This report could also be titled “What Is Missing from Sexton’s Friendship Conference” or “Friendship vs. Truth.”
The third annual Independent Baptist Friends International Conference is being held this week (April 15-20, 2012) at Crown College in Tennessee with the objective of urging independent Baptists to unite in friendship for local and world evangelism.
Pastor Clarence Sexton, the founder of the Friends conferences, says he is not trying to create a large movement or to unify all independent Baptists. He doesn’t want to create a new organization. He does not want to control anyone or to abuse anyone’s conscience. He simply wants to urge IFB preachers in all parts of the world to partner together in their towns and regions for the furtherance of evangelism.
In preparation for this year’s conference Dr. Sexton said:
“There is AN IRREDUCIBLE BODY OF TRUTH (e.g., who God is, what His Word is, what He says about salvation, the local New Testament church). There are a number of things that are in THIS IRREDUCIBLE BODY OF TRUTH. And I believe that all over the world that God will raise up circles of friends. They have the truth; people need the Lord; and they are going to work together. ... This should happen in every state, on every continent, among every people group” (Sexton, “On the High Road with a High Vision of God,” YouTube.com, April 9, 2012).
He gave examples of how that preachers are coming together in various places in answer to this challenge.
He said that this is a vision that God has given him, but the underlying philosophy is unscriptural. It is the “in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty” heresy that has been so effective in uniting evangelicals. Sexton refers to the “essentials” around which unity and joint ministry is possible as “an irreducible body of truth.”
The “in essentials unity” principle was adopted by the fundamentalist movement of the first half of the 20th century, and Dr. Sexton has been deeply affected by that from his years at Highland Park Baptist Church and his long association with and unquestioning loyalty to the late Dr. Lee Roberson. As a movement, “fundamentalism” focused on a unity built around “the fundamentals of the faith” while downplaying “minor issues.” The pragmatic objective was to create the largest possible united front against theological modernism and for world evangelism. This was the working philosophy at Highland Park Baptist Church and Tennessee Temple when I was a student there in the 1970s and a preacher in one of their chapels.
This has been a hallmark of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well. In describing why he is glad to be a Southern Baptist, Pastor Ben Simpson says, “I'm captivated by the commitment to unity in the essentials and mission of Christ while allowing diversity in the nonessentials and methodology” (“Two Divergent Views from Young Pastors,” Baptist Press, April 14, 2011).
An ever-increasing number of Independent Baptists are expressing this heresy today.
In his book Thinking Outside the Box, IFB leader Charles Keen (one of the speakers at the 2012 Independent Baptist Friends Conference) said:
“I’m a slow learner, but I finally realized that not all truth is of equal value. Some truths I differ from others and divide over even die for (as least I should). With others, I might be uncomfortable with how they are handled by my brethren, but I can still fellowship with them either personally or in some cases, ecclesiastically. WE NEED TO DEVELOP SOME “ECUMENICALISM WITHIN THE PARAMETERS OF FUNDAMENTALISM.’ ... Let’s decide who the enemies of the cross are and divide from them. Then let’s decide who the friends of grace are and TOLERATE THEM. We don’t have to unite but we do need unity” (p. 81).
WHAT IS A NON-ESSENTIAL DOCTRINE?
There is no support in the Bible for the “in non-essentials liberty” doctrine. It is a man-made heresy created to further a pragmatic objective.
What we see in Scripture is an ALL THINGS principle.
The Psalmist summarized the attitude and principle of the man of God who has the right relationship with truth in these words:
“Therefore I esteem ALL thy precepts concerning ALL THINGS to be right; and I hate EVERY false way” (Psalms 119:128).
There is not a hint here about some sort of “non-essential.”
The Lord Jesus Christ commanded His disciples to teach their converts “to observe ALL THINGS whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:20).
The apostle Paul reminded the elders at Ephesus that the reason he was free from the blood of all men was that he had preached the WHOLE COUNSEL of God (Acts 20:27). The more passionately you care about and the more plainly you preach the whole counsel of God, the less likely it will be that you will join hands in friendship ministry with those who hold different doctrine.
Paul instructed Timothy to keep the commandment “WITHOUT SPOT, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 6:14). A spot is a small, seemingly insignificant thing. That particular epistle contains commandments about such things as the woman’s role in ministry, which is widely considered a “non-essential” today. Paul taught Timothy to have an entirely different approach toward such teachings. To keep something without spot certainly does not mean to disregard it for the sake of friendship and evangelism.
In 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul said to the church at Corinth, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in ALL THINGS, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.”
This passage deals with hair length and the Lord’s Supper, which are widely considered to be “non-essentials,” yet Paul praised the church for remembering him in ALL things.
We know that not all doctrine has the same significance and weight, but none of it is “non-essential” in any sense.
I believe that modesty is a fundamental and essential doctrine. The same is true for the doctrine of sacred music, the doctrine of worship in spirit and truth, the doctrine of repentance, the doctrine of the preservation of Scripture, the doctrine of pastoral humility, the doctrine of church discipline, the doctrine of baptism, and the doctrine of “whosoever will” election (as opposed to “sovereign”).
I believe that unconformity to the world is an essential doctrine.
I believe that separation from compromising brethren is a fundamental issue (e.g., 2 Thess. 3:6).
The only “non-essential doctrine” is a doctrine not taught in Scripture. This is the subject of Romans 14. When we are dealing with such things as diet or holy days or the order of service or the time and the day of prayer meetings or the number of deacons or to use or not use musical instruments or whether or not to get involved in politics or to have or not have a Sunday School or formal youth ministry or the time and frequency of the Lord’s Supper or to have or not have a bus ministry or how much to support missionaries or a thousand other such things, we are dealing with opinion and tradition rather than the clear teaching of God’s Word, and each church must make up its own mind in such things, but personal opinion is always a “non-essential.”
While Pastor Sexton SAYS that he believes that everything in the Bible is important, his ACTIONS give a different and a louder message. The trumpet is giving an uncertain sound.
For example, Jack Schaap is a prominent member of Sexton’s circle of friends, having spoken at the first two Friends conferences. Schaap is not only a pastoral dictator (demanding unquestioning loyalty after the fashion of his mentor, Jack Hyles of “100% Hyles” fame) and one of the princes of Quick Prayerism, he also holds private heresies such as equating the Lord’s Supper and Bible reading to sexual union, generational spirits, prosperity giving, Jesus did not know who He was, and God hates men. To top it off, Schaap mentors a raunchy emerging rapper church. (For documentation, see The Two Jacks, which is available as a free eBook from Way of Life, www.wayoflife.org.)
Apparently Dr. Sexton either believes these heresies himself or he believes that they fall under the category of “non-essentials.”
The following is what we would say to Dr. Sexton if he would listen:
FRIENDSHIP VS. TRUTH
There is a need for Bible-believing men to befriend one another and to work together to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth and establish strong churches as the pillar and ground of the truth. There is a need to learn from one another, to expand our horizons, to get out of the rut that characterizes too many IB churches. (I have often said that the average IFBaptist is as tradition-bound as an Episcopalian.)
What I disagree with is not drawing the line clearly and consistently enough from Independent Baptists who are committed to compromise and heresy. I am talking about those who are renouncing biblical separation by associating with the SBC and ecumenical Southern Gospel, those who are using contemporary worship music, those who are adopting Reformed theology, those who are associating with “conservative evangelicals,” those who are moving rapidly in the contemporary direction, those who have cheapened soul winning and confused the issue of salvation with a Quick Prayerism methodology, those who have corrupted the biblical definition of repentance, those who have adopted modern textual criticism and promote the modern versions, those who have given up on modest dress standards, and those who teach private heresies such as Jack Schaap’s equating of the Lord’s Supper and Bible reading with sex.
Friendship is important, but truth is more important. Far too often friendship has trumped truth among IFBaptists. A good old boys network has trumped truth. Fear of the brethren has trumped truth.
WHY NO EMPHASIS ON SEPARATION?
I would ask, Dr. Sexton, why you don’t emphasize separation as much as you emphasize friendship.
The principle of separation is very practical. It is based on the truth that bad apples corrupt good ones. Evil communications corrupt good manners. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. I have no animosity or ill will whatsoever toward Ralph Sexton, Jr., (who spoke at the 2010 Friends Conference) or other men that I consider wishy-washy, or even toward their contemporary/ecumenical friends. They stand or fall to the Lord, not to me. But their principles are different from mine. What they believe and practice is different from what I believe and practice. They associate with the Southern Baptist Convention and I am convinced that this is disobedience. They are wishy-washy toward CCM and contemporary Southern Gospel, whereas I believe these are of the world and the flesh. They don’t speak out on issues such as New Evangelicalism and Billy Grahamism and Rick Warrenism and other contemporary compromises, whereas I believe that the trumpet against such things should be sounded long and loud and with distinct notes. They believe that Christian girls wearing one-piece and even two-piece bathing suits are “modest”; I believe that this is public nudity and results in fornication. They believe in taking Christian young people to Dollywood, and I believe that is dangerous and foolish spiritual compromise.
You have said that Independent Baptist Friends International is all about evangelism and world missions. I share that concern, and that is one reason why I believe in separation. As a long-time missionary church planter, I am deeply concerned about the influence that various men might have on the people we have led to Christ and are responsible to disciple. I would not want our people to be influenced by worldly Southern Baptists who are enemies of separation or Southern Baptist sympathizers or CCM adaptors or Quick Prayerists or those who are Reformed in theology and are being influenced by John Piper or who use modern textual criticism and promote the modern versions or those who have thrown off the “yoke” of modesty in dress.
But if I form a “circle of friends” that includes such men (since the IFBaptist movement happens to be filled with such men today), this is exactly what will happen.
I don’t believe that such a circle will result in more souls coming to Christ, but it will result in more compromise, which is the last thing we need.
I am sure that you would reply that you aren’t counseling us to form a circle of friends that include all these men, but that is exactly what you are doing BY YOUR ACTIONS. The speakers at the Independent Baptist Friends International conferences have included men who hold to practically all of the aforementioned errors.
It is this simple.
What I would urge you to do is draw the lines for Independent Baptist Friends much more strictly and host a Baptist STANDS conference and a Baptist SEPARATION conference that would plainly expose the great compromise and error that is sweeping through Independent Baptist churches and that would identify those who are at the forefront of leading God’s people astray on various key issues.
I would donate a free copy of the book Biblical Separatism and Its Collapse among Independent Baptists for each of the attendees.
I thank the Lord that there are churches that host such conferences. I am invited to speak in Baptist STANDS and Baptist SEPARATION conferences many times each year. We recorded one in Canada last fall, in fact, and it is available from Way of Life. This high-quality video series, which features hundreds of graphics and video clips, covers some of the material from the previously-mentioned book but it also features an extended and very practical study of the Bible’s teaching study on separation. It deals with such things as the biblical doctrine of Christian unity, the corrupting power of compromising separation, identification of error and the naming of names as an essential part of separatism, “essential” and “non-essential” doctrine, where to draw the line in separation, the right attitude in separation, and the necessity of Spirit-led wisdom in the practice of separation. Titles of the five messages are The Collapse of Separation among Fundamental Baptists, The Treacherous Waters of Evangelicalism, The Foundation of Separation, The Method of Separation, and The Basis of Separation. 3 DVDs. $29.95
SEXTON-STYLE FRIENDSHIP SPELLS THE END OF WARNINGS
In reality, there will be no such conferences under Clarence Sexton’s watch unless he changes his position and renounces the “vision” he is expressing through the Friends conferences, because clear warnings are incompatible with what Sexton is doing and what he is calling for.
To band together with a group of IFB preachers in any region requires reducing the joint beliefs to the lowest common denominator and encourages the tolerance of opposing views.
Take a mission field like Nepal, for instance. There are a number of IFB missionaries in Nepal, and they represent the gamut of beliefs and practices found among IFBaptists today. Many of them banded together in recent years to operate and staff a Bible College and encourage one another in the missionary work in the country, which is the type of thing envisioned by Sexton. The endeavor represented a mixed bag: some holding to a sacred music position with others claiming that music is largely a matter of personal taste; some drawing strict lines in Christian music with others loving CCM and contemporary Southern Gospel; some being nearly New Evangelical in perspective with others being more fundamentalistic; some caring deeply about the issue of modest dress with others viewing modest dress standards as legalistic; some believing in the necessity of repentance for salvation with others trying to get “decisions” any way they can; some believing in the preservation of the Greek Received Text with others dabbling in modern textual criticism. You get the picture. How do men holding such a variety of views get along in joint ministry? By tolerating opposing views and by not “criticizing” other views openly. In that situation you can teach your views to your own people, but you can’t warn plainly about an opposing view. This produces compromise of the conscience and over time it results in a weakening of spiritual conviction. The list of “non-essentials” tends to get longer as one’s associations grow wider.
I thank the Lord that I have many friends in Christ and in the battle for the truth. I have really good friends all over the world.
But truth is FAR more important than friendship, and it is truth that is falling to the ground today.
“Therefore I love thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold. Therefore I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way” (Psalms 119:127-128).
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