Leave the SBC, Leave the Field

On October 21st Jeff Noblit, pastor of Grace Life Church of the Shoals and founder of Anchored in Truth Ministries announced via Twitter that he had asked his congregation to end fellowship with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Noblit1

Noblit2

Prior to this announcement making the rounds on my Twitter feed I honestly had not ever heard the name Jeff Noblit.[1]  However, I now realize he has a significant footprint in Reformed Baptist circles – the very circles that I think offer the best hope for renewal in evangelicalism broadly and the SBC in particular.  Noblit’s influence appeared not just in retweets and discernment blog posts but in the general upswell of talk (again, on my Twitter feed) of talk about a large exodus of confessional and doctrinally-minded congregations from the SBC.

I am deeply, deeply sympathetic to the dismay the same people talking about departing the SBC are expressing about the causes of their discontent.  I have addressed how disturbing J.D. Greear’s confusing (at best) statements about human sexual sin are, both as the current President of the SBC and – more importantly – the pastor of a local church.  I am also watching the controversy associated with John MacArthur and Beth Moore with wide eyes. I do not write any of this assuming every reader of this piece will agree with me[2] but rather to offer an expanded version of “I get it” to those who are seriously frustrated by the state of the Southern Baptist Convention as portrayed by our formal leadership.

Nonetheless, my contention is that to depart the SBC at anything other than the 11th hour is a terrible strategic mistake for the Kingdom of Christ.[3]

Let me be first to note that Christ does not need the Southern Baptist Convention to accomplish His ends.

That obvious point established, let me also note that discarding rare and unique Kingdom resources accumulated within the SBC over generations would be deeply foolish.

The Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention remains the greatest practical mechanism for funding the work of missions-sending and theological education ever seen in the history of the church.  That device depends on the cooperative efforts (see, its right there in the name) of local churches accomplishing more together than they could apart from one another.  An end to this cooperation on a large scale – particularly by the healthiest congregations involved – would represent a grievous blow to the work of making disciples around the globe.  I say grievous rather than fatal; Christ can (again) do anything He purposes.  However, taking a serious consideration of how He has chosen to work in history leads the honest observer to conclude that the Cooperative Program is a unique gift Christ has given to His people, one not to be squandered casually.

The objection here seems obvious: We are not really doing the work of the great commission if the seminaries we are funding and the missionaries we are sending are compromised doctrinally (as doctrinal drift is the root of contemporary complaints about Greear, MacArthur/Moore, injustice/social justice currents, the SBC in toto, etc.).  Again, I find myself in a position of sympathy.

Two points in rejoinder, however.

First, the Southern Baptist Convention is not largely J.D. Greear, high profile members, or even any institution head. The SBC is a small-church denomination and I contend that the average church member is largely unaware of the issues that consume SBC Twitter.  As those regular members become aware of these issues I trust that not one in five will embrace any of the issues that are rightly raising alarms among the more tuned-in participant in Southern Baptist life.

Second, I do not see that any doctrinal drift is yet so pronounced that the gospel is compromised in the missionaries we are sending. I suspect the problem is more pronounced in our seminaries but, yet again, not to the degree that the institutions are uniformly teaching a false gospel or even unrecoverable from the signs of drift we see.

Southern Baptists know what it is to see a near total collapse of the doctrinal and confessional health of our denomination.  We also know what it looks like to labor for renewal and see the Lord grant marvelous fruit to the effort.  This hopeful labor to recover what is good rather than abandon what is bad should define every generation of Southern Baptists.

Consider not just the consequences to theological education and missions sending.  Think of a program like Mission:Dignity from Guidestone.

MD1

That entire effort is deeply consistent with the kind of care Christ would have His people show aged ministers.  Think how long any new network that would be built by departing congregations would take to develop something comparable.  Years do not seem sufficient.  A decade?  Too quick.  A program like Mission:Dignity, let alone something like Guidestone, are too important and have taken too long to build to be cast aside nonchalantly in the early days of trouble.

I have been having an exchange on this subject (for the third time: on Twitter) with Josh Buice.  He seems to believe that the kind of men and women who would work to recover what is lost in our current drift do not exist in our generation.[4]

Buice1

For all that I hold in common with Buice in Christ I do not here share his pessimism.  I believe we have large numbers of right-minded SBC church members and pastors. What we are in need of is mobilization.

Having said that, I do find a disturbing trend among my fellow Reformed Baptists:

Wright1

How can we continue to claim, admire, and perpetuate the work begun by Luther (excommunicated), the Puritans (ejected), Edwards (fired), and Spurgeon[5] (castigated) if we voluntarily leave the field at the time we are needed most?  It seems integrity would insist we either labor long and patiently or find some new tradition to claim.

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[1] There’s no hipster posture subtext in that statement; I’m just being clear about how I encountered the news of Noblit’s decision.

[2] I should also note for the record that what I write here does not represent an official position held by Conservative Resurgence: Voices.  I also do not speak here on behalf of anyone else who writes or is otherwise associated with Conservative Resurgence: Voices.

[3] I hope the remainder of what I write is seen as a general approach rather than a specific criticism of Noblit, a man who I do not know but have every reason to respect based on what is publicly available.  So I am clear, I do not write this with Noblit as a target. I mentioned him at the beginning because he appears to be a catalyst for the Twitter conversation I encountered.

[4] I do not mean to put words in Buice’s mouth here, I’m simply summarizing what I understand him to be saying.

[5] Yes, Spurgeon withdrew at the end from the Baptist Union but would any student of history claim he did so before giving everything he had to the effort of repairing the Union?

Published by Jeff Wright

Jeff Wright lives in Middle Tennessee where he pastors Midway Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter at @wrightjeff and hear him on The Pop Culture Coram Deo Podcast.

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