The Baptist Distinctive of Personal Integrity

Devotional for the CBF Coordinating Council January 1997

 Published in Baptists Today, February 20, 1997

(Also published in Virginia's Religious Herald and the Texas Baptist Committed Newsletter)


by Dr. Bruce Prescott


In times past, Baptists would speak about “soul competency” or  “the priesthood of every believer.”  The meaning of  those phrases, however,  has been obscured.  Fundamentalists have redefined the meaning of  the “priesthood of the believer” to mean “submission to pastoral authority” and some moderate Baptists are renouncing the doctrine of  “soul competency” as a product of  “enlightenment rationalism.”  As a result, we are in great danger of loosing sight of an insight that is central to Baptist identity.  That insight is what I am calling  “The Baptist Distinctive of Personal Integrity.”


It was personal integrity that led John Smyth to separate from the church of England and to adopt believer’s baptism.  It was personal integrity that led Thomas Helwys to separate from John Smyth and return to England to start the First Baptist church in England.  It was personal integrity that led Roger Williams to break with the state church in Boston and start the First Baptist Church in America.  It was personal integrity that led John Leland in his struggle for religious liberty and his opposition to slavery.  And, in more recent days, it was personal integrity that led David Currie and Texas Baptists to form Baptists Committed and it was personal integrity that led Cecil Sherman, Daniel Vestal and others to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.


If there is anything common to all these instances of what I am calling personal integrity it is that none of them were examples of submission to the prevailing opinion in their own community of faith.  All of them are examples of submission to the authority of an inner voice that speaks in the heart and mind and conscience.  In one way or another, all of them are examples of people who were constrained to obey God rather than men.  All of them recognized that they would appear before the judgment seat of Christ and that when they appear there, they will all stand alone.  No parents, no friends, no teachers, no pastors, no churches, and no denominations will be there to make excuses for them, -- and, they won’t be able to use any of these to make excuses for themselves. 


Paul tells us,“We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” (2 Cor. 5:10)  When we appear there, we will all stand alone.  Christ will know how many times He spoke to our hearts and minds and consciences through the voice of the Holy Spirit.  He will also know how many times we listened and heeded His voice, -- and, he will know how many times we turned away and followed a different voice. 


Christ will know who acted with integrity in regard to their church and denomination and who did not.  My conviction on these matters leads me to expect that every Baptist will be held accountable for the times they turned from the voice that troubled their consciences.  Every layperson will account for the times he turned from the voice that troubled him when his preacher and his denomination stopped proclaiming the power of the gospel to save and transform individual lives and began proclaiming the power of politics to save and revive whole nations.   Every preacher will account for the times he ignored his conscience concerning the takeover of the SBC and refused to lead his congregation to partner with fellowships and organizations that proclaim the unadulterated message of the gospel.  Every denominational leader will account for the times he grew deaf to conscience by refusing to lead his association and convention to partner with fellowships that serve God’s people and God’s kingdom rather than the principalities and powers of the world.  Either we hold these convictions or we don’t.  If we do, then we need to give them voice.  Personal integrity requires that we give voice to our convictions.


Integrity demands that we speak our convictions beyond the circle of people who share them.  We must “speak the truth in love” to those who disagree with us. (Eph. 4:15)  We must speak the truth about the need for personal integrity to the Baptists in the other churches within our associations and state convention.  We must speak with conviction and with humility.


It is easier to speak with conviction than with humility.  Convictions are convictions because we feel strongly about them, have few doubts about them, and we tend to share them forcefully.  The Apostle Paul struggled with this and it is good to keep his example in mind.  Paul expressed some strong convictions about the suitabity of John Mark for ministry after he abandoned the work on the first missionary journey.  Those convictions put an end to his partnership with Barnabas, who was equally convicted that Mark would make good in the ministry.  When Christians have conflicting convictions, personal integrity requires that we move on in our separate ways and leave it for God to judge who is right.  Later, when God showed Paul that Barnabas right, Paul had the humility to admit it.  Integrity requires humility as well as conviction.   We are still growing in faith and maturity.  We are not perfect.  Personal integrity demands that we entertain the possibility that we can be wrongly convicted. 


The one thing integrity won’t let us do is refuse to act on our convictions.  Personal integrity is putting love in action.  You either love “in deed and truth” or you are merely giving lip service to love (1 John 3:18).  Modern Baptists are plagued with lip service lovers.  If someone had insisted that Paul and Barnabas stay together until they agreed on John Mark, nothing would have been done for God’s Kingdom.  It is time for Texas Baptists to stop giving lip service about who they think is fit for ministry.  Either the fundamentalists are right about the people in CBF not being fit for ministry, or they are wrong.  It is time for Texas Baptists to pick their partners and move on in the Lord’s work.  The truth is, the fundamentalists have more integrity than the legions of Baptists who are still sitting on the bleachers refusing to get on the field and take a side.  The fundamentalists are listening to the wrong voice and they have much to learn about humility, but at least they have the integrity to act on their convictions.  Personal integrity demands that you act on your convictions.  If you act on the wrong convictions, you can learn from your mistake, repent, and grow in grace.  You can’t grow at all until you have the courage and faith to act on your convictions.


As we act on our convictions, personal integrity requires that we do two things.  First, we must always remember that no one is an infallible interpreter of the voice of God.  Fundamentalists have forgotten this one.  Second, we must never forget that everyone is personally responsible for learning to listen to that voice and interpret it for themselves.  Some Moderates are clouding our memory of this.  The truth is, there aren’t any infallible interpretations of the voice of God.  It is not in the literal interpretation of an inerrant Bible -- where our fundamentalist brothers think they have found it.  Nor is it in the disciplined community -- where our moderate brothers hope they will find it.  We all must live by faith, not by sight.  That is what Paul concludes in a verse that I think summarizes the Baptist distinctive of personal integrity, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5)  This is a worthy goal for all Baptists.



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