Fundamentalists Gather in Minnesota to Consider Issues of Fellowship
By Greg Linscott
For Baptist fundamentalists, “dual affiliation” has been a phrase charged with historical tension. In times gone by, the term was significant in the events that led to the birth of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, as well as the stream from which the Minnesota Baptist Association and the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International emerged. The way that separation is perceived in those organizations has changed dramatically in the decades since those differences were prominent. Nevertheless, these various associations and fellowships have rarely intersected with one another in any formal manner. While occasional cross-pollination has occurred, a sense of suspicion has lingered with many on both sides of the aisle.
Recently the matter of dual-affiliation was raised in a new context. I pastor First Baptist Church in Marshall, Minn. We have a ministry to Karen refugees from southern and southeastern Myanmar (Burma). We wished to counter the tendency these transplanted believers would have to gravitate to their roots and relationships with the American Baptist Churches USA. This led me to question whether it would be permissible for a congregation to enter into fellowship in Regular Baptist associations while retaining that church’s established fellowship in the Minnesota Baptist Association.
The question of such “dual affiliation” was not a matter the leaders of these associations had previously pondered. Each of them deliberating the matter could not find any reason to prevent such an attempt. So this past summer, First Baptist of Marshall was received into the fellowship of the GARBC, and this fall, into the Minnesota Association as well.
Prompted to a great degree by our actions as a church, on a sunny Friday in September, over 100 Baptists from Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin gathered in the fellowship hall of Fourth Baptist Church, Plymouth, Minn., for a panel discussion over lunch. The event was billed as “The Future of Baptist Fundamentalism: A Thoughtful Conversation between Baptist Brothers.” Panelists included GARBC National Representative John Greening, Central Seminary Research Professor and Regular Baptist Press author Kevin Bauder, and USAF Chaplain Col. Mike Sproul, who is also pastor of Tri-City Baptist Church in Chandler, Ariz., and on the executive board of the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International. They were joined by host pastor Matt Morrell of Fourth Baptist Church; hymnwriter and author Chris Anderson, pastor of Killian Hill Baptist Church in Lilburn, Ga.; and me. Brent Belford, an administrator at Central Seminary and member of the pastoral staff at Fourth, moderated the discussion.
The meeting felt significant, and not just because of the subjects being deliberated. Rarely had such a diverse group of Baptist fundamentalists been assembled in such a context. Several faculty members from Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary sat alongside their counterparts from Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Numerous Minnesota Baptist Association pastors were present, sharing tables with people such as Tim Capon of the Iowa Association of Regular Baptist Churches, Darrell Friar of the Minnesota Association of Regular Baptist Churches, Wayne Vawter of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Baptist Churches, and Garry Thompson of the New Testament Association of Independent Baptist Churches. Each of these leaders was accompanied by pastors from representative congregations of their constituencies. Given past history, one might expect uncomfortable silence, but, instead, there was a sense of energy and anticipation in the room.
In his opening remarks, Kevin Bauder described the current state of fundamentalism. He spoke of historically discernible categories within fundamentalism, distinguishing between the nondenominational, Presbyterian, and Baptist categories, while also identifying a recently discernible “hyper-fundamentalist” category primarily identified by its insistence on the exclusivity of the King James Version. He further identified the Northern and Southern streams observable within the Baptist category.
At Brent Belford’s direction, John Greening assessed the current state of the GARBC. He acknowledged that the number of fellowshipping churches has somewhat dwindled in recent days, not because churches were “jumping ship,” so much as from older churches losing vitality and closing their doors. Greening lamented that historical anecdotes, such as those included in Kevin Bauder and Robert Delnay’s One in Hope and Doctrine (Regular Baptist Books), have revealed instances in which core principles have become sidetracked at the expense of organizational issues. Greening confessed he found these times “embarrassing” and “not a good thing.” However, he used this observation to deliver a powerful reminder of behaviors fundamentalists often seem to espouse:
Fundamentalism all too often, in a misapplication of separation, sometimes is like [the man in the parable that buries the talent]. We feel really good about giving God back exactly what He gave us. . . . We protected it. . . . But we may reach the day when we stand before the authority figure and He says, “Tell me what you did with the investment,” and we reply that “I thought You wanted me to protect it all the time.” Obviously, we need to guard truth, . . . but we also have to champion it! We have to leverage the collective brain trust, our commitment to the ideas of fundamentalism, and turn them into something in the context of religious debates. So, we’re speaking to issues, we’re making points, we’re writing books, we’re putting up posts and blogs.
Belford then asked Mike Sproul to speak to the current state of the FBFI. Sproul recounted his earliest memories as the son of an itinerant evangelist and member at Tri-City Baptist (the congregation he now serves as pastor) under his predecessor, Dr. James Singleton. Singleton’s ministry career included personal departures from the Southern Baptist Convention, GARBC, and Baptist Bible Fellowship International, leading Sproul to sum up the heritage of his congregation as being “come out, come out, wherever you are!”
Comparing the organizational differences between an association like the GARBC and a pastors’ fellowship like the FBFI, Sproul explained that the platforms of FBFI meetings were not the collective voice of the organization. Rather, each speaker was responsible for his own words. While like an association, a fellowship will generally gather around its core beliefs expressed in its constitution and resolutions, sometimes the political preferences can center around whether an individual favors a particular personality style or not.
Sproul acknowledged the “warts” in his corner of fundamentalism in a bit of a jocular fashion: “We get to critique people and not be responsible for anyone else within our own orbit!” In the same breath, he observed that young men can sometimes cast a cynical look at the context they were raised in because they see what is “behind the curtain,” while only seeing the greener grass on the other side of the fence when looking at the conservative evangelicals. Recent revelations of problems in those camps, such as situations involving Mark Driscoll and C. J. Mahaney, have served to remind fundamentalists that warts exist outside of fundamentalism too.
Chris Anderson spoke as a currently unaffiliated pastor. Growing up in the home of an IFCA International pastor, Anderson graduated from Bob Jones University. Initially in his ministry career, Anderson envisioned separation “alphabetically,” with organizations such as the Ohio Bible Fellowship or the FBFI representative of the ideal. Groups such as the GARBC and IFCA he saw as “compromised,” while anyone associated with the SBC was obviously “beyond the pale.” While serving as a church planter in Ohio, Anderson started blogging and interacting with a wider sphere of people, including people like me, whom he had met through the SharperIron blog/forum. Eventually, Anderson began to develop a more nuanced view of partnerships based on Biblical fidelity. In his current ministry as a pastor in Georgia, Anderson confessed that he is beginning to see the downside of independence and the lack of leverage that a church can have when it has no influence in a national organization.
Discussion of Music
As the audience considered these viewpoints, Belford directed the attention of the panel to an often controversial topic within Baptist fundamentalism: music. Greening observed that a diversity of worship styles is tolerated in the GARBC—a tolerance that can become a tension when the congregations united by common doctrinal position convene in meetings. The culture of the GARBC, Greening explained, allows a range of tolerance to exist for a range of styles among independent churches. As the congregations function together, they have learned not to “push the edge of the envelope,” choosing selections that will be acceptable to the group as a whole. While it can be like walking a fine line, he acknowledged, Greening concluded that substantive music, true and consistent with Scripture, is a collective priority of the association.
The churches represented in the FBFI have a limited range of music styles they would employ, Sproul explained. A commonality among these congregations is that their worship is hymnal based. In clarifying the range of diversity within his fellowship, Sproul gave an example of a resolution that was presented to the FBFI board to avoid the use of music such as produced by Sovereign Grace Ministries or Keith and Kristyn Getty—a resolution that did not ultimately receive the support of the board. While the rejection of the performance style employed by these artists would be a point of unity within the fellowship, many see the benefit of incorporating a few of these songs accompanied by a more traditional instrumentation.
As he shared his personal views on music, Bauder prefaced his remarks by observing that the spectrum of music in the two associations in Minnesota was virtually identical. Music, apart from lyrics, is a language capable of conveying meaning, Bauder concluded. He further would say that a church’s position and practice in this area can be just as important as their position on the Virgin Birth. At the same time, Bauder noted, not every departure from strict truth constitutes an apostasy. Even with the definite convictions he holds personally, there must be allowance for different conclusions, or even perceived “disobedience” in a limited sense.
Anderson, whose ministry includes writing hymns through churchworksmedia.com, added his opinion on the music debate: “Fundamentalists have placed too much weight on the music issue.” Anderson spoke of a pastors’ conference he had attended where the speaker grossly mishandled the Scriptures, doing so to such an extent that Anderson felt compelled to leave. Later, in conversing with the host pastor, Anderson expressed his concerns. The host pastor conceded Anderson’s point, but ultimately defended the speaker by saying that “he took a good stand” in regards to music and separation. Anderson observed:
For some fundamentalists . . . we allow people to deny the necessity of repentance, we can allow people to be borderline heretical on their Bibliology, but if they don’t have music we agree with, that is worth fighting over. . . . I think, as we “triage” where we can differ and where we can give each other some space—there has to be a border somewhere—but I think at some point . . . what is really more vital—a stout expositional ministry and doctrinal integrity, or the fact that somebody is to my left musically?
Discussion of Relationship with the SBC
As time wound down, Belford asked the panel to consider a final matter: the relationship of fundamental Baptists to brethren in the Southern Baptist Convention. Matt Morrell admitted that he struggled with application in this area. He related how a few years ago, the staff at Fourth Baptist and faculty of Central Seminary had the occasion to share lunch with SBC pastor Mark Dever and some of his 9Marks staff and interns. The meeting provided many causes for rejoicing in commonly held beliefs and principles. However, Morrell confessed that the meeting also drew attention to some of the substantial differences the groups had with one another. At the end of the meeting, Morrell left more persuaded than ever of his separatist, fundamentalist convictions. Greening supported Morrell’s observation, noting that the theological principles of a dispensational hermeneutic will lead to very different methodologies and goals for the church than a reformed system will.
On the other hand, Greening affirmed the conservative direction of many SBC congregations, noting that a significant percentage of churches using RBP materials belong to the SBC. Sproul recognized that in his career as a USAF chaplain, he had learned to see his evangelical and SBC counterparts as his like-minded comrades, able to unite in many areas in which they shared agreement. Common points from affirmation of the gospel to principles of personal holiness have led Sproul to think of evangelicals as people he could be drawn to for a measure of Christian fellowship in the setting of military chaplaincy. At the same time, Sproul was quick to assert that significant disagreements on issues like ecumenical evangelism set hard limits on how far those relationships could extend.
Taking it further still, Bauder observed that while substantial differences remain between separatists and the SBC, it is inaccurate to accuse the SBC of being “liberal.” The leadership of the Convention is clearly in the hands of conservative individuals. One unusual matter Bauder pointed to is the current state of Cedarville University. While under its current SBC influence, the institution actually has taken a more conservative direction than in its latter days as a GARBC-approved organization.
As the conversation concluded, John Greening challenged the participants and the audience with a reminder of the urgency of matters with which we are confronted today:
The issues of Biblical authority, as they play themselves out, will become vitally important within the context of how the local church serves and functions. Our definition of the gospel will become increasingly important as we try to figure out how we impact the culture in which we live. Our view of eschatology, . . . the hermeneutic that we use, is going to be increasingly important as we shape a philosophy of ministry, and these are the things that are at the heart and soul of who we are and what we agree about, and we must not allow ourselves to just chase rabbit trails or talk about issues that are not as vitally important while the world is on its way to Hell. We need to be out there addressing things, . . . the whole moral and ethical arena, which is increasingly becoming a battlefield that requires our voice speaking up, which will probably result in persecution and suffering because of our commitment to Biblical authority. . . . We must figure out how we’re admonished in Scripture to speak truth, but to do so in a bold but gentle fashion . . . that does so in a gracious manner, but extends the mercy of God to people . . . and calls them to repentance because of the crisis of eternity that’s ahead for them.
I came to the podium to dismiss the audience, but not before Kevin Bauder had encouraged members of the panel to consider convening a Fundamental Baptist Congress, something that has not been done in several decades. Before leading in prayer, I challenged those present to continue such conversations in their local contexts—to pursue the investment of associating with one another, especially across organizational lines established over the decades. As those assembled departed the room, I couldn’t help but sense a feeling of hopefulness and promise for the future—as if I were leaving with more friends than I’d arrived with.
Greg Linscott (MMin, Baptist Bible Seminary) is pastor of First Baptist Church, Marshall, Minn.