In Southern Baptist circles, this is the time of year for state convention meetings. In recent days, I have been with the Missouri, Iowa, and Texas state gatherings, and look forward to being with Alabama this week. These meetings have prompted me to reflect on our denominational efforts, and have reminded me of a memorable sermon from SBC history, which, oddly, speaks to our denominational moment.
During the SBC’s Inerrancy Controversy, the convention’s annual June meeting became “ground zero” for denominational conflict. Each year motions were made, resolutions offered, and candidates presented to fill committee assignments and trustee slots. Most every convention maneuver was contested privately, if not publicly.
The most consequential moment every year was the presidential election, but the most influential moments may have been the pastors’ conference and convention sermons. After all, Southern Baptists—of all stripes—are people of the Book, and intuitively look to the preacher and the preaching of the Word for direction.
Messengers who showed up at the convention looking for direction in navigating the SBC conflict found it in the pulpit. Sermons like Jerry Vines’, “A Baptist and his Bible,” Adrian Rogers’, “The Church Triumphant,” Jimmy Draper’s, “A People of Deep Belief,” and W.A. Criswell’s, “Whether We Live or Die” and “The Curse of Liberalism” were pivotal, memorable moments wherein the preachers pointed out the dangers of liberalism and the necessity of taking action.
The 1988 gathering marked year nine of the controversy, with battle fatigue setting in and no end to the conflict in sight. That year, Joel Gregory had been tapped to preach the annual convention sermon, the most coveted preaching slot. Then politically unaligned, Gregory possessed a voice and mind which would make most any preacher envious. God’s hand appeared to rest on him.
Gregory’s goal was ambitious enough. By citing the high costs of conflict and the benefits of cooperation, he made a compelling, pragmatic case for unity.
The sermon was captivating, but its effect proved short-lived. Peace would eventually come, but it would come through the ultimate conservative victory, not by way of pragmatic compromise.
Gregory’s sermon lives on, primarily because of its gripping conclusion about “the Castle and the Wall.” In it, he told the story of the bizarre ending of one of the great, old castles of Ireland.
It was the ancient home of the Castlereagh family, one of the most princely residences of the Emerald Isle. But the ancient home fell into decay and was no longer inhabited.
The usual happened. When peasants wanted to repair a road, build a chimney or pig-sty, they would scavenge stone from the fine old castle. The stones were already craftily cut, finished and fit. Best of all, they were available without digging and carrying for miles.
One day Lord Londonderry visited his castle. He was the surviving descendant and heir. When he saw the state of his ancestral home, he determined to end immediately the robbery of the building for its stones.
The ruin itself reflected the earlier glories of his family and was one of the treasures of Ireland. He sent for his agent and gave orders for the castle to be enclosed with a wall six feet tall and well-coped. This would keep out the trespassers. He went on his way.
Three or four years later he returned. To his astonishment, the castle was gone, completely disappeared, vanished into the air. In its place there was a huge wall enclosing nothing.
He sent for his agent and demanded to know why his orders had not been carried out. The agent insisted they had been. ‘But where is the castle?’ asked the Lord. ‘The castle, is it? I built the wall with it, my Lord! Is it for me to be going miles for materials with the finest stones in Ireland beside me?’
Lord Londonderry had his wall—but the castle, without which the wall meant nothing, had disappeared.
Gregory’s point could not be missed. What good would erecting a doctrinal wall be, if, in order to build it, one destroyed that which the wall was intended to protect?
Gregory had a point. After all, as his illustration implied, what good is the wall of sound doctrine if the castle of ministry and missions does not stand behind it.
But the point fails the test of Scripture and Church history. The castle of ministry and mission and the wall of doctrine do not merely complement one another. They enable and ensure one another. Where there is no wall of doctrinal faithfulness, there will not long be a castle of ministry and missions.
Or, put more bluntly, where there is no confessional faithfulness there will not long be denominational distinctiveness, and certainly not denominationally vibrant ministry and mission. Where there is no wall, there eventually will be no castle.
As Southern Baptists labor to maintain doctrinal faithfulness, sound Baptist identity, and convictional witness, we must also strive for healthier churches, an increasingly robust and global gospel witness, and a unified, well-funded and vibrant denomination.
For the Southern Baptist Convention to flourish in the 21st century, we will need both a strong castle and a robust wall. We cannot have the former without the latter. We must not settle for the latter without the former.topicsDenominational Integrity, Southern Baptist