Monday, 31 December 2012

Toward an Educated Free Will Baptist Clergy

 A major weakness of Free Will Baptists is that their ministers are typically less educated than the communities they serve. While many communities have highly educated leaders, many Free Will Baptists in those same communities attempt to do ministry with their own pastors having no formal ministerial education. Moreover, often Free Will Baptist pastors are significantly less educated in ministry than their counterparts in other denominations, putting them at a disadvantage in articulating and defending Free Will Baptist doctrine. This is especially true in urban settings where graduate degrees and even post-graduate degrees are common, but it is also true even in rural areas. While education is no guarantor of ministerial success, communities are not likely to rally around those church leaders who function at lower academic levels than community norms.
Since Free Will Baptist churches and associations are autonomous, the denomination cannot simply dictate that churches require their pastors to attain the standard MDiv degree (the Master’s of Divinity degree assumes 4 years of undergraduate Bachelors studies, followed by 3 years of ministerial graduate studies). Unfortunately, the denomination has done little to promote formal ministerial education over the years. The denomination has left this job to the various Free Will Baptist colleges which have done little to change the denominational culture of educational mediocrity or educational hostility. In this essay, I lay out a plan in which the denomination itself would promote formal ministerial training—a plan that I think will eventually have a major impact in coming years. 

My plan would begin with a denominational registry of ministers. The denomination does not ordain ministers, but Free Will Baptists generally recognize those ministers who are ordained by the local association of churches, with assumed reciprocity of ordination recognition from one association to another. Of course, a local church can ordain a minister on its own, but this does not confer associational ordination, which is the basic level of ordination for Free Will Baptists. The denomination has no right to impose standards for ordination on local associations, but could provide a registry service in which Free Will Baptist ministers are enrolled. This would afford an opportunity for the denomination to classify levels of ordination.

Any associational ordination would qualify as the basic level of ordination. It may be designated as “Standard Ordination,” or some such. Any minister with “Standard Ordination” may have an advanced status if he has an undergraduate degree with a major in Bible, theology, or ministry. This status may be designated as “Professional Ordination,” or some such. For those ordained ministers who have been graduated with an M.Div., which is the standard ministerial degree of most denominations and seminaries, or its equivalent, the ordination status of “Advanced Professional Ordination,” or some such, may be conferred. Thus, there would be a three-tier level of ordination recognized by the denominational registry:

·         Standard Ordination: basic associational ordination
·         Professional Ordination: B.S. or B.A., with a major in Bible, theology, or ministry from a recognized college or university
·         Advanced Professional Ordination: M.Div. from a recognized seminary or graduate school.

What good would a registry serve? What would motivate Free Will Baptists to use the registry? Since use of the registry cannot be compulsory, there must be a motivator to get Free Will Baptists to use it. Of course, one such motivator is available.

One of the great needs of Free Will Baptist is a denomination-wide means of connecting ministers seeking churches with churches seeking ministers. Naturally, this would be the domain of the Home Missions Department (National Ministries?), or perhaps the Executive Office which would be responsible for promoting and keeping the registry. Currently, most churches seeking ministers approach their respective state association ministries or other informal networks. A national registry would supplement or perhaps supersede the current informal and sometimes less than efficient network. Moreover, churches seeking a new pastor could specify the level of ordination for potential applicants.

The Home Missions Department would work with state agencies. For example, in order to be included in the registry, the minister would have to demonstrate his associational ordination and be recommended for ministry by the state associational moderator, clerk or State Promotional Secretary. This would help assure quality ministers for local churches. Of course, more details would have to hammered out once this plan were to receive serious consideration.

In addition to providing help to grateful ministers and churches, this registry would reinforce the message that formal ministerial training is important for modern ministry. This is an important first step toward promoting an educated clergy for the 21st century, and would be preliminary to a subsequent phase of promoting creative educational opportunities for ministers and church leaders.

Friday, 28 December 2012

How to Promote Scholarship on a Shoe-string Budget

 One of the most desperate needs of a denomination is a regular influx of young scholarship. The influence of a young educator named L.C. Johnson on Free Will Baptists history illustrates that point. The impact of his articulation of Arminian Baptist theology can hardly be exaggerated. Under his tutelage, two of the most articulate Arminian Baptist theologians arose, F. Leroy Forlines and Robert E. Picirilli, both of whom have become well known theologians in current Calvinist-Arminian discussions. These two theologians are greatly responsible for steering the course of Free Will Baptists over the last 50 years.

One might argue that Forlines and Picirilli are indispensible to Free Will Baptists, but the tyranny of time dictates that a new generation of scholars needs to be raised up to face the challenges of the coming years. Here is a strategy for nurturing young scholars without excessive expenditure of denominational resources.

My proposed Free Will Baptist Young Scholars Program (FWBYSP) at Welch College could be implemented in the 2014-2015 school year. It would follow a year of fund raising in which $3000-5000 would be raised and set aside to fund the project. Late in the school year of 2013-2014, college juniors would apply for membership in YSP, submitting theological essays for consideration. The theology/Bible department would select five of these juniors to participate in the YSP in their senior year, based upon appropriate criteria, including the theological essay. These essays would be submitted to Integrity journal for possible publication.

The key instructive and training element of the YSP would be monthly lunch gatherings, hosted by the college president. These informal gatherings would include a lunch of cold cuts, drinks, etc., organized by a theologically interested college junior. The theology and Bible faculty would meet and interact casually with the YSP participants at the beginning of the luncheon until the speaker presents his lecture. The topic for lectures would be set by the Bible faculty. Speakers would be chosen from the faculty or may involve guest speakers. Guest speakers might be supplied through the many scholarly friends of Welch College. Guest speakers might be given a token remuneration.  

Another key element of the YSP would be the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature. Two of the most promising participants of the YSP will be granted $500 toward travel and expenses. Two of the Bible and Theology faculty will also be comparably funded to travel with the two chosen participants.

The final element will be a $1000 scholarship to be awarded to one of the five participants who applies and is accepted for graduate studies in an area of Christian studies. A primary consideration for the scholarship will be a new essay on a topic of the student’s choosing that would be worthy of submission to the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The recipient of the scholarship award will agree to present a paper either at the annual theological symposium or at one of the YSP’s monthly luncheons in the coming academic year.

Preserving FWB Doctrine for a Future Generation

It is by a divine providence, I think, that Free Will Baptists have been made stewards of a very pure strand of Christian theology—let me call it “Arminian Baptist.” This strand of Christian theology is nowhere else credibly preserved in North America or Western Europe by a viable denominational body. To be sure, Free Will Baptists are well centered in the mainstream of Christian theology, affirming the major creeds of the Christian Church, enthusiastically endorsing the Protestant Reformation, and reflecting the doctrine of the Believers’ Church by replacing Infant Baptism with Believers’ Baptism. Within this larger context, however, Free Will Baptists comprise the sole denomination that preserves the Arminian Soteriology of Arminius (not all so-called Arminianism would be endorsed by Arminius) within a Baptist framework. An historical survey would demonstrate the unique standing of Free Will Baptists within this theological strand, but such is not the purpose of this essay. Rather, assuming that Free Will Baptists have been granted stewardship of this very pure strand of Christian theology, this essay asks what responsibilities this stewardship entails for Free Will Baptists, and suggests ways in which these responsibilities might be met.

Preliminarily, let me stress that this theological strand is worth preserving. In an ecclesiological and missiological environment where doctrinal distinctives are suppressed in favor of unity and cooperation, especially as they are exacerbated by cultural and philosophical relativism, one is tempted to undervalue theological purity and sound biblical interpretation. Yes, Free Will Baptists should be eager to cooperate in various mission endeavors, and should treat other Christians who disagree on denominational distinctives as genuine brothers and sisters in Christ. However, precisely because Free Will Baptists maintain a theological purity based on sound biblical interpretation, they should promote their doctrine, form and nourish their closest theological associations, and persuade other Christians from other denominations to join them.

On a personal note, I began my graduate education with a thorough grounding in Free Will Baptist theology, but without denominational blessing or support network. Thus, I flew from my FWB denominational nest into a world, academic and ecclesiastical, that would challenge my Free Will Baptist theology at the highest levels, and at every opportunity, and with great intensity. After the purifying ovens of my Master’s at Regent (under the heavyweights Fee, Waltke, Packer, and Peterson—Assemblies of God, Presbyterian, and Anglican), and even hotter ovens during my PhD at Cambridge with all its critical elitism, I have emerged with my FWB theology fully intact, enriched, but not compromised, clarified, but not altered. Free Will Baptists have a doctrine that can withstand the utmost scrutiny and is worth preserving.

Privilege and Weakness
It is remarkable that such a potent and pure theology is concentrated in such a narrow band of Christianity. One would think that the elements which comprise Arminian Baptist thought—Baptist associationalism, Congregationalism, Believers’ Church, a Whosoever-will Soteriology, and Continuance in Salvation by faith—all sound doctrines based upon good scriptural exegesis, would coalesce into a very wide swath of the Christian church. Such is not the case. Indeed, one might argue that these doctrinal distinctives are so rarely held that they are at risk of being lost, to be swallowed up by a number of competing denominations that come close to such doctrinal purity, but fail to preserve them in full strength and wholeness.

As it now stands, the FWB denomination is the sole domain of Arminian Baptist thought. Free Will Baptists have about 2500 churches, and about 250,000 members. The denomination is predominately rural, with few churches in the large cities; many states have no FWB church at all. FWB missions reach into less than a dozen of the world’s 200 or so nations. FWBs are seriously disadvantaged in terms of professional ministerial training, having no seminary or graduate school, and with very few of its ministers attaining a basic MDiv qualification or higher degree. Perhaps as few as 50% of FWB ministers have even a Bachelor’s degree, in any academic major. FWBs with a terminal degree are extremely rare; even at the denominational college where Bible is a required major, only two full time professors in the areas of Bible and Theology have terminal degrees. Very, very few Free Will Baptists serve as scholars outside denominational institutions, so that Free Will Baptists have no perceptible impact on American society, let alone, any world-wide impact. A bibliography of articles, books, or reviews written by Free Will Baptist scholars published by academic publishers would hardly fill more than a single sheet of paper. Outside of the Calvinist-Arminian controversy, Free Will Baptist scholars are entirely unknown.

Strengthening Our Grip
If Free Will Baptists are to nurture and expand their stewardship of Arminian Baptist thought, an overarching plan needs to be implemented to produce and train scholars devoted to the cause. My essay here is no such plan, but does contain some limited suggestions, especially in regard to FWB scholarship.

1.      A study needs to be implemented to detail the needs and assess the present resources of the denomination, and to articulate a vision for the future.
2.      The denominational college needs to be put on a more secure financial footing to rectify weaknesses in faculty and staff.
3.      A graduate school or seminary needs to be established.
4.      Denominational scholars need to be awarded sabbaticals, including income and expense stipends, to pursue scholarly research and publication.
5.      Denominational scholars in the field of biblical studies and religion should attend annual conferences such as Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion, with expenses paid.
6.      Denominational scholars should prioritize publication of journal articles in Journal of Biblical Literature and Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, and similar academic journals. This can only be done if the institutions in which they serve allow adequate time to focus on such endeavors.
7.      A few students at the denominational college who are especially interested in theology and religion should be encouraged to attend these annual conferences under the mentorship of denominational scholars.
8.      In particular, one or two scholarships covering expenses should be awarded to deserving students annually, perhaps qualified by theological papers suitable for publication in the denomination’s Integrity journal.
9.      Denominational scholarships should be established to support graduate and post-graduate studies for outstanding students.

The introduction of outstanding students to the biblical studies and religion guilds is extremely important for the future of the denomination. While readers may despair of ever finding the money to support some of these more or less obvious needs in these difficult times, sponsoring young scholars would not require extravagant expense. In particular, how difficult would it be to raise $2500-3000 per year as a special scholarship to pay a substantial amount of the expense to send three outstanding college seniors to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, accompanied by a couple of the denomination’s senior scholars? Even as little as a hundred dollars from each of say, 20 state associations would cover these scholarships. Likewise, even a token one-time scholarship gift of $1000 for a deserving seminary-bound student would do much to strengthen the ties between the student and denomination, and to encourage the student to think of future work within the denomination.

Formulating a vision for the future of Free Will Baptists may prove to be an insurmountable task. However, taking some smaller steps to promote scholarship, and especially to foster the growth of young scholars, is a goal that is achievable, and can be accomplished in just a few short years.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Inescapable Questions of Life & Apologetics

F. Leroy Forlines
One of the many ingenious contributions to theological thought made by Reformation Arminian theologian Leroy Forlines is his discussion of the inescapable questions of life. Perhaps someone else has made more of this issue, but I haven't otherwise come across it in my reading and research.

The inescapable questions of life ask,
  • How did I get here?
  • Is there a God? If so, how can I know him?
  • What is my purpose in life?
  • Is there life after death?
  • What do I do about feelings of guilt?
  • Etc.
Forlines is right to point out these questions which, I think, are indeed inescapable. They can hardly be ignored. Although often suppressed, they rise to the surface again and again, whether the occasion is a new born baby, the death of a loved one, the tragedy of divorce, problems with finding a job and supporting one's family, or simply the quiet moments on a sunny beach when the relentless, monotonous waves give one a moment for pause.

Sometimes life's circumstances are so intense that these questions come screaming at us. Ultimately, if we cannot find satisfactory answers to these questions, we are driven to despair, and abandon all hope of finding meaning to life, and end up living as bitter cynics. Indeed, one can argue that the whole purpose of religion is to find an answer to these questions, and that one's commitment to a particular religion is largely dependent on how satisfactorily the religious system answers these questions. 

For this reason, a discussion of the inescapable questions of life may have some apologetical value in the defense of one's religion. What good is one's religion if it does not satisfactorily answer one's deepest and most urgent questions?

Along these lines, one should ask, How is it that the human constitution is indelibly marked by such questions? It is difficult to argue that they are a product of a natural process, apart from a creator God who is personal. 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Intellectual Pursuit Does Not Lead to Apostasy

I think it is an obvious truth that people don't give up their faith for intellectual reasons. If this were true, there would be no intellectuals of faith. People who claim that they abandoned the faith because it was not intellectually compelling to them are perhaps telling only part of the story. Yet, as brilliant as some apostates are, I'm not sure anyone would put their native intelligence up against that of someone like the late Cambridge Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity Graham Stanton whose faith was well attested to the day he died. Likewise, Gordon Fee knows so much about textual criticism that he could cut the legs off any argument against the reliability of the New Testament text, off the top of his head. Some of history's greatest minds were people of Christian faith, people who are intellectual giants in comparison with even the best of moderns.

No, people don't quit believing for intellectual reasons. They may make such claims, but to do so they must presume to understand facts and history and logic better than people such as Carl F. H. Henry, Francis Schaeffer, F.F. Bruce, or Alvin Plantinga, and such claims will not stand. They are but mere excuses.

People don't forfeit their faith for intellectual reasons. Rather, people withdraw their faith in Christ because in life's circumstances, they become disappointed with Jesus and God personally. People who abandon Christ in the storms of life often resort to the intellectual excuse because it is easier to attack one's former faith than to delve deeply into a serious analysis of their personal relationship with Jesus.

Apostasy is not a new phenomenon. John the Revelator saw a great tide of persecution about to engulf the seven churches in Asia (Rev 2-3), and he perceived that their spiritual weaknesses made them vulnerable to apostasy. The only way that these churches would withstand such a great persecution was to renew their relationship with Christ (cf. John's condemnation of the church of Ephesus for having left its first love). It is to those who have fallen so far that Jesus says the words, "Behold I stand at the door and knock."

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Augustine's Just War Theory

Here's my version of Augustine's Just War Theory (probably derived from a source that I can no longer cite). It is a stance which historic Christianity has held for centuries, although it is not considered binding, and every Christian must determine his or her own stance on the issue of war.

1.      A just war can only be waged as a last resort.  All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
2.      A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority.  Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
3.      A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered.  For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4).  Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions:  the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.  A country may not justly start a war to grab another country’s assets such as precious minerals or other natural resources.
4.      A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success.  Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
5.      The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace.  More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
6.      The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered.  States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.  
7.      The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.  Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians.  The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target. 

Monday, 14 May 2012

Mothers' Day Hymns

I find it strange that the Baptist Hymnal 2008 has no Mothers' Day songs. For our Mothers' Day worship service, we printed out the text for the hymn "O Blessed Day of Motherhood" to the tune of "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" and "Far above Riches" to the tune of "Fairest Lord Jesus" which can be found here:

In addition, I guided our youth group into composing a poem by group effort. Here it is, and it may be sung to the tune of "Children of the Heavenly Father."

Mothers, O how much we love you
Cherish, care, and celebrate too.
This is your day, take it easy
Hope our rhyme scheme’s not too cheesy.

Mom, you clean and cook and feed us
Give advice and hold and lead us.
Kiss our booboos, stop our crying
And you chastise when we’re lying

Let us pray for all our mothers
May we love them as no other
Jesus loves them, loves them dearly
May they hear him call them clearly

Praise the Lord, he knows our fam’lies
Knows our dads and knows our grammies
Knows our needs and knows our failings
And forgives us all our strayings.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Autonomous and Associational: How Baptist Churches Must Be Both

This blog post originated as a rejoinder to an article published here:  Local Church Autonomy.

We should understand that our Baptist-oriented churches go back for centuries, and that we have fought many of the same battles before. Regrettably, we often try to re-invent the wheel, or we cast off tradition without having a clear understanding of why our Baptist forefathers forged the tradition and the logic undergirding their stances.

True, Baptists did not themselves discover the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer. Prior to the Baptist movement, Lutherans and Presbyterians rejected the mediation of human priests for the forgiveness of sin. But those Reformers did not see the implications of the doctrine on church governance--only Baptists did! The Lutherans and Presbyterians kept the power to govern churches in the hands of either the bishop and his diocese, or in the hands of the ruling presbytery. They did not divest governing authority
into the hands of the congregation so that even the least maidservant might be empowered to cast vision by the Spirit's leading. But Baptists did. Thus, the indwelling of the Spirit and the priesthood of every believer is the cornerstone of congregational government.

As a practical matter, how can a church practice congregational government if other congregations control it? I suppose it is possible that all the congregations of a Baptist denomination might send its representatives to the national convention to regulate life at each one of its churches. However, “possible” does not mean “practical.” Thus, historically our Baptist churches were built with local church autonomy--and this is an outgrowth of the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer.

However, early Baptist churches realized that they desperately needed each other for many reasons. Consequently, rarely was a Baptist congregation ever formed without the consent and support of its regional ("local") association. These associations or conferences were designed to promote and coordinate evangelistic efforts in the region and (ultimately) around the world. A church cooperating with other like-minded churches in association could do much more together than they could by themselves.

From my perspective, a Baptist association serves, by way of example, to assist local churches in scrutinizing new candidates for ministry. A local church has every right to ordain a minister, but cannot impose on other associational churches to accept his ordination. Rather, when the association does the ordaining, then the pastor receives recognition by other association churches (by prior agreement), as well as denomination-wide credentials. He has been examined not only by the local church, but by the whole association.

Again, from my perspectives, associations large enough to employ personnel to support local churches and coordinate ministry should do so. Sometimes, this could be at the local association (New Orleans Baptist Association has a half dozen or so full-time staff to service 100+ churches), but sometimes this might be more applicable to the state convention. At any rate, professional staff might be invited to the local church to assist in implementation of evangelism strategies, inspire new ministerial outreach opportunities, mediate disagreements within the church, or to support the church in their search for a new pastor. The important principle, however, is that the association does these sorts of things without imposing itself upon the congregation.

It is a regrettable fact that some short-sighted pastor might get hot and bothered about some issue that culminates in his church leaving the association. Thus, in one fell swoop, one man burns up maybe 50 or 150 years of fellowship and cooperation between his congregation and the other 10 or 20 or 50 other churches in his county or river valley. With what will he replace this fellowship? --with the one or two churches pastored by ministers of his own persuasion? Hardly.

Ultimately, the best way to prevent such short-sighted, destructive actions is to have a healthy association. And the only way for our associations to be healthy is for competent men and women to invest themselves in the association. If your association is weak, double down your investment in it. Your own church might find itself in great need of the association in years to come.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Choral Reading from Revelation

Choral Reading from Revelation

Performance notes: 
  • This is a dramatic reading from Revelation encompassing the themes of redemption, resurrection, Second Coming, and eternal praise. It is particularly suited for worship services subsequent to Easter Sunday. 
  • It is written for a minimum of 4 people, although a much larger group could perform it. 
  • Several items deserve special attention
    • When in succession, Speakers 1,2,3 may rush their lines, or even step on the lines of the previous speaker. The final stanza is particularly rhythmic: "power and wealth," "wisdom and strength" "honor and glory and praise"
    • The exclamation, "The word of God" may be followed by one voice shouting "what?," in order to invite the repeated and more emphatic declaration, "THE WORD OF GOD!" The "what?" would be especially well assigned to one or more younger children, if the group has any. This is true also of the exclamation "Hallelujah" after "King of Kings and Lord of Lords."
    • The exclamation, "King of kings, and Lord of Lords" should be said to the rhythm of the same words in the Hallelujah Chorus.
    • The text is based on the NIV, but has been altered for dramatic purposes

Leader:        Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come,
Speaker 1:   and from the seven spirits before his throne, 
All:             and from Jesus Christ,
Speaker 2:   the faithful witness
Speaker 3:   the firstborn from the dead
All:             and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
Leader:        To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—
All:             To him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

Speaker 1:  “Behold! He is coming with the clouds,” 
All:             and every eye will see him, 
Speaker 2:   even those who pierced him; 
All:             and all peoples on earth will mourn !
Speaker 3:   So shall it be!
All:             Amen.
Leader:        “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Speaker 1:   I am the First and the Last. 
Speaker 2:   I am the Living One;
Speaker 3:   I was dead, and behold!, I am alive for ever and ever!
All:             And I hold the keys of death!

Leader:        And I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called
All:             Faithful and True.
Speaker 1:   With justice he judges and wages war. 
Speaker 2:   His eyes are like blazing fire,
Speaker 3:   and on his head are many crowns.
Leader:        He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called
All:             The Word of God. (one or several voices: What?) THE WORD OF GOD!
Leader:        The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.
All:             “He will rule them with iron.” 
Leader:        He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
All:             KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (one or several voices: Hallelujah!)

Leader:        “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive
Speaker 1:   power and wealth
Speaker 2:   wisdom and strength 
Speaker 3    honor and glory and praise!”
Leader:        The Lord Jesus who testifies to these things says, “Yes! I am coming soon!”
All:             Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen! Hallelujah! Amen!