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What Does It Mean to be Southern Baptist? comment (0)

February 20, 2014

By Bob Terry

What Does It Mean to be Southern Baptist?

In a recent address at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., Frank Page said, “I wake up every day asking myself the question, ‘Who are we? Who is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)? There is no discernible answer.’”

That seems like a strange response from the president and chief executive officer of the SBC Executive Committee, the highest administrative position in our denominational structure. If anyone can explain who Southern Baptists are, it should be him. 

Page told the seminary audience that Southern Baptists now experience “tectonic plate-like fault lines” that make it impossible to describe what the SBC is like today. He identified the fault lines as theological, ecclesiological and methodological. 

The theological fault line is the struggle between those who believe that Jesus died for “all who call upon the name of the Lord.” This view is usually described as “general atonement.” Against that stands the idea of “limited atonement” often identified with Calvinism. That interpretation holds that Jesus died only for the elect. 

The ecclesiological fault line relates to church governance. Does Baptist belief in the doctrine of priesthood of all believers mean that all members are entitled to participate in church governance — often called congregational governance? Rising against that understanding is the idea of elder leadership where a select group of individuals are empowered to make decisions for the church. A third understanding is hierarchical leadership where the pastor and staff make decisions. 

The methodological fault line stressing the SBC, Page said, is the tension between societal methods for work beyond the local church versus working together through the SBC. 

Without saying it, Page pointed out the consensus that used to characterize Southern Baptists no longer exists. Southern Baptists now disagree about who can be saved, about how to do church and about how best to work together. 

What he did not say is that Baptists have argued over these points almost since their beginnings. The people who became known as Baptists were so identified because they insisted that the Bible taught a believer’s church — only those who make a personal profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior are eligible to be church members. This stood over against the practice of most Christian bodies of that day where church membership included all born into Christian families or in a region governed by the church.

Beyond that, Baptists quickly separated. As Robert Baker points out in his book, “The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People,” the earliest Baptists embraced general atonement. But about a quarter of a century after the emergence of Baptists on English soil, the influence of Calvinism resulted in the founding of the first Baptist church preaching limited or particular atonement (only the elect can be saved). That was about 1638, Baker says. Since then the two views have ebbed and flowed for dominance among Baptists, including Southern Baptists. 

History is dotted with figures who tried to exercise autocratic rule in a local church and sometimes in a Baptist denomination. Against this has stood the democratic influence of the theological understandings called priesthood of believers. No human being or any institution can occupy the sacred space between God and man except Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest. 

Baptists taught “each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord” (Baptist Faith and Message, Article VI, The Church). 

More recently some have abandoned the position that the scriptural offices of a church are pastor and deacons. The office of elder has been established in some quarters. In most cases, elders are given decision-making responsibilities and democratic participation of all members reduced. This is consistent with practices of other denominations that place certain clerical offices between God and believers, at least as far as governing the church goes. Administrative efficiency and top down leadership practiced by some Christian bodies has always conflicted with the Baptist understanding of priesthood of believers. 

Ever since Baptists in America organized the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions in 1814 (better known as the Triennial Convention) Baptists have struggled over how to cooperate — societal method or convention method. Baker is again helpful. He points out that the first constitution of the missionary body left the plan of cooperating unclear. Some, like the convention’s first president Richard Furman of South Carolina, favored a strong central body. Francis Wayland, president of Brown College in Rhode Island, the nation’s first Baptist college, favored a societal plan. 

Initially the convention idea carried the day but within 10 years Wayland succeeded in establishing a societal plan. Interestingly some of the founders of the Triennial Convention helped establish the SBC in 1845, and from its beginning the SBC provided for convention-based cooperation on work beyond the local church. Northern Baptists, now American Baptists, continued to practice societal methods. 

Today the struggle continues as some promote the convention model of working together by giving through the missions channel called the Cooperative Program. Others choose to participate in and give only to selected causes. The debate is remarkably similar to that of Baptists 200 years ago. 

Since 1949 when Baptists voted to move out of the Deep South and become a national Baptist body, the term “Southern Baptist” has lost its reference to a regional denomination. But as Page said, what the name now means is questionable. We don’t agree on doctrine. We don’t agree on the nature of the church, and we don’t agree on how to work together. 

Perhaps a starting point in working through what “Southern Baptist” stands for is asking ourselves if we are really “Baptist.” Do we still believe in the primacy of Scripture, even when culture endorses a different understanding? Do we still want a believer’s church or the largest institution possible? Do we still believe in priesthood of all believers or prefer the most efficient system of church governance? Do we still practice that only Jesus can occupy the sacred space between God and humanity or prefer for people to do what we want them to do? Do we believe in cooperating with other churches in missions and ministries or supporting only what our church can control?  

If we can determine what it means to be “Baptist,” then perhaps we can begin to work through what it means to be “Southern Baptist.”

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