Neo-independent Baptists 3
Note: This is the third in a series of blog posts addressing the neo-independent Baptist movement. Today's post is by Robert Rutta. He is 56, and holds degrees from Hyles-Anderson College (1986) and Landmark Baptist College (2000, 2003). He is currently a church planting missionary in New Zealand.
Within the last few years the neo-independent Baptist movement has come on the scene and has gathered a following. They promote themselves as a new breed of independent Baptists that see the problems of our movement and now have the answers. They genuinely feel that the only way that we can reach the modern generation is to make some fundamental changes. Their call is for us all to be willing to accept a wide range of differences in style, methodology and doctrine and focus less on issues of personal and ecclesiastical separation.
There is one problem with the basic premise of the neo-independent Baptists - there is nothing NEW about what they are doing. Many of the things that are called unique attributes of the neo-independent Baptists are things that we can agree with because they have always been the position of Independent Baptists. For example, we have always had a desire to reach into our communities and make a difference in the lives of people. We have always been innovative in looking for ways to reach people. We have always sought to preach the Word of God faithfully.
My entire life has been spent in independent Baptist churches and I see our churches as exciting places where people are brought into contact with a loving family atmosphere and can have their lives changed by the preaching of God’s Word. I’ve preached in hundreds of churches in several different countries. I know that there are problems in some churches, but truthfully, I like what I see in most of our churches.
As Tom Brennan mentioned last week, Pastor Josh Teis is not our enemy and this blog is not intended as a personal attack against him. Even so, I do have concerns about the path that he is leading others to follow. He has a great amount of influence on many pastors. With influence comes responsibility for the results of that influence. Many of the methods that the neo-independent Baptists call for are new, but the underlying philosophy behind their methodology has been tried again and again, and it has always led to disaster.
I guess the first question that we should ask is…
What exactly is an Old Independent Baptist?
If we are drawing a dividing line between the old and the new, we need to know where the line is drawn.
Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s and continuing over the next several decades a number of Baptist pastors led their churches to leave the Northern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptist Convention and other groups. Their reasons for leaving these groups were varied but it basically came down to the fact that they saw sin that was being excused, along with liberalism and modernism that was being promoted in their schools. The Bible’s command is to come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing. (II Cor 6:17) They accepted God’s command and withdrew from the conventions. The Independent Baptist movement began as an act of separation from things that they knew to be wrong. Through the years independent Baptist churches have been recognized by our fervency in soul winning. We were drawn together by our love for God and His Word and a desire to be separate from sin. This separatism is more than just being separate from sinful actions, but also includes ecclesiastical separation as we keep from those who teach wrong doctrine. We were formed in an act of separating from sin and wrong doctrine and we are defined by being separatists. A love for truth and a hatred for the things of the world that would dishonor our Lord are the things that have drawn us together.
Although we have a historically separatist position, independent Baptists have always been a pretty broad group, allowing for a variety of styles and preferences. We are independent, after all. We have no headquarters and have no denominational structure, so there will be differences between us. I accept that we are often too divided, as we may prefer to spend more time with those that are more similar to us in our preferences. As a missionary I know that I can have good fellowship with a wide range of churches that are under this umbrella of independent Baptist. I don’t have to agree with someone completely as to their methodology to have good fellowship with them or to respect them. The key is that we are united in a love for the truth and a separation from error. For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in the truth. (III John 3)
The NEW View of Separation
Pastor Teis breaks our doctrines down to first-tier doctrines, second-tier doctrines and then finally preferential issues. He calls for separation in what he calls the first-tier doctrines, such as the Virgin Birth and the Blood Atonement. He correctly says that if someone is a modernist and denies the basic fundamentals that we should separate from them. But, what do we do when a church has a woman pastor or speaks in tongues or baptizes infants or any of a multitude of things that the Bible speaks very clearly against? These doctrines don’t fit into Teis’ category of first-tier doctrines so according to his teaching we should be accepting of these. The Bible’s mandate is different. The message of God’s Word from beginning to end is to obey God and separate from doctrines or practices that dishonor Him. We are to mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. (Rom 16:17) Teis accurately says that the thing that should distinguish us as God’s people is that we have love one to another. (John 13:35) What he fails to understand is that I can truly love the person that I disagree with. Loving them does not mean that I have to fellowship with them or have them preach in my pulpit. My love for God and His truth should cause me to separate from error.
The call of the neo-independent Baptist is a call to weaken our separatist position, but IS THIS NEW?
Sadly, this is a position that has been tried a number of times before. Every time that this has been tried it has always resulted in failure.
In 1956, Jerry Falwell graduated from Baptist Bible College in Springfield and founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA. Over the next few decades he was recognized in independent Baptist circles as holding a position of personal and ecclesiastical separation. But, in the late 1970s he began a journey of change, and he formed the Moral Majority. This was a group of people from every denomination and religion that joined together to lobby politicians in order to promote moral values. This put him on the platform with Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mormons, Charismatics and virtually every other group. The argument can be made that these were political meetings so there was nothing wrong with joining together with unbelievers from a variety of religions. The problem is that by following this path he went down the road of more and more spiritual compromise.
Over the course of the 1980s he had meetings where he shared the platform with fellow speakers such as modernist Robert Schuller, Catholic priests, Jim Bakker of the PTL Club, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, and a host of others of all denominations. In 1987 when Jim Bakker resigned in shame, Falwell took his place as leader of the PTL Club and the Heritage USA Theme Park. These were Assemblies of God ministries. By Pastor Teis’ reckoning the AOG still holds to the basic fundamentals, making them a first-tier group, so it was acceptable to fellowship with them. The AOG is full of wrong teachings that we should mark, teach against, and avoid. It is not surprising that during this time of doctrinal confusion he began to speak of Catholic priests as his brothers.
As we look at the pathway of Jerry Falwell from that time of decision in the late 1970s we see a downward spiral that in many ways mirrored the path of Billy Graham. In a 1997 interview with the modernist Robert Schuller, Graham said that people of all religions around the world were saved by their sincerity. He said they didn’t need to know Jesus or the Bible. Graham also took a position that there was no fire in hell. This was a man that Falwell called one of the greatest Christians that he knew. Falwell, like Graham, failed to recognize that separation from those who teach false doctrine is a Bible command. When that command is ignored or devalued the result is always the same. The more that Falwell weakened his position on ecclesiastical separation the more that he declined in concern for doctrinal purity.
What has happened in the intervening years? In 1996 Falwell led the Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University to enter into the Southern Baptist Convention. As he led them further and further away from the foundational position of independent Baptists of ecclesiastical separation they had to ultimately go to the group where they fit in the best.
Highland Park Baptist Church
When Lee Roberson retired, Highland Park Baptist Church decided to go in a completely different direction than they had followed under the leadership of Brother Roberson. I remember visiting Highland Park in the 1980s after they had chosen a Calvinist to be their new pastor. At that time they were getting rid of their church buses and numbers were dwindling. Their massive 10,000 seat auditorium had large roped-off areas to bring people together so the room didn’t look empty. Over the next few years Tennessee Temple and Highland Park Baptist went toward CCM and more modern practices. Their path of change finally resulted in them returning to the fold of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2008. In 2013 the church changed its name, removed the name Baptist, and became the
The church went on an ever-broadening search for something new and exciting. They wanted to leave the old positions of separation and the result was exactly what everyone should have expected.
Baptist Bible Fellowship
The BBFI is a fellowship of pastors that was started in 1950 because they were concerned that the Southern Baptists and other denominations were too liberal in their leaning. This was once the fellowship of J. Frank Norris, Bill Dowell, Noel Smith, Beauchamp Vick and John Rawlings. Over the years their strong fundamentalist stand has weakened as they followed that which was new. They overlooked the compromise of Jerry Falwell while he stayed in good standing in their group and spoke at their meetings. By the late 1980s the music in their national meetings was growing contemporary and this was seen in more and more of their churches and missionaries. Their national conferences now look like what you would see in any nondenominational emerging church. There are still many good conservative pastors in the movement but for the most part they remain silent. In February of 2017 the President of the BBFI led his congregation at the High Street Baptist Church of Springfield, MO, to join the SBC. Pastor Lyons made this decision after he saw other “BBFI pastors lead their congregations to align dually with both the BBFI and with Southern Baptists.” Undoubtedly there will now be others that will follow his lead.
Neo-independent Baptists Are Not New
The unique journey that the neo-independent Baptist movement has embarked on isn’t really that unique. It is a well-travelled road. There are numerous examples that we could choose which all followed the same path - and reached the same result.
When we remove ecclesiastical separation and join together with people who are disobedient to clear doctrines of Scripture then we ourselves will be changed. Personal separation will be affected as we try to fit into the culture of the world around us. Then, as we invite men to preach in our churches who believe other doctrines our members see it as a mark of approval. Eventually our churches will change to be like those men and ministries that we have brought before them.
I am determined to love everyone who has truly trusted Christ as their Savior, but that love will not allow me to compromise on the truth that is in God’s Word. We are to come out from among them and be separate. Our Lord deserves nothing less.