This week at Midwestern Seminary we were joined by friends and colleagues for the first triennial symposium, “The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal & Recommitment.” The product of the vision of Jason K. Allen, the symposium was designed to address the heritage, identity, and future of the Southern Baptist Convention by inviting key SBC leaders to to speak to urgent denominational matters in a way that serves the entire SBC.
This year presentations were made by Frank Page, Ronnie Floyd, Paige Patterson, Thom Rainer, Albert Mohler, David Dockery, and Jason Allen. In addition, there were breakout sessions reviewing historical and theological themes and panel discussions speaking to generational transition, the future of state conventions, and how the SBC should face the future featuring several executive directors of state conventions and Midwestern faculty.
As a part of the breakout sessions, I was invited to present on the topic, “A Denomination Always for the Church: Ecclesiological Distinctives as a Basis for Confessional Cooperation.” What follows is the introduction of my presentation:
For the Church as a Means to the End
“I am glad that you are here with me,” said Frodo. ‘Here at the end of all things, Sam.” I never expected to get an ecclesiology and eschatology lesson from the concluding chapters of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but I did. The hero and his faithful companion, comprising the remnant of a Fellowship that set out on a journey to destroy evil and see the return of their King, lay exhausted and helpless surrounded by an erupting mountain of volcanic proportions with no cause for hope of rescue. Yet in that moment they had the peace and security that only victorious soldiers must know when they, though dying, have saved countrymen or even countries. What was their source of hope? Knowledge that evil was ultimately defeated though the world self-destructed around them and hope in the truth for which they persevered. That and remaining fellowship led them to express gladness and joy there ‘at the end of all things.’ Of course, as the story goes they fell asleep before they were swept up on eagles’ wings and awake to find restored fellowship and the return of the King. I never expected to see the connection between the joy found in fellowship giving hope at the end of the world—I never saw the right connection between ecclesiology and eschatology—but there it was even in The Lord of the Rings.
In Tolkien’s story, there is great hope and joy for those of us laboring as Christians in a self-destructing world—and thankfully that is a mere reflection of the shining light of truth of these themes found in the Bible. In 1 Peter 4:7 the Apostle Peter explains that “the end of all things is at hand” and by that he means that he and his readers were living in the last days before the return of Jesus. Since that time until our very own, humanity has been living at the verge of the end of the world, but that is not a cause for despair or hand-wringing. Peter’s point was focused rather on how one is to live at the end of all things and he spends the next few verses underscoring this for believers. Peter explains that while a Christian should have his eyes fixed and his hope set on the soon and certain return of Jesus, he should be using his spiritual gifts, whether they be serving or speaking, all for the glory of God.
What, then is the source of our hope and on what task are we to have our minds and hearts set? Until the end, whether one eats, drinks, preaches, trains, waters, reaps, types, writes, shares or disciples, he should be doing these things as the biblically prescribed means for carrying out the Great Commission to the glory of God. Such it is, too, with the work of cooperating churches—until the end churches are to cooperate not as the end, but the biblical means to the end. The focus of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 21st century should always be for the church. The local churches comprise the headquarters of this denomination and thus the Convention and its entities should serve the churches. The ecclesiological disctinctives of the SBC serve as the basis for Baptist churches to cooperate, yet this focus is merely a means to the end. So for a convention of cooperating churches striving and seeking to fulfill the Great Commission, the prescribed plan for the accomplishing of that task is for that denomination to remain always for the church. In short, our desire to be “for the church” is a desire for increased cooperative ministry for the sake of global evangelism and to see the knowledge of the glory of God among all peoples as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14).
Therefore, given that the days are few and the light of the present culture is dimming, I hope to argue for the need for “ecclesiological distinctives as a basis for confessional cooperation.” That is, for cooperating Southern Baptist churches seeking to strengthen and start other churches as the means to the end of fulfilling the Great Commission and glorifying God, what is the ecclesiological baseline for them to do so? To accomplish this, I will (1) introduce what I call “ecclesiological triage” as a term to help clarify how we should think about ecclesiological distinctives, (2) seek to answer the question “What is a true church?”, and (3) discuss how confessions of faith help accomplish this task.
Recorded video of the main sessions and panel discussions can be found here.
In June 2016, B&H Academic will publish the the presentations and a few additional chapters in a new book edited by Jason Allen.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book Six, Chapter 3.