For the Record: Nathan Finn on Being Baptist (Part 2)

5. One of the recurring debates among Baptists is the origin of our tradition. What do you think about Baptist origins?

There are at least four broad camps when it comes to Baptist origins, with variations within each camp. Some hold to some form of Baptist perpetuity, arguing that there have always been Baptist-like Christians and that this remnant alone gathered into true churches. Sometimes folks in this camp are called Landmarkers. Another camp argues that Baptists are closely kin to Anabaptists, sometimes even claiming that Baptists intentionally appropriated some Anabaptist distinctives. The dominant camp among most contemporary scholars focuses upon the English Separatist roots of the earliest Baptists. Some in this camp concede the possibility of at least a bit of Anabaptist influence, but they still choose to emphasize the fact that the earliest Baptists were in fact Separatists who embraced believer’s baptism. A final view champions polygenetic origins, arguing that there was more than one Baptist group in the seventeenth century and that different groups had different origins.

I hold to a form of the polygenetic view. The early English General Baptists closely identified with the Anabaptists, though they never claimed to actually be Anabaptists. Among the English Particular Baptists, some such as the J-L-J Church were likely influenced by the Anabaptists, while others such as John Spilsbury’s church were likely not connected in any way with Anabaptists. The Mixed Communion Baptists and Seventh-Day Baptists, most of whom were Calvinistic, tended to closely identify with English Independency. In the American Colonies, the earliest Baptists were apparently influenced little if any by either the Anabaptists or the English Baptists, though they grew closer to the latter during the 1640s.

6. The SBC is being asked to consider adopting Great Commission Baptists as an optional second name for our network of churches. Do you think this is a good idea? Do you like the name that has been proposed?

As my friend Micah Fries has demonstrated, there were only two real options: keep the name the same or propose an optional nickname that some churches and ministries could embrace either in addition to or as an alternative to the Southern Baptist name. The task force recommended the latter, and I’m fine with that. I’ve said from the very beginning that I’m ambivalent about the whole name issue. I’m not in principle opposed to a name change, but neither am I convinced that changing the name, in and of itself, will help us reach more people and plant more churches. I guess it would be fair to say that I’m comfortable with the recommendation and that I’m amiable to the proposed nickname, but I’m not enthusiastic about it. I will vote for it without hesitation, but it’s unlikely that I’ll say much more about it publicly beyond this blog post.

7. It seems likely that Fred Luter will be elected the next president of the SBC. What would his election mean for Southern Baptists?

It does seem likely, doesn’t it? There is a greater chance that Tony Merida will grow a ponytail than that a serious candidate will challenge Luter for the SBC presidency. Even if someone does run against him, Luter will win handily. He is very popular.

I think Luter’s presidency will be good for the SBC. While it’s largely a symbolic gesture (the president has little real power), this particular symbol is important in a denomination with a checkered past when it comes to the race issue. I hope Luter’s presidency will serve as a constant reminder that we are far too diverse to be led almost exclusively by white dudes. We need to identify leaders who come from ethnic minorities and immigrant contexts. We need to prioritize church planting among those who are not white and/or for whom English is a second language. We need to encourage our churches to seek to be as ethnically diverse as their geographical context. We need to push back against lingering racism and ethnocentrism in our churches. Luter’s presidency won’t solve these issues, but it could be catalytic in mobilizing Southern Baptists to become even more intentional in these matters.

8. What do you think is the biggest challenge Southern Baptists will face over the next decade?

I think the lingering question for us is whether or not we can become more unified for the sake of the Great Commission. We really like to fight. We used to fight Catholics, until they became political allies. We used to fight moderates and liberals, until most of them left. Now we fight each other over generational differences, worship styles, missions funding strategies, views on Calvinism, the nature of contextualization, the number of elders a church should have, etc. Some of these issues are important and worth having family discussions about, but unfortunately, it’s often the shrillest voices that rise to the top. Blogs and social media such as Twitter and Facebook exacerbate this phenomenon; what were once water-cooler bloviations have at times taken on a life of their own.

We’re going to have to find a way to debate our differences like grownups so that our diversity doesn’t distract us from our common mission. If your pet convictions preclude you from cooperating with and, in some cases, being led by folks who differ from you in secondary or tertiary matters, then you’d probably be happier somewhere else. For my part, I think we need to unite around a common core (an evangelical gospel and a Baptist view of the church), a common confession (the Baptist Faith and Message 2000), and a common purpose (to do our part in helping to fulfill the Great Commission). The more we unite around these commonalities, the less we’ll be shooting each other over matters that, while not wholly unimportant, aren’t worth all the fuss they often attract.