The third, and most important, issue is our loss of focus on the Gospel. I find it difficult to even say such a thing, but, I believe it to be true. We must recover a gospel centrality and cooperate in proclaiming that gospel locally and globally. David Dockery and Timothy George pointed the way with their helpful booklet, Building Bridges, in last year’s SBC messenger’s packet. They called for a unity around the Gospel, and the time grows increasingly urgent.
If we’re not growing, it’s ultimately because we aren’t as gospel-centered as we should be. It’s really that simple. This, of course, leaves the question of where we fall short of the gospel, and that’s a good place to start the conversation.
The Conservative Resurgence failed to produce a Great Commission Resurgence. It restored our denomination’s value of Scripture but application is often absent, at least in the area of evangelism.
The Baptists divided over inerrancy. After decades of infighting, the defenders of inerrancy prevailed — and the denomination is losing members. You see, they fought over the wrong issue. Defending the Bible and defending the gospel are two different things. We tend to see as the darkest sins the disagreements among our own people. But the darkest sins are those that separate people from God.
I have little sympathy for those who think that the Churches of Christ need to learn to reject inerrancy. Wrong issue. Worse time. Stupid strategy. I mean, does this issue have such importance to the lost that it justifies yet one more split? — or does the world need for us to focus with a singular, white-hot intensity on the gospel? We can’t have it both ways. ACU is dead wrong to be pushing its anti-inerrancy position, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. It’s foolishness squared.
Stetzer’s point is that all that fight got the Baptists was a split, nationally embarrassing news, and distraction from the gospel — and I would add: regardless of who was right.
Here’s an interesting quote from Bart Ehrman, as quoted by Scot McKnight,
The idea that to be a Christian you have to “believe in the Bible” (meaning, believe that it is in some sense infallible) is a modern invention. Church historians have traced the view, rather precisely, to the Niagara Conference on the Bible, in the 1870s, held over a number of years to foster belief in the Bible in opposition to liberal theologians who were accepting the results of historical scholarship. In 1878 the conference summarized the true faith in a series of fourteen statements. The very first one — to be believed above all else — was not belief in God, or in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was belief in the Bible …
To make faith in the Bible the most important tenet of Christianity was a radical shift in thinking — away, for example, from traditional statements of faith such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, which say not a word about belief in the Bible.
Does that make inerrancy true or false? No, rather, the point is that inerrancy isn’t a part of “faith” as that term is used in the Bible. The Phillippian jailer didn’t have a position on inerrancy — but he was nonetheless saved. Therefore, it’s not a salvation issue.
The scriptures nowhere make saving faith dependent on believing inerrancy, and therefore neither should we. There are, after all, numerous degrees of “errancy” — all the way from those who reject nearly all the scriptures to those who question the historicity of the Flood and nothing else. Martin Luther, hardly a modernist, questioned the inspiration of James, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation.
Those who see inerrancy as part of the gospel are wrong. Those who think this is just a great time to fight over the issue are wrong.
Both sides need to restore Jesus to the center of our theology — and avoid the false dichotomy that one either accepts every word of scripture as historical or else has no faith at all. And we need to stop fighting each other and fight Satan instead.
If we commit ourselves once again to the Gospel which guided the Apostles and the early church, then perhaps we can reply to Christ’s call made to the church of Sardis in Revelation 3.
I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.
Repentance is the first step. But repent of what sin?
We have much to complete and it is not found in the mere retention of a denomination.
Right. For us, the goal isn’t to grow the Churches of Christ. It’s to grow the church of Christ, that is, the community of believers in Jesus.
First, we must remember what we have heard; the Gospel is sufficient. That Gospel was worth fighting for and now it is worth living for.
This is, of course, true, but we need to step back and ask: just what is this “gospel”? We sometimes think the “gospel” is the 5 steps of salvation. The Baptists tend to think it’s the “sinner’s prayer.” Both positions are seriously insufficient, because both sell salvation too cheap. We promise our members that for the low, low, one-time price of a confession and a baptism, they can go to heaven. Try to find that in the Gospels. It’s not there. Jesus demanded the high, high, the-rest-of-your-life price of everything you are, you have, or ever will be.
It’s not quite as easy to market, but when you make a sale, you’ve actually taken a major step toward creating a disciple, and disciples will change the world. Getting somebody wet for the price of a “yes” doesn’t work nearly as well.
Second, we must repent of what we have been. We have built factions on differences which are but a sliver of life: young vs. old; doctrinal distinctions built on a hair’s difference; worship models. And, all the while, the pride of each faction has swelled. We must decide to lay down our arms against fellow Baptists who share the same doctrinal confession and worship, reach the lost, or do their ministry in a different manner.
Amen — but we can’t unite with a legalistic theology that says our sisters congregations are damned when they disagree over any doctrine.
Thirdly, we must wake up to what we are to do. God has chosen the church (not the denomination) to make known His manifold wisdom (Eph. 3:10).
And this means cooperating with fellow Christians across denominational lines. The world is rapidly moving toward a non-denominational Christianity. I know very few people who have a strong allegiance to their denominational heritage. And this means we have a great opportunity to unite God’s people in service and evangelism — if we will.
Our denomination is only as strong as our churches and these statistics remind us our churches are in trouble. My prayer is that, unlike the church at Sardis, we are far from dead. However, it is obvious to us now that we are slumbering in the light. It is time for us to once again rise to a new day. The temptation will be that the news of the day will result in a new denominational obsession to fix the problem with a new plan. It won’t work. Instead we must refocus on the Divine Obsession (Luke 15), the obsession with lost people.
The answer isn’t a new book, a new baseball diamond, or going to the next great seminar. And it’s not being obsessed with growing our church (especially at the expense of other churches) or with growing the Churches of Christ (especially at the expense of other denominations). The obsession has to be with building the church — even if that requires the merger or dissolution of our own congregation or denomination. Our loyalty is to Jesus, not our congregation or even the Restoration Movement.
Cal Guy explained:
We apply the pragmatic test to the work of the theologian. Does his theology motivate men to go into all the world and make disciples? Does it so undergird them that they, thus motivated, succeed in this primary purpose? Theology must stand the test of being known by its fruit. (Calvin Guy, “Theological Foundations,” in Donald A. McGavran ed., Church Growth and Christian Mission, William Carey Library, 1976 reprint, page 44)
The promise of the Conservative Resurgence was to reestablish our unwavering belief in the inerrancy of scripture. Once we had our theology in order we were supposed to reach the world—but that theological change has not birthed a missional fruit. Now is the moment for us to hone our vision and take on a bigger battle—we must battle to build upon our Conservative Resurgence and make it a Great Commission Resurgence.
If we don’t, why did we bother with the Conservative Resurgence in the first place?
This lesson is for both sides of the inerrancy dispute. Neither inerracy nor anti-inerrancy is the cure for damnation. Defeating the opponents of inerrancy will not bring salvation to millions — or even hundreds. That experiment has been tried. The Baptists waged a war over it, split their denomination, and became less effective at winning souls.
We’re fighting over the wrong issue. In fact, this sort of speculation, fighting, and distraction is precisely why the world looks at us and wonders why they’d ever want to be like us.
ACU — stop challenging inerrancy.
Everybody else — stop challenging ACU.
Everybody — find a theology that will “motivate men to go into all the world and make disciples.” If your theological work doesn’t do this, find something else to do.
(And I will not be addressing the merits of the inerrancy issue here or at GraceConversation.com because it’s a distraction from the issues that matter. You see, I’ve studied the Baptist experiment and intend to learn from it.)
But aren’t the liberal denominations losing even more members — because of their doubts as to inerrancy? No, they’re bleeding members because they’ve lost their focus on the gospel.
And aren’t more conservative denominations the ones that are growing? Actually, no, most conservative denominations aren’t declining. Those that are growing are the ones focused on the gospel.
So how do we focus on the gospel? A good start would be to stop talking about other stuff — especially divisive stuff. You can that you’re focused on the gospel when that’s what you write and preach and teach and study about — and when you constantly test your actions against that standard.
Is my approach naive? Maybe. But not naive about the scriptures — about people. You see, the question that matters isn’t whether the scriptures have the date of the Exodus wrong. It’s whether we care enough about the gospel to actually get on track and serve the gospel. I think we do. But maybe I’m naive. I hope not.