PHOENIX – Calling themselves “men of yesterday” in the
Southern Baptist Convention, 9Marks founder Mark Dever and Southwestern Baptist
Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson told younger pastors June 13
they should heed the wisdom of previous generations that upheld biblical
authority and sound doctrine.
Speaking at a “9Marks at 9” gathering following the annual SBC
Pastors’ Conference, Dever said: “I didn’t invent these things. These are the
things our grandparents said. They are good things to keep saying.” The 9Marks
group examines and promotes regenerate church membership, scriptural authority
and elder-led church polity.
Patterson, who disagrees with Dever on the issue of church elders and Reformed
theology (also known as “Calvinism”), said he had been on the earth long enough
to “learn something about the ebb and flow of the Christian faith.”
“Every generation will be faced with a very significant decision and you are
going to experience great sorrow because of it,” Patterson said. He told of how
he learned this lesson from the Downgrade Controversy in England
and Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s role in leading the Baptist churches of England
to a firm, scriptural footing.
That controversy in 1887 centered on the authority and reliability of the
Bible, which at the time was under attack from German theologians who applied
an evolutionary framework to biblical studies.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” Patterson said, recalling the
Conservative Resurgence among Southern Baptists, during which the convention
reclaimed its own heritage of biblical conservatism in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Decline before resurgence
Dever asked Patterson about the difference between legitimate vigilance and
paranoia that sees theological enemies at every hand.
“Paranoia is a condition that exists when you are thinking about you and your
pastorate,” Patterson said. Vigilance, he said, is when people think constantly
about protecting the Kingdom and ensuring the Christian faith is passed from
generation to generation.
“A denomination is nothing more than a reflection of what is going on in the
churches,” Patterson said, noting churches have to hold and teach sound
Dever asked Patterson to diagnose how the Southern Baptist Convention had
declined in the 1940s and 1950s, indicating he believed a lack of expositional
preaching caused the decline. Patterson agreed.
“There was not a lot of expositional preaching in the 1950s. In fact, W.A.
Criswell experienced a fair amount of ridicule for his expositional preaching,”
Patterson said. “Even though people found the Lord under topical preaching,
churches became weaker and weaker in terms of knowing the content of Scripture
and what the Christian faith was about.”
Patterson said this decline in doctrinal knowledge lead to “anemia” in the
churches, which in turn led to a lack of discipline. Churches once published
the number of instances of church discipline, but after some churches abused
the process of discipline, the practice fell out of favor, he added.
“There is something to the separated, sanctified life for Christ,” Patterson
said, adding that churches still need to invoke discipline when necessary.
Patterson said he believes the best form of discipline is “withholding the
table” from those disciplined – prohibiting them from partaking of the Lord’s
Supper with the remainder of the congregation.
Church membership and leadership
Dever said he thought church discipline is a less likely course of action if
church members are truly regenerate. He asked Patterson if Southern Baptists
had experienced problems in the past because they had not ensured those they
baptized were actually born-again believers.
That was true then, Patterson said, but there are problems in modern churches
as well. He noted the early church “did not baptize carelessly,” though they
sometimes did baptize quickly. “I think we have done this sometimes carelessly.”
Patterson also said many churches could have almost been considered guilty of
infant baptism, baptizing children as young as age 4. Many of these children
grow up and leave the church or cannot remember their conversions, he said,
emphasizing that churches must be sure that those who are baptized are regenerate.
“A lackadaisical policy toward baptism is a problem,” Patterson said. Without
regenerate members, churches will likely have difficulty governing themselves.
That assertion prompted Dever to ask Patterson about a June 9 blog post in
which James MacDonald, pastor of a non-denominational church and a voice in the
Acts 29 church network, said congregational church government is not biblical.
In fact, McDonald, who promotes an elder-led model, claims pastors are “crushed”
as the result of democratic voting and goes on to call congregational church
Dever asked Patterson if congregational government is, indeed, “satanic.”
Patterson replied that this critique grows “out of a doctrine that has been
abused in recent years –the priesthood of the believer.” Patterson said each
believer is a priest, with the Holy Spirit indwelling the “temple” of his or
her body. He noted the word used for “temple” by Paul was not a reference to
the entire temple complex, but to the “Holy of Holies.” Believers must see
themselves as part of the body, and not the whole or, worse, as individuals.
And they must also submit themselves to the leadership of a shepherding pastor.
“Congregationalism of a sort, then,” based on a proper understanding of the priesthood
of the believer, “is right theologically and it is the way God moves the people
in a certain direction,” Patterson said. If the pastor is doing his job of
listening to the Lord correctly, this movement should be in the direction the
pastor desires based on his leading from the Lord,” he added.
Patterson said the pastor as a shepherd should be a “decisive leader.” He is a
servant but “rules” over his flock. “A shepherd doesn’t counsel with the sheep,
asking, ‘Where would you guys like to graze today?’”
This, however, does not mean a pastor should be a chief executive officer
(CEO), Patterson said. “The first responsibility a congregation has is to call
a pastor,” he said. “Once they call the pastor, they need to follow the pastor.”
During his years as pastor, Patterson said he preferred not to have regular
business meetings, which lead to “exercises in carnality” and “regular fights.”
Great Commission Resurgence
Dever asked Patterson if the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR)
was part of, or a continuation of, the Conservative Resurgence. Patterson said
he personally was not involved in the GCR
and that he was not consulted on the plans or the report.
“They wanted to see the Great Commission put back in the lead position of what
we do in Southern Baptist life,” he said. Dever asked Patterson if he was
pleased with the fruit of the GCR.
“I can’t say I’m not pleased with it, but I can’t say that I am. I haven’t seen
enough of it yet,” Patterson said.
Asked by a pastor in the audience about the future of the SBC
as a “red-state denomination with red-state sensibilities in a blue-state
world,” Patterson acknowledged that Southern Baptists had to change. He said
the denomination must focus on urban areas, focus on universities and assume a
New Testament mentality.
“We have to move Southern Baptists from being an agrarian, suburban
denomination and move toward being an urban missionary force.”
Dever noted that Southern Baptists have been cooperating and should continue to
cooperate on social issues and missions, but he asked Patterson to describe the
positives and negatives of cooperation.
Cooperation is valuable, Patterson said, as long as it focuses on the proper
Southern Baptists need to realize the SBC
doesn’t constitute the entirety of the work of God on earth, Patterson said.
Other Christians are sharing the Gospel and though they may disagree on minor
points, those who believe the Bible believe in preaching Christ. This should be
supported he said, just as the Anabaptists thanked God for Martin Luther but
thought him “inconsistent” on a number of points. Christians can unite in
evangelism, such as when Southern Baptists have participated in Billy
Graham crusades, he said.
“However, when it comes to church planting, I’m going to plant Baptist
churches,” Patterson said. Baptist churches are the closest to New Testament
churches, he said, and Baptists have always been a “people of the Book,” “hot-hearted
with compassion for people,” and a people of evangelism.
Patterson said Southern Baptists must be aware, however, that “a careless sort
of ecumenism is slipping in.” Baptist doctrine cannot be softened to appease,
or changed for the sake of unity.
“Don’t I epitomize that?” Dever asked.
“No, you don’t,” Patterson said. “You have not taken Baptist out of the title
of your church, you practice only believer’s baptism and you are a believer’s
Understanding he is able to better educate seminary students by exposing them
to various points of view, Patterson said he has invited people of different
denominations to speak at Southwestern. “We have to recognize that God is doing
some great things among people who are not Baptists,” he said.
Many who came to the 9Marks meeting likely expected the discussion of the
Reformed influence of the movement to be a serious topic for discussion. In
reality, little time was devoted to it and none of the questions from the
audience addressed Calvinism.
“You Calvinists scare me,” Patterson said, adding that he can always “put up
with” people who hold different theological opinions, as long as they are
evangelistic. Dever said likewise he was frightened when people claimed to be
Calvinists but refused to evangelize.
Dever asked Patterson if he believed in the total depravity of man, the first
point of Reformed theology. “If I can define it, I do,” Patterson replied.
Dever followed with a similar question about unconditional election. Again,
Patterson answered that he did believe the teaching “if I can define it.”
“If you mean by unconditional election that God arbitrarily decided in eternity
past to create some people to save and some people to condemn, no,” Patterson
said, drawing a loud “amen” from one pastor in attendance. “See, at least one
brother here agrees with me.”
Dever told the audience that Patterson indirectly “helped start” the 9Marks
movement. While Dever was at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, he
wanted to print a pamphlet at the seminary extolling the marks of true Baptist
churches. Patterson, then president of the North Carolina
seminary, at first refused because the pamphlet promoted the use of elders.
Dever eventually convinced Patterson to write a letter commending the pamphlet
but stating his disagreement with the use of elders.
Dever is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington,
D.C., and chairman of the Southern Baptist
Theological Seminary board of trustees.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gregory Tomlin is a writer based in Dallas.)