On the Altar of Self-Will

The man had just been fired from a Southern Baptist church. He was in the process of explaining to a concerned church member what had really happened. As you might expect, his version was radically different from the one that came through “official channels.” I was trying not to listen, but you can’t divert your ears in the same way you can divert your eyes, so I was stuck having to hear the tale. It was one that is far too familiar to anyone who has spent much time in Southern Baptist circles.

Just over six years before, I was telling a similar story. This one had all the same features and themes. There was lying about the real issues. There was a church that was ignoring biblical qualifications for leadership and refusing to hold sinful lay-leaders accountable. There were a lot of people who were upset. There was plenty of gossip being spread (that act being excused as an attempt to handle the problem). There was even the comforting excuse that “our church has always done things this way.” Of course, there was also a man whose life was turned upside-down, who now needed to find another job to support his family. It was an ugly situation; but in many ways, it was vintage Southern Baptist church life. The story has been repeated many hundreds of times, with only minor changes in detail.

It makes you wonder why that sort of story happens so often within the culture of Southern Baptist churches. The obvious answer is that it is sin. But why are these particular sins so often manifest within many Baptist churches? Other groups may display the same sins, to be sure, but non-SBC groups tend to display other unique sets of characteristic errors and problems. Liberal denominations tend to be characterized by open justification of immoral activity. Charismatic groups tend to be characterized by emotional excesses. Why, when Southern Baptists sin, are they so often characterized by the kind of selfish infighting where people will do anything in order to have their way?

I would assert that these particular errors are the natural results of rejecting the doctrines of grace. I do not mean to say that this poor staff member whom I overheard was fired because he held to the doctrines of grace. In his case it was something to do with a disagreement over music style. I mean to say that rejecting the doctrines of grace will bring definite results over time, and those results include self-centered willfulness.

Whatever doctrine you hold, your doctrine will determine your outlook on yourself and on others; it will produce definite views on the church and on God. When churches sow a self-centered, self-willed theology, they reap self-centered, self-willed people. Those people will soon learn to bend and twist Scripture in order to choose what they want. God’s decrees are not the important thing in such a theology; and the needs of other people are insignificant in comparison to the god of self-will.

So much of life in modern SBC churches feeds into this mindset that self is the ultimate principle in life. One person’s vote on any decision is said to be just as important as anyone else’s vote, whether that person is qualified for leadership or not. One person’s perception is said to be just as valid as someone else’s, whether that person is living in sin or not. There is often general agreement that the staff must be kept under control. They must not be allowed to do something in “our” church that “we” don’t approve of. The question of what God says is often completely absent. Sadly, far too many pastors have given up the battle and are now spending their time bringing offerings to this “god of self” that their churches have come to worship.

None of these common problems happen just because Christians are still sometimes sinful. There is something in particular that is driving people to these expressions of the sinful heart rather than to some other expression of it. That something is the rejection of the doctrines of grace. The false theology of libertarian self-will ultimately must bear fruit; and it bears the fruit of selfishness. It bears the fruit of a church culture where God’s choices are not even considered. His decrees affect neither the doctrinal statement nor the business meeting. They impact neither the foundational doctrines of the church nor the daily decisions and actions that must rest on what the church believes. So this week, one more Southern Baptist minister lost his job on the altar of self-will. I wonder if he knows that it was ultimately a doctrinal issue which caused him to be sacrificed.