Frank exchanges aired at conference
WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)--Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary entered the emerging church minefield with a "Convergent" conference, the name itself hinting at President Daniel Akin's call for Southern Baptists to combine the best practices of traditional and emerging churches in order to "minister with truth and urgency."
The participation of Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle as a speaker at the Sept. 21-22 conference at Southeastern's Wake Forest, N.C., campus elicited outrage from one Southern Baptist who said the church planting-oriented Acts 29 Network, which Driscoll leads as president, encourages lax attitudes toward sinful behavior in order to gain a hearing among unbelievers.
Southeastern evangelism professor Alvin Reid identified "the elephant in the room" during the final plenary message, referring to Driscoll's endorsement of alcohol consumption in his book "Radical Reformation" as their only area of disagreement.
"That's not what this conference is about," said Reid, who added he finds much to gain from Driscoll's analysis of Emergents. He referred to George Whitfield having owned slaves and Charles Spurgeon smoking a stogy "to the glory of God" as actions that did not cause Baptists to disregard their teaching.
"I think we've got a lot of ninth commandment issues taking place in Southern Baptist life," added missiologist Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research when asked during a panel discussion how Driscoll is perceived. "We ought to act like men and stand up and tell the truth," he said, calling Driscoll "a solid Bible guy."
Driscoll surprised the audience not by his candor -- a quality which propelled him to YouTube fame -- but through his contrition over "bad attitudes" and "wickedness" when reacting to criticism.
"I believe God perhaps providentially put me at the fountainhead of what has become the emergent movement to know the people, understand the issues, then leaving them to provide [a] clarity I consider more theologically faithful."
Having led one of the fastest-growing churches in a city with "more dogs than Christians," Driscoll attracted media attention quickly. As a fairly new convert gaining a national following while in his late 20s, "I didn't know how to handle that," he said.
"In times past, being angry and frustrated combined with immaturity and pride affected my tone" and ultimately obscured his message, said Driscoll, who once had the moniker of "the cussing pastor." He only recently explained his separation six years ago from what became the Emergent Village, noting, "My heart is not one of anger and frustration, but concern and grief."
He questioned the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina for inviting Solomon's Porch pastor Doug Pagitt of Minneapolis to lecture at their Wired2Go church leaders conference Oct. 16, warning the audience of what he considers heretical views held by Pagitt.
Driscoll also noted the position of Rob Bell, a pastor that he does not know personally but whose writings, including "Velvet Elvis," he has read. Noting that Bell has called into question the virgin birth, Driscoll said, "The question that begs to be answered is, 'Do we lose anything if we lose the virgin birth of Jesus Christ?' ...
"To the Lord Jesus, [such doubt] is insulting," Driscoll said. "First of all, Mary said that she was a virgin. If she was really a lying whore, that does change the story. Because if the lying whore raises a young boy who says He is God, why believe the extravagant claims of the child of a lying whore? Following the resurrection, Jesus' mother Mary was with the disciples worshipping Him as God as part of the early church. Why would we believe the testimony of the resurrection of Jesus from a lying whore?
"Let me submit to you, if we lose the testimony of the Scripture about Jesus, we lose Jesus," Driscoll said. "I believe in prima scriptura, that Scripture is our highest authority. I believe that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable."
One conference participant challenged Driscoll's own practice of watching cable television to better understand the world in which he ministers. "It's not to watch for entertainment, but view it like [the Apostle] Paul walking in Athens looking at idols for footholds for the Gospel," Driscoll answered, commending an exposition by Southeastern Seminary President Daniel Akin of 1 Corinthians 6-13 about making wise decisions.
J.D. Greear, pastor of Summit Church in Durham, N.C., suggested using research-based resources to analyze cultural happenings without having to watch them personally. "If you have a weakness for candy, don't hang out in the candy store," Greear said.
Asked when a staff member should walk away from a church that will not change, Akin said unyielding doctrinal heresy justifies leaving, but a moral hurdle like racism is worth spilling blood over. "Some of us wimp out. We walk away too soon," he said. "Unless God sets you free to send you somewhere else, try to be a change agent."
To those who have considered leaving the Southern Baptist Convention especially when misunderstood by older pastors, LifeWay Research director Ed Stetzer advised them to clearly communicate their shared convictions regarding inerrancy, evangelism and missions. "If we blow this thing up and all leave, we'll just have to create it again. God has given the Great Commission to the church, but each individual is not able to do it by himself."
Reminding the predominantly Southern Baptist crowd that they cooperatively support the largest mission force in denominational Christianity, Stetzer said he often hears leaders in other mission-sending agencies say, "You guys are the ones who do it right."
Greear and other Baptist speakers praised the courage of men like Adrian Rogers, Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines in leading the theological restoration of the SBC.
"When we look at what God did in our convention, being the only denomination in history that has ever turned around from the brink of liberalism and come back, that was an act of God," Greear said. Referring to God's promise to Moses and Joshua, he added, "That command to be strong and courageous is to a generation of younger leaders."
Greear dismissed "the other Baptists" who point to drops in baptisms since conservatives regained control, comparing them to Sanballet and Tobiah critiquing Nehemiah. "They've got their rocks, but God has brought us this far and He's going to take us forward.
"Nobody had to tell me we had a theological problem," said Alvin Reid, a Southeastern Seminary evangelism professor, recalling years spent in Baptist schools. While visiting with Patterson "and some guy I'd never heard of named Richard Land" as he researched a seminary paper, they gave him a vision for future change.
As recently as six months ago, Stetzer said he considered stepping down from denominational leadership, frustrated by "some people who just want to keep bombing the rubble." He said he longs for a time when enough theological clarity has been offered to put a greater focus on being "missional."
"I believe men like Danny Akin want us to get focused on the Great Commission," Stetzer said. "I am deeply committed to being a part of Southern Baptists as long as there is a high view of biblical fidelity in our doctrinal stand and our focus is on the Great Commission.
"If the focus is going to be elsewhere, then we're going to depopulate this denomination. We've already driven off much of the young leaders," Stetzer said, adding that some will return as they see the Great Commission vision cast.
Asked to offer an outsider's perspective, Driscoll said he fears that "skirmishes over secondary issues will overtake primary issues like evangelism and church planting."
Criticism often comes from those in places that are not growing, Driscoll added. Too much attention is paid to what is mistakenly viewed as a movement, he said. "They write blogs sitting around from their mom's house making declarations about how the world should be."
Akin said, "I'm a part of a group of guys in the SBC who believe what is now needed is building on the Conservative Resurgence is a Great Commission resurgence.
"I'm going to give the rest of my life to that," Akin said, "especially at this school, standing on the firm foundation of the inerrant, infallible Bible ... not negotiating at all on doctrinal essentials that identify what it really means to be a Christian, and get about the business of reaching the world and nation with the Gospel."
This isn't the last time Southeastern Seminary will wade into deep theological waters, with an upcoming debate on Calvinism co-sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources slated for Nov. 26-28 at LifeWay's Ridgecrest Conference Center.
Hearing from divergent perspectives isn't likely to translate into more formal partnerships, Stetzer said, noting that no such arrangement has been discussed among SBC entities and networks like Acts 29. "Southern Baptists affiliate because we believe a common confession and have a common mission, but it doesn't mean we can't have other friends," Stetzer said.
Driscoll offered the contrast between seeing denominational affiliation as a prison or a home. Members of the family are free to go to a friend's house and see how they live, he said, but at the end of the day, "This is our family and our home and that is theirs." If it becomes a prison, Driscoll said, ideas that did not originate in the home are not welcome and the family loses its usefulness. In such instance, "You are only listening to yourself and learning from yourself and lack the humility to be growing in Christ," he said.
Driscoll recalled Stetzer giving him a copy of the Baptist Faith and Message. "He was trying to get me to be a Baptist and now he's really glad I didn't."
"I don't think there's anything I couldn't sign with an absolutely clear conscience, but I'm not sure you'd want me," Driscoll said, prompting laughter when he added, "but it would be fun."
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is a freelance writer based in Grand Prairie, Texas. Lauren Crane, a writer for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, contributed to this article. The entire messages by "Convergent" conference speakers are available at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary's website via the chapel link at www.sebts.edu.