Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dissent, the Holy Spirit, and the SBC

The flash point for the current debate in the SBC was Wade Burleson's refusal to support the actions of the IMB Board of Trustees as they imposed guidelines about private prayer language and baptism on the selection process.

First, let me make it clear - I have no firsthand knowledge of what happened. Wade maintains that he always behaved respectfully and openly, while dissenting from, disagreeing with and opposing the actions of the BoT. Certain members of the BoT are just as clear that he was undermining the work of the IMB with his incessant criticisms. Since I wasn't there, any opinion I give about what happened would be an uneducated opinion, probably informed more by my disagreement with the BoT than any knowledge of the facts.

But in response to Wade's criticisms, the Board enacted a strong anti-dissent policy. If you don't tow the party line and support the decisions of the Board, they will punish you.

I don't know exactly how far dissent should be carried in a Christian organization. It is not the purpose of this blog to explore that issue.

My point is this: the stifling of dissent and disagreement is an unfortunate tendency born out of fear and a failure to understand the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the church. Christian leaders who use their power to stifle dissent have an inadequate faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Those who stifle dissent are more concerned with enacting their own will than the will of God. If they were seeking God's will, dissent would be permitted, even encouraged.

When my church is trying to make a decision, I go to great lengths to give every member the chance to express their convictions and their sense of God's will. I encourage people to disagree. It is amazing how often in scripture that the one is right and the many are wrong.

As we discuss, study, pray and seek the mind of Christ, God will usually lead us to a place of consensus about His will and the direction we should go. It sometimes is in line with my will, sometimes not. We do it by listening to each believer and allowing them to express their point of view.

If I believe that the church should do something, I put it out there for discussion and prayer, either in the leadership group or the body as a whole. There are two possibilities. First, what I am thinking might not be God's will (or the timing might be wrong). In that case, do I really want to get my will done if it is not the Father's?

There is another possibility. Maybe I am really acting in accord with the will of God. That is where the Holy Spirit comes in. If I am right, then the Holy Spirit will convince the Body of Christ. I don't have to pressure, or cajol, or strong-arm people. Nor do I have to limit dissent. I just have to seek the will of God and let the Spirit do the convincing.

It works. In my last church, I brought something up that was weighing strongly on my heart. It got shot down in a chorus of negativity. I could have probably pushed it through by demanding that people submit to my leadership as pastor, but I had learned this principle. So, I waited. About 5 or 6 months later, I brought it up again. The church supported it unanimously and enthusiastically. What changed in 6 months? The Spirit had done his work.

Those who stifle debate do not understand the Holy Spirit. If what we are doing is right, God is our ally and will convince, convict and motivate. If I have to pressure people, stifle dissent and enforce pastoral authority to get something done, am I really doing God's will?

When I came to my current church, it was recovering from a horrible split that happened because strong-willed people (on both sides) tried to conform others to their will - a power struggle. In my first year, we faced a terribly difficult decision on which the church was divided and passions were strong (should we continue AWANA or change to another children's ministry.)

I had my opinions, but I never tried to enfore them. I just tried to help the people figure out how to find God's will without fighting. We had a forceful discussion. We prayed, sought God, taught the Word about resolving disputes and finally, took a vote.

Two amazing things happened. First, the church decided to do what I thought was right and best. But I did not have to fight or force people to conform to my opinions. God did it. Second, after we made the decision, with all the passion and emotion attached, people stood around and fellowshiped - people who had just forcefully argued and disagreed. Everyone had their say and when the church voted, they consented to the decision even if they did not agree.

In all of that, we did not lose a family and no relationships in the church were broken. The key was this: we sought to practice the Lordship of Christ and leading of the Spirit over decisions of the church. It worked! The people who lost the vote at least knew that the church had listened to them and considered their view. They were not made to feel like they were wicked because they did not agree with the direction of the majority. I saw more true Christian behavior after that decision than I have ever seen in church business. Win or lose, they behaved like Christians.

The Bible makes it clear. Jesus is the head of the church - not the pastor, the deacons, the elders or even the people. Jesus is the Boss. The church that seeks to practice the Lordship of Christ will prosper, even through disagreement.

And when that process takes place, there is no need to stifle dissent.


Luke said...

Do you think there is a difference between a church making a decision between A and B when there is no theological divide as opposed to a situation when there is a theological divide? In other words, a church should be able to agree that missions is important, it may be though that some of them want to do different kinds of mission work.

As relating then to the IMB, some see this not as a difference between two good things but rather the difference between one that is right and the other that is wrong. Or rather, one is biblical and the other is unbiblical.

How do you respond then when you believe the church is headed in doctrinal error verses just a difference in two good choices? And to make my question a little more testy, would it not be incumbent on the leaders to outright reject that which is in doctrinal error as opposed to just letting it ride? Letting it ride seems to have been the problem at Thyatira.

I ask these questions in good faith and trust that you will discern that.

Dave Miller said...

Luke, you asked good questions in a good spirit. How could I write what I just wrote, then get upset when someone asks me questions, or even disagrees. That is my whole point - the practice of reasoned dissent is a GOOD thing.

As to your questions, let me clarify. I have written a book called "Brick Walls and Picket Fences." I wrote it, no one published it. After Dr. Mohler came out with his theological triage (very similar) I sort of let it go.

My thesis is that there are four levels of Christian doctrine and an appropriate "unity response" for each.

Level 1: Fundamental Doctrine (essential to the gospel). Around this doctrine, we build a Brick Wall of defense. No compromise.

Level 2: Denominational/Other distinctives Distinctives. Around these we build a friendly picket fence. Specifically, if someone believes in infant baptism, we can accept them as Christians, but not as Baptist. We can be friendly as brothers in Christ, but will have trouble partnering in ministry.

Level 3: "Dinner Table" doctrine. These are issues that we study, discuss, even disagree about, for instance, end times. We never divide over these.

Level 4: "Personal Space" Issues. These are items of conscience in which each Christian is given the freedom to follow his conscience under the Lordship of Christ - for instance, whether to partake of wine or to observe the Sabbath. We should neither condemn or disdain those who disagree on these issues.

All that to say that on "Brick Wall" issues, I am pretty uncompromising. I have had to face down a few of those over the years.

But, honestly, 99% of the issues that divide us have no biblical or moral mandate. Few churches divide over issues that matter.

If we compromise on Brick Wall issues, we risk the purity of the church. If we treat Picket Fence or Dinner Table issues as if they were Brick Wall issues, we risk the unity of the church.

I am not sure I have answered your question, but I welcome more debate.

Dave Miller said...

One more thing. Your question seems to get at the root of the real issue in the SBC.

Can someone practice a PPL and be a genuine Baptist? (To me, Dr. Rankin has answered this question.)

Is someone a genuine Baptist if they were baptized by someone who believes you can lose your salvation?

If these issues are fundamental to our denomination, the IMB was right. If you can be a good Baptist and practice a PPL, then the IMB BoT was misdirected.

My theory is that the SBC should decide who to exclude, and that the BF&M should be the basis of this.

Luke said...

I am quite confident that the plan either you or Mohler would set worth would be practical and helpful. The great pains would be in leading the convention through such a time as to qualify the different beliefs as ya'll have put forth. It is not that I don't think it can be done, I just understand that it could be a very intense battle and that bloody hands seldom are used to build the kingdom as such. David was such a man of war, but because of that was not allowed to build the Lord's House. I think that is a distinction that is lost on us in the SBC.

Anyways, you answered my questions to my satisfaction and would not see a reason to debate you until it came time to qualify which doctrine was a 1, 2 or 3. Like you, I may have to stare at a couple of 'em long and hard.

Dave Miller said...

As far as levels 1, 2 and 3 go, here's my thinking.

Level 1: Doctrines that are essential to a biblical doctrine of salvation. "First Importance" is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3.

Level 2: Doctrines which are fundamental to the way the church functions but not to salvation. Baptism would be one of these. A church cannot be both baptist and pedobaptist. So, you separate into denominations and churches, carry on your ministries, and bless those who disagree with you.

Level 3: Doctrines that affect neither salvation nor the function of the church. Can an amillennialist and a premillennialist serve in the same church? I would say yes. Can you and I serve together if you accept the North Galatian theory and I take the South Galatian theory?

Simplification always risks over-simplification, but that's my "triage."

Luke said...

Wild hair I just pondered. Perhaps, and I do not know this to be factual, but we are told that we have a higher divorce rate than the world, and perhaps the reason for that is the same reason for some of our SBC friction today. We do not know how to sit down and hold discussion with the intent to resolve. Rather, we would just rather bark at each other. If our pastor's cannot discuss and resolve, surely our flocks cannot learn what we cannot do?

Just a passing thought.