Christian Identity and Baptist Distinctives

[Editor’s Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post¬†originally appeared on July 9, 2008.]

A few days ago, I posted on the topic of The Gospel and Baptist Identity. I shared some concerns I have about those who divorce, often unintentionally, our ecclesiastical identity from the good news. Beginning with this post, I want to move from description to prescription with a short series that I hope will make a constructive proposal about the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity. These posts are more or less expansions of my classroom lectures on Baptist identity and distinctives.

Though most discussions of Baptist identity understandably focus upon Baptist ecclesiological distinctives (regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, etc.), it is important to note that Baptist identity is not exhausted in these distinctives. Baptists are first and foremost a type of Christian, which means Baptist identity is one expression of Christian identity. To say it another way, our Baptist identity is fundamentally a Christian identity that is nuanced by that cluster of ecclesiological beliefs that we refer to as Baptist distinctives.

Because our Christian identity is essential to our Baptist identity, we share a number of convictions with the wider catholic tradition, whether in its Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant forms:

1. Baptists believe in the Triune God who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
2. Baptists believe that this Triune God created the world good, but that his good world has been corrupted because of the sin of the first human beings.
3. Baptists believe that Jesus Christ is the unique God-Man, the incarnate Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, both truly divine and genuinely human.
4. Baptists believe that God is redeeming the world and rescuing lost sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
5. Baptists believe that every human being will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell, and each person’s eternal destination is based upon how that person responds to God’s revelation in Christ.
6. Most Baptists believe that all Christians everywhere are adopted into God’s family and are part of his universal church, a group which includes all presently living believers as well as all the redeemed of all the ages.
7. Baptists believe that all of these truths are taught in the Bible, which is God’s authoritative written word to humanity.

It is probably not enough to argue that Baptists are merely one type of Christian. To be most precise in our understanding of Baptist identity, we need to recognize that Baptists are a certain type of Protestant Christian. The Baptist movement began among third generation English Protestants with historic roots in Puritanism and Separatism and ecclesiological affinity (whether intentional or not) with some Continental Anabaptists. Though most of us argue that the early church was substantially baptistic in its ecclesiological beliefs, and though many of us concede that some baptistic distinctives were at times embraced by some groups that predated the reformations of the 16th century, the ecclesiastical movement with which modern-day Baptists identify began, in at least two stages, during the first half of the 17th century.

Because of our historic milieu, Baptists embrace a number of convictions that are embraced by most other Protestant Christians:

1. Baptists believe that salvation comes by grace through faith and that sinners are justified by faith rather than by good works.
2. Baptists believe in the supreme authority of Scripture, arguing that the Bible is the ultimate norm for faith and practice and is thus of a greater authority than traditions, creeds, confessions, and individual opinions.
3. Most Baptists believe in only two ordinances (or sacraments), baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and reject a sacerdotal understanding of salvation.
4. Baptists believe in the priesthood of all believers, claiming that every believer has direct access to God as a result of the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ.
5. Baptists argue against the existence of a special priestly class of Christians, arguing that all believers are spiritually equipped for the work of the gospel ministry within their unique vocations.

Baptists are Christians. Even more specifically, Baptists are a type of Protestant Christian. The vast majority of our beliefs are not unique to Baptists, which is a good thing; when too many of your beliefs are different from other Christians, what you have is likely an alternative to Christianity.

Having established that most of our beliefs are shared with other types of Christians, I want to briefly consider those beliefs that are typically associated with Baptist Christians. There are at least five distinctives that are uniquely emphasized by Baptists:

1. Regenerate church membership
2. Believer’s baptism by immersion
3. Congregational church polity
4. Local church autonomy
5. Liberty of conscience

Note that all of these distinctives relate in some way to ecclesiology. This is no accident: remember that Baptist identity is fundamentally a Christian identity that is nuanced by that cluster of ecclesiological beliefs that we refer to as Baptist distinctives. The Baptist movement is, at its core, an ecclesiological renewal movement within the wider Protestant Christian tradition.

It is true that each of the above Baptist distinctives are embraced by other types of Christians, with varying degrees of consistency. But it is also true that these convictions are only embraced, in toto and consistently, by baptistic Christians. I would argue that when you find a local Protestant Christian church that emphasizes the above five distinctives, you have a theologically Baptist (or baptistic) church. This remains true even if the word “Baptist” does not appear on the church building’s sign or the pastor’s letterhead.

I hope to tease out these five distinctives over the course of the next few weeks, with emphasis on each distinctive’s relationship to the gospel. I hope to show that Baptists are Protestant Christians who honestly believe our unique identity is not only substantially like New Testament faith and practice, but is also the most consistent application of the gospel to ecclesiological matters. In other words, I will be arguing that our Baptist distinctives are nothing more or less than the ecclesiological fruit of the good news as it is embodied in local churches.

For the Record: Nathan Finn on Being Baptist (Part 1)

[Editor’s note: Nathan Finn is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies here at Southeastern. He is known as a top-shelf classroom instructor, a prolific writer, and a student of all things Baptist. In this interview, we ask him questions about eight of the most significant and/or controversial issues arising in Baptist life today. Part 2 (questions 5-8) will appear here tomorrow morning.]

1. Baptist identity seems to be a hot-button issue in some SBC circles. How do you understand Baptist identity?

This is a great question. I’ve written a great deal on this topic over the years, most recently in a nine-part series on my personal blog that attempts to tie Baptist identity and distinctives with the gospel. First of all, we need to understand that there is no such thing as a normative Baptist identity. Presbyterians have the Westminster Confession and Roman Catholics have their Catechism, but we can’t point back to a particular document and say “that’s the authoritative statement of Baptist identity.” As a tradition that has emphasized freedom and autonomy, sometimes perhaps too much so, we have to be careful to distinguish between description and prescription. So descriptively, I’d say there are many Baptist identities, even within the SBC. The tricky part is articulating a view of Baptist identity that reflects biblical emphases and is compelling to Baptist Christians.

I argue that when Baptists are at their best, our identity is simultaneously catholic, reformational, evangelical, and radical. By catholic, I mean Baptists share certain core convictions with all professing Christians, particularly concerning the Trinity, Christology, and basic anthropology and eschatology. By reformational, I mean we share certain beliefs with all traditional Protestants, especially concerning the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and the centrality of justification by faith alone. Our identity is also evangelical because we hold to a conversionist understanding of salvation and embrace the imperative to intentionally share the gospel with others. And our identity is radical because we embrace a view of the church (especially the local church) that was considered radical until the last couple of centuries because it rejects any version of Constantinianism and embraces a believer’s church and credobaptism.

2. Do you think there is such a thing as a uniquely Baptist understanding of doctrines such as Scripture, salvation, last things, etc.?

For me, this is closely related to the last question. I wouldn’t say there is a “uniquely” Baptist understanding of these things-again, we want to stand with other types of believers in these areas. But it would be true to say that there are definite tendencies in the way that most Southern Baptists (and many other Baptists) approach these doctrines. For example, most all Southern Baptists affirm a view of the Bible that is common to many conservative evangelical Protestants; it’s not unique to Southern Baptists, but most of us are on the same page. The same could be said of salvation-virtually all Baptists argue that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There are different nuances (the Calvinist-Arminian debate sticks out here), but even in those cases we agree on more than we disagree and our debates aren’t unique to Baptists. On eschatology, we pretty much all agree on the basics, though we debate some of the particulars; again, our core convictions and our debates are common to other Christians. The only area where Baptists really stand apart is in our ecclesiology.

3. We hear a lot about Baptist distinctives. What are the Baptist distinctives?

The Baptist distinctives are those eccesiological views or tendencies that are uniquely emphasized by Baptists. The earliest Baptists simply attempted to take the principle of sola scriptura and apply it to eccesiological matters. They would say that when local churches are brought under the lordship of Christ as it is revealed in Scripture, those churches will look a particular way. I’d argue that wherever you find these views, you have a Baptist (or perhaps better, baptistic) Christian, even if that identity isn’t affirmed in an overt way.

I’d argue Baptists have four unique emphases: a regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, congregational freedom, and a free church in a free state. We believe that local churches should be communities of presumably regenerate individuals who’ve covenanted to walk together under Christ’s lordship for the sake of the gospel. We believe that only those who can give a credible salvation testimony should be baptized by full immersion and become church members. (I’d also argue only baptized believers should participate in the Lord’s Supper, but many Southern Baptists argue baptism shouldn’t be a prerequisite to communion.) We believe that the whole congregation should come together to make the most important decisions of the church (congregationalism) and that every church is a local outpost of the kingdom that is free to pursue Christ’s agenda for that body (local autonomy). We believe that God alone is Lord of the conscious and that authentic Christianity best thrives when full religious liberty is extended to all citizens in a particular land. Different Baptists will nuance each of these distinctives in different ways, but we’re pretty much agreed on the basics.

4. Which Baptist distinctive do you believe is most threatened in our contemporary context?

They’re all threatened to some degree, but I think congregationalism is far and away our distinctive that is most threatened. I think there are many reasons for this. Some Southern Baptists are overreacting to unhealthy manifestations of congregationalism: the tyranny of the majority, reckless congregational votes to terminate pastors, full church votes on even the most mundane matters, etc. Others are convinced congregationalism is incompatible with pastoral authority, often because they’ve experienced bad congregationalism, incompetent pastoral leadership, or both. Many are convinced congregationalism isn’t as efficient as other polity models-it takes time for a church to come together and seek Christ’s will for the body. Still others believe that congregationalism is simply not as biblical an option as some sort of pastoral rule, whether by a single pastor or a plurality of pastors (or elders).

We need to admit that congregationalism as we practice it isn’t a perfect reflection of the New Testament. In the apostolic era, they had apostles who exercised authority over the whole church. Yet we also see that the congregation often made certain key decisions, particularly the setting apart of elders and deacons and the final act of church discipline. I call the New Testament model “apostolic congregationalism.” Since most Baptists agree that the apostolic office didn’t continue past the original apostles, we’ve attempted to adapt what we can of New Testament polity to a world without apostles. I’d argue this is a pastor-led congregationalism, where the pastor or pastors lead the body through the ministry of the Word but the whole church at the very least sets apart pastors and deacons, practices church discipline, and (for the sake of prudence) approves of the budget and important church property matters. Everything else can be contextual from congregation to congregation.

 

Kenneth Starr, Church Membership, and the Baylor Presidency

As many readers know, it was announced this week that Kenneth Starr has been selected as the next president of Baylor University. Not surprisingly, the announcement generated quite a bit of buzz in the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and on message boards. Baylor has of course been embroiled in significant controversy during the past decade over leadership, vision, and academic matters, which followed on the heels of two decades of controversy over governance, theology, and denominational matters. No doubt the selection of Starr will elicit further controversy among at least some members of the Baylor family.

One interesting talking point related to Starr’s selection is his church membership. Like Baylor’s immediate past president, John Lilley, Baylor’s new president is not currently a Baptist. As near as I can ascertain, he was raised in the home of a Church of Christ minister, spent most of his adult life at the evangelical and dispensational McLean Bible Church in Northern Virginia, and briefly returned to a Church of Christ congregation while at Pepperdine. Yet because Baylor is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Starr is expected to become a Baptist, which he has indicated he has every intention of doing.

Some observers have raised concerns about a Baptist university hiring a non-Baptist president. Others have argued that the requirement that Baylor’s president be a Baptist is perhaps unnecessary. Still others have expressed concern that Starr may be becoming a Baptist just so he can get the job. It is an interesting conversation, to be sure.

Here are my thoughts on the matter, for what it’s worth. I am no fan of the Church of Christ tradition. It is a hyper-sectarian movement with a spurious view of such matters as baptism, conversion, and apostasy. Furthermore, the Church of Christ movement has always had an awkward relationship with Baptists, in part because the Churches of Christ represent a perversion of Baptist identity and have regularly siphoned off members from Baptist churches. It is entirely understandable for people to be concerned about a Baptist school hiring a president who is committed to the Churches of Christ.

That said, the situation with Starr is not so cut-and-dry. Though he was raised Church of Christ, and though he has recently been attending a church in that tradition (while teaching at a university affiliated with that tradition), Starr has indicated his real spiritual home is McLean Bible Church, a congregation whose doctrine, at least as near as I can tell, is very similar to that of conservative Baptists, with the possible exception that MBC seems to reject (or at least downplay) congregationalism. I would suspect that many Southern Baptists would feel mostly at home at McLean Bible Church, though the church doesn’t raise money for Lottie Moon or use LifeWay Sunday School material.

Over the last ten years, I’ve seen many people from evangelical, baptistic backgrounds become members of Southern Baptist churches. Some became staff members of local churches, some became professors at Baptist schools, and some became missionaries with one of our mission boards. Many of these folks never considered being Southern Baptist prior to a particular job offer. It wasn’t that they were anti-SBC or anti-Baptist before-quite the contrary. Their theological convictions were already compatible with at least the vast majority of mainstream Southern Baptist doctrine. In most cases, they were swimming in a different pond than the SBC, but both ponds were fresh water, had similar plant life, and were stocked with the same types of fish and other critters.

Simply put, I want to give someone the benefit of the doubt when he takes a new job and becomes a Baptist because of that job. Is it possible that some folks really aren’t convinced of Baptist doctrine and join a Baptist church anyway for purely pragmatic reasons? Of course it is. In fact, it happens all the time with “normal” church members who don’t work in denominational posts. But I also know there are many people who are convictionally baptistic but who’ve never been Southern Baptist. Yes, they may not understand much about our unique traditions, tendencies, priorities, and neuroses. But I suspect most are smart enough to learn about them. And let’s face it: a growing number of lifelong Southern Baptists don’t understand all that stuff either!

I’m glad Ken Starr is becoming a Baptist. I hope it’s entirely compatible with his present theological convictions, and insofar as it’s not, I hope his future church membership refines his convictions. I’ve seen it happen many times before. I wish him the best as he leads Baylor and hope that the university’s brightest days are ahead.