Monday, 11 July 2011

Spirit, Baptists, and Low vs. High Church Liturgy


  • This is a longer article. If you don’t have 10 minutes to read it, come back later.
  • For brevity’s sake, I’ve not developed deeply my argumentation for “Low Church” against “High Church” worship and ministry. But perhaps some day I’ll write a book.
  • My depiction of High Church traditions is made with broad strokes. No doubt, there are many very healthy churches in those traditions that are doing great kingdom work—I wouldn’t dispute the possibility that their impact is greater than the Baptist tradition.
  • Fair warning: this is a polemical piece. I beg the indulgence of my friends outside the Low Church tradition. For the record, I’d be eager to join in ministry with any number of my friends who minister in the High church tradition.

Baptists on the road to Canterbury* can and should be reclaimed through clear theological reflection. A number of Baptist church leaders have found themselves enamored with cultural and even theological aspects of High Church life seen in the Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian traditions. I myself was once on that road. I explain here the theological reason justifying my return to my Baptist roots, and urge Baptist churches to resist the trappings of High church.

I left my Baptist roots, tired of certain aspects of Baptist life which seemed pervasive in Baptist churches. I was sick of people thinking emotionalism was an accurate gage of spirituality. I despised preachers saying, “Sis. Suzie, could you sing a song for us this morning.” I was put out with emotional altar calls. I was worn out with hymns lacking substance in the lyrics or freshness in the music. There seemed to be a lack of appreciation for exceptional theological education and research, and this was often reflected in shallow prayers, shallow Sunday School classes, shallow worship, shallow sermons, and shallow ministry.

Moreover, I was drawn to High Church worship because the prayers that were prayed were well written and tested by time. Musicians who performed were professional or semi-professional, and satisfied my personal tastes toward the classical. Often, such churches had a sense of beauty—reflected in stained glass, architecture, and liturgical vestments. Worship elements were controlled much more strictly, giving a dignity which was often lacking in my Baptist background.

These kinds of cultural considerations drove me away from Baptist life and set me on the road to Canterbury.

Perhaps the most important reason for me being so susceptible to departing from my Baptist heritage was that I was Baptist by default. So many Baptists on the road to Canterbury grew up in the Bible belt where Christian culture is predominantly Baptist. So many of us grow up Baptist without having to justify our Baptist worship, and without having to think deeply about it.

Perhaps the evangelistic success of our Baptist forefathers made “being Baptist” too easy. There was a time when being Baptist meant certain persecution. In the early days, Baptist ministers often, perhaps regularly, languished and died in prison. It was hard being Baptist, and no one accepted Baptist principles by default. So, before we ourselves go down the road to Canterbury, we should think deeply about why our Baptist forefathers were so convinced to separate from the Anglicans that they were willing to put their lives and family at such risk.

At root of their commitment was the Baptist principle of the Priesthood of Every Believer, and the indwelling of the Spirit in every believer. This doctrine not only was behind their congregational ecclesiology, but also behind their commitment to Free Church worship.

While early Baptists did not reject ministerial training, their commitment to the Priesthood of Every Believer did lead them to encourage lay participation in worship. Whereas ministerial candidates within the Anglican Church almost always arose from the upper classes in England, Baptist emphasis on lay participation afforded ministerial calling to all classes. Bro. Pete’s spontaneous testimonies in church and fervent witness at his coal mining job would lead the congregation to think that perhaps God was calling him to ministry. The end result, at least here in the American frontier, was the rise of many Baptist preachers on the basis of the congregation’s recognition of calling, rather than M.Div. credentials. If our Baptist churches lag behind other mainline denominations in education, it does so because of our emphasis on the Priesthood of Every Believer.

It is true that prayers in Baptist churches may not be poetic or theologically profound, but again this is due to Baptist commitment to the Priesthood of Every Believer. Baptists believe that genuine prayer from one of the least of these maidservants who genuinely believes and is led by the Spirit is to be preferred over a well written prayer spoken by a rhetorician. Likewise, if the Lord has lain upon Suzie’s heart a song to be sung as her testimony, this is to be preferred over the professional or semi-professional vocalist’s performance of an aria written by someone like Handel. The development of Baptist hymnody likewise was more strongly influenced by a folk tradition within the congregation which understood that the Spirit could move and empower non-expert believers to compose and write hymns that speak to the congregation. In the same vein, Baptists gravitated toward more easily sung and played hymns precisely because they relied on their own lay members to lead them despite their lack of expertise that the professionals had in their counterparts in the High Church tradition. Baptists probably should not demagogue against professionally written prayers or fine music in worship, but they should rejoice in the freedom that they have to pray from their hearts and to allow their own congregants to minister in music even if their talent is less developed.

Likewise, while Baptists do appreciate thoughtfully prepared orders of worship, we recognize that the Spirit may also move spontaneously in the congregation. We recognize that sometimes spontaneous testimonies in worship have a powerful affect on the congregation, and that God’s power is often manifested through his People’s weaknesses.

To be sure, Baptists fail to capitalize on their theological commitment to the Priesthood of Every Believer and the indwelling of the Spirit on every believer. Often Baptist worship services are devoid of the Spirit, and often Sis. Suzie sings her specials out of the wrong motivation. Often Baptist worship services end up being so bound up with tradition as to choke out the Spirit’s work. Too often, prayers lack genuine faith and passion. In many cases, Baptists have an anti-educational bias and glorify ignorance. We can be plagued by a semi-Trinitarianism of “God the Father, God the Son, and, oh yeah, the Holy Spirit.”

Notwithstanding these problems, the commitment to the doctrine of the Priesthood of Every Believer affords the healthy Baptist church a ministerial framework that allows a certain freedom for lay ministry than possible in those churches with the imposition of a set liturgy.

*The phrase is a metaphor for those leaving the Baptist tradition for High Church worship in the Anglican Church (Canterbury), but I use it more generally for all High Church traditions. See Robert Webber's Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail

Monday, 4 July 2011

Flags, Patriotism, and Christian Worship

Should American flags, national holidays, and patriotism have a place in worship? Yes, but only with eyes wide open, with a biblical sensitivity.

The complaints are justified. Too often, our view of Christianity includes a lot of American baggage. Sometimes, patriotism is so unchecked as to confuse our first commitment to God’s kingdom. Frequently, we take away worship time from God and allot it to national glorification. Occasionally, we convey a “my country—right or wrong” menatality. At times, we display an unbridled enthusiasm for our country without introspection and without judging our nation against the standard of God’s Word.

Yet, we can incorporate into our worship services observances of patriotic days, if we follow some basic principles.

Here are some principles:

  • Christians are called to be good citizens.
  • Christians are called to pray for their country and their leaders, and to do their part to make their country better.
  • Christians are called to pray for national repentance in regard to the ills of their country’s society and in regard to faults in their country’s foreign policies.
  • Christians are to be thankful for the good things about their country.
  • Christians are to pray for their national enemies.
  • Christians are to pray for those in the military, for God’s protective care over them, for them to return home quickly and safely, and that the government would never send them into war without a necessary and just cause.

Even in the worst country, Christians can follow these principles, and display their country’s flags and observe national holidays.

Although the United States has its own set of problems, there are many good things about my country. We have freedom of worship. We have a country whose Founding Fathers based the protection of civil liberties on biblical principles. We enjoy peace and security within our borders so that the vast majority of us enjoy basic privileges, such as sending our children to school during the day, enjoying picnics at the park, and watching a ballgame, or practicing violin. We generally aren’t afraid that our children might be kidnapped to be used as child soldiers. We generally do not fear that militants in the next town over might attack us in the night. We generally have the opportunity to vote the bums out of office. If we see a policeman, we generally have a sense of respect and security, rather than fear and loathing.

For such things, and for many others, we can be proud to be American, but such pride must be flow with all due humility from the throne of God’s grace.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

“Somebody Touched Me!” The Validity of Spontaneous Testimonies in Worship

We used to sing “Somebody touched me! It musta been the hand of the Lord.” It was a participatory song, with each verse starting with a day of the week: “It was on a Monday, somebody touched me” (repeat 3x), going through all seven days and culminating on Sunday. As we sang, individuals would stand on whichever day of the week they were saved, and mosey on up toward the front of the church. By the time we came to Sunday, practically the whole congregation had come forward, shaking hands, hugging, and sometimes shouting (“glory to God!” “amen!” etc.). At the end of the song, several might recount their own salvation experience.

Perhaps we had too much fun with this, and perhaps it was too undignified for some. Whatever the reason, I haven’t experienced this participatory testimony song in years. Regardless, in this blog I want to set forth some good reasons why we ought not to shy away from spontaneous testimonies as part of the worship service.

  1. Since we believe in the indwelling of the Spirit in every believer, we recognize that God can speak to the congregation even through the lowest maidservant. Hence, instead of controlling every aspect of every worship service, we should be sure to allow members of the congregation to respond spontaneously to the Spirit, and to encourage people to speak what the Spirit may have laid on their hearts.
  2. The pastor speaks so much that it is easy for the congregation to become somewhat desensitized to his preaching. But when an ordinary member of the congregation speaks, everyone tunes in to the speaker. Sometimes what gets said might impact someone else in a much more profound way than the preacher’s words repeated week by week.
  3. Testimonies will help the congregation get to know each other, strengthening the unity of the church.
  4. When someone stands to give a testimony, this emboldens the person’s faith and often leads to greater things, including ministerial calling. The next thing you know, the person might be filling in for the pastor.

Some hints for worship leaders:

  1. Announce in advance—at the beginning of worship—that there will be opportunities for testimonies.
  2. Give a proper introduction to the testimony service—especially if your church isn’t in the habit of testimonies in worship. Use scripture to introduce testimonies, something from God’s word that talks about giving testimonies.
  3. After each testimony, give a quick response of affirmation—perhaps quoting a scripture: “Amen, Bro. Bob. What you did in your situation at work is exactly what Peter was talking about when he wrote that we should be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in you.”
  4. If the testimonies really do reflect the Spirit’s leading, don’t be too worried about cutting into your sermon time. Maybe the sermon should wait until next week.
  5. If the whole service is oriented toward testimonies, transition from one testimony to the next with a short, familiar chorus.
  6. To wrap up the service, be sure to find some common theme in the testimonies and re-visit them in a short sermonic summary.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Society of Evangelical Arminianism Adopts Constitution, Elects Officers

Society of Evangelical Arminians adopts its constitution and elects its executive committee, including me as a vice president. Click here for the announcement.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Southern Baptist and the NIV Resolution

A majority of the men at the Southern Baptist Convention today condemned the New International Version on the basis that it is not a faithful translation of the word of God. Continue reading....

Monday, 6 June 2011

Disciple Them First, Then Baptize Them

An important verse for Baptists in the debate over Believer’s and Infant Baptism is the Great Commission passage in Matt 28:16-20.

The syntax and order of the phrases are important, for discipling precedes baptizing:

(All authority in heaven and earth is given to Jesus)



1) make disciples

2) baptizing them

3) teaching them to keep Jesus’ commandments.

Note that the priority is on making disciples. There is not much point in baptizing if we’ve not made disciples of them.

Infant baptizers disregard this formula. First, they baptize non-disciples. Second and third, they attempt to make the non-disciples into disciples and try to teach such non-disciples to keep Jesus’ commands.

Of course, the attempt to make the baptized non-disciples into disciples often fails so that the baptism is meaningless, probably counterproductive, and definitely unbiblical.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

An Appeal for Clarity in Discussing Baptist Elders

A discussion of Elder rule is going on in some Southern Baptist circles (Elderizing the SBC), and it probably affects other Baptist groups as well.

In the discussion of church governance, I find that often people use the term “elder” without sufficient explanation of what they mean. We should first remember that terminology has little value in and of itself. It really doesn’t matter if you refer to those leading your church as a plurality of “elders” or a plurality of “gorillas.” The single issue is whether your church leaders have unilateral authority and are self-perpetuating (i.e., the leaders pick their own replacements).

I am amazed that some ministerial leaders scholars seem to argue for self-perpetuation and unilateral authority of the leadership group on the basis that the Bible uses the term “elders.” There is absolutely no evidence that the earliest churches were governed by the fiat of an elder board or that the elders were self-perpetuating.

In terms of biblical evidence, it appears from 1 Timothy that the indigenous church was expected to choose its own church leaders. In that very troubled church at Ephesus, Paul easily could have appointed church leaders to replace those who had been disfellowshiped (viz. Hymenaeus and Alexander). Or he could have written the church to confirm Timothy’s appointment of church leaders. Instead, he set forth a list of qualifications for church leadership to the congregation at Ephesus. Of course, the list was written ostensibly to Timothy, but as is the case for much of the letter, this was information was not so much written to Timothy as it was written to the congregation. (The church at Ephesus was in such turmoil that a letter written directly from Paul to the church probably would not have been received.) From this, we surmise that the church chose its own leaders.

The claim that the earliest church had a Presbyterian governance requires some far-fetched thinking. It assumes that the apostles appointed a group of church rulers in the infant churches, and that these church rulers continued to serve until they passed on their status to their successors. This really is little different from the notion of apostolic succession of bishops and popes and priests. There really is no indication that elders chose their own replacements.

Some rudimentary church history is important for the discussion. I suspect that early church governance quickly evolved toward an Episcopalian model very early simply because the Roman model of the Caesar was the prevalent model for governance. Thus, the bishop held all authority and ruled by fiat. When the Reformation rediscovered the theology of the priesthood of every believer, some Reformation elements reduced the power and authority of the ruling bishop, divesting it to a ruling Elder board.

Divestiture of the bishop’s power to the elder board was insufficient for Baptists—those who most fully embraced the priesthood of every believer, and the indwelling of the Spirit within every believer. Even the least believer might have insight and was capable of making prophetic contributions to the direction of the church. Consequently, as they strove to apply consistently the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer to ecclesiology, Baptists divested power away from the Presbytery and toward the congregation.

For Baptists, the congregation has all the authority. Indeed, I suspect that many early Baptists avoided the term “Elder” simply because it conveyed a status of too much authority in the church, preferring the term “Deacon,” and so emphasizing the leaders’ servant qualities. Regardless of how the term “Deacon” became the preferred term, Baptists set limits on their leaders.

On one Sunday, when I finished teaching Sunday School, I walked into the church sanctuary, preparing for worship. At the appropriate time, the chief elder (pastor) stood up and, to the absolute shock of the entire congregation, announced to the 150 or so members present that the elder board had decided to dissolve the church, and dispose of its assets, and that there would no longer be any services or ministries. Five minutes later as we sat dazed and astonished, he stood up and said that we must vacate the church building. Such is the authority of a ruling Elder Board.

Baptist congregations delegate responsibility and authority to various church leaders—call them elders (or deacons or trustees or gorillas) if you will. Some churches give greater authority to its leaders than other churches. But in the end, congregationalism gives authority to the congregation to remove its leaders and to appoint new ones when appropriate.

Monday, 30 May 2011

The Validity and Urgency of the Altar Call

In recent years, many Calvinists have severely critiqued the altar call, claiming that it is an Arminian innovation designed to manipulate people into making a faith commitment. While many an altar call may indeed be characterized as manipulative and fleshly, there is such thing as a Spiritual altar call, and it is an appropriate part of Christian worship, arising not out of a misguided Arminianism, but out of biblical urgencies.

The altar call is a natural progression of the sermon. Whether the sermon is evangelistic or meant to challenge believers, the sermon is designed to move individuals toward change in their lives. There should be at least a little movement toward Christ-likeness in every listening believer’s life, and if the Spirit is calling individuals to make a significant decision, there should be an opportunity for people to make their decisions public. The altar call, then, is an opportunity for people to give public testimony, and this is right and good.

The altar call provides a unique Spiritual context which is not available at other times. To be sure, a person can be saved anywhere and at any time. However, the altar call has as its context the preached word and the praying congregation. These two elements, contemporary as they are with the altar call, are means by which the Spirit moves in the lives of people.

When the word has been preached, it is incumbent upon the congregation to pray mightily for the Spirit’s convicting power. This is often the missing ingredient in the altar call. We might have pensive music and other mood setting elements in play, but this is nothing, for the one thing which is relevant is the Spirit’s drawing. Thus, the congregation needs to be taught and urged to pray with all their strength for the salvation of those in attendance, or for their fellow believers who are being called to make decisions.

Again, I emphasize that it is not mood setting elements that make a difference. The real difference is when the congregation is gathered in the Spirit, and the power of the Lord Jesus is present. This is the ideal behind the altar call, with God’s people fervently praying with great expectation. If this element is lacking, I’d suggest getting rid of the altar call.

It is altogether insufficient for the minister to stand in front with the musicians quietly playing, and with the congregation reverently standing with heads bowed and eyes closed. No, every believing Christian must be called to pray with hearts heavily burdened for the lost. We must learn to pray as if it matters, for prayer really does matter. The model in Jonah 3:7-9 is instructive.

Arminians do believe that each one of our individual friends and loved ones can be saved, and that none is excluded from the offer of salvation on the basis of some unbiblical decree. Indeed, we believe that God is pleased for us to pray for the conversion of our individual friends and loved ones, and that he is eager to answer our prayers by sending his Spirit to convict them and to draw them to faith. No doubt, Calvinists often pray for their friends and loved ones, even though their theology tells them that some eternal degree may very well have excluded their loved ones from any hope of salvation. Arminians have no such deterrents to prayer.

Because we Arminians believe in a “whosever will” gospel, we should be all the more urgent in our praying for those in the altar call.