“I know all the things that you do. I have seen your hard work and your patient endurance. I know you don’t tolerate evil people. You have examined the claims of those who say they are apostles but are not. You have discovered they are liars. You have patiently suffered for me without quitting.
But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen. Turn back to me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from among the churches.” Revelation 2:2-5
“I know that you live in the city where Satan has his throne, yet you have remained loyal to me. You refused to deny me even when Antipas, my faithful witness, was martyred among you there in Satan’s city.
But I have a few complaints against you. You tolerate some among you whose teaching is like that of Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin. In a similar way, you have some Nicolaitans among you who follow the same teaching. Repent of your sin or I will come to you suddenly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” Revelation 2:13-16
These passages are excerpts from the messages to the churches at Ephesus and Pergamum in the book of Revelation. Both churches had done things that were pleasing to God. The Ephesians had stood up for correct doctrine by battling heresy and those who were attempting to spread it. The church at Pergamum had stood firm for their faith even in the face of great persecution. But they had also done things that God was not pleased with. The Ephesians had apparently become weary of what they were doing, and their love for God and for each other had grown cold in the fight to keep themselves free from heresy. The church at Pergamum had tolerated error, and had allowed those who practiced it to creep into the fellowship. In both cases, they receive the same warning.
Now I am certainly not suggesting that these are exact parallels to what is happening among Southern Baptists today, but I do see some similarities. We have divided over issues related to doctrinal purity and the extent of what we should include in the fellowship, and what we should not tolerate. In the process, we have grown weary with each other, and have become focused on instututions, conventions, and the power and influence that it takes to move them in a particular direction.
I think the first thing we need to examine is the object of our love. I hear people talk all the time about their love for the SBC, or their love for a particular seminary or university, or their love for a particular agency. I can certainly understand those feelings. I had great spiritual experiences at both the Baptist college I attended, and the seminary I went to, and as a result of those experiences, and the time I spent there, I can honestly say that I love both of them. I’ve become familiar with the work of one of the mission sending agencies because I have been involved in it personally in a couple of different ways, and I can honestly say that, because of my experiences in those ministries, I love that agency. As a result of that “love,” I want to see those schools and that agency make progress, prosper, and continue to serve. But what I must realize that I love about them is their ministry, and their ultimate purpose of advancing Christ’s kingdom on earth. It is easy to get caught up in the things that are personally appealing about them, but that is not why they exist.
The task of advancing the kingdom is a God-sized one. In our management of the conventions and entities that we have created to help churches work together to advance the kingdom, the danger of worldly influence is ever-present, requiring vigilance to keep things moving in the right direction. The enemy seeks to hinder. We get caught up in protecting what we have created from the influences of the world, but in doing that, we have to guard against losing our focus, which is God’s love for us, revealed in Christ’s atonement, which we must share with the world. The dangers are that we may become like the Ephesian church, so focused on preserving the integrity of the institution that we come to love it more than Christ and his people who are along side us. Or we may become like the Pergamum church, tolerating more than we should in the interest of unity and preservation.
The battles that Southern Baptists have experienced on many levels are clearly related to our feelings about the conventions and their entities that we have created to do kingdom work. We have differences of opinion about how to keep them doctrinally sound, or what level of diversity to allow in order to help them grow and prosper. We have created a structure that puts people in positions of influence, power and responsibility, and we do not always agree with the way they decide to do things. We perceive that there are some who are more interested in preserving doctrinal purity without compassion and absent the “first love,” and those who are more interested in diversity and unity than in doctrinal purity.
I don’t think our difficulties and struggles are going to go away until we see the root cause of the problems. We have, in the last 25 years, created more institutions, conventions, and agencies that are the object of our affections. That makes it harder to reconcile. Once you become part of another convention, it becomes easier for me to forget about you, or ignore you. And I think that is what’s happening in Baptist life right now. The ultimate goal has become protection and preservation of our institutions, and we have lost our first love.