We are conditioned to look upon prosperity as a good thing, a positive blessing from God. Our culture, our society is driven by materialism, and popularity and success are seen as good things. Kept in perspective they can be a great benefit, but too often our sinful nature feeds on blessings and perverts them into shackles that bind or curses that destroy. God, through Moses, warned ancient Israel about this very thing:
"But Jeshurun (i.e., Israel) grew fat and kicked--
You are grown fat, thick, and sleek--
Then he forsook God who made him,
And scorned the Rock of his salvation" (Deut. 32: 15 NASB).
Today the Southern Baptist Convention, on paper, is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States with over 42,000 churches and some 16--17,000,000 members. Only 200 years ago Baptists were a small and despised minority in North America, just beginning to organize for global missions, In 1814 Baptists organized their first national body on American soil, the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions. With a name like that you can see why it was quickly shortened to the nickname "Triennial Convention" (it met every three years). From that original Convention two major Baptist bodies emerged: the American Baptist Churches, USA (formerly the Northern Baptist Convention, then the American Baptist Convention), and the Southern Baptist Convention.
At the beginning of the twentieth century both the Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions were approximately the same size, but in the course of the twentieth century the SBC far outstripped its northern counterpart in conversions, churches, and missionaries on the field. The SBC has held, in the main, to a more conservative Baptist theology and retained more commitment to the Baptist confessional heritage. And yet, as I look at my beloved SBC, I see signs that all is not well, even in the wake of our Conservative Resurgence.
A colleague of mine commented one day that unless we also reclaim biblical authority the battle for biblical inerrancy will have to be fought all over again. We are all to ready to declare the shibboleth of inerrancy, but are we ready to come under the yoke of biblical authority? I've been reading Baptists of the nineteenth century, and I find a different "spirit" (for lack of a better term) at work among them than we see today. These were people who took the Bible to be the Word of God written--inerrant to be sure. But they also understood it to be God's authoritative law for the churches. A "profession of faith" meant something different to them. It was not a mere "decision" made by reciting a prayer and filling out a card. It was something you stood before the whole church and declared in your own words prior to baptism. A lifetime of godly devotion was expected of every church member. Failure to bring forth continual fruit in keeping with repentance meant being lovingly confronted with church discipline.
Today's apparent numerical success has become a hindrance to the hard work of church discipline and associational discipline. We dare not withdraw fellowship from wayward members for fear of what it would do to our numbers (only about 30--40% of our total members attend church regularly). We dare not withdraw fellowship from churches that have deviated in doctrine or practice for fear of what it would do to our numbers (upwards of 70% of our churches are not effectively reaching the lost). And so we allow people to remain on our rolls who give no credible evidence of genuine conversion and churches to remain in good standing that have long since ceased to be New Testament congregations. Success has become a shackle that binds us and is holding us back from being the people of God we are called to be.