Thoughts for Independent Baptists

Over the past several years, there has been an increase of internet dialog and major network reporting on various types of scandals and abuse in religion. A recent television program carried a story on such occurrences in some independent Baptist churches.

Although I disagree with the media’s approach at casting aspersion on thousands of pastors and about two and a half million good Christians (stats according to Church Still Works, pp. 14, 15) because of the sin of a few, there can be a good result to this criticism—if we respond properly.

The Bible says, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1). Although I have given much of my life to strengthening pastors and churches within the independent Baptist ranks, I have, along with many others, been burdened for the testimony of our biblical heritage because of the actions and attitudes of some.

The nature of independent Baptists as a whole is different than organized denominations. There are many strengths to following a biblical pattern of autonomous, indigenous churches; however, like every group (organized or not), there are problems that develop and must be handled biblically. Furthermore, because of our independent status, there is no board or president to speak for the whole. While no one person can speak for all the churches, neither can one person (reporter or pastor)—unless they are omnipresent and omniscient—declare all the churches corrupt, cultic, or any other stereo-typed criticism.

While those of us within this group cry “foul” at such broad attempts, I believe these reports reveal problems that have and do exist in some places. (I am not speaking specifically about the cases in recent media exposés because I do not know the individuals or facts of those situations.) This should concern all of us.

For the past few decades, those who have attended Spiritual Leadership Conference would testify to the fact that we have tried to emphasize a servant-styled, Christ-like leadership model. We have taught against the caustic and fleshly leadership that fosters unhealthy relationships, lacks accountability in leadership, and creates unbiblical loyalties to personalities or institutions. We have tried to emphasize nurturing and maintaining a genuine heart for God and the work of the Holy Spirit in individual lives.

I wrote at length about these very issues in my book Guided by Grace. In this book, I told my story of having to unlearn certain models and philosophies that the Holy Spirit convicted me about. Like you, my spiritual growth is a work in progress, but I learned long ago, Jesus is the goal—not “standards” or institutions, but knowing Him. (I don’t deny that schools, colleges, and in some ways, all organizations need rules or boundaries of conduct, but we cannot lose the essence of a relationship with Jesus in the midst of the rules and institutional structure or order.)

Sometimes in life it’s good to step back and remember who you are as a person. When I make a list to describe those personal priorities, I always begin with a single word—“Christian.” I accepted Jesus as my Saviour on April 5, 1972. He was merciful to forgive me and has kept me by His grace since that day.

There are many other words I might use to describe myself—husband, father, grandfather, and yes, in the right context, I would say my biblical beliefs are “fundamental”—or based upon the clear doctrines of the Bible. I am not ashamed of those fundamental truths. These fundamentals include my Lord’s deity and His blood atonement for my sin. But even those truths remind me that I am a Christian first—before any other title. Sadly, I have known some “staunch fundamentalists” who were lousy Christians. And I have seen many who have redefined the word “fundamental” to include much more than doctrine. For many, the word includes personal preferences, strong opinions, and even bizarre viewpoints or practices.

So what do we do when a name becomes tarnished? I suppose a lot of people are thinking about that these days. What comes to your mind when you hear the term “Roman Catholic Priest”? I haven’t heard the media refer to the Catholics as a cult, but maybe they have. Perhaps they will label every group with abuse and misconduct as a cult. Perhaps it is only my paradigm, but eastern religions and Islam seem to get a pass in these discussions.

For the moment, allow me a broad statement. “Every family or religious tree has a few nuts.” Before we declare everyone in any group to be cultic or vile or abusive, we should pause for perspective. Is your extended family pure of all corruption and sin? Is your parish or entire denomination scandal-free or sinless? Mishandling of sinful skeletons is not unique to any religious, social, or civic group. Sexual deviance is rampant in our culture—from the home to the workplace to the public schools to every religious and civic group.

However, I am deeply grieved that innocent Christians have been hurt and that leaders have not been forthright in churches that carry the name “Baptist.” I hope this will be a time of learning from mistakes and criticisms, and a time of strengthened commitment to handling these crimes lawfully and biblically in Bible-believing churches. Frankly, every story of sin or abuse from any Christian group grieves me. When issues arise about churches that are more closely aligned to our own position, it is saddening to my heart. I, for one, do not believe the first response should be anger. Our response should be prayer.

While I have friends and acquaintances in independent Bible churches and with other affiliations, I personally have been an independent Baptist all of my life. Although I have had my share of disappointment and hurt, I am thankful for the many great aspects of my development and ministry years. In my study, I have a Bible with the signatures of Dr. Monroe Parker, Dr. B. Myron Cedarholm, Dr. Jerry Falwell, Dr B.R. Lakin, Dr. G.B. Vick, and many others. Their preaching and vision were inspirational and helpful to thousands. In their heyday, they gave independent Baptists a good name.

Being independent fundamental Baptist has traditionally meant:

  • The church came out of a denomination that denied fundamental doctrine or chose not to affiliate with such churches.
  • The church supports missionaries directly with financial support, rather than through a headquarters.
  • The churches were fundamental in doctrine, conservative in lifestyle, and evangelistic in ministry.

As America has changed, these conservative churches in America look increasingly strange to our culture. I suppose that has been and will always be true. We are called to be “salt and light” (Matthew 13–16).

What is bothersome to our name, however, is that in some places, being independent fundamental Baptist is not simply about doctrine.

Many times, in these days, the churches are known for:

  • Mishandling sinful issues
  • Pastors living without accountability or not being approachable
  • Recommending immoral pastors to other churches
  • Preferential divisiveness fostered by fruitless men with a computer and angry men with a pulpit
  • Excessive loyalty to a personality or institution
  • A Christianity focused more on externals than the heart
  • Emphasis on the fear of man more than on the fear of God

This list could go on and on, but it seems like an unbalanced few, with the help of technology, have sent a sad, “name damaging” message that is cast upon the whole.

Frankly, the media would consider all truly biblical ministries from any denomination “weird.” But the world and the media should easily find integrity when viewing how we respond to issues such as the handling of abuse. Warren Wiersbe in his book, The Integrity Crisis wrote, “The Church has grown accustomed to hearing people question the message of the gospel, because to them the message is foolish. But today, the situation is embarrassingly reversed, for now the messenger is suspect.”

We should not let our good be evil spoken of. In fact, most pastors I know, including leaders in our own ministry, have diligently reported cases of abuse to the authorities and have worked sacrificially and compassionately to help those who have been abused. We understand, appreciate, and fully support the process of “mandatory reporting.”

I believe it’s time for revival in our midst. It’s time for a name cleansing or a renaming. It’s time for some to move from:

  • Bully pulpits with straw man issues back to authentic Bible preaching and teaching
  • Mishandling sin to handling sin with integrity and biblical principle
  • Paranoid isolation (for pastors/church members) to loving engagement with family, neighbors, and the community
  • Petty preferences to personal holiness
  • Excuse-making to church building
  • Critical spirits to edification and encouragement

After many years of ministry, I am convinced that the Holy Spirit, by His work of grace, is better than my best program at growing godly, happy Christians. Let’s move back to lifting up Christ and encouraging others to grow in grace through the work of the Holy Spirit. All of this can be accomplished in the context of a fundamental and biblically separated ministry!

Independent Baptists have no headquarters or pope. (And, from the past falls of others, we see that having such organization is no guarantee of freedom from failure or reproach.)

But perhaps we should consider and discuss a voluntary agreement among pastors to model Christ-like ministry. I think this would be a great start. The following statement is just meant to begin some discussion among friends, but here’s a first try for an agreement that we could share as Bible-believing Baptists. I’m sure others would have better ideas, and I realize no real good ideas could come from a Californian! But here’s a rough-draft try:

A Suggested Statement of Agreement

As pastor of an autonomous Baptist church, I affirm my belief in the historic fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith including the depravity of man, the deity of Christ, the blood atonement, death, burial, and resurrection for the sins of man.

It is my pledge to uphold truth of God’s Word in the love of Christ, to be guided by grace and accountable to other godly men as I serve God’s people.

Our ministry will biblically respond to sin and ethically and diligently report abuse to the authorities. We will seek to love, counsel, encourage, and edify the offended and hurting.

While we realize anyone may refer to a strong stand for biblical truth as unkind or even abusive, we will ardently endeavor to teach and model holiness in an environment of grace and acceptance after the Spirit of Christ.

We will carefully screen and check backgrounds of church workers. We will not refer a staff member or church member who has been involved in or accused of sexual abuse to another ministry without notifying the leadership of that church.

As a church, we will obey the Great Commission. We will strive together to win the lost and reach the world with the Gospel. We will continue to fulfill our role as a local church to be the pillar and ground of the truth.

I suppose the list could go on, but these are good starting principles for every church concerned about having a good name.

This is just food for thought. If you are a pastor of an independent Baptist church, I would like to hear your feedback and ideas. What thoughts does the Lord place on your heart that may help Bible-believing Baptists establish a clean name or a new name? I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion at our Spiritual Leadership Conference in a couple of months. I hope you will consider joining us.

Although I’m not saying we must change our name, over the years I have taught we must define the meaning of terms to a suspicious culture. It’s time we do a better job at defining ourselves than those who “say all manner of evil…falsely” (Matthew 5:11).

Finally, I am so thankful for the name that is above every name—JESUS. He is why we should be concerned of any name that is a reflection on His church. And He has promised to build His church! Let’s try to stay out of His way.

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