JACKSON, Tenn. – June 12, 2010 – In recent weeks I have heard Southern Baptists from various sectors of our Convention express some concern regarding the proposals to be recommended by the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force at the forthcoming gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting this year in Orlando. As I have tried to listen to these concerns, I have noticed that several of them have been framed as “either/or” one-sided arguments. Historically, some of the church’s saddest moments have come when people have wrongly insisted on “either/or” answers. And, some of the church’s most significant breakthrough moments have come when “both/and” answers have shed light on a challenge.
LEARNING FROM CHURCH HISTORY
Thus, for example, when discussing the Trinitarian God, some have argued incorrectly for either three persons and three gods or One God and one person. This faulty thinking has led either to modalism (three manifestations of one God) or tritheism (three gods) rather than the classic Athanasian understanding of the Trinity: three in One and One in three. While thinking about the second member of the Trinity, error has often developed by stressing either the humanity or the deity of Jesus Christ rather than the historic Chalcedonian confession that Jesus is both truly God and truly human.
People have followed similar paths in discussions regarding the Bible, maintaining that it must be either a divine or human book. In doing so they have missed the careful historic affirmations about Holy Scripture as truly divine, having been fully inspired by God’s Spirit, and also genuinely human, having been authored by God’s chosen prophets and apostles. At other times, some have questioned the reality of the doctrine of justification, saying that either we must be righteous or sinners. Historically, however, theologians have clarified that Christ-followers who stand justified by grace through faith are “simul iustus et peccator” (are at the same time righteous and sinners).
Still others, on less central issues such as the coming of the kingdom of God, suggest that the kingdom is either already present or still future rather than recognizing that is both now and not yet, both here and yet to come. These important theological assertions have been recognized as true and orthodox, having been rightly framed in a “both/and” manner. Aspects of these doctrines certainly appear to be in tension, but they are not in contradiction. Rightly understood, these “both/and” affirmations can be seen as connectives that are bound together, and, therefore, not exclusive categories. Lest I be misunderstood, I do not want here to suggest that “both/and” thinking is always the answer to doctrinal issues or to all challenges facing the people of God. Jesus himself said that we cannot serve both God and mammon. The eternal destinies of men and women are grounded in an “either/or” choice regarding faith in Christ, resulting in eternal life with God or eternal separation from Him. Thus, we recognize that there are times when an “either/or” choice is not only the best option, but it is the only right option.
While no one that I know of would place the GCR proposals on the same level of importance as these doctrinal formulations, I have nevertheless recognized similar tendencies among some people seeking to analyze the various GCR recommendations. Not unlike the examples given above, these responses are offered with an eye only on one side of the issue. I have heard people frame their concerns regarding the GCR proposals by saying that if there is to be a resurgence, it will come about primarily, if not entirely, as a matter of obedience, not as a matter of financial allocation. Others have said that a Great Commission Resurgence will come about only as a work of the Holy Spirit, not by adjusting or re-prioritizing denominational structures.
Still others have tried to pit Cooperative Program loyalty over against gospel urgency. And, still others have created false dichotomies between faithful service in one place versus gospel proclamation in a global context. Such “either/or” framing has continued by some who have suggested that we must elevate the Great Commandment over the Great Commission or the Great Commission over the Great Commandment, thus creating unnecessary choices between worship or missions, teaching or evangelism.
COOPERATION AND PARTNERSHIPS
Much of the confusion that seems to have been generated in response to the GCR proposals in various news media or blog posts will not, in my opinion, help to lead us toward consensus, renewal, or toward the Great Commission Resurgence for which we pray and hope. Frankly, I recognize that many Southern Baptists have become dazed and disillusioned by these things. These conversations have unfortunately brought to the forefront our lack of theological understanding as well as our historical amnesia regarding the relationship between local churches and Convention entities, between associations, state conventions, and the Southern Baptist Convention, including the need for cooperation and partnerships for the cause of Christ.
OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES
The reality is that we, as Southern Baptists, find ourselves in the midst of a kairos moment and this “either/or” thinking mentioned above could very well cause us to miss the opportunities that are ours at this time. We cannot fail to see these opportunities, nor can we misunderstand the challenges of our day. We must recognize that at the beginning of the 21st Century, people are thinking differently about denominations in general than they did a century ago. We must acknowledge that overall the Southern Baptist Convention is not healthy. Numerous churches are struggling. Fragmentation rather than cooperation seems paramount. Denominational loyalty seems to be a thing of the past. Therefore, business as usual is not an option.
DANGERS AND DUTIES
While denominations in general are in decline and Southern Baptists are struggling, I want to suggest that denominations still matter and that there is still a unique opportunity at this time for Southern Baptists. But this moment does not call for a false “either/or” choice between the work of the Spirit or the mechanisms of denominational structure; neither does it call for us to choose between refining our Southern Baptist legacy or choosing denominational loyalty. Many who have raised concerns about the GCR proposals have done so with admirable and helpful appeals to our SBC heritage, methodologies, and structures.
Certainly we affirm and recognize that Christianity needs structure in order to carry forward the Christian message. Yet, if we focus too much on structure we wind up on one side of the ditch leading toward bureaucracy. On the other hand, if we place all of our emphasis entirely on the work of the Holy Spirit, we run the risk of neglecting our own responsibilities, resulting in an amorphous and directionless movement.
In 1923, at another critical moment in Southern Baptist history, E. Y. Mullins challenged Southern Baptists not to miss “the dangers and duties of this present hour.” In many ways, the GCR proposals attempt to highlight similar dangers and duties for this hour. These proposals call us toward a visionary “both/and” perspective regarding a Great Commission Resurgence.
PROPOSALS AND PRIORITIES
It has been the desire of the GCR Task Force to bring forth gospel-focused and local church-centered recommendations. The initial GCR proposal provides the SBC with a new mission statement, which emphasizes the proclamation of Jesus Christ to the nations. The second proposal is a book end statement offering a fresh set of core values designed to bring about the renewal of our convention culture. These coherent proposals are anchored in our Southern Baptist heritage while also looking forward to the future, exploring how we can more faithfully and effectively work together to advance the Great Commission.
STRUCTURE AND SPIRIT
The GCR recommendations which are more focused on structural issues build on the spiritual foundation provided by the new missional emphasis and core values. These proposals highlight the Cooperative Program as the preferred and central means of working together to support missions, evangelism, and benevolence, while also celebrating offerings specifically given to enable and advance Baptist causes. The GCR recommendations call for a renewed focus on the efforts of the North American Mission Board, but not without strategic and cooperative partnerships with and among state conventions. The GCR proposals emphasize the global missions work of the IMB by encouraging greater support for the IMB through the SBC Cooperative Program allocations, while also entrusting the International Mission Board to seek to reach unreached people groups without regard to geographical limitations. The GCR proposals call upon the Executive Committee of the SBC to work in conjunction and communication with state conventions to provide a unified strategy for more localized promotion of the Cooperative Program along with stronger and more contextualized stewardship education.
TOWARD A BOTH/AND VISION FOR THE SBC
I personally believe that the Great Commission Resurgence proposals can be used of God to help Southern Baptists thrive. To do so, we must remain convictionally connected to Scripture, to the Gospel, and to the best of our Southern Baptist heritage that has emphasized cooperation and partnership in missions and evangelism. Learning to work afresh in cooperative ways will also be important, with associations, state conventions, and the SBC no longer seeing themselves as rivals. It is time for us instead to refocus our convictional grounding while celebrating our commonalities with a kingdom-focused cooperative spirit and mindset.
I believe the GCR proposals can be used of God to launch a new “both/and” vision, which will include both preaching and praying, giving and going, worship and witness, conviction and cooperation, teaching truth and touching needs, defining boundaries and building bridges, all the while encouraging both sacrificial stewardship in the pews and the sending of missionaries to the nations. This vision must include the refocusing and the re-prioritizing of denominational structures combined with the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in and among us. All will be necessary to move the SBC forward in dynamic and constructive ways in coming years.
The GCR proposals point the SBC in a trajectory that, if adopted, will begin to move us forward toward shared service in extending the work of taking the gospel to unreached people groups in this country around the globe. One of the real dangers of this present hour is the possibility of becoming sidetracked by “either/or” thinking. The duties of this present hour call for us to recognize the amazing opportunities that are ours even in the very midst of complex local and global challenges. This unique moment pushes us toward a new and bold “both/and” vision, nothing less than a Great Commission Resurgence vision that calls for us to cooperate together in pushing back lostness, a vision grounded in the gospel itself, and a vision motivated by the words of the resurrected and exalted Christ who has commissioned us to “make disciples of all the nations.”
By David S. Dockery
President, Union University and GCR Task Force member