Holding Together the Three Themes of Romans 14

Christian Living,Church | Posted by: Editors

By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor

Romans 14 is one of the most amazing chapters in the New Testament for its balance, its subtle handling of potentially conflicting themes. Not too long ago in a sermon, I spoke of the Great Blondin, the nineteenth century acrobat who perfected walking on a tightrope across the thundering Niagara Falls. His sense of balance was so pronounced he could perform a somersault or push a wheelbarrow or sit down 160 feet above the falls and make an omelet.

The Great Blondin

The Apostle Paul shows an even more pronounced sense of balance in this remarkable chapter.

Paul is dealing with “debatable issues,” matters left to our discretion in Christian freedom. The church at Rome was a mixed church, comprised of Jews and Gentiles. Some Jews had a hard time letting go of their previous way of life in Judaism, clinging to dietary restrictions and the observance of special religious days (perhaps the Sabbath) when these things had been fulfilled in Christ and were a shadow of the reality that is found in Christ.

Paul’s deepest concern is that the church of Jesus Christ be a powerfully united weapons for the advance of Christ’s Kingdom and the salvation of souls. A fractured, divided, bickering church would soon crumble and be useless for the gospel, useless for the conversion of Roman pagans in the capital city of the Roman Empire. 

So Paul seeks to address three seemingly conflicting themes:

  • Gospel Freedom
  • Gospel Purity
  • Gospel Unity

Gospel Freedom is at stake because Paul wants the Roman Christians (both Jew and Gentile) to understand salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, and not by works of the law. He wants these Christians to act like sons and daughters of the King, not slaves under a stern taskmaster. When Jesus declared all foods clean, He settled the matter. When Jesus’ shed His blood on the cross, he proved the inadequacy of the way of the legalist. Paul is deeply concerned that the Roman Christians live as free men and women. Connected with this, he wants to squash the censorious bickering legalism that has not comprehended the gospel of God’s grace. This spirit imbued the legalistic Judaizers that Paul fought in Galatians.

Gospel Purity: On the other hand, Paul wants to be sure the Christians understand the grave danger of sin, and do nothing that will lead themselves to violate their own consciences, or lead others to do the same. So Paul urges a constant vigilance over our own hearts, lest we do anything that is not from faith, “because anything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).

Gospel Unity: Finally, Paul is very concerned that Christians watch over one another in brotherly love, and that we take responsibility not only for our own consciences but also for those of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to care deeply about how our actions and freedoms are affecting others in the church. Unity in the Gospel is Paul’s deepest concern, and he proves it by calling on people to be willing to surrender freedoms rather than hurt another Christian.

As Paul is laboring for balance between these three theme in the church at Rome, so I desire to see that same balance here. I want a church that rejected legalism without veering over into lawless license, and yet one in which we are deeply concerned about other church members in their walks with Christ. As we face the onslaught of increasingly pagan America, it is vital we handle these three themes with the balance the Great Blondin showed across the Niagara Falls.


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Looking through the Lord’s Supper

Church,Spirituality | Posted by: Editors

By Nathan Finn, Elder

A couple of weeks ago, I preached a sermon at FBC Durham from 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. I titled my message “The Lord’s Supper and Gospel Unity,” which seems to me to reflect the main point of Paul’s teaching in the passage. The Lord’s Supper is an ongoing reminder that within the body of Christ, the divisions of the world have been done away with through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

In preparation for the sermon, I was reminded of a way of thinking about the Lord’s Supper that I’ve heard before on several occasions, though I never knew the source. It turns out that Michael Green probably first made the case for this approach in his commentary To Corinth with Love (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), pp. 46–49. The idea is that the Lord’s Supper urges us to “look” in several directions.

1. We look back to the death of Christ
2. We look inward in self-examination
3. We look up in fellowship with God
4. We look around in fellowship with each other
5. We look forward to Christ’s return
6. We look outward to proclaim God’s word to others

I think this is a very helpful way of meditating on the meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. I would add a seventh “direction” for unbelievers who might be present for a communion celebration. The Lord’s Supper calls upon them to look “Christ-ward” to the One whose perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection is the only truly good news in a world of bad news.


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Practical Steps for Leadership Development

Church,Leadership,Pastoral Ministry | Posted by: Editors

By Ashok Nachnani, Elder

Ashok Nachnani

When is the right time to think about leadership development in your church? I would imagine all of us would agree in principle that it’s never too early. But time and resource constraints often mean that we don’t give it serious consideration until we’re faced with an imminent need. Perhaps an unexpected elder or deacon vacancy comes up with no clear Plan B, or a burst of ministry challenges with few “go-to” members to step in and fill the need.

Because of realities like this, it’s important for church leaders to set their eyes towards replacing themselves and training up the next generation of leaders. But how? We can take our cues from the best developers of church leaders there has ever been: Jesus and Paul.

1. The Examples of Jesus & Paul

Our Savior spent much of his earthly ministry intentionally pouring into twelve men in a variety of ways, for example: 

Teaching (e.g., Matt 5–7);
Patiently answering questions (e.g., Luke 5:33–39);
Modeling prayer (e.g. Matt 6:9–13) and service (e.g. Mark 6:30–44);
Handing out training assignments (Mark 6:7–13);
Admonishing (e.g., Luke 9:46–48)

Jesus clearly had in mind the day that he knew was coming—the day he would lay down his life as a ransom for many—when he wouldn’t physically be with the Twelve anymore, and when they would be called to lead the church themselves by the power of the Spirit.

The Apostle Paul provides a similar example for us. In imitating Christ, his ministry pattern was to plant churches and leave behind leaders who would cultivate them and see them grow, all while imploring those same leaders to find and raise up still other leaders that will bear the qualifications for leadership as seen in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1:5–16. And, it should be recognized that Paul’s instruction extended beyond the office of overseer to all the men and women in the church (see Titus 2:1–10; Col 3:16; 1 Thess 5:11), suggesting that all of us have a role in leading and caring for others, not just the elders.

2. Practical Steps

The following are some practical steps that can be taken for developing leaders in your local church. Some of the steps focus more directly on the office of elder, while others address leadership more generally.

a. Agree on the critical traits of an elder: Ephesians 4:11–13 tells us that elders are a gift from the Lord for the good of the church. It should be your church’s prayer that the Lord would raise up as many men as possible who will satisfy the qualifications for the office of elder set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9. In this process at FBC Durham, the elders have discussed in great depth what it would look like for a man to demonstrate these traits, and then we boiled that discussion down to a single-page document: “Critical Traits of an Elder.”

This exercise was tremendously clarifying for all of us, and the one-page output has served as a useful tool in one-on-one discipleship, serving as a guide for how—by God’s grace—we hope to see men in the church grow. My regular challenge to the men I meet with echoes the one I heard when I was a new Christian: “Aspire to be worthy of being called as an elder, regardless of whether it ever happens.” Think about it: what’s the downside of growing in these areas?

b. Have focused discussion and prayer during elders’ meetings about leadership development: Having our “Critical Traits” document has enabled us to take the next step in having very helpful, focused discussion about a number of men in our church, and it has led to some of our sweetest and richest prayer times as a group. It’s been incredibly encouraging to share stories of different ways that God is using men in our church to bless others in the body and beyond. It has also helped us be more purposeful with the time we spend with certain guys who demonstrate both a desire to grow and the potential to assume greater responsibilities in the church.

c. Make more effective use of ministry opportunities: By starting our leadership development discussion among the elders, it has helped us begin to think about the overall pipeline of potential leaders in the church, and it has given us some context for a broader discussion. Who is showing general leadership skills? Who are our current and potential teachers? How can we create more teaching and leadership opportunities through our small group ministry? Who are our best role models for hospitality, evangelism, prayer, and etc.?

d. Develop a formal leadership training program. There are many ways this can be done. The elders of FBC Durham reached out to a few like-minded churches to find out how they are formally developing leaders in their church body. The approach we are taking has been to leverage some 9Marks materials, have monthly group meetings with a handful of men who have expressed a desire to grow spiritually as leaders, and have periodic one-on-one meetings between each of these men and one of our elders. The goal is to help each of these men grow in godliness—thus building our pipeline of leaders.

I love how Thabiti Anyabwile introduces his book, Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons: “A church without godly leaders is an endangered church. And a church that does not train leaders is an unfaithful church. God gives leaders to his churches for the maturity, unity, and soundness of each local congregation. Without godly, faithful, replicating leadership, churches suffer deeply.” Amen.

That’s why it’s important for the local church to consider how they might, by God’s grace, raise and train up future leaders, and why it’s never too early to get started.

From Hearing to Maturity: Considering Missional Applications for the Local Church

Church,Missions | Posted by: Editors

By Chris, Missionary Serving in East Asia

David Hesselgrave has been one of the most prominent and influential figures in evangelical missiology over the past few decades. His academic prowess and extensive writing on most aspects of the missionary endeavor have endeared him to the Great Commission community. His magnum opus, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, has become a staple textbook in classrooms and mission courses all throughout the global west. In this book (pp 446–452), Hesselgrave describes the several stages he believes generally occur in authentic Christian conversions. Here is a summary of the process as he describes it:

Discovery: “There is a person called Christ whom the true God is said to have sent into the world to be the Savior and Lord of human beings.”

Deliberation: “Should I forsake my old ways and follow Christ?”

Determination: “I will repent and believe in Christ.”

Dissonance: “Forces are trying to draw me back to the old ways. Should I resist them and continue to follow Christ?”

Discipline: “I will identify with the people of Christ in His church. I will live in submission to His lordship and church discipline.”

Even though Hesselgrave was only using these phases to delineate different aspects of the conversion process, he was very wise to begin the last phase as identifying with the people of Christ in his church. If our goal is to bring those we are sharing with to become mature disciples of Christ, then we should not set our goal at merely a profession of faith. We should set our goal for those we are sharing with to as: we want to see them “liv[ing] in submission to [Jesus’] lordship” and “identify[ing] with the people of Christ in his church.”

Using a Chinese idiom that means “As you begin, so you go,” a pastor in China recently contrasted the differences between those who come to faith in the local church and those who come to faith through foreign missionaries. He noted that even though foreign missionaries boast much higher numbers of professions of faith, they have a much lower percentage of those who enter the church and become spiritually mature. His meaning of using the idiom was that if you make the “decision” the focal point of our witnessing efforts, then it’s very difficult to get that person to grow beyond that. However, if our witnessing efforts should be focused on spiritual maturity, then our evangelism methods should aim for a trajectory that goes beyond merely a profession of faith.

 Here is how he contrasted the difference:

Foreign Missionary Local Church
Witnessing efforts focused on presentation                           Witnessing efforts focused on relationship
Witnessing efforts focused on a decision Witnessing efforts focused on a process
Witnessing efforts focused on the individual Witnessing efforts focused on the family
The missionary did the evangelism The local church did the evangelism


In this pastor’s manner of thinking, even if the missionary did not intend to make the “decision” the focal point of the evangelism process, his actions communicate otherwise. With much fervor he would share the gospel message and always make sure to ask, “Do you believe this?” This seemed to be rather effective because after a few times meeting together an individual would either make a decision (yes or no), or he would stop meeting with the missionary. If the decision was “yes,” they would quickly begin a discipleship curriculum. If the answer was “no,” then the missionary would shift their concentrated efforts to a different individual.

Meanwhile, on any given night, the local brothers and sisters would share meals together. They enjoy hosting one another, and always try to encourage one another to bring friends. While fellowshipping together, they would get to know their guests and ask them many questions about their family and life, inviting their whole family to join in on their times of study and fellowship. The Scriptures were always the centerpiece of their gatherings and they would naturally try to draw the non-Christians into discussion, inviting them to come to the next gathering to discuss more.

For our American culture, the way the Chinese pastor described the evangelistic method of the missionary often seems most natural to us. It is a streamlined process that is measurable and identifiable. The method of the Chinese church that I just described above, however, is different and takes a great deal of time and investment—and it’s difficult to identify whether the non-believing family is more interested in the meals and friendship than they are the gospel. However, what is communicated non-verbally in the two methods is the importance of the community of believers. In the missionary’s method, he might share about the local church in the gospel message, but that seems to be an afterthought to getting the individual to make a decision. But, in the other example, the decision to follow Jesus is not only told with words, it is also lived out among the members of the local church.

Are we communicating the significance of the local church in our evangelistic methods? Are we displaying the joy of Christian fellowship in how/when/where we gather? If not, is it any wonder why it is difficult for the church to seem relevant to those in the communities around us?

In situations where we send those from among us to live overseas and plant churches, the way that the entire church family is involved in the process can also communicate the church as missionary model to the locals in that setting. They will see the sacrifice, effort, care, and love that one church can have for another as the parent church is willing to provide for the needs of the daughter church. This happens as our overseas representatives share their needs with us, and we rally to go, support, and provide for those needs.  Our mere presence can communicate far more than our unintelligible language sometimes. 

May we always be willing to cross whatever geographic or cultural barrier that exists to help put those churches we are planting on a path to maturity. May we live like the Chinese pastor was challenging us to live, even in places where no local church yet exists. Inviting families into our homes and having them join in our Christian community (even if it is only our family), they will see the joy that is shared as God’s people gather together. And, may all our evangelism and church planting efforts be done with the goal of  bringing the nations to hearing about Jesus for the first time and to “identifying with the people of Christ in His church … living in submission to His lordship and church discipline.”

“We Were There”: Considering Missional Applications for the Local Church

Church,Missions | Posted by: Editors

By Chris, Missionary Serving in East Asia

The Great Leap Forward resulted in one of the most deadly mass killings in human history. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China, soldiers scoured the country’s vast landscape, confiscating all of the land and placing it in the hands of the government. Millions of people died as they fought to keep their stead and tens of millions died by the ensuing famine and fallout. There was not a tread of sod left untouched by this great tragedy.

After assuming ownership of all land, the government gathered the country’s inhabitants into communes. In each commune, every individual and family had to give up the rights to their own possessions. Everything became owned by the “collective whole.” While Mao was able to get the majority of the population organized into such communes, there were pockets where this was not as successful. Resistance was most strongly maintained among the tribal peoples who refused to give up the lands they had been cultivating for centuries. They were resolved to stand firm, in part, because of the history and heritage they shared on that sod. Where such strongholds remained, the government eventually made concessions with those peoples by allowing them to maintain limited autonomy over their native territories. 

While the victory of resistance is still shared among many of China’s minorities, the stories and memories of all that happened in that dark period of their history are still alive and active. A couple of years ago, I was in a meeting where a local pastor was addressing a small church. He was speaking to them about how to share the resurrection of Jesus Christ with their village. He reminded them of the aforementioned battles their grandparents fought to keep their lands, climaxing with a battle cry they were all familiar with, “We were there when the unspoken boundaries were drawn!” “We were there,” he paused, “We were there when Jesus died. We were there when he was placed in the tomb. We were there when he rose from the dead!” “We were there,” he said, “that is how we should share about the resurrection.”

I will never forget the way that pastor’s words collided with the Spirit within me. The ethnic people group these brothers and sisters were from are the original inhabitants of their land. They believe their ancestors settled there several thousand years prior. Yet, they still claim, “We were there …”  That same strong identity shared with their physical ancestors is now shared among the descendants of the people of God. My spiritual heritage became more near and concrete to me that day. I became more finely tuned to what Peter was saying in 1 Peter 2:9–10:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.”

Here, Peter was talking about a chosen people from a remnant of all peoples throughout all generations, a royal priesthood made up of all tribes spanning all ages, a holy nation crossing all global geographic and ethnic barriers. As far chronologically removed as we may be from the events recorded in the history of the early church, as the people of God, we were there

Aside from learning a great and new practical perspective for sharing the gospel, I’ve drawn a couple of practical implications from this:

First, the more we understand our Christian heritage, the more we can identify with those who went before us—and with the doctrinal battles they fought. This should embolden us not to concede our doctrinal foundations, but rather to persevere in resisting theological compromise. So, we should have an action plan—to learn our history. We should learn our biblical, church, denominational, and local church histories:

Biblical History: This is the story of what it means to be the people of God. “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26). “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps 139:16).

Church History: Every generation comes up with new ways to express the same ancient theological errors. The firm doctrinal foundations laid by our spiritual predecessors serve as theological moorings to help keep us from drifting into dangerous theological waters.

Denominational History: We should know the tenets on which our denomination was founded. With healthy local bodies of regenerate believers joining together, our churches serving as missionaries can confidently take the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth.

Local Church History: God has hardwired the world in such a way that each local body should serve as a luminary in our immediate community and beyond. We should seek to know our beginnings and set our course so that each successive generation can see how we are part of God’s plan in bringing the nations to dwell with and enjoy him forever.

Second, an understanding of our history should make us increasingly aware of the need to dispatch larger regiments of soldiers as the Kingdom marches on. So here, also, we need a plan of action: i.e., to train up, and then disperse, our local fellowship of believers:

Evangelism and Basic Discipleship: Outside of normal times of corporate worship, all members should have access to good theological training provided by the local church.

Discipleship for Life: God’s main means for the sanctification of every believer is for us to grow up into maturity through the local church.

Elder Training: A local church should always be striving to train up men as a means of both providing a succession plan for existing leaders, and for the development of new leaders.

Church Planting and Missions: As the local church equips and trains disciples in the previous three areas, it then disperses them into new areas for the advancement of the kingdom. Once a new church is planted, it should implement the same type of training and dispersing paradigm so that all church plants strive to produce church-planting churches.

Thanks for reading so far. We’ll continue this series, Lord willing, next week.

The Church As Missionary: Considering Missional Applications for the Local Church

Church,Missions | Posted by: Editors

By Chris, Missionary Serving in East Asia

Captain James Cook was the famed 18th century British naval explorer, who sailed across thousands of miles of previously uncharted territories. He published maps and writings of the exotic peoples and places he discovered as he went. During that time, as many faithful followers of Jesus Christ began to gain access to Captain Cook’s discoveries, God began to stir in them a swirling storm of conviction to get the gospel to these previously unknown regions of the world.  Each man’s work continued to build on another: from David Brainerd to Jonathan Edwards to William Cary, until the modern missionary movement was birthed. Today, there are hundreds of missionary organizations in existence sending thousands of missionaries all over the globe. 

While there are many things to celebrate in the current state of the modern missionary movement, there is also some things that should cause concern. For example, nearly every modern definition of a missionary focuses on the task of sending an individual across geographic and/or cultural boundaries to live out the Great Commission among a population segment that has little to no access to the gospel message. Unfortunately, it seems to me that many fail to see the inherent danger with this definition.

Consider the following scenario with me:

The Wright family goes to serve in a country that’s officially closed to the gospel. They go to work with a people group that does not have a single known believer. They win some people to faith and gather them together. After a while the group begins to mature and forms into a church.  Even though they are young, they want to do what the Bible says in all matters of faith. Not wanting to create dependency from the church on outsiders, the Wright’s provide increasingly less support for the new church, and instead continue the same church planting model in new areas.

On the surface, this seems like a commendable plan. The Wright family has done a great job in evangelism and getting this church formed. However, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. Is this church equipped to be self-sustaining and self-theologizing? Is this church equipped to deal with difficult persecution? Is it equipped to develop new Christian traditions that completely replace previous pagan ones? Is it equipped to help women who are abused physically, emotionally, or sexually? Is the church able to correctly discern truth from the errors of false doctrine? And most importantly, even if the Wright family continues to help this young fellowship, are the Wrights alone equipped to provide all that is needed to help this church mature? Remember, in this scenario, this is the first church planted among that population segment. There are no other neighboring churches they can go and talk with to learn how to deal with certain trials that might arise.   

Every year there are hundreds of churches that are reportedly planted on the mission field that begin like one I described above; however, an alarmingly significant percentage of these churches will no longer be in existence two years later.

If we want to plant churches that are going to stand the test of time—churches that will also be able to plant other church-planting churches—then we need to stop looking at individuals as missionaries and begin to look to the local church as the missionary. While there might be individuals that go out from us for certain portions of the church planting efforts, the work of church planting is better understood to be the work of the local church.  

Three important implications for the church as missionary paradigm:

1) From Hearing to Maturity: While individuals sent out from the local church might be well equipped to initiate the church planting process, precious few are able to give a new church (in a cross-cultural context nonetheless) everything they need to be healthy and self-sustaining. Imagine the training needed for a context in which no previous believers in the entire population segment existed! All members will be brand new believers and must grow into their positions of church leadership and service. The parent church can nurture the daughter church in this process in ways that individuals cannot.

2) The “Homogeneous Unit” Principle: This principle focuses on the fact that demographically similar people tend to flock together. This can lead to the ostracizing and neglect of certain segments of the target population and does not well portray the differences in the body of Christ that is characterized all throughout the Scriptures. If individual missionaries are very intentional, they will be able to share the gospel with all types of people. However, if they want to follow Jesus’ model of discipleship, they will only be able to spend consistent one-on-one/life-on-life training with a fraction of those they see come to faith. This normally ends up being those who are in the same gender and phase of life as the missionary. Therefore, regardless of the cultural differences, the church plant tends to look very much like the missionary.  If the missionary is not an individual, but a church body, the Homogeneous Unit problem can be replaced with a healthy church planting model.

3) The Church/Parachurch Relationship: The prefix ‘para’ can have several similar, but different, definitions. In regard to para-church the suffix takes on the meaning ‘distinct from, yet providing assistance to’ the church. Therefore, it is important to remember that such an entity is not only distinct from a church, but it exists to assist the church. With the church seeking consultation and training from parachurch organizations for specific elements of the missionary task, the church can maintain its position as missionary while receiving much needed help from others who are more experienced or equipped in certain areas.

While there are numerous tracking systems for the number of churches being planted globally each year, there does not seem to be much effort given to the tracking of the growth of such churches. Not too long ago, I was part of a group that was studying the elements behind three different movements where churches were rapidly planting new churches. While there was certainly much to celebrate, I was deeply grieved to discover that more than eighty churches reported in these movements were no longer in existence before their second birthday. If we are sowing our seeds a mile wide but only an inch deep, is there any wonder that persecution and the worries of this world are choking the life out of these young fellowships (cf. Matt 13:1–23)? It’s similar to this old, oft-quoted African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

In following posts, we will look at each of the aforementioned implications for local church mission work, and consider how a US-based local church can practically apply them by serving as a missionary in a global context.

Image Credit.

What’s Scheduled This Week

Church,Missions | Posted by: Editors

By Kevin Schaub, Lead Editor

We’ll take a brief break this week from our current series on “Christ’s View of the Scripture,” in order to hear from one of FBC Durham’s missionaries serving overseas. These posts will consider missional applications for the local church. It looks like the first post will go up tomorrow, so we hope you’ll come back and check it out.

Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?

Baptism,Church | Posted by: Editors

By Nathan Finn, Elder

Note: On Monday, I offered some brief thoughts on baptism. I mentioned in that post an earlier article from Between the Times on the topic “Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?” I have re-published that earlier article below, with some very minor edits.

* * *

SBTS President Al Mohler

Several years ago, Southern Seminary president Albert Mohler wrote an influential essay titled “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” In that essay, Mohler argues that a key to spiritual maturity is being able to distinguish between primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines. According to Mohler, primary or first-order doctrines are those that are essential to the faith—you cannot reject these beliefs and still be Christian in the biblical sense of the term. Mohler’s examples include such matters as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, justification by faith alone, and the full authority of Scripture.

Secondary or second-order doctrines are those that generate disagreement among authentic Christians and typically result in an inability to be a part of the same denomination or often even the same congregation. Mohler’s examples of second-order doctrines are gender roles and baptism.

Tertiary or third-order doctrines are those doctrines that engender disagreement, but do not normally prevent two Christians from being part of the same church or group of churches. Mohler’s cites disagreement about the finer details of eschatology, presumably the nature of the millennium and the timing of the rapture, as textbook tertiary doctrines.

Southern Baptists have responded in a variety of ways to Mohler’s paradigm. Some argue it is a helpful way to think about the nature of Christian cooperation. They claim we all do theological triage, even if subconsciously and without using the label. Others voice concerns that Mohler’s views, or at least some possible applications of his views, lead to a downplaying of important theological convictions. They claim that theological triage results in our picking and choosing which biblical commands we will obey and which we will fudge on for ecumenical purposes.

For my part, I am firmly in the camp that agrees that theological triage is a helpful term that describes what all Christians already do, even if they don’t know it. I reject the notion that categorizing doctrines as either primary, secondary, or tertiary in principle necessarily leads to some sort of inappropriate compromise. When I choose to work with others with whom I disagree on secondary or tertiary convictions, I am not endorsing their convictions—I’m simply recognizing that what I believe to be their error doesn’t preclude us from working together in certain matters.

I think one reason the idea of theological triage raises concerns for many Baptists is because ecclesiological distinctives, and particularly baptism, are almost always considered second-order doctrines. Mohler himself uses baptism as one of his examples as a secondary doctrine. How should Baptists, and particularly Southern Baptists, think of the doctrine of baptism (and ecclesiology in general)? Is baptism a second-order doctrine?

I think the answer is both yes and no. There is a sense in which baptism is most certainly a secondary doctrine because a certain form of baptism is not necessary for salvation. In other words, you can be really converted and really love Jesus and really be growing in your faith, yet hold to an erroneous view of baptism. It is a secondary doctrine.

But as Southern Baptists, it is important to recognize that a particular understanding of baptism—the full immersion of professed believers—is a core distinctive of our churches and our denomination. While every Southern Baptist I know would agree that baptism doesn’t contribute to our salvation, almost every Southern Baptist I know would argue that confessor’s baptism by immersion is the explicit teaching of the New Testament and that other Christians who sprinkle babies and call it baptism are in error, even if they don’t know it.

Baptism is a secondary doctrine, but one that Baptists honestly believe is taught in the New Testament and should be embraced by other believers. To argue baptism is a primary doctrine is sectarian and smacks of a bapto-centric spirit that values the sign of the new covenant over the realities of the new covenant, even if implicitly. But to argue that baptism is unimportant or a matter of adiaphora is to disregard a doctrine that Scripture ties to the gospel (Rom 6), missions (Matt 28), and the church (Acts 2). Baptism is very important, but it is not of first importance.

For the record, I think Mohler would likely agree with my argument (though he’d no doubt make it more eloquently were he writing this). I don’t see anything in his essay that hints at the idea that baptism—or any other secondary or even tertiary doctrine—is unimportant. In fact, he argues that disagreements about secondary doctrines help define denominations and churches. Baptists give special emphasis to the secondary doctrine of baptism, which necessarily helps distinguish us from other types of Christians.

Southern Baptists should not retreat one inch from our commitment to New Testament baptism. But neither should we act as if an erroneous view of baptism necessarily calls into question one’s regeneration and/or his gospel usefulness. We should speak prophetically to our brothers and sisters in Christ when it comes to baptism (and ecclesiology in general), but we should also humbly recognize that God is working among those who are wrong on baptism, sometimes to a much greater degree than he is working among Baptists. I hope we will work with them in every way we can without sacrificing our baptismal convictions.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted at Nathan Finn’s personal blog and at Between the Times;  Image Credit: Al Mohler.

Some Brief Thoughts on Baptism

Baptism,Church | Posted by: Editors

By Nathan Finn, Elder

Recently, The Gospel Coalition published two short articles about baptism. In the first article, Gavin Ortlund, a Ph.D. student at Fuller Theological Seminary, shares his journey from a pedobaptist to credobaptist position. Gavin was nurtured in a prominent Presbyterian family, but in college embraced a Baptist understanding of baptism. In the second article, my friend Sean Lucas, senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg, MS, shares his pilgrimage from credobaptism to pedobaptism. Sean has been around the block, denominationally speaking, but after several years in Baptist circles he landed in the Presbyterian Church in America. Both of the articles are very thoughtful.

I think this is an important discussion. Baptism matters. Unfortunately, there is an tendency among contemporary evangelicals to downplay ecclesiological matters, including the ordinances, because differing opinions about ecclesiology lie at the heart of many different denominational traditions. Ecclesiologically, most all Protestant denominations are “lower-case” congregationalists, presbyterians, or episcopals, even if they don’t choose to self-identify as “upper-case” versions of those broader traditions. From the standpoint of the ordinances, almost every denomination at least leans toward either pedobaptism or credobapism as the preferred (often exclusive) practice, even if many of the latter do not own the “Baptist” label.

Baptism is also relegated to the doctrinal back bench by some folks because of a misapplication of Al Mohler’s concept of “theological triage.” Mohler rightly points out that baptism is a secondary doctrine, which means it is a doctrine that normally divides sincere Christians into different denominational traditions and local churches. Unfortunately, many evangelicals, including some Baptists, seem to equate “secondary” with “peripheral.” Though it’s difficult to document, there seems to be a growing willingness to at least entertain, if not always embrace, an “open membership” position among many Baptists. A far greater number of Baptists hold to the traditional position that believer’s baptism by immersion is prerequisite to church membership, but they rarely emphasize this doctrine. I frequently witness this latter mentality among younger pastors. They assume a Baptist view of the ordinance, but they make little effort to defend and commend credobaptism. (For what it’s worth, I weighed in on this specific question a few years ago with a post titled “Is Baptism a Secondary Doctrine?,” which was published at Between the Times.)

Many Baptists have written helpful defenses of believer’s baptism. Some of the classics have been written by Paul Jewett and George Beasley-Murray, while lesser-known, but useful works have been written by Fred Malone and Erroll Hulse. I believe the very best recent book defending the credobaptist position is Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (B&H Academic, 2007). This volume includes exegetical, historical, theological, and practical essays written by several Baptist scholars and pastors. Though all of the essays are very good, I believe the most compelling is Stephen Wellum’s “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants,” which is available online.

Editors note: This article was originally posted on Nathan Finn’s personal blog.

What Happened During Holy Week?

Church,Scripture | Posted by: Editors

By Nathan Finn, Elder

A few years ago, Justin Taylor posted a great short series on Holy Week that looked at each day of Jesus’ final week leading into his crucifixion and resurrection. It’s a helpful resource for personal devotional study this week as you prepare for celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ this coming Lord’s Day.

1. Holy Week: What Happened on Sunday?
2. Holy Week: What Happened on Monday?
3. Holy Week: What Happened on Tuesday?
4. Holy Week: What Happened on Wednesday?
5. Holy Week: What Happened on Thursday?
6. Holy Week: What Happened on Friday?
7. Holy Week: What Happened on Sunday?

Note that there are two Sundays. The first marks the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which many churches commemorated last Lord’s Day by celebrating Palm Sunday. The second Sunday is of course the day of the resurrection. There is no post for Saturday, because on that day Jesus was dead in the tomb and his followers were despairing. But on that second Sunday, up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted yesterday on Nathan Finn’s personal blog as well as at Between the Times. There have also been a number of informative articles published recently on Holy Week: like, (1) “The Creator on His Knees: Preparing for Maundy Thursday” by Tony Reinke; and (2) “9 Things You Should Know About Holy Week” by Joe Carter.

Image Credit: Holy Week.