The technical bits: What do I mean by Baptist? (and Southern Baptist?)

This is a technical follow up to a non-technical post to clarify what I mean when I call myself a “baptist”. For that post, click here.

Side note: This is an incredibly long clarification (particularly in comparison with the others).

When someone says they are a Southern Baptist, particularly when they are trying to be apolitical, it may be difficult to find where along the spectrum they lie. I grew up during the period of time known as either the conservative resurgence or the fundamentalist takeover, depending upon which side of the lines you were. However, my early childhood was in Midland, TX where, at First Baptist Midland, Missions was a heavy focus, but we seemed to, at least from my perspective, eschew most of the debates. My later elementary and middle school years were spent at a Metropolitan “mega church” in Texas. This had the advantage of insulating me in the youth group (which almost functioned like a church in itself) away from any significant denominational controversy that may or may not have been going on in the rest of the church. Being in Texas, there also another angle to the politicking as the BGCT (Baptist General Convention of Texas) had a unique perspective in conversation with the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) functioning much more autonomously than many of the state baptist conventions often did. My high school years were spent in a small church led by a pastor who had his seminary education as music minister, thus again I felt mostly spared of the controversy (or more correctly was blissfully oblivious to it despite having two uncles and a cousin who were at the time baptist ministers). I attended an undergraduate institution that, despite being headed by a member of the committee who formed the somewhat controversial Baptist Faith and Message 200 (Mark Brister was president at the time of OBU), was under the shadow (and still arguably is) of the great Oklahoma Baptist worker Herschel Hobbs. Hobbs was in the somewhat unique position of being a theological conservative who, nevertheless, did not agree with some of the tactics being employed in the national convention that were characterized by the period in the late 80s and 90s. I concluded my US education at a interdenominational seminary located on an Alabama Baptist (and essentially a Southern Baptist) University, attending a church there that was clearly deeply on the side of the conservatives/fundamentalists (again depending on which side you are on). So, where does this leave me? Well there are a few things that can be said about me.

1) The Baptist Faith and Message: I unequivocally accept the BFM (Baptist Faith and Message) of 1963. I don’t know of a Southern Baptist around today who would not say that. Where the trouble begins for some is the revised BFM 2000. There are some very significant changes between the two. Unlike some commentators, particularly those who prefer the 1963 version, I do think that some of the changes are necessary and altogether positive. Like any document of this sort, it has its problems, but most are minor enough, especially when talking about the day to day work of the church. However as a result of this, many churches have decided either to affirm both statements, or simply offer both to congregants without a clear demarcation as to which they accept. Considering the emphasis on priesthood of believers and autonomy of the local church that Baptists have always affirmed, (including in both of these statements I think), this seems the right approach, but I’m not sure. After all, shouldn’t a church provide some guidance? At any rate, I haven’t fully decided where I would come down on the issue, and maybe that’s where I should be, at least now: in some tension over it. At any rate, at some point in the near future I may have to make a decision and I will do so honestly at that time. But at this point, I like to keep the conversation open and it seems picking one is closing that conversation. At any rate, if you’re wondering what the potential problems are, here’s a side by side comparison of the two documents by someone in the BGCT. I want to preface that by saying that I don’t think they are being entirely fair at all points, nor do I think they acknowledge the positive changes that are going on, particularly with regard to the 2000’s attempt to acknowledge the SBC’s past failings with regard to race relations and trying to set those right. Nevertheless it does highlight the differences and the commentary gives some of the concerns of those who prefer the 1963 document, not all of which I think are valid.

2) All of the controversy in the SBC has led many in the denomination, particularly those from Texas, to feel a stronger tie to the state convention than the national convention. Let me be clear, I remain committed to the Southern Baptist Convention. Nevertheless, I do feel the stronger ties to the BGCT than to the SBC and when I have encountered other Southern Baptists from Texas outside of the state, I have found that generally they have the same ties. That being said, were the BGCT to actually split from the SBC, a prospect that I doubt would ever actually occur, I don’t know where I would side as I don’t think split offs are generally a good idea. Ever. So even though I feel a stronger affinity for the BGCT, were such a divide to occur, I think I might actually remain with the SBC rather than go with the BGCT. Again, though, I don’t know what I would actually do in that actual situation, something that I doubt I will ever need to grapple with.

3) For those outside the Southern Baptist denomination, my identification as a Baptist carries with it some key distinctives both sacramentally and theologically. First sacramentally, those in the SBC don’t talk about “sacraments” because such a term carries with it a lot of theological baggage, including that they are “dispensations or grace” and/or “mediations of Christ”. Instead we refer to “ordinances”. By that term we mean that these are ritual, or ritual like things, that Christ ordained the church do during his earthly ministry. As a result baptists, like most Protestants, tend to limit these to 2 ordinances: the Lord’s supper (called communion or Eucharist in other denominations) and baptism. For the Lord’s supper, most baptists take what is essentially a Zwinglian interpretation. That is to say we do not accept transubstantiation (Roman Catholics) or consubstantiation (Lutherans), but interpret it as a type of remembrance, embracing the lines of Jesus “Do this in remembrance of me.” While some like to play this off against the Calvinist “Spiritual presence” of Christ, such a distinction is unnecessary. Surely baptists, who believe Christ is always present by the Holy Spirit, do not deny a spiritual presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. For most baptists, myself included, this doesn’t mean that Jesus is present in a special way, but instead that we are aware of his continued presence in a special and unique way during the Lord’s Supper that we aren’t aware of otherwise.

In contrast to most church denominations around today, Baptists have a decided preference for baptism of believers by immersion. There are a number of reasons for this. For most baptists, the primary reason is that this is how the early (New Testament era and immediately following) church likely performed baptism. By the time of Augustine of Hippo, there apparently had existed some debate over whether baptism should be exclusively for believers, or could be extended to infants of believers. We know this because Augustine was not baptized as an infant, despite being born to a Christian mother (who considered a childhood baptism for the young Augustine), but Augustine himself later advocated for an infant baptism driven in large part of his discovery of the doctrines of the perseverance of the saints and Original Sin. However, unlike Augustine and the Church a few generations after the earliest church, most Baptists (including myself) do not believe in baptismal regeneration, which is to say that baptism has no effect, one way or the other, on your salvation. It is something done out of obedience. Aside from the argument that “that’s how the early church did it” and argument, there are other reasons for promoting Credo-baptism (baptism of believers) by immersion as the primary method. As far as credo-baptism there are three arguments: First, while the New Testament is pretty clear, as far as most denominations are concerned, that baptismal regeneration is not a valid doctrine, baptism and salvation tend to go hand in hand. Second, baptism exists as a confession, and it is impossible to confess something that one doesn’t personally hold to. Third even most denominations that practice paedo-baptism (baptism of infants and small children) admit it is not effective (i.e. not genuine) until and unless the candidate later places faith in Christ; so why engage in something before it can be effective (and particularly if it might not ever be effective)? As far as baptism by immersion is concerned, there are also a few arguments beyond the “that’s what the early church did” model: First, the word baptism actually means immerse or submerge. In the Greek of the same time period the word we translate as baptism was used in other writings of ships that were wrecked at see and people who fell into bodies of water. Second, the “teachings of the twelve disciples,” while not considered Scripture, is nevertheless an early church document that gives insight into how the church should perform certain practices and it advocates immersion (in running water) wherever this is possible because of the third reason. Third, no other form of baptism presents as clear a visual representation of death and resurrection. One’s old self is “buried” in the water and we are resurrected with Christ as we come up out of the water in a new life.

4) And this is now a little unwieldy, but there are certain key baptist theological distinctives. First there is a stronger emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. The result of this is that baptists by and large advance a liberty of conscience (we shouldn’t impose a particular set of beliefs on anyone) even though most of us nevertheless evangelize and talk about these things. Also we accept a specific type of polity (church politics) which emphasizes the autonomy of the local church (as opposed to a national or global convention) which is run through a democracy: every member gets a vote on all significant decisions. There are other distinctives, but these are the main ones.

5) And this is a big one, but doesn’t require much explanation. Baptists come together as a denomination of sorts primarily for the sake of evangelism and missions.

Ok, well that was kind long, but I think I’ve laid out my position as clearly as I can by what I mean by “baptist.” To go back to the initial post click here. If you want to know more about baptists, or my particular perspective, ask below in the comments.


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