October 18, 2017

The Baptist Way: Interview with Dr. Wyman Richardson on Baptists, The Lord’s Supper, Church Discipline and Tradition

wymanrichardson_sm.jpgWyman Richardson has served as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dawson, Georgia, since 2002. He previously pastored churches in Woodstock, GA, and Burneyville, OK. He is the author of Walking Together: A Congregational Reflection on Biblical Church Discipline, which was published in book, Leader’s Guide, and Student Workbook formats by Wipf and Stock publishers earlier this year. The material is designed to help churches approach the issue of church discipline in a preemptive and preparatory fashion, to lead them to understand what church discipline is before they find themselves in disciplinary situations. Further information and resources can be found at Wyman’s website: www.walkingtogetherministries.com

Wyman is a former BHT fellow and a person whose work on church discipline needs to be part of every church leader’s library. As a Southern Baptist contributor at Reformed Catholicism, Dr. Richardson is a good person to talk to on issues of Baptist identity, the Lord’s Supper, church discipline and tradition.

1. List and give a brief explanation of your reasons for not becoming a Roman Catholic.

Let me say first that I have a great respect for many aspects of Roman Catholicism. As one who has felt the appeal of Rome and who, at one point, had my toes in the Tiber, looking over at the other side, I appreciate the attractive power of the historically-grounded liturgy of Roman Catholicism and an ecclesiology that engenders a respect and appreciation for the Church as the body of Christ. I personally believe that the cessation of formal Southern Baptist talks with Rome some years back was regrettable, and I believe we must continue to work towards unity.

But I do believe that the unity must be a unity in the truth. Ultimately, what caused me to pull my toes out of the Tiber can be summed up in one word: justification. I reached a point where I realized that I was simply unable and unwilling to abandon the doctrine of sola fide and the idea of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, an abandonment that I believe I would have to make if I am reading the anathemas of Trent correctly. Furthermore, I reached a point where I had to be honest with myself and admit that Roman Catholic sacramentalism is extremely problematic for me on a number of fronts. I find that many Protestant qualms with Roman Catholicism simply do not bother me much and are based on biased misinformation, but these issues I’ve raised seem to me to be too foundational and too essential to the core of biblical soteriology for me to dismiss them.

2. Recent criticisms of evangelicalism major on the fact that evangelicals are too doctrinally diverse and amorphous. How would you make the case for confessionalism in the current Southern Baptist environment?

Well, there are a number of dynamics within the SBC today that make the case for confessionalism a bit tricky. There is a kind of institutional creedalism happening with the SBC’s use of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message that is a bit frightening. I do not mean this in the sense that you often hear Baptist moderates say it. I don’t oppose confessional parameters myself, and I reject the idea that such parameters were unknown among earlier Baptists. What I fear is that this modern Convention creedalism is being driven more by power politics than by robust doctrinal and ecclesiological concerns. Furthermore, it is suffocating in some of its adiaphoric assertions, which is disheartening.

I believe that a healthy confessionalism is needed, but I frankly wonder how this can be. Reformed Baptists seem fairly comfortable returning to one of the older confessions, but I wonder how receptive your standard Baptist congregation will be to such a thing, especially as there is virulent anti-Calvinism spreading through the Convention. I myself would love to see us embrace a Baptist confession that shows respect for the Church catholic and ancient, while not abandoning our particular Baptist convictions. The only real option there is The Orthodox Creed, with its explicit calls for adherence to the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, but this is not sufficiently reformed enough for more Calvinistic Baptists. I fear that we are too factionalized to produce a new confession, but I would sure like to see this done. I think, in the end, that we must pray for a grassroots consensus on the need for a healthy confessionalism that would avoid undue vagueness on the one hand and the unnecessary divisiveness of our current situation on the other. I believe this is crucial to our survival as a people and frankly do not know how this can happen. The Convention’s use of the 2000 BF&M makes any alternative confessional proposals highly unlikely. But I would make the case for confessionalism nonetheless as a matter of utmost importance. We are in danger of being swallowed and obliterated by an encroaching corporate mentality, radical isolationist individualism, doctrinal minimization, and a purely consumerist and therapeutic approach to who we are as God’s people. A healthy confessionalism could pull us out of this and into a positive articulation of who we are along biblical and doctrinal guidelines.

3. Many of the advantages of the Roman Catholic Church amount to its survival as an institution, while many of the weaknesses of Baptists and other evangelicals are our resemblances to a movement. What is a Baptist view of the Biblical balance between institutionalism and being a movement?

In a sense Baptists have been suspicious of institutionalism. We’ve placed, perhaps, an inordinate stress on local church autonomy to the exclusion of more formal joint ventures, especially in any sort of institutional sense. We’ve also, of course, elevated the individual to the exclusion of more communal aspects. Yet, ironically, I think the claim could be made and defended that the current SBC is more institutional today than it’s ever been.

I think the Baptist emphasis on the direct and accessible nature of religious experience to the individual, the prominence of the preached word along with its appeal to the individual conscience, revivalistic fervor, and our suspicion of cold formalism keep the “movement” aspect alive and well. Yet Baptists understand the importance of joint cooperative efforts, even in institutional forms. Again, the SBC’s use of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message is, in a sense, “institutionalizing” Baptists in a way that has not happened before. For reasons mentioned above, I find this regrettable, but insofar as it is keeping the threads from becoming completely unraveled, perhaps there is a beneficial side to it as well. The Cooperative Program has a similar effect. In short, I believe that in too many instances the current climate in the SBC is a weird mixture of individualistic hubris and collectivist power plays. The edges of each of these polarities need to be ground down and brought into a better balance of individual believers who realize that our survival as a body will depend upon our unity.

4. Your major work has been in the area of church discipline, but many Baptists are deeply opposed to discipline of any kind, including many who are questioning the entire idea of church membership. What does the abandonment of church discipline among Baptists mean for our future as a definable movement of churches?

It is a tragedy. It was John Dagg who said that “when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” This is something I’ve wrestled with a good bit, and I’ve come to believe that congregational polity without discipline is an absolute recipe for disaster. Ironically, most congregations have maintained discipline of the pastor and staff while recoiling at structures of accountability being placed on themselves, an idea that not only earlier generations of Baptist pastors, but also earlier generations of Baptist laypeople would have found tragic. Yet this accountability of the pastor to the people does not itself arise from biblical concerns, but rather from a nascent corporatism that sees the pastor as an employee and the people as customers. In this and other ways the abandonment of discipline has already begun to cripple Baptist congregational life.

As for our future as a definable movement of churches, our basic infidelity to the witness of Scripture in the area of discipline will logically erode our reflection of the biblical witness in other areas of ecclesiological identity. The inevitable relaxing of doctrinal standards and definition that has come and will come in local churches with the disappearance of church discipline will also bear the bitter fruit of identity erosion. In short, I believe that the abandonment of church discipline is going to finally result in a lowest-common denominator doctrinal stance, an unchecked and rampant consumer mentality in Baptist churches as the congregation continues to see itself as the unaccountable consumer and the ministers as the accountable employees, and the eventual abandonment of other Baptist distinctives.

5. The Baptist version of the Lord’s Supper is a practically invisible doctrine today. In fact, many younger, theologically astute Southern Baptists openly embrace the Calvinistic view of the Lord’s Supper. What do we need to be teaching about the Lord’s Supper (and include your views on how the frequency of the LS figures into that teaching.)

Luther once said that he would rather “drink blood with the papists than mere wine with the enthusiasts.” I think Luther correctly diagnosed the dangers of reductionism when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, even if I remain ultimately unconvinced about Luther’s own approach. I agree with you about the “invisibility” of the current Baptist approach to the Lord’s Supper. That’s simply undeniable. It seems to me that our major errors as Baptists when it comes to the Supper are an unchecked Enlightenment-driven skeptical reductionism, a grotesque neglect in terms of the infrequency of our observance, an uncritical acquiescence to a kind of hyper-Zwinglianism, a constant articulation of what we believe the Supper is not, and a suspicion and ignorance of how spirituality and physicality interact in worship. I think one of the great problems in Baptist congregational life is our reduction of worship to a merely cognitive exercise, primarily in terms of receiving propositions through the sermon. Our anti-liturgicalism, our naïve elevation of the power of information alone to transform the Christian’s life (which is a kind of neo-gnosticism) apart from the interaction of the Christian with various forms and physical articulations of this information through worship, and our failure to draw all of the senses into Christian worship has really hindered our approach to the Supper.

I believe we need to increase the frequency of our observances for one thing. We’ve done this in the church that I pastor, and it’s made a difference, I believe. We also need to avoid the incessant language of negation we use. “The Lord’s Supper doesn’t mean this. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t mean that.” You can’t build a positive theology and practice on a negation. We also need to avoid the sentence, “It’s just a symbol.” Not because of the word “symbol” but because of the word “just.” We need to appreciate the power and sacredness of symbols. So I’m not opposed to viewing the elements primarily as symbols, and, in this, I believe I stand in the main stream of Baptist thought. But I am opposed to the denigration of the symbol to a meaningless rite. Furthermore, there’s some fascinating work being done right now in calling Baptists to a measured sacramentalism. I do not believe the language of “sacrament” is inappropriate for Baptists, though I do believe we must carefully delineate what we mean. The Lord’s Supper must regain a place of prominence in Baptist life.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this insightful post, full of thought-provoking comments. I think many Baptists agree that discipline needs to be recovered. Just how this can take place is what needs further reflection.

    On the Lord’s Supper, am I right that Wyman leaves the door open for the Supper to be seen as “sacramental” in some sense? It seems he’s not too worried about the Reformed understanding being adopted by some younger Baptists.

  2. David Richardson says:

    For further reflection on the “nuts and bolts” of church discipline, I would encourage anyone to read Wyman’s book. Basing his model firmly on scripture, he gives a detailed guide on exactly how this important function of the church can be carried out. Get this book. You’ll be glad you did!

  3. I appreciate the comments on the Lord’s Supper. In evangelical Anglican churches in Australia, and in some independent evangelical churches, the Lord’s Supper and baptism have been downgraded to mere, optional symbols.

    The person presiding at the Lord’s Supper frequently says “It’s only a symbol.” I think it makes a big difference to say “The Lord’s Supper [or baptism] is a powerful symbol …”

    Our church now celebrates the Supper monthly, whereas it used to be three monthly, or even less. Folk have commented on how they appreciate us celebrating it more regularly.

  4. Fr. Mike Creson says:

    Great writing on Holy Communion. As a Catholic priest the celebration of the Mass is a pivitol moment each day in my hurried prayer life. Our Catholic understanding of Eucharist helps me to understand miracles, especially as we understand them in the Scriptures. The physical apperance of the bread and wine is unaltered, but there is a sacramental reality given to us by Christ that takes over our earthly understanding. I know we Catholics can ponder a sentimentality about the Eucharist that can dig up some medevial customs that are out of touch with the Apostolic Faith. Still, there is something going on when we connect this Eucharistic bread and wine with the hunger of the poor. We cannot see ourselves as individuals but as the Body of Christ.

  5. nicholas anton says:

    Why all the euphoria about Catholic belief, practice and tradition? I have seen nothing other than Spiritual death in the system. My father was born in the Austro Hungarian emipre a catholic just before the turn of the previous century. He served in the Austro Humgarian army in the Italian Alps during WW1. Because he was the youngest of the family, his parents wanted him to become a priest. He declined, and moved to Canada. While there, he got badly turned off on the Catholic church for various reasons. He met and married a girl from a liberal Mennonite church. Together, they had six children. In the early forties, we started to attend a small evangelical church in the community. Early in the fifties, both of my parents and siblings believed the gospel and were saved by faith. In those years, faith entailed not only belief, but a corresponding change in lifestyle.

    The surrounding community in which we lived was predominantly Catholic and Orthodox. Most were for all practical purposes agnostic, and the remainder believed what the church believed, even though they could not articulate their faith. Life style was reflected by their faith or lack thereof.

    The contemporary church has essentially succumbed to something similar to dead catholicism that existed in my community. Instead of faith in the church and baptism for salvation as the Catholics practice, they have substituted the rite of accepting Jesus, whatever that is supposed to mean. In place of Catholic worship, ritual, art and form, they practice what they call praise and worship, which is essentially self gratifying and sensuous. That is why so many so called evangelicals are enamored with the traditional dead churches. Emotional gratification has replaced doctrinal substance, and ccm has replaced True faith. Where is Jesus in this hodge podge of Charismaticism and traditionalism?

  6. Nicholas,

    I think what you’re seeing happen is that many of us are fed up with the shallow evangelicalism that you are describing. We also shake our heads in wonder that anyone could sit through a communion service or a recitiation of a creed and do it coldly as a mere formality. What we are trying to do is take the substance of evangelical faith, which is Christ, and recapture the best of Christian tradition as a means of honoring Christ through public reading of Scripture, confession of sin, confession of faith, prayer, and celebration of the Lord’s Supper (see Acts 2:42-43). The goal in using these traditions is to give Christ central place, not push him to the margins.

  7. Steve Walker says:

    Very good post, Michael. A lot to chew on. Thanks.

  8. nicholas anton says:

    Lanier,

    You are correct, it is shallow evangelicalism to which I am referring. However, why flirt with Troy because I find “Trojan Horses” in my camp?

  9. Nicholas,

    I want to agree with Lanier here. So much of our emphases are determined by where we come from. Had I had your experiences, I would probably be none-too-keen on hearing people talking about wanting to appropriate elements of liturgical worship and things along those line. But many of us have grown up in a Bible belt evangelicalism that is shockingly a-historical in its worship and seems to care little for a healthy catholicity. We’re coming from the other extreme. Some of us have also grown up with a myopic anti-Catholicism and we are just now realizing that not only was some of what we were sold untrue, but that there are, in fact, elements of Catholicism that we see now could really help us as Protestants in coming to a fuller understanding both of the Church and of Christ.

    So I’m not in any way trying to refute your own convictions. I suppose, again, that I would feel just like you had I walked in your shoes. But I did want to try to explain why some of us yearn for an escape from a mindset that we see now has hindered our progress as believers and as a Church.

  10. nicholas anton says:

    I do not see the contemporary Christian problem as being Evangelicalism versus the other churches, nor Protestantism versus Catholicism, but rather, sad to say, frequently Jesus Christ versus the institutional churches. Salvation is not in the institutional churches, but in Jesus Christ. I have never been totally at home in evangelicalism in every aspect, even in it’s best days, and often find myself to be somewhat “outside the camp”. My father, who had rejected the Catholic church, and became a firm believer in Jesus Christ by grace through faith alone, to his dying day admitted that evangelicals did not have a Biblical concept of reverence for God. That has also been my observation and personal conviction. Regrettably, from when I was a young Christian, things have only gotten worse.

    I again long to see the Scripture Truth taught, the resultant faith, zeal, and changed lives that followed, and the unabridged love and holy living that marked the believers of that era, but, alas, those days are gone.

    I must however be encouraged. Christ is head of His church, and not I. Therefore preach Christ!

  11. That’s well said. Agreed.

  12. Nicholas,

    Agreed too. But I do not think you will find yourself outside the camp by being a confessing Evangelical (aka Lutheran) 😉

    Lito

  13. The main issue you have appears to be with Catholic appears to be on the issue of Grace.

    Grace, to Catholics is God working in our lives. Our salvation, Catholic believe is not based on our personal merits or vitures, but on God’s grace.

    Thus, we are not “saved by OUR faith” according to Catholics, but rather we are saved by Grace. It is Christ’s (unmerited by us) offering of His body, blood, soul, and divinity on the cross — where he was crusified for our sins — that makes salvation possible (Catholics believe).

    I think where Catholic most dissagree with Baptists is on the Baptist idea that a person is saved through his own faith; as if a person was able to save himself. Rather, Catholics would argue that salvation is through God’s grace alone. Namely, that it is only through God’s grace that salvation is made possible. That Faith, Hope, and Love are only possible because of God’s grace. That we can choose to accept or reject this grace. We accept the grace when we accept Jesus’s offering upon the Cross: His body, blood, soul, and divinity – which are pressent in the Eucharist. John 6:66 describes what happens to those who do not accept Christ’s offering upon the Cross.

  14. Mary—-

    As a Southern Baptist—rapidly becoming a Reformed Calvinistic Baptist—I’ll disagree with your statement that Baptists hold to the idea that it is man’s own faith that brings salvation–that he is able to save himself. What I’ve always been taught (and believe)is that we each must choose to accept what Christ did for us on the cross—we choose to accept His grace–and by accepting, we fortify our belief. Our faith, as well as our salvation, is only through God’s grace. So—our thoughts on salvation are apparantly not that far apart.

    BTW—we’ve wandered off the topic a little—Wyman’s work on Church Discipline is wonderful. I agree with David, his books and website are a tremendous reference for any church.