Friday, October 07, 2005
An Open Letter to My Church
An open letter to my church, First Baptist of Temple City, CA:
My dear church family:
As I write this, the denomination our church has been a part of since its founding in 1941 is in the midst of the severest trial in generations. Our region, the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest, is in the process of separation from the American Baptist Churches USA.
This action was not taken rashly or rapidly. Over the course of many years, we have treasured the ethnic, racial and geographic diversity of the ABC. Yet many of us have been troubled by the theological diversity within the denomination. This is not merely diversity on unimportant matters, but on core issues such as the nature of God, the how a person is made right with God, and the meaning of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.
The evangelical majority of the denomination, for many years, tolerated this diversity because of our polity. That may be a new term for you so let me explain. Polity refers to how we are organized as a denomination. For example, the Episcopal Church has a highly structured “command” style of polity in which a bishop has great authority over clergy and churches. We have a very “loose” polity, where there is virtually no “top down” authority. We believe that Jesus rules his church by His Word and through the Holy Spirit.
This is an effective and Biblical way of doing things—so long as the word of God is centrally honored as having full authority. But when churches, pastors, theological seminaries and denominational official depart from a robust allegiance to the word of God and resort instead to personal experience, new theological trends and a theology that values acceptance and unity over God’s own revelation, crisis results.
We have reached that point of crisis. This is a personally difficult time for me. I was ordained as an American Baptist pastor in 1983. I have always been a reformer, not a separatist. I have always said, if anybody leaves, let it be the liberals! I’m staying and I’m reforming.
This reforming impulse has guided my own stance to the denomination throughout my years in pastoral ministry. Yet now my region—our region—is taking steps to separate from the denomination I have sought to reform for all these years.
What has become apparent to me is that the American Baptist Churches USA has failed as an effective organization for mission and evangelism due to a fatal flaw in its polity. Lacking a clear, binding, Biblical confession of faith has opened the door to churches, regions and denominational officials who will not affirm basic standards of Biblical doctrine and morality based on our polity.
Let me say again, that I believe that our basic polity is good, solid and Biblical. But it must be coupled with a clear allegiance to the authority of the Scriptures. We need a confession of faith that is binding on the institutions that seek to be a part. That would include churches, pastors, and institutions such as seminaries.
Being “non-creedal”, however, is the one creed that those in authority in ABC/USA can agree on. There appears be no possibility of changing that. Therefore, I support the decision of the Region Board to begin a process of separation from ABC/USA.
If you read press accounts of this, they will say that the “split” is all about homosexuality. This is about 10% correct. It is like the 10% of an iceberg that is above water. Below water is the bigger issue of the authority of Scripture. Will we take a stand for the Word of God in an area in which it speaks with uncomfortable clarity and in which it speaks with a voice that is radically different from the voice of modern culture? We must say with Peter—we must obey God, not man.
The next few months will reshape our region in ways that I cannot predict. And the next few years will reshape Baptists in the United States in ways I cannot foresee.
But I want to offer some hope, and an opinion.
First of all, many, many American Baptists across the country are with us in the Pacific Southwest. The theological heart of the America Baptist churches is where ours is. I saw this dramatically at the conference I attended at Northern Seminary in Chicago in September, as pastors and leaders literally from Maine to California gathered to seek God about the future.
We are far from alone, here in the Pacific Southwest. I believe that will lead to many other regions following our lead and separating from ABC/USA to create a new movement of theologically sound and mission focused Baptist followers of Jesus. Further, I believe that this “new movement” (it really doesn’t have a name yet) will within a few years include up to 70% of the current ABC/USA.
This new movement will then be in a position to evangelize, plant churches and send missionaries without the baggage of a crippling theology dragging us down.
I am convinced that the net effect with be to the benefit of the kingdom of God.
Please be very much in prayer for the times we are in.
God, grant us wisdom! Keep us humble so we can hear you, and so that we don’t let human anger or ambition interfere with the new chapter You are opening.
Yours in Jesus,