On the SBC

I have a lot of thoughts about the SBC, and I think you should too (if you live in the USA). Why? It is the largest group of Protestants in the country and the direction it takes will both reflect and influence evangelicalism in general. It is responsible for educating a massive portion of theological students and the impact on missions is likewise great. But I’m not a Southern Baptist. Why? Quite simply it’s because I’m not in a Southern Baptist church, and the fact that I don’t live in the South means I don’t particularly feel compelled to encourage our congregation to join it. In other words, I think the regional identity of the Convention should matter (even if they have not maintained it themselves). In other words, the reason I’m not Southern Baptist right now is both convictional (I think it should be regionally identified) and non-convictional (there’s nothing I have against the SBC doctrinally and I could—and do in my work at SBTS—still affirm the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, as I did in my book Still Confessing).

What are my thoughts on the SBC? Well, there are a lot, but as one who is concerned for healthy Baptist life, I have several that I think would help to reinvigorate it. This doesn’t solve all the problems we all know about right now (sin’s the problem; repentance, diligence, and the return of Christ are the solution). However, consider these as suggestions for how the SBC could be better in terms of the structure it ought to have.

First, associationalism. Baptists have been an associating people since our beginning. By “associating,” I mean formal communion among churches. Formal means there’s an entrance and a mutual concern and at times a removal. The SBC is generally structured in three “tiers” of fellowship: local, state, and regional (though the latter has become national, and indeed international). The SBC really is designed to direct resources for common ends (education, missions). It is the local associational level at which the theological and fidelity conversations should be had. The reality? Many churches are never involved in the local association or the state associations, and the reason is that they don’t find them valuable. Ways forward? 1) Remove churches that are inactive. This had been a very common practice among Baptists. 2) Assess the agreed upon doctrinal commitments (BFM and various other confessions) and be willing to have the hard conversations that lead to some congregations being removed from the associations. 3) Make associational meetings more robust (they are generally a-theological because of the huge spectrum of SBC theology today; local associations don’t need to be as broad as the SBC). Ask for reports from the churches and engage in the older forms of mutual support in theological and practical decision making within the churches. (Often, local association meetings are basically just reports of some evangelistic outreach—e.g., a block party or ESL classes—that a church is doing). Pastors, you’re in charge of the associations, not the DOMs, so speak.

Second, reform the SBC’s missionary practices. The North American Mission Board (NAMB, pronounced like “lamb”) had originally focused on reaching the Indians and immigrants. Now, NAMB is seeking to plant churches all over the country. It’s an unfortunately common experience for me to hear of local ministers complaining about the way NAMB seeks to overwhelm an area where there are already local associations and local church plants. NAMB still does try to help with reaching immigrants and they are involved in things like disaster relief and caring for those who are rescued out of sex slavery. Great! But if our (Baptists’) polity is to emphasize the local church and local associations, then NAMB should not be operating on its own in local areas. The other missionary organization, the International Mission Board (IMB), is one that has favorable positions on paper, but I’ve heard very disturbing stories from the mission field. While officially opposed to the “Insider Movement,” the IMB has not actually resisted it among missionaries on the ground (I’ve heard multiple stories of IMB missionaries having to leave the field because of their concerns with the IMB’s on-the-ground permissive stance toward the IM). While the goal ought to be to see Baptist churches planted and self-sustaining (at which point I would think the IMB would see their task as complete), very often the reports are that IMB workers don’t have that goal as clear in their minds.

Third, be willing to let go. This goes to things that were implied in the former two items. Early Baptist associations planted churches in other areas, which then grew into self-sustaining associations. There was communication between the associations by way of reports, but it wasn’t a way of just expanding the reach of one of the associations. The Baptist Union and the various conventions (such as the Triennial and Southern Baptist Conventions) extended the communion of churches in ways that Baptists were concerned about very early on. The SBC should, it would seem, probably be willing to resist the urge to have churches in New England and New Zealand. Plant churches? Sure. But then allow those churches to form their own associations etc. Be willing to be smaller for the sake of the health that comes from more localized politics (politics in the sense of people working together). The reality (regardless of whether it must or ought to be this way) is that by having a robust Southern Baptist Convention, energy is sapped from the hard work that goes into local efforts. Serve the churches and the local associations. That’s baptist. Note when the task you desire to do or have already engaged in is beyond the purview of what you should do and cut it off to allow it to grow by itself.

The SBC is the largest group of Protestants in the US, and the result is that their health affects the health of us all. We should be seeking the good of the SBC and urging them to continue to reform according to the Scriptures, which are best expressed in Baptist principles. This means more focus on the local churches, more focus on the local associations, more desire to serve as a conduit only insofar as it is proper, and less seeking to be a “global” movement. I praise God for the SBC because it was the commitments of that communion of Baptists to the gospel that edified me and trained me for the ministry. I never “left the SBC” but only the area where the SBC is (and I think ought to be) functional, and my desire is for Southern Baptists to continue to uphold Baptist principles and take the gospel to the lost.

What’s Next?

Now that I’ve finished my dissertation and graduated, the natural question is, “What’s next?” The obvious item is figuring out how and where to publish the dissertation (I’ll give a P.S. below to explain what I was doing for anyone that’s interested). There are three main projects I’m thinking toward though, and I figured that putting it in writing for others to see will, perhaps, provide some “motivational accountability.”

1. Placing the Decree

In my research of the pactum salutis, I found that there’s been an interesting change from the Reformed Scholastics to modern Reformed. Three “big names” (Bavinck, Muller, and Beeke) have said the decree is ad intra, though others have repeated them. However, I haven’t found a single Protestant scholastic that said it.y ETS proposal is to work through that reality and then explain (at least 1 reason) why that’s a detrimental change in terminology. I’d like to turn it into an article whether or not ETS takes it up (though I really hope they do)

2. Anthropology and Ethics

One item of interest that I intend to take a deep dive into is the doctrine of anthropology (what is man) and ethics. This will give me an opportunity to think about God’s creation of his image, the covenant of works, and the way God’s attribute of goodness is important for us. (Chris Holmes has been an interesting read so far in his two books A Theology of the Christian Life and his book on the Psalms and God’s goodness). Respecting the covenant of works, I want to tease out the RB distinctive (yes, it’s distinct) some. I may turn this latter item into an article.

3. The Binding of God?

One thing that I’ve been interested in is the contemporary language of God “binding himself” in covenant. It’s most explicit in Peter Lillback’s book with that title, though I think I’ve seen it appear in O. Palmer Robertson’s work that predates it. Where I haven’t seen it is in Calvin. The passage that would lend itself to that language (in Hebrews), Calvin speaks of God binding man (specifically the Israelites) to himself, which is much more comfortable in my theological mind. I’d like to see if this is a term that predates Robertson and (perhaps) make an argument for abandoning the phrase. It seems too “theistic mutualist” (cue Dolezal) for me.

Those are the three projects I’d like to pursue over the next year and a half or so. We’ll see if the develop beyond that. Obviously I’m still thinking through them, but I think it’ll be good stuff to work on.

P. S. My dissertation was an historical and theological defense of the pactum. The first third of it shows that Baptists also affirmed the doctrine (though with a wrinkle) for the first 250 years or so. The latter two-thirds is a dogmatic construction of the pactum using Letham’s arguments against it as a foil. The first of those chapters (the largest at about 50 pages) shows that it fits comfortably in catholic Trinitarian theology. The second of those chapters ties it to the scopus Scripturae, dyothelitism, and Christ’s coming as last Adam (it’s a more biblical-theological argument). The third of those chapters ties the mission of the Son to the work of the Spirit (incarnation and work of Christ as covenant head is “pneumatic”). The dissertation seeks to say, first, this is something that isn’t just Presbyterian/Reformed (Baptists affirmed it too), and, second, our affirmation of it doesn’t undermine the more standard classical doctrines. (That second claim is situated within the current recovery of classical theism and covenant theology that Baptists have even been part of, such as Dolezal, Vidu, Barrett, Wellum/Gentry and Barcellos [covenant theology], and Allison/Köstenberger [classicalism]). To publish it would require me finding someone who sees the value in it as well as they’re seeing a market for it. While Fesko’s work is good, mine is distinct in that it spends the whole time on theology proper in its construction and the whole time on Baptists in its historical work. Others have done purely historical work (e.g., Mark Jones and Woo). Does it feel “standard?” I hope so. But it’s still pretty different because nobody else has really treated it as a theology proper doctrine (or specifically within the context of classical theology) or “purely focused on God” (rather than placing it in soteriology in some way).

Anyway! That’s the plan. 🙂

A Forced Pastorate?

This past Sunday, I referenced an event in Augustine’s life in the introduction to my sermon (the details may have been a little off, but the substance was correct). Just because it’s such a fascinating event, I share it here from Peter Brown’s biography. Augustine tells how, because his reputation had grown, he wouldn’t go anywhere that didn’t already have a bishop so that he wouldn’t be made to become a bishop. Thus, when he went to Hippo, he was not seeking the pastorate (in fact, he was hoping to set up a monastery). Here’s how Brown tells of how things unfolded:

The incident was a common one in the Later [Roman] Empire. It passed over quickly: in a sermon, the bishop, Valerius, spoke pointedly of the urgent needs of his church; the congregation turned to find, as they expected, Augustine standing among them in the nave; with the persistent shouting required for such a procedure, they pushed him forward to the raised throne of the bishop and the benches of the [presbyters], which ran around the curved apse at the far end of the basilica. The leading [c]atholic [(as opposed to Donatist)] citizens of Hippo would have gathered around Augustine, as the bishop accepted his forced agreement to become a [presbyter] in the town. What was happening seemed perfectly natural to them: twenty years later they would try, without success, to kidnap in this way another passing ‘star’. They merely assumed that Augustine had burst into tears because he had wanted to be a bishop, but now found himself condemned to the inferior rank of [presbyter].

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, Forty-Fifth Anniversary Edition, 131–32

While unfamiliar to us today, it would likely be too much to say this was forced, as seen in the fact that the man they tried the same with twenty years later was able to refuse. Nevertheless, it is an interesting account not uncommon in church history.

Suggestion for Historical Theologians

A fascinating (and often ugly) debate rages on the internet and in academic circles, and it’s a debate over the doctrine of God. One well-known apologist keeps asking, “What changed?!” What he means is, Why is the doctrine of God from the latter years of the twentieth century found to be deficient. Part of the answer, I think, can be found in a number of key works that came out at the same time.

I title this post “Suggestions for Historical Theologians” because I honestly think a monograph could be written on this topic. I think it will need to wait another number of years, but that’s how long these things take anyway :).

I first discovered how closely these works were published when writing my dissertation and I kept having to type in the same year in the footnotes (yes, I manually type in the footnotes, and yes, I have been influenced by the works listed). When we think about the relationship of these works to each other, we see why there has been a recovery of certain classic Christian doctrines and why it would be a “shock to the system” for those who aren’t engaged in the academic world.

  1. Nicaea and Its Legacy by Lewis Ayres (2004)
  2. Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck (2002–2008; Doctrine of God came out 2004)
  3. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics by Richard Muller (completed 2003)

In that list, we see something particularly telling. In the first, Ayres, a Roman Catholic historian, demonstrated that the division of Eastern and Western Trinitarian theology was overblown by the social Trinitarians and that, in fact, the East and West affirmed the same basic principles. This was crucial for Protestants, and even conservative Reformed evangelicals in particular, because Social Trinitarian theology had an influence to various extents in our circles. Even though we usually rejected it, some of the Nicene categories had been lost.

In the second, English-speaking Reformed finally had direct access to the theologian who had loomed somewhat in the background of our theology throughout the twentieth century. Warfield and Berkhof and Van Til all had high praise for Bavinck, and now we were able to read him ourselves. (I should say, when I say “we,” I’m using this term communally. I’m actually about a decade too young to have experienced this movement when it was fresh). This is important because an interpreter will use things that are conducive to their own argument (which isn’t a bad thing; just a fact of writing). What we find here is that the division between certain types of theological reasoning was not always considered “non-Reformed.” In other words, maybe Sproul wasn’t such an anomaly if Bavinck is representative of Reformed thinking prior to the 1930s.

Finally, Richard Muller completed his magnum opus at the same time the other two works came out, notably especially his volume on the Triunity of God. It had been common to think of the Reformation as though it started with a tabula rasa in its formation of theology, but Muller showed that the Reformers, and especially their confessionalizing successors, continued along many of the lines of their predecessors. Again, it was a reformation. Heiko Obermann had preceded Muller, but Muller stands out in our day.

If we think carefully about these three works, consider three more works that came out later.

  1. Quest for the Trinity by Stephen Holmes (2012)
  2. All that is in God by James Dolezal (lectures originally given in 2015; book published 2017)
  3. One God in Three Persons by several authors (2016)

In the first book, Stephen Holmes traces out the history of Trinitarian theology, showing the consistency of the doctrine throughout the ages and the classical doctrine’s difference from the “Trinitarian revival” of the twentieth century that he had earlier been influenced by. We begin to see some cracks emerging here as we see something like a “classical theology proper” emerging in evangelical circles.

In the second book, which was originally lectures given at the Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastors Conference, Dolezal calls attention to the fact that those theologians who had most influenced conservative, Reformed evangelicalism had abandoned the doctrine of divine simplicity. “Abandoned” may sound too strong, but the fact that simplicity is an absolute denial of something (i.e., composition), any modification of it equates to a denial.

In the third book, we have the book that sparked the “infamous” semi-popular Trinity debate of 2016. A couple things should be said. First, not all the authors advocated for eternal submission, but some of the doctrine’s chief proponents were included in the book. Second, I call it “semi-popular” because it was/is a debate engaged in a popular forum (blogs; social media) but it was/is engaged by formal academic theologians. Third, it is a clear demarcation point of the divide between new conservatism (say, late twentieth century evangelicalism) and orthodox conservatism. I call the latter “orthodox conservatism” because it says something like, “trying to conserve the historic confession of the church.”

Perhaps we’re in the midst of another development. Whereas the first was very academic and the second more “bringing theology to the masses,” we’re witnessing something of a resurgence of the polemicism that surrounded the “2016 Trinity debate,” but this time in more formal print. Maybe we could look at these four books as representative:

  1. Trinitarian Theology edited by Keith Whitfield (2019)
  2. Systematic Theology, 2nd edition, by Wayne Grudem (2020)
  3. Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett (2021)
  4. The Failure of Natural Theology by Jeff Johnson (2021)

In the first, we see a formal, written debate/dialog over the issues of eternal submission. There is even a noticeable movement by Ware to seek to incorporate more traditional categories. In the second, we see an update of Grudem’s argument for ERAS in light of the debates. The third is a polemic work against ERAS written at the level of a typical pastor, and the fourth takes aim at Thomas Aquinas. While that last one may seem unlike the others, it is somewhat representative of the vitriolic reaction to orthodox Christian theology among some new conservatives.

One apologist has asked, “what’s changed?” in reference to the fact that some of his ways of thinking are now considered “less-than-robust” in reference to his theology proper. Some of the men who were “called out” in books like All that is in God have asked the same question. The time period they have to reference is the 1990s and early 2000s. What’s changed between 2000 and 2022? A lot actually. It’s not just in theology proper either. We have seen a similar “change-by-recovery” in the area of Baptist covenant theology in the same time period. As the academy has recovered older works, and then proposed the recovery of older ways of thinking about theology, those who were once considered conservative chafe under the challenges to their adherence to what they claim to hold. We saw this in the 1950s through 1990s with the recovery of Reformed soteriology and ecclesiology (in some ways, this is simply a continuation of that movement, but I digress). To claim to affirm the classical doctrine of God, expressed in the creeds and confessions, has required a lot of theological repentance (i.e., changing how one thinks of God).

My goal in this post wasn’t to make a huge argument (though I’m sure it has some “argument-like” statements in it). Instead, it has been to maybe stoke the flames of some interested reader to think about studying the changes of “2004” as an historical (or perhaps “intellectual-sociological”) touch point in the world of theological ideas. If 1919 marked a major moment with Barth’s Römerbrief, or the 1950s with the reintroduction of the Puritans by Banner of Truth, I think it may be viable to document a theological historical transition point in the mid-20-aughts. This academic-level transition point has had popular-level effects, which has resulted in renewed academic-level constructive work.

Some Good Books

It’s the time of year when everyone shares what they read during the year. Rather than requiring myself to reach a certain number, I’ll just mention a few books that stood out in my reading this year.

1. The Spirit of the Age by J. V. Fesko

This book came out a few years ago, but in it Fesko works through the curious, apparent absence of a treatment of the Holy Spirit in the Westminster (and therefore London Baptist) Confession. What really presses the interest home is the reason Mercersburg theologians wanted it amended.

2. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman

Perhaps it’s unnecessary to give an explanation of this book since it’s been in the news so much. Think of it as a prolegomena to the theology of the age.

3. Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett

This book is actually slightly different than his earlier None Greater in that it is more of a polemic against the modern error of eternal relations of authority and submission (ERAS). I have a review of this book coming out in the Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies at some point.

4. The Same God Who Works All Things by Adonis Vidu

This is a very technical book working through the doctrine of inseparable operations. It was good for contemplation. Would I recommend it? That’s hard because I think it is definitely an advanced book. I would heartily recommend it to someone who is working through the doctrine or who has a decent grasp of classical theology. I think it should be something that’s influencing the way Christians think and talk. Perhaps Dr. Vidu could write a 100 page “layman” introduction? 😉 If I had to offer one critique, I was reading this book at the same time I was rereading Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition by Craig Carter, and I thought, “I wish Vidu would just disregard the Second Temple stuff” (i.e. I wish he just immediately adopted a pre-modern hermeneutic). I think the rest of the book is good; I just wish the biblical section was less “SBL” and more De Doctrina Christiana.

5. R. C. Sproul: A Life by Stephen Nichols

This book was so much fun to read. Anyone who knows me, knows I love R. C. Sproul, and reading this biography was like hanging out with him in the excitement his life involved. You could basically make a biographical movie from the book. My wife listened to some of it and shared with me some parts of it where there are recordings of him speaking, which is a fun bonus.

Sermon Books

Three books are worth mentioning that were/are used for sermon prep.

Commentary on Peter and Jude by Martin Luther

It has been a great joy to read through the Reformer’s theology in commentary form. I think of particular intrigue are the ways you see his doctrine of the Word come out

Reforming Apologetics by J. V. Fesko

I’ve had this book on my shelf since it came out and I skimmed it when I first got it, but when I got to 1 Peter 3:15 I decided to sit down and work through it. It was quite helpful in filling in some areas of my thinking.

He Descended to the Dead and Crux, Mors, Inferi by Matt Emerson and Sam Renihan

I read these books (along with others) in preparation for preaching through 1 Peter 3:18–20 and found them helpful. I had already moved to adopt their view several years ago, probably helped by an article or two by Emerson, but this was another area where the reading gave strength to my thinking.

Dishonorable Mention

One last book worth mentioning was The Failure of Natural Theology by Jeff Johnson. I mention it because, not only was it bad, it also ignited controversy that has continued since he published it in September. I was actually excited to get the book at first because I thought it might give a fair argument from “the other side,” but it was actually quite terrible. I suggest the review offered at the link if you click the book’s title.

Reviews: I guess it’s worth noting that I also reviewed Fesko’s The Need for Creeds (Spring) and the RTS faculty’s Covenant Theology (Fall) for the journal Presbterion, and Matthew Barrett’s Simply Trinity (forthcoming) for Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies. All were good books for what they are trying to do and stimulate thought in their own ways.

Southern California RB Pastors Conference, 2021

I wasn’t sure if this would be worth a Facebook post or a blog post, so I figured I’d the blog just in case it’s a little longer than appropriate for Facebook. I was able to attend the SCRBPC earlier this week for the first time. I first found out about the conference back in 2015 when James Dolezal gave his now-famous treatment of divine simplicity, lectures that were subsequently published as the book, All that is in God. Those lectures, which I “watched” on my way into seminary class each morning, led to me to conclude that I wanted to go to this conference if I ever got the opportunity in my schedule. This year was the year. One of the primary reasons I’ve wanted to attend is the fact that it’s not trying to reach more people than it claims, which I’ll mention again below, which means that it’s able to be deeper than others. Here are some thoughts.

1. Great Content

The topic this year was chapter 7 of the 2LBCF, which is on the covenant. The primary speaker was Dr. Sam Renihan, the premier scholar right now on the covenant theology of the Particular Baptists in the 17th century. Thus, as he addressed the various points in his discussion, he was able to press beyond a generic treatment of the continuities and distinctions from the paedobaptists of the era. Dr. Richard Barcellos also gave a great treatment of Genesis 3:15, a summary of larger seminary lecture materials.

2. Great Fellowship

The men that attended the conference, whether from the area (it is, technically, a regional association’s conference) or further away (such as myself), are likeminded in their love for classical theology and Reformed Baptist distinctives (i.e. those things that make us distinct from other Baptists and those that make us distinct from other Reformed). That means that conversations were less guarded and there was a greater sense of immediate communion.

3. Great Pitches

Dr. Barcellos mentioned several great books throughout, either before a session or during his own talks, and they were all commendable materials. Further, and this one was particularly exciting for me, Dr. Barcellos explained the fact that IRBS has been attempting to teach integrated theology. By that, he meant that all the courses aim to incorporate the various fields of the theological disciplines. This means that they are striving for the very thing I mentioned in my “seminary aspirations.” I’ve wanted a less “siloed” approach to theological education and it was comforting to hear that a seminary we’ve been financially supporting as a family is aiming for the same thing. (In fact, I’ll will likely go edit my original post at some point).

4. Great Food

Dr. Barcellos always advertises the conference as including good food, and on that point I was not disappointed.

5. Depth of Content

I mentioned above that I like that they are purposeful in who they’re attempting to reach; I’ll explain that a little more here. First I’ll explain the contrast. Many conferences, even when they claim to be pastors conferences, are geared toward a broad audience of Christians. Because of that, the teaching tends to lack the sort of depth I (and people I know) would appreciate. Though the speakers purport to speak to those who are generally educated (most churches require, minimally, a 3–4 year master’s degree [M.Div.]), and men who are in a vocation given to deep study (we read church history, theology, foreign languages, etc. every week), addresses are not often reflective of that particular audience. SCRBPC is different. The speakers they’ve had have addressed the sort of people I would assume a pastors conference would address. The topics they’ve covered have been deeper, focused issues. Often conferences are deficient “heady” theology, but SCRBPC aims at that. It’s a way of keeping men sharp as the time from their seminary education lengthens.

Five Years of Ministry

I was ordained to gospel ministry October 30, 2016, five years ago today. In light of this fact, I’d like to offer five items I’ve learned in the course of that time. Before I begin, I have three disclaimers. First, as is to be expected, I have probably learned more in these first five years than I will in the next due to the nature of growth. Second, I fully recognize that some Baptists out there believe that ordination is something that is redone every time you take up ministry in a new church, which would mean that I have only been ordained a matter of a few months when in fact I’ve been conducting Reformed Baptist ministry for five years. Third, some things are solidified by experience that were obviously known intellectually beforehand.

1. The Minister is a Servant of God

That a minister is a servant of God was one of the items I obviously knew before entering the ministry, but it is an item that has become solidified in my thinking as I have served. There is a tendency among members of the church and in our own hearts to view a minister as a servant of the church in the sense of the church being the object of our service. There is truth to this. We ought to be like the Chief Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve. However, when serving in ministry, you quickly realize (at least if you have doctrinal convictions) just how weighty it is to know that you stand before God in terms of faithfulness in the ministry. Should I do “X” ministry thing? It is easy to answer with, “Well, will people be interested in it; will there be turn-out; will it offend people?” To ask “Does this please my Master,” and then seek the answer in Scripture will often cause displeasure or discomfort among some in the church. However, the Lord does care for his servants. Rather than making this a separate point, it is worth noting here that for a minister to be a servant of God means he is regularly on his knees in prayer, regularly before the Word, regularly in meditation. In other words, it should (but can’t) go without saying that a minister is a Christian, and must be a faithful Christian.

2. The Minister Should be in Contact with Other Ministers

It is vital to be in conversation with other ministers, both inside and outside the church. Talk to your fellow elders or you will have a less-than-complete understanding of the state of the congregation. However, be sure to also have ministers outside the church you can speak with. Ministers outside the church will be able to provide insight and comfort that can only come from an “outsider,” and they will be able to draw on their own experiences. Make sure to have men whose ways of reasoning are different than your own, though you will want to make sure he has similar convictions. I have found it to be helpful to be in conversation with those of different denominations and simply different personalities. It’s easier to listen to people who think exactly like you, but we have not been called to do easy things; we have been called to do faithful things.

3. The Minister Must be Driven by Theological Conviction

This is related to the first item, but is worth standing on its own. Everyone has ideas about how a minister ought to 1) preach and 2) conduct the work of ministry. A man not driven by conviction will be driven by convenience (though “convenience” usually looks like “political expediency”). What I’m not saying: do everything you think is right immediately. Obviously there are things that should be done slowly and with care. Not everything is of equal value, and not all things of value will be valued appropriately if they are done the same way. What I am saying: Don’t let that reality serve as an excuse for cowardliness. It will still hurt, but a clear conscience with “dusted off sandals” is better than knowing you have disobeyed the Lord. For instance, if the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, or the ministry of the Word are practiced in ways that are clearly contrary to Scripture, you will need to address that quickly and explicitly. If the Sunday school program could be refined, but it is functioning fine, you can take your time. As an aside on this, there are times when, providentially, something that would have been a “back burner” issue can be addressed quicker than assumed. Don’t press things where it’s not immediately important, but I also think the advice not to change anything within a particular amount of time is both unrealistic and at times unfaithful. In relation to the issue of preaching, remember that we live in an age when people have read Spurgeon’s 50 pages on “Posture, Action, Gesture, etc.” instead of Perkins’ more reserved half-page, or they’ve spent more time asking “is this the next Piper” than “was Scripture opened up faithfully?” or “did everyone ‘get’ something out of that” than “have I beheld God in Christ?” Preach to please God, and his sheep will hear his voice.

4. The Minister Must Love the Saints

Let’s be honest: It is easier to be heartlessly “right” than invested in others agreeing. The minister could get up and say, “This is the way it’s going to be, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.” However, when the minister loves the people, he wants them to agree with the Lord’s Word. If he believes the Word teaches X, he can not change that out of “love” for the people, but he should also be careful not to be callous in his stand for truth. When going through several serious disagreements that led to my departure from Massachusetts, I sat and listened and prayed before and after conversations and fasted and prayed and wept and asked others to do the same. I included the things mentioned above (theological conviction, communion and counsel from other ministers, including those older and more experienced), but I did so with my heart and soul invested in seeing the people of God come to embrace the beautiful truth of God. It was not a mere “change of job location” but a deep-seated hurt that they had not wanted to follow the Lord. (It’s worth noting that people today often view events like that as mere relational or business-like events; they are deeply spiritual, deeply theological, and God’s eye is upon them).

5. The Minister Must Persevere in Ministry

Unlike some, I do believe there are times when someone who has become a minister should not have, and they should have the freedom to step down. It may be the abilities that were thought to be present actually weren’t, or that the season of life requires resignation (e.g. retirement age, sickness). In such cases, I believe the minister ought to move to another church for the sake of the incoming minister, but the pastor who steps down in this case should not be viewed as sinning. However…, with that caveat in place, ministry is hard, and men ought to persevere. It requires the whole man being invested in the office. It requires time, energy, the mind, the heart, and the body. They say men depart the ministry fairly quickly, and I think I understand why (such as the instances mentioned above), but if you aspire to the office of overseer, you aspire to something that requires perseverance. To stand on conviction in love, and to do the hard things, and to meet with people often and invest in their lives, all while preparing to deliver God’s Word, are all taxing on the body and soul, but perseverance is the call.

Some Books

Every pastor likes books, so here are 5 that I recommend after 5 years.

  1. Help for the New Pastor: Practical Advice for Your First Year of Ministry by Charles Wingert—Most books on ministry are more like what I provided in my list above, more principles than practical helps. This book was extremely helpful because it deals with all the normal things it seems nobody else talks about. How often will you do a wedding? Not often, but every “minister’s handbook” talks about it. How often will you be in an elders meeting? Usually at least monthly, yet this may be the only book I’ve seen that actually talks about how it should look. By contrast, I think (almost?) every one of the books I was assigned in pastoral ministry in seminary was useless.
  2. Art of Prophesying by William Perkins. This book laid the groundwork for the method of preaching employed by (in my opinion) some of the greatest preachers the church has seen. They have a bad reputation, but I don’t think the current state of the church—with its widespread theological ignorance and largely absent piety—gives it the right to stand in judgment on this matter.
  3. The Christian’s Reasonable Service by Wilhelmus à Brakel. Though the whole work is worthy to purchase, the reason I include it on this list is the introductory biography by Dr. W. Fieret which includes a section on à Brakel’s view of the ministry that I found helpful.
  4. Commentary on the Old and New Testaments by John Gill. This set used to be a standard resource for Baptist pastors, and it still stands in my mind as the go-to treatment on texts. It is thoroughly engaged in biblical studies (including Jewish and ancient church interpretation) as well as deeply theological (which most modern commentaries aren’t).
  5. Ancient Commentary on Scripture edited by Thomas Oden and Reformation Commentary edited by Timothy George. I assume any pastor will have various modern commentaries on books they’re preaching and teaching through, so I don’t feel the need to recommend those. However, these series provide insight into how the church fathers and Reformers looked at the text. We always hear “if you’re interpreting the text in a way that’s never been done before, you’re probably wrong,” but the reality is that most modern commentators (even conservatives) are beholden to 19th and 20th century methods and conclusions in interpretation, which are—by methodological design—theologically skeptical. In what’s been recently called “premodern exegesis,” Christian commentators assume the Bible really does speak about the Trinity and justification and faith and the law and the Person and natures of Christ and the church, and these things are throughout Scripture and serve as controls on our interpretations.

Do Protestants Believe in Confession?

This blog post could be much lengthier (i.e. I could do a whole article explaining the practice of confession in Protestant churches), but I just saw something that I found interesting and thought I’d share it. When we think of confession, we may immediately picture going to a Roman Catholic priest in a box to confess our sins, receive absolution or assurance of pardon, and perhaps a number of practical responses of penance. As the Reformation took off, we see Luther work through each of the seven sacraments in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and when he addresses confession, he says he believes in the practice but not that it’s a sacrament. Today I came across this from William Perkins that is similar to how I’ve thought about it.

The trial of the cause [of temptation] is fitly made by private confession. “Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed” (James 5:17). But lest that confession should be made a kind of rack or torture, it must be limited with provisios. (1) It ought to be free and not compelled, because salvation depends not upon it. (2) It must not be of all sins, but of those only which wrong the conscience. Unless they do reveal them, greater danger may hang over their heads. (3) Let it chiefly be made to pastors, yet so as that we must know that it may safely made to other faithful men in the church.

—Works of William Perkins, 10.341

This brief statement safeguards against some of the abuses that have occasionally shown up in which pastors overstepped in their visitations and interactions with members. When I do visitation, I tend to say something open ended, such as, “Is there anything you’d like to talk about in particular?” Or “How’s your spiritual life?” These give opportunity to the member to share any concerns (indeed, confess sins) without going beyond what I feel is biblically appropriate for me to require from them.

Who Are Reformed Baptists?

Several years ago, a book came out called Holding Communion Together in which the authors lay out a history of the Reformed Baptist movement. Like most Reformed Baptists, I’d rather not talk about the book. This post is not intended to do the same thing as that book, which basically presented a history of two “sides” of the movement from the standpoint of one of those sides. Rather, this post is designed to give a brief taxonomy of the movement more broadly as it exists in the United States.

Particular Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Calvinistic Baptists

To understand something of the categorizations, it is important to recognize that there are essentially three main historical movements that contribute to the modern makeup of what might generally be called Reformed Baptists. First, there was the initial movement of Baptists itself in the mid-seventeenth century. Growing out of Independency/Congregationalism, those who have later been called Particular Baptists established associations of churches all over (especially the English-speaking world). These include not only England, Wales, and Scotland, but New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South. One identifiable commonality was their confession of faith, the Second London/Philadelphia/Charleston Confession. It was a revision of Westminster and (more specifically) the Savoy Declaration. The roots in this movement are obvious in the first “confession” drawn up by Southern Baptists, the Abstract of Principles, which is essentially a summarized form of the Second London.

The second movement to be aware of is the renewal of Puritan-minded Christianity in the mid-twentieth century. The most obvious instantiation of this movement was the creation of Banner of Truth, and the most well-known preacher connected to it was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Not only Lloyd-Jones, but the now-lesser-known A.W. Pink and his books helped to fuel a fire of Baptists who had adopted the Second London as their own. The most obvious example of the merger of these two is the little town of Carlisle, PA where both Grace Baptist Church and the Banner of Truth distributor in America are located. The former is something of a mother church of many other Reformed Baptist churches. (To be clear, by “mother church,” I don’t mean it exercises any authority over them, only that it was instrumental in their formation or reformation).

The third movement to be aware of is the renewal of love for Calvinistic theology in broader evangelicalism at the beginning of our twenty-first century. Names like Mark Dever, John Piper, John MacArthur, Ligon Duncan, and R.C. Sproul all come to mind, often called “New Calvinism.” Growing out of this movement, as well as the earlier “Puritan-minded” movement, several Baptists began to again value Reformation theology and its influence. For ease of definition, these I call Calvinistic Baptists. They’re not Reformed Baptists in the mid-twentieth century sense, nor are they Particular Baptists. This is the case because the standard of definition for both of the earlier movements is the Second London Confession. With these three historical movements in mind, we can now shift to understanding the “types” of Reformed Baptists that are out there.

Defining “Reformed Baptist”

Before we explain the different “types” of Reformed Baptists, we need to develop a definition. Reformed Baptists are those who affirm the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677/89). To my mind, there is no other definition since one of the purposes of confessions is to define a group. Immediately, this definition incorporates several characteristic items worth noting in the context of today’s evangelical landscape. First, its members affirm the supreme authority of Scripture and are cessationists who hold to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). Its members hold to covenant theology, justification by faith alone, and the autonomy of the local church (each of which should be understood by the definitions provided in the Confession). Its members understand themselves as part of the Catholic (defined by the Confession), Protestant, and Reformed faith. Its members believe baptism rightly defined is the immersion of a professing believer. Second, this means that some things, like the denial of the Sabbath’s perpetuity on the Lord’s Day, the affirmation of charismatic gifts, the language of “final justification,” the covenant theology of dispensationalism, the affirmation of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father ad intra, and other such items that are present in broader evangelicalism and Calvinistic Baptist(ic) circles are “out of bounds” for the definition of a Reformed Baptist. Thus, our friends and brothers in other Calvinistic Baptist(ic) circles are not included in the definitions provided below. Among these are several of those associated with 9 Marks, John Piper, and MacArthur. Of course, some associated with each of those might be definitionally Reformed Baptist—which, anecdotally, seems to be more often the case with those in 9 Marks circles than the others—but it does seem to be the case that those circles more often than not deny some part of the Confession. With this definition, let’s begin by noticing the different “types” of Reformed Baptists.

Old and Young

First, it is worth noting that there seems to be a difference between older Reformed Baptists and younger Reformed Baptists. Older Reformed Baptists often have their own set of debates, and younger Reformed Baptists often have a different set as they are already agreed on some of the things older Reformed Baptists argued over. This should be expected in basically any movement. If there is something that stands out about the “Old–Young Divide” in Reformed Baptist circles, though, it seems that the younger generation is actually more conservative than the older. Older Reformed Baptists seemed a lot more comfortable overlooking the disagreements on the sacraments (younger Reformed Baptists are generally less inclined to permit the unbaptized [i.e. presbyterians] into membership) and a lot less inclined to affirming associationalism, not to mention questions over classical theology (e.g. eternal submission/subordination and impassibility) and classical apologetics (older Reformed Baptists are more inclined toward presuppositionalism). It does seem that there is more favor among the younger generation toward reformed liturgy as well (which I distinguish from evangelical liturgy). It seems, when some of these things are grouped, that there has been a deeper focus on theology as a whole and ecclesiology in particular. In my anecdotal experience, these differences actually transcend the debates over other things that resulted in formal separations, which could simply be because those other issues have already been settled for those involved. It will be interesting to see where these sort of things develop as the next generation of Reformed Baptists continue their work in the vineyard.

Trinity and Carlisle

The most infamous of divisions is between Trinity Baptist Church of Monteville, NJ, whose first pastor was Al Martin, and Grace Baptist Church of Carlisle, PA, whose most influential pastor was Walter Chantry. These two churches had the most impact on the beginning of the Reformed Baptist movement back in second half of the twentieth century and various churches impacted by them have their own traits. Two somewhat well-known distinctions between the two groups are the questions about pastoral oversight (and church-over-church oversight) attributed to the Trinity group and the debates over formal associationalism promoted by the Carlisle group. My aim is not to rehash those debates. Instead, I simply point out that this resulted in two “camps” within which the churches do things very similarly. Anecdotally, I spoke with one brother who said he was with a church for six months before they voted on him to become their pastor, a practice that is common among the Trinity “camp.” Similarly, some churches expect there to be a process of ordination (with the involvement of an ordination council) and installation. These are often influenced by the Carlisle “camp.” I have my opinions on all of these things, but my point here is simply to say that these different groups are affected by their history.

As an aside, while most will associate the Carlisle “camp” with the formation of ARBCA, we should also recognize that other regional associations have begun to form (such as in Texas, Georgia, and the Midwest. The Southern California Association predates even ARBCA and is discussed below).

FIRE

The Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals is what it sounds like: a fellowship. To my mind (and my interaction with them is admittedly limited), FIRE is like a Reformed Baptist version of the Evangelical Free Church (they even use the same Augustinian motto, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”). I say “Reformed Baptist version” because they are explicitly baptistic and state that they are in the stream of the First and Second London Confessions, not to mention the fact that their Fellowship was developed in the midst of the growth of the Reformed Baptist movement.

Reformed Baptist Network

This group was formed in the aftermath of the debates over impassibility. Some disagreed with the classical position while others disagreed with making it a grounds for communion. The Reformed Baptist Network seems to be mostly formed around supporting missions. They purposely strive to permit differences in opinions on a host of issues as seen, for example, in their practice of Associate Membership.

Founders

In the 1970s, a man named Ernest (Ernie) Reisinger (pronounced “Ree-singer”) became pastor at North Pompano Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL, a church associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. His efforts along with those of Fred Malone, the Ascol brothers, Tom Nettles, and others began an effort to call Southern Baptists back to their roots in the Convention’s founders’ Calvinism (read more about this here). The result as been that several churches in the Southern Baptist Convention have adopted the Second London for their local congregations. There are others that were impacted by the Founders movement who are more “Calvinistic” in the way described above, so even this group of churches within the larger Convention is not monolithic. One benefit of this particular movement is the fact that it was explicitly within Baptist circles so that some of the struggles over ecclesiology that attended other Reformed Baptists are not as present in confessional Founders churches. Perhaps it is also worth noting here that Founders is not an association or a formal group. Think of it more as a “ministry” (it’s called “Founders Ministries” after all) that aims at recovering historic Baptist doctrine. (A group that is an association within the SBC that is similar is the Spurgeon Baptist Association).

Southern California

Another group of Reformed Baptists that has had a particular impact are those connected to the Southern California Reformed Baptists. The names that come to mind are Jim (father) and Sam (Son) Renihan, Richard Barcellos, and James Dolezal. Though the latter is only now returning to Southern California, his most well-known work is probably All that is in God which was the product of a series of lectures given at the Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastors Conference. The works coming out of that “camp” touch on things of a particular historical nature relating to the Particular Baptists’ history, classical theism, and historic Baptist covenant theology. This might be the “headier” of the “camps.”

“Others”

While the groups listed above have some sort of formal relationship, we must also acknowledge the fact that there are churches all over America that have adopted the Confession. They may not have been planted by any of the groups listed above, but they were convinced by the theology and ecclesiology of the early Baptists as most correctly aligning with the Scriptures, and they have now come to embrace it as their own. These churches will not often be characterized by the same debates that surrounded the formation of the various other camps.

Conclusion

In sum, there are several different “types” of Reformed Baptists, some “stricter,” some more “independent,” some more like “typical evangelicals.” Reformed Baptists are known as a fighting bunch, which is because we love the truth, but the more you meet actual Reformed Baptists (not just the people on Twitter and Facebook), the more rare you find that to be. Like any group of people, to know what Reformed Baptists are like, you have to get to know us personally. We believe strongly in the gospel of God and his beautiful grace toward wretched sinners manifest in the sending of the Son and effectual work of the Spirit. We believe strongly in the sufficiency and infallibility of Scripture, the Triune God, and the communion of saints.

A Pastor’s Apple Watch?

Since some of my focused-thought articles will be placed on the Baptist Dogmatics website, I think this blog should be able to include more “blog” type of content (i.e. random thoughts). In this post, I just want to offer some thoughts about the benefits and shortcomings for a pastor owning an Apple Watch.

I’ve owned an Apple Watch since Father’s Day of 2017 and, like any other piece of technology, I have found it enhances some things and presents its own drawbacks. The adoption of some piece of technology should include considering both the dangers and benefits in the life of the particular individual. So here are some of each that I have found in connection to my vocation as a minister.

Benefits

  • Encouragement to move. It’s a sad reality that many pastors are objectively obese. When you consider the reasons, they include both the sin of gluttony and the realities of the calling in general. To the former (sin of gluttony), we could develop an entire argument, but this post considers the latter (realities of the calling). The calling to the pastorate is a call to study and to prayer. I doubt many pastors work less than, say, 10 hour days. But the work of pastor is work that involves sitting: reading books, writing, responding to emails, counseling, driving, etc. When this is added to the fact that meetings often include food, a recipe for the decline of physical health appears. The Apple Watch has hourly “Stand” goals (stand up for at least a minute per hour twelve hours out of the day). Add to that the basic “Exercise” and “Move” goals and the pastor is encouraged not to forget that bodily training is of some value.
  • Timing the Sermon. One of the things I find difficult (and this may just be me) is moderating my sermon length. I know some of this is because I’m still young and developing as a preacher, but some of it is also because I just don’t like thinking about a clock when I’m preaching. I know “about” how long my sermon can take, but of course sometimes I take longer on one point than another. One thing I began doing a while back is using the timer function on my Apple Watch. I set the time for 5 minutes shy of when my sermon should be done (e.g. 40 minutes for a 45 minute sermon, 25 for a 30 minute sermon, etc.). While I move through my points I can glance at my watch and see there are 7 minutes and 43 seconds left until my timer goes off. Then, when the time is up, my watch vibrates. It’s not loud enough for anyone to hear (at least nobody has told me 😊), but it’s noticeable enough to me to know it’s about time to start concluding.
  • Glance at messages. The first point in the shortcomings will look at this as a problem, so let me explain this first as a benefit. I have notifications silenced on my Apple Watch, but I still have the text message app available on the main watch face. This helps me not to be distracted as they come in, but I’m still able to look quickly and see that I’ve received a text message. I don’t need to pick up my phone to reply (I usually just give a “thumbs up/down” from my watch if I can). This helps me avoid the “rabbit hole” affect where picking up the phone to reply also presents the opportunity to read emails, check the news, watch a YouTube video, etc. I can leave my phone on the charger in our living room and stay at my desk with less distraction. I want to be available to people, but I also want to guard my attention and time.

Shortcomings

  • Distraction. The pastor’s life is a life of thought. As such, it is particularly important that he learn to do what’s recently been called “Deep Work,” that is, sustained focus on a particular thing for an extended period of time. The Apple Watch is able to bring many of the functions of the iPhone to the wrist and, just as much as it alerts the preacher that his time is coming to a close in the pulpit, it tells him to stop looking at his book in the study. Of course, the answer to this is to turn off notifications on the Watch. Some may think that doing this reduces the value of the Watch, but the reality is that distracting you from your work is what reduces the value of the Watch.
  • Cost. The Apple Watch does cost a bit of money and, as we ought to be model stewards of our resources, this may be a mark against the device. There are a couple things to think about here. First, proper use of funds is a real thing to consider when you’re making the purchase. If it doesn’t add the value that you think it will, or if you can’t afford it without placing other priorities in jeopardy, don’t purchase it. Maybe another smart watch with similar functions is available at a lower price (and there are different versions of the Watch itself). Second, be sure to recognize that you don’t have to buy a new one every time it’s released. Use it until it doesn’t work (or begins glitching and slowing down) and then reconsider it again and replace it if you found it was useful.

The Apple Watch is something of a luxury device. It offers benefits that you can get elsewhere for much less money. I’ve gone back and forth about whether I should just switch back to an analog watch, but the benefits the Apple Watch provides for me to 1) stay active, 2) time my sermons, and 3) glance at text messages are enough to just keep it for now.