while, too.  But the time eventually came when my wife and I needed to move on to something else (still not sure what!).  But I’m going to miss them and I know I’ll always thank God for my time with them.

By the way, have you heard the one about the guy who tried to start a Non-conformists Club?  He couldn’t get anyone to join.

Well, back to Dever’s book.  It turns out that while I was away, Southern Baptists got bit by the Reformed bug.  Not all of them, mind you.  Many of them vehemently oppose this new development.  They see Calvinism as a mortal enemy of evangelism, which is the Baptist’s main focus.  But huge swaths of young Southern Baptists have begun reading Puritans for their devotions.  They’re downloading John Piper and C.J. Mahaney messages.  They’re reading R.C. Sproul.  The’re reading Jonathan Edwards for fun!  What happened?

Well, I know the story, some of it.  A Calvinist became president of Southern Baptist Seminary and he cleaned house.  I read that 96% of the faculty got replaced in just a few years.  Small wonder, then, that tulips are blooming now in Baptist pulpits all over the country.  I’m sure there’s more to it than that, of course.  Ultimately I suspect Reformed theology has gained ground lately because it has substance and depth to it.  It has intellectual bite.  In an age when people know less and less what they believe, this tradition gives people something solid to stand on.

Incidentally, I happen to agree with much of Reformed theology, and not just because I studied at Reformed Seminary.  For all the things I don’t like about most Calvinists (like intellectual arrogance and a strong clergy/laity distinction).  I still believe in a sovereign God.  I still believe he had to quicken my heart before it could even sense its own need for him.  I’m at least a four-point Calvinist myself.  That won’t satisfy hardcore Calvinists, of course (I’m convinced that, unlike the other four,  one of the five points doesn’t come from scripture at all–it is inferred from the other four).  But I’m not that befuddled by a grassroots return to what Reformed folks call the “doctrines of grace.”  To my mind, most of this stuff just comes from reading the New Testament.  The idea of election, for example, comes from Paul, not from some French guy in the 1500’s.

But in the Baptist world I grew up in, this kind of talk would have made me the butt of many jokes.  I didn’t know of any Calvinists in the large SBC church I grew up in, nor had I even heard of them anywhere else except in Presbyterian churches.  I remember how amazed I was when I first read through the New Testament and discovered verses like Acts 13:48:

“When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (emphasis mine).

I brought that verse to Sunday School one morning and everyone insisted I must have been reading from a bad translation.

dever_9marks1But now as my wife and I have started church hunting among Baptist churches, we’ve discovered that most of them around here are preaching Reformed theology from the pulpit!  It’s like Bizarro world for Baptists!  One of those pastors handed me Mark Dever’s Nine Marks book and said, “Here is basically what I believe.”  I open the book and read him affirming the following:  “The history recorded in the Bible shows us very plainly that God is a creating God and that He is an electing God” (62).  He does not see a contradiction between election and evangelism.  He rather asserts that “God used the doctrine of election as an encouragement to Paul in evangelism” (143), citing as his proof Acts 18:9-10, which says:

And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.‘”

Belief in election isn’t the only evidence of the Reformed influences on Dever’s thinking.  One of his main points is that churches should be receiving a steady diet of systematic theology (a clear mark of a Reformed influence) and that they should learn a biblical view of God.  He then summarizes this biblical view of God by including a long excerpt from the classic statement of Reformed theology, the Westminster Confession (see 84-85).  He closes his extensive quote by saying, “This is the God who reveals himself in the Bible” (85).  That’s some pretty hearty props for Reformed theology there!

Then there is the notion of elders.  In the Baptist world of my growing up days, nobody had elders.  They had pastors, ministers of this and that, and then there were deacons.  But deacons just do grunt work for the church–taking care of practical needs and such.  Most of the time they don’t have any real authority in the church, like elders would.  Dever, however,  cites “a growing trend to go back to this biblical office”.  He contends that “the Bible clearly models a plurality of elders in each local church” (229).  My own reading of the New Testament reinforces this for me.  I’ve like the idea of a plurality of elders (grown locally) for a while now.  I just can’t believe the idea is gaining popularity among modern Baptists!

Dever points out that Baptist churches used to have elders, back in their earliest days.  He even says the first president of the SBC wrote a book advocating a plurality of elders in church life (229).  The idea just never got universal acceptance and it eventually fell by the wayside.  Now here we have a stirring of writers and influential preachers calling for a return to ways of thinking and governing which will strike many people as thoroughly un-Baptist.

For example, Monday night a local pastor paid me and my family a visit.  We have been visiting his church and he maintains the unheard-of habit of personally visiting every prospective member in his or her home at some point.  We chatted, discussed common acquaintances, talked theology a bit, then he prayed with us and for us.  I was impressed with the pastoral faithfulness that showed.  It went a long way toward making me like him.  So it didn’t bother me that much when I figured out that his views about the second coming are very different from mine and that he has no warm feelings for Reformed theology.

Sometimes I think those folks should just go ahead and become Presbyterians,” he said finally.

But wait a second.  I know just enough history to be dangerous, and I know that many, if not most, of the earliest Baptists were thoroughly Calvinistic in almost every way.  They just disagreed with the notion of an unregenerate church membership.  They believed in a believer’s church, where only professing believers get baptized (e.g. not infants) and where the State doesn’t own the church, or vice versa.  This put the earliest Baptists (and their ideological grandparents, the Anabaptists) at odds with the established churches of the Colonial (or Reformation) Era.  It got them exiled, arrested, or killed, depending on which country they inhabited.

Baptists have been called the “Stepchildren of the Reformation.”  That’s because Baptists really were like an offshoot of the Reformation–Calvinistic in theology but Anabaptist in church practice.  They saw churches as self-governed and composed of only regenerate believers, so they weren’t really Presbyterian to begin with.  And that’s not what people like Dever are after, either.  They belong to a committed minority of people who read the Scriptures for themselves and find there a set of teachings which do not fit perfectly with either the Established Churches of the Reformation or with the revivalistic churches that sprung up later in the U.S.  I don’t think they’re so crazy because “I is one myself.”

So there.  I admit it.  I’m a Reformed Baptist in my theology.  But I’m also organic/house/simple church in my ecclesiology, which means that I chafe when Dever goes on to claim that “In the New Testament, we find hints of the main preacher being distinct from the rest of the elders” (230).  I’m gonna need more than hints to buy that idea.  His only noteworthy evidence for this is Paul, who was a preacher but not a pastor by any means.  So he doesn’t really count.

Dever does what many pastors and theologians do:  He confuses the function of an itinerant apostle/church planter with that of a local pastor.  I know he does this because he did it earlier with Timothy and Titus.  He calls Timothy the pastor of Ephesus and assumes Titus must have been a pastor of  a church somewhere as well (177).  But the letters he cites make it clear that these guys were supervising large clusters of churches, and it fell to them to appoint pastors in each city where they planted a church.  Does that sound like the function of a local pastor to you?  That just doesn’t make sense to me.  All I can figure is that it has always been customary to call these letters “pastoral epistles.”  But that’s misleading.  And it seems to have misled Dever as well.

Here we find ourselves bumping up against the most sacred cow of evangelical church practice:  the single pastor tradition (by that, I don’t mean unmarried ones…I mean singling out one leader over all the others).  Even in a book that advocates a plurality of elders, we seem unable to conceive of a church without a main guy up front, doing all the teaching and preaching for the church.  It simply baffles me.

But I’ll take a shot at that in the next post:  Nine Marks and the Centrality of the Preacher.

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One Response to “Nine Marks and Reformed Stepchildren”

  1. DM Says:

    you said, “So there. I admit it. I’m a Reformed Baptist in my theology. But I’m also organic/house/simple church in my ecclesiology”…

    I smiled because I am too. We’ve been doing the house church gig now since 1999. Found your blog via the house church tag. thought since I was here I would say “hi” – that’s my story and I’m sticking w/ it. DM

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