By Bob Allen
A suggestion by the president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention that the group’s largest church disassociate with Southern Baptists wouldn’t have much effect on the convention’s bottom line.
NewSpring Church, one of the fastest growing churches in the United States with 11 campuses across the state, gave $605 in mission contributions to the statewide affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2014, according to a financial report on the convention website.
The Anderson, S.C.-based megachurch, which is responsible for about one in three baptisms reported last year by Southern Baptists in South Carolina, came under fire in an open letter in the Baptist Courier from Tommy Kelly, president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
Kelly, pastor of the 600-member First Baptist Church in Varnville, S.C., charged NewSpring’s founding pastor, Perry Noble, with “problematic positions and statements that are inconsistent with the beliefs of South Carolina Baptists.”
Kelly responded specifically to Noble’s Christmas Eve sermon, when he told congregants that no word for “command” exists in Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, and reinterpreted the Ten Commandments as 10 “promises” of God’s blessings upon the faithful.
Noble, 43, who completed 30 hours toward a master of divinity degree before dropping out of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, later acknowledged an error based on his misunderstanding of something he learned during a recent trip to Israel. Upon further study, Noble said he was informed there is indeed a Hebrew word for “command,” but it isn’t the word the Bible uses when describing how the Ten Commandments were given.
Kelly emphasized the need for “sound exegetical study and expository preaching and teaching of God’s word.”
“All church leaders must take seriously their responsibilities to present well-thought and biblically based sermons and teaching that come from God’s infallible, inerrant Word and lead the lost to Christ,” Kelly said.
“Therefore, we as South Carolina Baptists must publicly state and remove ourselves from these positions and problematic statements and call for NewSpring to correct these positions if it chooses to say that it affiliates with South Carolina Baptist churches.
Heat of the moment
Noble also apologized for a Tweet dismissing critics of his message, saying it was written in the heat of the moment.
Kelly’s criticism went beyond the Christmas Eve sermon, however. His letter published Jan. 16 in the Baptist Courier, the state convention’s official news journal, also addressed the use of “coarse, profane language” in the pulpit and the need for “choosing music that is sacred in content” in worship services.
Noble, ordained to the ministry by North Anderson Baptist Church in 1995, resigned as the church’s youth minister to launch a new congregation geared toward people who aren’t already attending church.
NewSpring Church started out with 15 people meeting in a living room in Anderson for several months in 1999, followed by a first worship service attended by 115 people on the campus of Anderson University in January of 2000.
The South Carolina Baptist Convention helped the church plant get off the ground with $20,000 in financial aid over the first two years. In 2008, NewSpring Church gave the South Carolina Baptist Convention a check for $25,000 as a “thank you” for investing in the congregation’s beginning and to help the Baptist group to continue to invest in others.
The following year the Baptist Courier carried a story about NewSpring Church baptizing 906 believers in a single day.
Last July Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, ranked NewSpring as the largest Southern Baptist church, with weekly worship attendance averaging 27,158.
Like many of the largest SBC churches, NewSpring doesn’t include “Baptist” in its name. In a September blog on questions he is often asked, Noble said the reason is that “denominational loyalty is at an all-time low” and “Jesus did not die for denominations, he died for the church.”
Affiliated but not married
Noble told the Baptist Courier last year that NewSpring is “affiliated with” the SCBC, “but we are not married to them.”
“I think we follow theologically … with the Baptists way more than we do with any other denomination,” said Noble. “I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of the relationship.”
Concerning his congregation’s “very limited” support of the Cooperative Program, a unified budget plan that funds multiple ministries of both state and Southern Baptist conventions, Noble said his church is heavily involved in missions, supporting either directly or indirectly church plants on every continent except South America and Antarctica.
“I think the Cooperative Program, in what it was originally put together for, was very effective for that time period, and, in many cases, it’s still very effective today,” Noble told the Courier.
“I think one of the problems with missions in general is churches have said for too long that unless you do missions our way, you’re not doing missions,” he said. “So while we may not be giving a maximum amount to the Cooperative Program, I think our church is as missions-minded, and we’re seeing the Lord really do some great things all over the world.”
Giving and baptisms
According to its 2013 annual report, NewSpring gave $4.3 million to missions out of a total budget exceeding $50 million. The church reported nearly 12,000 professions of faith and 6,553 baptisms at campuses in Anderson, Charleston, Columbia, Florence, Greenville, Greenwood, Myrtle Beach and Spartanburg.
A total of 674 were baptized through The Gauntlet, NewSpring’s summer camp experience for students in grades 6-12. Total baptisms reported in 2013 by the 2,114 churches of the South Carolina convention, including NewSpring, stood at 18,253.
In his Christmas Eve sermon, covered extensively by secular media, Noble said a Messianic Jewish Bible teacher had told him the English rendering of “the Ten Commandments” is not an accurate translation of the word in the Hebrew text, which means “spoken word,” so the Ten Commandments are literally “10 sayings of God.”
He challenged the congregation to think of the Ten Commandments “as more like promises from God that are fulfilled in Christ” than laws to be obeyed.
Noble said in a blog Jan. 9 he didn’t realize he was getting into a contentious theological debate and he should have done more research before preaching the message. He also said he didn’t mean to mislead anybody by implying the Ten Commandments are not written as imperatives, which they are, but that everyone has broken them, and he wanted to use that reality to point people toward Christ.
In his statement, Kelly said many South Carolina Baptist churches were “disturbed and puzzled” by what Noble said in the sermon and that it’s a good idea for ministers to avoid getting into an isolated existence by finding an accountability group of fellow clergy to hold each other to a higher standard.
Last February Noble made headlines when he wrote a blog saying that Christians struggling with anxiety or depression should consider treatment with mood-altering drugs in addition to Bible reading and prayer. He also revealed that in the past he struggled with depression and even considered suicide.
He wrote about the battle in a book Overwhelmed: Winning the War against Worry published by Tyndale House Publishers in April 2014.