Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Acts 29 Network: A Casualty of ‘the perfect theological storm’
by David Krueger

On Monday, December 10 the Missouri Baptist Convention’s Executive Board took the unprecedented action of barring any state convention relationship with or support of the Acts 29 Network. Missouri Baptist staff can no longer use the Acts 29 Network as a resource in their various ministries. The move most dramatically affects those few mission churches in Missouri who are receiving Cooperative Program monies as part of their support, and who also are affiliated with the Acts 29 Network. As of January 1, those missions will no longer be financially supported by the MBC. The move does not affect autonomous Missouri Baptist Churches that are affiliated with Acts 29, not does it preclude them from supporting missions that are.

The move has both its ardent supporters and it ardent detractors. In a matter of hours after the Monday vote, the event took on a life of its own as word began to spread through internet discussion lists and blogs. Discussion of the issue has been fervent to say the least, arousing passions on both sides of the issue. The long-range fallout from this decision is unclear.

Acts 29 Network
The Acts 29 Network is just that -- a non-denominational network of pastors, lay leaders and churches that are devoted to helping qualified leaders “plant new churches and replant declining churches.” They do that through assessment, coaching, training, funding, and by connecting them with like minded Christians. The Acts 29 Network is clearly
Reformed in its soteriology – i.e. they are Calvinists.

Pastors who qualify as Acts 29 church planters must go through a lengthy interview and vetting process, be willing to adhere to a strict covenant, and attend a Planter’s Boot Camp event. Currently, Missouri has more Acts 29 affiliated congregations than any other state in the mid-west with nine. Only the states of California (with 10) and Washington (with 19) have more Acts 29 affiliated congregations.

The Acts 29 Network uses the word “missional” to define the church’s relationship to the culture. Their web site states:

  • We believe that our local churches must be faithful to the content of unchanging Biblical doctrine (Jude 3).
  • We believe that our local churches must be faithful to the continually changing context of the culture(s) in which they minister (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
  • We believe that our mission is to bring people into church so that they can be trained to go out into their culture as effective missionaries.

The Acts 29 Network takes no official position on alcohol other than that “people should have their conscience captive to the word of God, submit to the leadership of their church or denomination, and do everything for God's glory.” The Acts 29 Network permits diversity on what they consider a secondary issue and chooses to pursue unity only on what they consider primary theological issues. They respect the right of Christians, organizations, and denominations to arrive at differing conclusions on this matter.

This “no position policy” has led some critics to assume that Acts 29 is, at the least, “soft on beverage alcohol consumption,” or at the worst, “promotes consumption.” Some view the Acts 29 Network as nothing more than a new generation of theological moderates who are compromising the Gospel by tapping into a secular culture and using non-traditional forms of evangelism that many traditional Baptists find offensive. This includes outreach ministries located in establishments that serve alcoholic beverages. This has become a particular point of contention in the Missouri Baptist Convention were two member congregations participate in what have come to be known as “brew and view” ministries. For some Missouri Baptists, the fact that these congregations are affiliated with the Acts 29 Network, makes the entire network suspect.

Colliding fronts
The move against the Acts 29 Network appears to coalesce around several fronts – the ‘perfect theological storm’ if you will.

The first front is the on-going debate within the Southern Baptist Convention at large and the Missouri Baptist Convention in particular over the use of beverage alcohol. At the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2006 annual meeting in Greenville, South Carolina, a resolution entitled simply On Alcohol Use in America was overwhelmingly adopted by messengers. Supporters of the resolution argued the action was needed because “some religious leaders” believe they may drink based on a “misinterpretation” of the believer’s “freedom in Christ.” Several prominent Southern Baptists known for their Reformed soteriology, vigorously opposed the resolution. Not because they were pro-alcohol, but because they were opposed to: 1) a resolution that intimated that the only Scriptural position on beverage alcohol is one of absolute abstinence. They argued that a total abstinence position is based on Baptist tradition, and not the Scriptures, which describes the use of wine in both the Old and New Testaments, and 2) because the resolution had the characteristics of a motion urging that no one be elected to serve as a trustee or member of any entity or committee of the Southern Baptist Convention that is a user of alcoholic beverages. Resolutions in Southern Baptist life are non-binding statements. At least that’s how it’s historically been.

This strict abstinence position was front and center at the 2007 annual meeting of Missouri Southern Baptists. Rev. David Tolliver addressed ‘the alcohol issue’ in his Executive Director’s sermon, as did Rev. Mike Green in his President’s address, as did Rev. Rodney Albert who preached the convention’s annual sermon. All three clearly advocated that the Scriptures mandate a position of absolute abstinence from beverage alcohol, including low-alcohol-content beverages such as beer, wine, and wine coolers. During the convention’s last business session, messengers adopted a resolution on the consumption of beverage alcohol. It was exactly the same resolution that was passed at the SBC annual meeting in 2006, (only substituting ‘Missouri Baptist’ wherever the phrase ‘Southern Baptist’ appeared). The resolution passed with a clear – but not overwhelming – majority.

Six weeks after the annual meeting, the resolution became the motivation for the adoption of a new policy by the MBC nominating committee that gives teeth to the resolution by barring any Missouri Baptist who uses beverage alcohol from serving on convention boards, agencies or commissions. Nominees will now have to indicate whether-or-not they abstain from beverage alcohol. The decision has raised the hackles of a number of Missouri Baptists – including mine.

The second front involves the report of the Ad Hoc Theological Review Committee. The committee was appointed by MBC President, Mike Green, in December of 2006. It was the result of a motion brought at the 2006 MBC annual meeting:

That at the December 2006 Executive Board meeting of the Missouri Baptist Convention, that the President of the Executive Board appoint a committee of at least five people to study the theological soundness of all relationships the Missouri Baptist Convention has with non-political para-church organizations; and that they use as a guide the Bible, the 2000 version of the Baptist Faith and Message, and any applicable resolutions passed by the Missouri Baptist Convention or the Southern Baptist Convention; and that the committee report its findings to the Executive Board and its President for possible action, no later than its July 2007 Executive Board meeting. (Motion by pastor and messenger Jeff White).

The committee presented its report at the Executive Board’s October 2007 meeting held in conjunction with the MBC annual meeting. Much of the report documented the committee’s research and findings in regard to the emerging church movement. Due to time constraints, the full presentation of the report and its adoption was postponed until the December Executive Board meeting. At that meeting the committee’s policy statements at the end of the report were adopted, but the report itself was merely ‘received’. The report lists thirty-five ‘findings’ a number of which were pertinent to the subsequent executive board decision to terminate any relationship with the Acts 29 Network and de-fund those missions that are affiliated with the network.

Finding #1 states:
1. There are three segments of what is called the emerging church movement — the emergents, the emerging church, and the Acts 29 network. They differ at some points in theology, but they often share much in common related to methodology and missiology. The research of some would point to these segments or divisions within the emerging church movement as the revisionists, the reconstructionists, and the relevants. These could possibly be referred to as the left wing, the moderates and the right wing of the emerging church movement — but they are nevertheless still firmly within the movement itself. There is a networking and a connectedness of relationships and a sharing of resources among the leadership of the different levels of the emerging church movement, (speakers, conferences, workshops, books, research, websites, etc.) One could argue that there is an incestuous relationship of perspectives, theology, and worldviews among these three groups of the emerging church movement. What ought to be of interest to the Southern Baptist churches in Missouri is that there seems to be evidence pointing to a relationship of involvement and support of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the emerging church movement.

Regardless of where emerging church groups/leaders lie along the continuum from thoroughly liberal in their theology (Brian McLaren) to thoroughly conservative in their theology, (Acts 29 Network), the study committee reported that the relationship between the three branches of the emerging church movement is simply too cozy. This becomes obvious in other findings.

Findings #12 through19 state:

12. There is currently no official relationship in the Missouri Baptist Convention with the emerging church movement — including the Acts 29 network.
13. There is a lack of clarity at this time in Southern Baptist Convention denominational life regarding the emerging church movement -- - including the Acts 29 network.
14. The Acts 29 network is a part of the emerging church movement.
15. The Acts 29 network should not be an organization with which the Missouri Baptist Convention networks by means of our Cooperative Program money, missions emphases and church planting.
16. A commitment to the planting of indigenous churches in Missouri is not a commitment to cultural compromise.
17. The ad hoc committee has great difficulty with the notion or philosophy that a church can be theologically conservative and yet methodologically liberal. There is an inherent connection between biblical theology and missions methodology.
18. The ad hoc committee recognizes the diversity of opinion in American evangelicalism when it comes to alcoholic beverages. This does not negate the historic and ongoing affirmations of the resolutions at 62 annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention (as well as at least 36 resolutions at the annual meetings of the Missouri Baptist Convention since 1881) regarding abstinence as the Baptist position on the sale and use of alcoholic beverages.
19. The ad hoc committee recognizes that there are vast theological extremes and a profound depth of doctrinal diversity within the emerging church movement with which we are greatly uncomfortable.

Clearly, the Theological Study Committee includes the Acts 29 Network within the ‘emergent movement’ camp. And clearly they are uncomfortable with the reported ‘liberal methodology’ used by some Missouri Baptist Churches that are affiliated with the Acts 29 Network.

The third front revolves around the on-going controversy surrounding two congregations associated with the Missouri Baptist Convention. One is The Journey, an autonomous Missouri Baptist Church located in South St. Louis County, and Karis Community Church, a new church plant in Columbia, Missouri. Both are affiliated with the Acts 29 Network, and both are involved in ministries that are perceived by many Missouri Baptists as inappropriate and controversial. Both host outreach ministries in establishments that serve alcoholic beverages. The Journey hosts “Theology at the Bottleworks,” a monthly discussion group that meets at the Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood, MO. Every month, dozens show up at the brewpub to drink beer and talk about issues ranging from racism in St. Louis to modern-art controversies to the debate about embryonic stem cell research. First-timers are invited to check out the church on Sunday. The church has made national news headlines including a segment on NBC’s Today Show. At issue is a $200,000 loan that was made to The Journey from the Missouri Baptist Convention that was used as part of the congregation’s down payment on a church building. When the loan was made, Executive Board members were unaware of the controversial outreach ministry. Had they been, it is likely that the executive board would not have approved the loan.

Karis Community Church in Columbia has a similar outreach ministry. It’s called “Theology at the Forge” and meets at the Forge and Vine, a restaurant similar to the Applebees chain of restaurants. Karis Community Church continues to receive financial support from the North American Mission Board, the Missouri Baptist Convention, and several sponsoring churches. When MBC church planters covenant with the state convention, they must sign an agreement that the church planter will personally abstain from use of beverage alcohol, and shall teach the strong biblical warnings against alcohol use to the congregation. Kevin Larson, pastor of the church, insists that he has abided by that covenant agreement.

Critics of these “brew and view” ministries argue that there is usually little theology discussed in such meetings, and that the reported use of alcoholic beverages by some members of the two congregations during the meetings compromises the Gospel and simply goes too far in attempting to be culturally relevant. At the December board meeting, David Tolliver, interim Executive Director of the Missouri Baptist Convention stated that the convention would not give financial support to churches that participate in “sinful outreach ministries.”
These three fronts all collided at the December 10 MBC Executive Board meeting. The result was the perfect theological storm with Acts 29 Network caught in the middle. The result is that the MBC Executive Board has nixed any state convention relationship with or support of the Acts 29 Network or churches associated with it.

Thoughts and analysis
The debate over beverage alcohol consumption is a continuing debate in Southern Baptist life. We need to come to a consensus statement on the issue. However, I don’t look for such a consensus to be hammered out any time soon.

Baptists in general, and Southern Baptists in particular, have championed alcohol abstinence since the late 1800s, but a growing number of Southern Baptists believe it is time to reexamine the issue. Is absolute and total abstinence mandated by the Scriptures, or does our abstinence position have more to do with our own Baptist traditions? In an interview in
Christianity Today Magazine earlier this year, Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, said, "There is growing discontent, people saying that we shouldn't be mandating things that aren't spoken clearly about in Scripture. It's hard to argue that the Bible requires total abstinence."

Some of us believe that to take a position of absolute and total abstinence strikes at the heart of the sufficiency of the Scriptures themselves. While there are clear biblical warnings against the use of “strong drink” and while drunkenness is thoroughly condemned by the Scriptures, we should not, we must not attempt to make the Scriptures say what they do not say. The question is not, "Should we abstain?" I am of the opinion that we should. It’s the wisest choice. It’s the mature choice. It’s the Christian-brother-honoring choice. It’s even the most God-glorifying choice. But I say again: The question is not "Should we abstain?" The question is, "Is it Scriptural to maintain that the occasional consumption of a low-alcoholic-content drink such as wine or beer or a wine cooler is, always has been, and always will be sinful?" There are those brothers among us – such as myself – who believe that it is not always necessarily sinful to do so, even though we would never, ever choose to do so ourselves. This is a matter of interpretation that puts me squarely at odds with the resolution that was passed (or at least several statements contained therein), and with some men whom I deeply respect and consider close brothers in Christ.

While I respect and appreciate the work of the Theological Study Committee, and supported the adoption of the policies they recommended to the convention, I disagree with their conclusions regarding the Acts 29 Network. To include Acts 29 with the emerging church movement, is simply painting with too broad a brush. Acts 29 leaders believe that each individual church affiliated with the Acts 29 Network must determine for themselves their polity, mission works, vision, and ministries. The Network neither encourages ministries such as the ones used by The Journey and Karis Community Church, nor does it discourage them. The Acts 29 position is spelled out on their web site:

  • We believe that our local churches must be faithful to the content of unchanging Biblical doctrine (Jude 3).
  • We believe that our local churches must be faithful to the continually changing context of the culture(s) in which they minister (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
  • We are not liberals who embrace culture without discernment and compromise the distinctives of the gospel, but rather Christians who believe the truths of the Bible are eternal and therefore fitting for every time, place, and people.
  • We are not fundamentalists who retreat from cultural involvement and transformation, but rather missionaries faithful both to the content of Scripture and context of ministry.

It’s hard for me to see how these statements can be interpreted as an endorsement of alcoholic beverages or a whole-sale license to drink.
Scott Thomas, director of the Acts 29 Network recently blogged about the MBC executive board decision: “Acts 29 does not promote alcohol, nor do we decry the personal decision of each church planter to decide what the Scriptures teach about alcohol. We strongly believe drunkenness and/or being controlled by or addicted by alcohol is a sin.” He further writes that to cut off every church affiliated with the Acts 29 Network based on the ministries of two churches, is “guilt by association.” In this he is correct. The MBC executive board simply acted in haste. When executive board moderator, Gerald Davidson, asked board members how many of them had personally studied Acts 29 for themselves, only a smattering of hands was raised, and yet the board ultimately voted by a 3-1 margin to disenfranchise any church plant affiliated with the Acts 29 Network. Granted, we’re talking about only a handful of congregations in Missouri, but as the saying goes, “It’s the principle of the thing.” To condemn the Acts 29 Network because of the objectionable practices of two churches is akin to branding all Southern Baptists as racists because a few actually are.

The debate is as old as Christendom, i.e. how far does the church go to become culturally relevant to the age it finds itself in? The debate rages on in Southern Baptist life between those who would “engage the culture” verses those who believe we need to “challenge the culture.” Jeff White summed it up well in an email on the MoBaptist Discussion List, “ … what makes these issues so difficult for me is that I have people I respect on both sides of the issues.”

Certainly, there needs to be some liberty in regard to those congregations who would seek to engage the culture in such ways. Darren Patrick, pastor of The Journey contends: "Theology at the Bottleworks was started to reach people who are actively opposed to Christianity, by discussing contemporary cultural issues in a neutral environment.” Is this philosophy fundamentally different from those who would plant “Cowboy Churches” or “Biker Churches” because they believe there is a sub-culture within the broader culture that is not being reached through traditional evangelistic methods or by traditional churches?

On the other hand, those congregations that would engage in non-traditional forms of outreach need to do so with wisdom and discernment, and with the larger body of Christ in mind. David Tollier speaks to this when he says: "We need to engage the culture, but without compromising our biblical, traditional Baptist values. For me, that includes abstinence from alcohol."

If I have a criticism of The Journey and Karis Community Church, it’s that I don’t believe that they had the whole Body of Christ – in this case fellow Missouri Baptist congregations – in mind when they made their decision to begin the outreach ministries that have proved so controversial. Or if they did, they greatly miscalculated the protest that has resulted. The Apostle Paul encouraged the believers of Galatia to be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:3, ESV). Our eagerness to reach the lost must also be tempered by our eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit within the Body of Christ.

My solution is a relatively simply, but surely controversial, one: State conventions need to get out of the church planting business. For most of our history, establishing new congregations was the purview of the local church. In recent years, however, both the state convention and our North American Mission Board have increasingly taken on the responsibility of beginning new congregations. The problem is that these church plants essentially become responsible to the whole convention of churches and must conform their practices to the lest common denominator of theological conviction. If congregations like Karis Community Church were solely responsible to their ‘mother church’ we simply would not be having this discussion in Missouri Baptist life. But because they receive Cooperative Program monies, every church in the convention that gives to the CP has a right to have a ‘say-so’ in what the congregation does. In this case, their “Theology at the Forge” has ticked a lot of Missouri Baptists off and the result has been that a helpful, biblically-centered ministry (Acts 29) has been caught up in the swirl of controversy and suffered the consequences of the perfect theological storm.