Published May 23, 2008
On May 12 Baptist Press announced that Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, would nominate Les Puryear, senior pastor of Lewisville (N.C.) Baptist Church, for president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
McKissic cited several reasons for nominating Puryear, one being his commitment to small churches. “Les is a small church pastor,” McKissic stated, “and he represents the majority of the Convention. It’s time for the Southern Baptist Convention to acknowledge that small churches are just as valuable in God’s kingdom as any other size church.”
Indeed, some have complained that individuals from large churches have dominated the Convention’s leadership. Peter Lumpkins, a Baptist blogger from Georgia, has suggested that “an over-estimated value of membership in a big church may have very well degenerated from a ‘mega-church-mania’ into a ‘mega-church-maligning.’”
In addressing this issue Puryear explained,” I want to raise the awareness of our Convention to address the needs of its largest constituents, which are small churches. The majority of our churches (83%) have less than 200 in average Sunday morning worship and yet, we have very few publications that deal with ministering in a small church environment.
“Those who serve on committees and boards do not reflect the true distribution of our churches. We are a convention of small churches, which is governed by people from large churches.
“I have nothing against our large churches. However, the churches that have more than 1,000 in average Sunday morning worship comprise 1.4 percent of our churches in the SBC. When the majority of our trustees and committee members come from only 1.4 percent of our churches, then I think that is a problem.
“I hope to change the distribution of representatives of our boards and agencies to more accurately reflect the current distribution of churches within the SBC.”
Puryear indicated that he had not thought about allowing his name to be placed in nomination for Convention president until he heard current SBC president Frank Page speak at the Small Church Leadership Conference, held at Puryear’s North Carolina church, on March 29.
Puryear recalled, “Dr. Page was speaking on the role of the small church in the SBC. He made two statements that got my attention. He said, ‘It’s time that the SBC had a small church leader as president.’ Then he said, ‘Why don’t one of you allow your name to be nominated for SBC president?’
“Those two statements by Dr. Page opened up to me the possibility that a small church leader might be a viable candidate for SBC president. It is my hope that my candidacy will inspire other leaders of small churches to seek leadership positions in the SBC.”
McKissic cited a second reason for nominating Puryear, stating, “Les wants to continue the direction that Frank Page has started in getting people involved in the national convention who have not been involved in the past. This will include small and mid-sized church leaders, and people from varying ethnic backgrounds.”
McKissic’s third reason for wanting to nominate Puryear has sparked some interesting debate across the Convention. He explained, “Les holds to a Reformed view of salvation but it does not matter to him your theological position on soteriology – whether Arminian, Calvinism, or anything in between. If you have a passion to reach people for Jesus Christ, then Les believes you should be welcome to be a part of the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s time for the local church to stop talking about evangelism and missions and start doing evangelism and missions.”
Puryear’s reformed theology and openness to every soteriological (the study of the doctrine of salvation) position between the Armininian view and the Calvinistic view seems to be somewhat disingenuous if the messages on some of his blogs are taken into consideration. For example, last year he wrote, “I am greatly disturbed by the distribution of Dr. Jerry Vines’ atrocious sermon on Calvinism at FBC Woodstock to all churches in Florida by an executive of the Florida Baptist Convention.
“The lies about Calvinism destroying evangelism come from people who have no idea what they’re talking about. I am outraged to see a coordinated campaign from a state convention to impugn the ‘Doctrines of Grace.’ … Brothers this is just the beginning of man-centered Arminians seeking to stamp out anyone and anything that they don’t understand or does not meet their tradition of belief.”
Yet, in an interview with The Christian Index Puryear explained, “I hold to a Reformed view of salvation. I also am very evangelism- and missions-focused. Southern Baptists are a people who hold varying views of the process of salvation from Arminianism all the way to Calvinism. I have heard some in our Convention speak against others who hold a different soteriological viewpoint than they do.
“I fear that some may try to make a soteriological viewpoint a litmus test of Southern Baptist orthodoxy. It is my desire to encourage all Southern Baptists who believe that salvation is by faith in Christ alone to work together to reach a lost and dying world with the good news of Jesus Christ.”
The North Carolina pastor indicated that he wanted to work with anyone no matter what their differences are in regard to what he referred to as “non-essential beliefs.” When asked to explain he specified, “The doctrines which should be viewed as non-essential are those doctrines which are not addressed in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
“I base this on a statement in the preamble of the BF&M 2000, which reads, ‘We are not embarrassed to state before the world that these are doctrines we hold precious and as essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice. Thus, the preamble of the BF&M 2000 states that the doctrines included in the confession are the essentials of our faith. Therefore, I would interpret non-essential doctrines as those which are not included within the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”
However, on July 11, 2007 Puryear, in responding to a fellow blogger wrote, “I am finding myself more and more amenable to Covenant Theology, including the practice of paedobaptism. I have taken the time to read several books about these beliefs and I find myself nodding my head in agreement with what I am reading.
“Where does that place me theologically? Right now, I’m not quite sure. I feel like I’m somewhere in a demilitarized zone between Baptist and Presbyterian.”
In responding to The Index’s inquiry about these statements, Puryear elucidated, “I do not agree with nor do I hold to the tenets of Covenant Theology. In regard to paedobaptism, that is, infant baptism, I do not agree with nor hold to the practice of paedobaptism. I believe, preach, and practice believer’s baptism only.
“Now, for the elaboration in regard to statements on my blog about these doctrines. I have a dear friend who served in Southern Baptist churches as well as on the foreign mission field for many years. A couple of years ago, he left the Southern Baptist church where he served for a position at a Presbyterian church. When I would talk to him about the issues of covenant theology and paedobaptism, he was somewhat evasive. I wanted to understand these doctrines so I could intelligently talk to him. I purchased several books on covenant theology and paedobaptism. As I read the biblical support for covenant theology I saw why they believed the way they did.
“Also I read that paedobaptism was not salvific (having power to bring about salvation), but only a “sign of the covenant” which God has with His people. Therefore, their rationale for a Christian family to baptize their newborns as a promise to raise them up in the covenant promise of God for His people.
“After I read these books, I spoke to my friend about what I had learned. He said that infant baptism was basically the same thing as our baby dedication. At that point, I could see how they could believe what they said they believed. If indeed paedobaptism was like our baby dedication then I could understand their view.
“In my blog, I said I was ‘amenable’ to these views. My wording was woefully imprecise in expressing my thoughts. What I was trying to say was that I could understand why they believe what they believe.
“As I continued to study these doctrines, although I could understand their belief, I concluded that these were not doctrines which I could support. The biblical support for these doctrines was flimsy in my view. Therefore, my study in covenant [theology] and paedobaptism resulted in my rejecting those doctrines.
“I am glad I put the time in studying these doctrines because I believe I am now better equipped to defend the Baptist view of believer’s baptism as opposed to infant baptism. That is one of the problems with many Southern Baptists today and why they fall prey to cults such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t know what they believe and why they believe it.”
Some will praise Puryear for continuing to clarify his own theological position. Others will conclude that he should not have aired his theological pilgrimage openly on the blogosphere if he is going to be nominated for president of the SBC.
“I am probably the only SBC presidential candidate in history who has one and one-half years of personal thoughts published on a myriad of topics in public view,” Puryear declared. “If one reads my blog, I believe one will find that I am transparent in my views. Some have said I am too transparent. Perhaps so, but I have a high value of transparency.
“I think our lack of transparency communicates to the world that we are not relevant. I think that most people are tired of Christians pretending that everything is fine and dandy when it’s not. I think the world is looking for authentic people with authentic problems and authentic solutions.
“We’ve to real answers to real issues. The answer is Jesus Christ. We need to share Him with our friends, family, and neighbors.”
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