I am one of those Baptist pastors who provides “The Trail Of Blood” to new Church members. However, I am also one of those Baptist pastors who decries the notion that holding up the red pamphlet and waving “The Trail Of Blood” while espousing its message is sufficient historical background for anyone, whether a preacher or a Church member. I count twenty volumes of Baptist history and almost twenty volumes devoted to Baptist ecclesiology in my library, not counting the dozen or so works that deal specifically with the ordinance of baptism. I suppose the point that I seek to illustrate is that not growing up in a Christian home, and coming to Christ apart from any awareness of Christian denominations after graduating from engineering school, and then not ever thinking about being a Baptist for some time after my conversion, I have arrived at my Baptist convictions on my own and without childhood or adolescent influences. That may make me a bit more alert to breaches of settled Baptist convictions than those who were born and raised in Baptist homes.
I provide this background as a jumping off point for this thirteenth installment in this series of offerings given in answer to the question “Why Are They Leaving?” Providentially, I have recently read a small book written by the longtime pastor of the First Baptist Church of Camarillo, CA, Dan Nelson. Titled “Baptist Revival: Reaffirming Baptist Principles in today’s Changing Church Scene,” the excellent short book of 124 pages is just the ticket for encouraging longtime Baptist pastors like me and solidifying those great many graduates of Baptist schools who get wobbly once they enter the ministry, supposing that being slipshod with convictions and blending in with evangelicals is the way to go. It is not the way to go.
Though Dr. Nelson’s little book is considerably broader in scope than my present concern, he does devote space to one aspect of Baptist convictions that is often overlooked these days and is a reason I think some young people and also some ministers leave our movement. I have always thought of the matter under the heading soul liberty, though Dr. Nelson prefers to use the label soul competency. Whatever label one uses the concept centers on the individual’s right before God to address spiritual matters relating to his eternal and undying soul as he sees fit, without coercion or manipulation from others. This means the government cannot require you to be a Roman Catholic or a Greek Orthodox Church member, or even a Lutheran Church member. This also means your parents have no right to make that decision for you by subjecting you to paedo-baptism as an infant. The point of fact, no one has any business coercing anyone about spiritual matters. Such issues are between the individual and God.
Oh, I know people in the United States of America will claim to embrace the notion of soul liberty. And Baptist preachers will deliver rousing sermons decrying the loss of soul liberty. However, it is among the Baptists, in particular, the independent Baptists, that I have observed the most egregious violations of soul liberty over the past four decades of my Christian life and service. How so? In two ways, manipulation and intimidation.
Consider this matter of manipulation. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines manipulation as the “artful management or control, as by shrewd use of influence, especially in an unfair or fraudulent way.” Pentecostals and Charismatics frequently manipulate with an organ that plays while the preacher is speaking, using music to heighten the emotional level and excite the auditors. However, Baptists do the same thing by different means. I need not cite examples. However, when one considers the great movements of God of old in people’s lives despite strong influence to the contrary, it is seen that God does not need manipulative ministry to work in people’s lives. Reflect on Pentecost, where 3,000 abandoned family, employment, and who knows that else to embrace Christ. Consider also the First Great Awakening, the Second Awakening, the Welsh Revival, and others where God worked against prevailing cultural, social, and family influences and the men God used did not engage in manipulative techniques of any kind! Is it not sad that most teens have never seen a youth group that did not depend utterly on manipulative techniques? Sadly, the same is true in most congregational services as well, with music being the chief manipulative tool used to influence people and persuade them that God is being worshiped when in fact, the room is only being entertained.
Consider also coercion using intimidation. Webster’s defines intimidate “to make timid; to make afraid; overawe.” I had three pastors before entering the pastorate. The first and the last were veterans of the United States Army during World War Two. Neither man, though both were my father’s age, made any attempt to intimidate me, to instill fear into me as a leadership tool, or engaged in any conduct designed to overawe me. It was my second pastor, one of the subjects of Elmer Towns’ books, though considerably younger and without any experience in the military, whose entire philosophy of pastoral ministry exuded ferocity, aggression, and a barely concealed anger beneath his surface personality. As I reflect on my Bible college days after surrendering to the Gospel ministry, I detected no such hostility or coercive intimidation in the leadership of the school where I attended, even though the man who led the school had been an Army officer during the Korean conflict. The point that I make is that some in the Gospel ministry rely on coercion by intimidation while others, even those who faced life and death situations, saw no need for such an unscriptural approach to ministry.
Turning to God’s Word, it is clear the Savior and His apostles never resorted to such means as either manipulation or coercive intimidation to provoke compliance. On the contrary, Matthew 12.1-21 and First Thessalonians 2.7 paint a very clear picture of directness, honesty, and gentleness in ministry.
But is such directness, honesty, and gentleness the norm with contemporary Gospel ministers in our camp? I know some who are masters of manipulation and who coerce with intimidation while expressing the opinion that gentleness in ministry and refusing to coerce decisions from sinners or Church members is a sign of weakness and lack of spiritual leadership. I am persuaded otherwise. It is easy to see when a pastor or preacher has veered off course into manipulation and coercion by intimidation. It can be seen when those who are being dealt with are often afraid. Or those being dealt with are led to make decisions they do not understand or because they have been influenced but not by God’s Spirit. Be careful when those in your ministry seem to be afraid of displeasing you, when their real concern should be pleasing God.
To keep my comments from being overlong, I summarize: It is a long held practice of Baptists to recognize and refuse to violate anyone’s soul liberty, even a child’s soul liberty. Thus, it becomes the spiritual Gospel minister to make sure he is not even accidentally (or subtly) manipulating or intimidating anyone. Are decisions made that are not followed through? Of course, such always happens. But if it happens overmuch it might suggest manipulation is being felt. Is there fear on the part of those being ministered to, that is not fear resulting from the Spirit’s conviction? That may suggest coercion by intimidation, even if there is no intent.
Our desire as Baptists should be to conduct ministry that is blessed by God. Such ministry does not need to resort to either manipulation or coercion. Perhaps some are leaving to escape manipulation, even if they end up involved in an even more manipulative ministry elsewhere. As well, be on the lookout for those who are afraid of you, suggesting that you may be engaged in some form of coercion. Not good if you truly are a minister of the Gospel.