The Serampore Form of Agreement

I am often encouraged and inspired by the actions of the men who participated in the Baptist Missionary Society during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Their commitment to the gospel serves as an example worthy of emulation.

In 1805 (twelve years after William Carey had initially sailed to India), nine missionaries gathered and added their signatures to William Ward’s initial draft listing their shared commitment. William Carey’s name was affixed first, followed by Joshua Marshman and William Ward. Below their names, those of John Chamberland, Richard Mardon, John Biss, William Moore, Joshua Rowe, and Felix Carey (William’s son) were added.

Respecting the great principles upon which the brethren of the Mission at Serampore, think it their duty to act in the work of instructing the heathen.

  1. To set an infinite value upon men’s souls.
  2. To acquaint ourselves with the snares which hold the minds of the people.
  3. To abstain from whatever deepens India’s prejudice against the gospel.
  4. To watch for every chance of doing the people good.
  5. To preach “Christ crucified” as the grand means of conversion.
  6. To esteem and treat Indians always as our equals.
  7. To guard and build up “the hosts that may be gathered.”
  8. To cultivate their spiritual gifts, ever pressing upon them their missionary obligation, since Indians only can win India for Christ.
  9. To labor unceasingly in biblical translation.
  10. To give ourselves without reserve to the Cause, “not counting even the clothes we wear our own.”

Such was their devotion to these principles that the signers committed to reading the agreement publicly at each mission station at least three times per year.

In my reading, perhaps what stands out most is not that their endeavors were unique, but instead how applicable these policies are to our present-day missions and evangelistic efforts. Simply by substituting our present contexts for India, every church—every believer—should be eager to advocate for such policies.

In upcoming posts, I hope to explore some of the theological commitments that seem to have undergirded this statement, but before doing so, it seems worth asking,

What about these principles stand out most to you?

Posts in this series

*Historical note: The list appears to be drawn from the headings provided by Samuel Pearce Carey (1862–1953)—grandson of both William Carey and Samuel Pearce.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

The Underlying Premise of Congregationalism

Recent years have seen an increase in discussions concerning polity. Historically, the leadership of any given church has taken on one of several forms: an episcopal church structure wherein the leadership of a given local church is overseen by a bishop or bishops outside the local church, a presbyterian form of church governance wherein the local church is governed by a number of elders who may also join other elders from other churches in the formation of a presbytery that oversees a number of churches, or autonomous congregationalism. Local church autonomy emphasizes that no board or leadership outside the bounds of the local congregation have any authority over the local church and congregationalism emphasizes that no leader or group of leaders from within the congregation have any authority over the members of the church body that is not derived from the local body itself.

Baptists have generally, almost univocally, advocated for autonomous congregationalism.

Discussions may be had (and in my view, need to be had) as to what this means, but unlike other denominations wherein the authority of the church exists outside the local congregation, Baptists have often emphasized that no earthly authority outside of the local church exists over the local church.

Instead, it is argued, the New Testament teaches that churches must be ruled by Jesus Christ, led by faithful elders, and served by godly deacons. (Note that my use of the term “elder” is synonymous with the pastoral office. I am merely attempting to use the language typified in the New Testament.)

In a congregational model of church governance, this means that the membership of the church seeks the will of Jesus Christ corporately and then, in light of his will, calls a pastor/pastors to lead them (in the ministry of the Word and prayer) and ordain deacons for service.

Recently, it struck me that the Baptist emphasis of autonomous congregationalism is inextricably linked to another point of distinction from other denominations.

Congregational church polity is built upon the foundation of regenerate church membership.

Think of it. If one were to believe that the membership of the church (in distinction to the attendance of a church service, which should be a mixed gathering) was comprised of both believers and unbelievers, it would be foolish to entrust the direction of the church to the congregation. How can those who do not know Christ know his will?

However, if one believes that the congregational membership is made up entirely of believers who know Christ and who seek his will, congregationalism is the logical conclusion.

Every born-again Christian has direct access to Christ. This is one of the emphases recovered by the Reformer, Martin Luther that has continued to be advocated by those in the Free Church movement. There are to be no intermediaries between believers and the “one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5 CSB). All believers are part of the same holy and royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9).

Therefore, there is only one authority external to the local assembly of believers—Jesus Christ. He alone is there head. He alone rules the church. It is the responsibility of the congregation to discern his will and walk therein.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Andrew Fuller’s Answer to the Decline of SBC Baptisms

It has been widely reported that Southern Baptist churches are on a downward trend. Many have voiced their opinions as to the solution to our decline, and yet, few are as poignant and direct as the 18th-century pastor-theologian, Andrew Fuller. In a diary entry, dated September 30, 1785, Fuller wrote of a meeting among ministers:

A question was discussed, to the following purport:—To what causes in ministers may much of their want of success be imputed? The answer turned chiefly upon the want of personal religion; particularly the neglect of close dealing with God in closet prayer. Jer. x 21, was here referred to, ‘Their pastors are become brutish, and have not sought the Lord; therefore they shall not prosper, and their flocks shall be scattered.’ Another reason assigned was the want of reading and studying the Scriptures more as Christians, for the edification of our own souls. We are too apt to study them namely to find out something to say to others, without living upon the truth ourselves. If we eat not the book, before we deliver its contents to others, we may expect the Holy Spirit will not much accompany us. If we study the Scriptures as Christians, the more familiar we are with them, the more we shall feel their importance; but, if otherwise, our familiarity with the word will be like that of soldiers and doctors with death—it will wear away all sense of its importance from our minds. To enforce this sentiment, Prov. xxii. 17, 18, was referred to—‘Apply thine heart to knowledge—the words of the wise will be pleasant if thou keep them within thee; they shall withal be fitted in thy lips.’ To this might be added Psal. i. 2, 3. Another reason was, Our want of being emptied of self-sufficiency. In proportion as we lean upon our own gifts, or parts, or preparations, we slight the Holy Spirit; and no wonder that, being grieved, he should leave us to do our work alone. Besides, when this is the case, it is, humanly speaking, unsafe for God to prosper us, especially those ministers who possess considerable abilities.

Andrew Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:47-48

He attributes the “want of success” in his day to:

  1. The lack of personal prayer
  2. The lack of personal devotion to the Word (reading and studying the Scriptures)
  3. The lack of humility (or, stated otherwise, the sin of pride)

As Southern Baptists consider our own “want of success,” perhaps it would be helpful to consider such a heart-check. It is likely that there are dozens of reasons that conversions have dropped in Southern Baptist churches and that many of them are beyond our control. But these three answers would appear to have some credence for us today.

Are we, pastors and laymen alike, devoted to God in prayer? Are we diving deeply into Scripture, seeking what the Lord would have of us before seeking what the Lord would have of them? Are we relying on our own man-made methods and systems and programs to reach the lost or are we relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts and lives?

Perhaps, Andrew Fuller has the answer to the decline of SBC baptisms after all.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Authority, Submission, and Scripture

Several years ago I found myself in a difficult conversation with some leaders in our church about women teaching and preaching in the church. Though I taught complementarianism, these men believed that the church should be more inclusive and cease its historic “oppression” against women.

I insisted that the offices of the church—elders and deacons—were restricted to men according to Scripture and that we, as believers and as a church, were called to submit ourselves to God’s Word. Each time I brought forward a passage of Scripture demonstrating my point, one of the men simply said, “I know that’s what it says. I just can’t go there. We have a difference of interpretation.”

He had fallen back on this “agree-to-disagree” mantra before. While his “agree-to-disagree” position seemed more tolerant at a surface-level, in actuality he used it in an attempt to press his own preference upon me (the pastor) and the church as a whole. So finally, I forced the issue.

“You keep saying, ‘We have a difference of interpretation,’” I said. “Can you show me what you mean? Would you read this?”

I then opened my Bible to 1 Timothy 2:12 and asked him to read through 1 Timothy 3:7.

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

I asked, “Do you agree that Paul is teaching that the teaching office is restricted to men?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Do you agree that Paul is teaching that a woman is not to hold a position of authority over a man in the church?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Do you agree that Paul is rooting his argument not in culture, but in creation? That he’s saying that this is not in response to what’s transpiring in Ephesus, but has roots as far back as Genesis and God’s created order?”

“I can see that,” he said. “But I just can’t go there.”

In that statement, he finally acknowledged the real problem.

“Then what we don’t have is a difference of interpretation,” I said.

It would be a difference of interpretation if he believed that I’ve misstated what Paul taught, or he believed that—despite Paul’s reference to Adam and Eve—Paul’s argument was based upon false teaching being spread by way of the women’s groups, or that the word for “authority” in that passage isn’t properly translated. All of these are different interpretations—even if wrong interpretations, in my opinion. But he agreed with every point in my interpretation of that passage. Whatever our difference was, it couldn’t be a difference of interpretation.

“This isn’t a matter of interpretation. This isn’t an interpretation issue. This is a submission issue.”

And this one moment of clarification—one of my last moments at this particular church—gave me a great concern for the state of the greater body of Christ. Far too often, we approach Holy Writ having already determined which areas of our lives it may and may not instruct us. Far too often, we position ourselves as the referees and feel free to blow the whistle whenever Scripture gets out of line with what we believe it to say or believe it should say.

Sure, we’ll let God’s Word give us hope in the midst of trials. We’ll let it promise us blessings. We take comfort in knowing that believers are safe and secure in the hand of God. But we’re so quick to throw our yellow flag when it speaks to issues near and dear to our own comfort. We’re not comfortable with the subject of the tithe, or the manner in which it reveals God as Father, or the notion that the Son of God was made to suffer in the place of sinners to satisfy God’s wrath. We’re prone to dismiss that as culturally-irrelevant or (though few would say it outright) simply wrong.

But we’re not given that option.

We’re called to search out the Scriptures honestly. We’re called to discern what God has said and is saying and to submit ourselves to that. God has spoken. Do we dare shake our fist at him and tell him which areas of our life are available to his instruction? We are not given the option to decide that simply because we don’t like a particular doctrine, we are not bound to submit ourselves to it.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). There is no asterisk to provide an “out” for cases in which we don’t like what those passages teach. There is no footnote that excuses those texts that expound doctrine contrary to our own preferences.

You may disagree with my interpretation of Scripture. You wouldn’t be the first. But, if you intend to do so, please do it because you are convinced that your interpretation is the most faithful to the Bible, not because you don’t like the conclusion of my interpretation.

If we are both attempting to be submitted to the Scriptures—rather than submitting those Scriptures to our own preferences and presuppositions—it changes our posture toward one another. Instead of being combative or viewing ourselves as different factions in a doctrinal dispute, we become fellow-pilgrims on the same path, encouraging one another to grow in our understanding of and obedience to God’s Word.

It all comes down to submission.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Pastoral Counsel – Is Abuse Grounds for Biblical Divorce?

Godly men and women have differed, and continue to differ, on what constitutes biblical grounds for divorce. For some, divorce is never permissible; others believe the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 (“except in the case of adultery”) to provide the only allowance. Others still view the term translated as “adultery”—porneia (interestingly enough, the Bible doesn’t use the Greek term that generally refers to adultery)—to refer to a litmus of sexual immoralities.

The difficulty lies in that nowhere in Scripture does it state explicitly that abuse is grounds for divorce. The only exception (given by Christ!) is porneia, or sexual immorality. And even that, when he was pressed, Jesus explains that Moses (in the Old Testament) permitted divorce only because of Israel’s hardness of heart.

So the way I’ve counseled it in the past, adultery (and I expand that in light of the use of porneia to include unrepentant sexual immorality) is legitimate grounds for divorce. However, I don’t think pastors/ministers should ever counsel believers to make an appeal for a divorce. In that way, I make a distinction between permissibility/grounds and counsel. I think the goal in every case should be the repentance of the offending party and the restoration of the marriage.

Sadly, that’s not always possible, but it should always be the desired outcome.

That having been said, if a woman (or a child for that matter) claim to have been abused, my responsibility as a pastor is to counsel distance and to report the claim to the authorities. My responsibility is to encourage their safety and let the state investigate the alleged abuse. All the while, my responsibility is to press for repentance from the guilty party and to seek, as much as I am able, the restoration of the marriage.

My experience is that by following that pattern, we provide the context for God to do incredible things and to save marriages that would often be lost otherwise; it also tends to drive a wedge between the party seeking restoration and the unrepentant offender—thereby showing their lack of conviction by the Holy Spirit, and ultimately resulting in abandonment. 1 Corinthians 7:15 speaks of the abandonment of an unbelieving spouse, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him leave. A brother or sister is not bound in such cases.” Then, the offended party is free of the guilt and shame that tends to come upon those who end up feeling like they could have done a little more to save their marriage.

Speaking of these things always reminds me that there are no simple answers. As believers in Christ, we must always search Scripture, ask for the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and walk in humble submission to God. Believers will not always agree on how that process plays out, but those who follow this pattern (searching Scripture, etc.) can disagree while respecting each other’s intentions.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

Why Caffeinated Theology?

In researching the 18th-century British Particular Baptists, I learned of a group known as the Baptist Board. The Baptist Board was a small group of London Baptist ministers who gathered each month at the Jamaican Coffee House—the first coffee house in London, established in 1652 in St Michael’s churchyard. (In a humorous historical twist, the spot continues to exist as the Jamaican Wine House). Historian Ernest Payne described the gatherings as “a denominational clearing-house, as well as a ministers’ fraternal.”

In their gatherings, they opened Scripture with one another, discussed theology together, and considered various public and denominational issues . . . all over a cup of coffee.

Fast-forward to January 2017. While teaching at an international seminary, I found myself among a small group of PhD students gathered at a little cafe in Penang, Malaysia. Together, we opened the Scriptures, discussed matters of theology and a number of cultural and denominational issues all while enjoying a freshly-brewed cup of coffee.

Simply stated, that is the vision of Caffeinated Theology—to become a place where friends can gather, open the Word of God together and consider various denominational and cultural happenings all the while encouraging one another.

So grab a cup of coffee and check out one of our articles. Then add a comment sharing your thoughts.

To see a handbill distributed by the Jamaican Coffee House during the 1650s, click here.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.