Competitors to Biblical Authority
A very distinctive mark of Baptists is our insistence that biblical authority as our sole authority for faith and practice. I realize that this is hardly an exclusive claim for every church with a high view of God’s Word. For these churches could make a similar statement. As a matter of fact, there may be a misunderstanding of perceived arrogance by Baptists about this position. So far, I have tried to disclose a biblical perspective for our emphasis. I want to do the same here.
The claim of biblical authority is not inferring that Baptists are the only ones approaching everything from a biblical perspective. What I have always said is that “we don’t say we are the only ones right in our church, but we believe the Bible is our authority and we try to follow the Bible as closely as possible”. This position is my disclaimer statement to those who feel we might sound arrogant or intolerant about this particular topic.
To understand this position, we need to understand the competitors to biblical authority. I am not saying that these competitors erase belief in biblical views but that these factors compete for that position. What are these other sources of authority?
Traditionalism: Catholicism and all who have a similar system of belief structure base their authority on tradition. Catholicism has added much tradition through the years. Cultural practices, papal bulls, biblical illiteracy, and accumulation of practice through the years in many nations contribute to this strong trend. The Bible is minimized when stacked up to tradition. Another way of looking at it is that tradition covers up biblical truth. You have the Bible on a table and you cover it with papers and stuff. The Bible is under there somewhere, but you have to peel everything away.
One of the most obvious contrasts here is that the mode and purpose of baptism is viewed differently between Baptists and Catholics. The sacramental system is built on traditional church practices through the centuries. It hardly has any biblical support.
Revelation and Impulses: Charismatic churches actually suggest they believe more of the Bible today than other churches because of their acceptance of the sign gifts as operative and normative for today. The point of their validity is very well debated. In reality, though, the leadership of the Holy Spirit in their lives as they perceive Him becomes more important in priority. You will hear statements like: “God said this to me.” There are many levels of this type of thinking because of various types of charismatic influence. These churches feel they are thoroughly biblical and following existential revelation that is biblical to them.
Where sign gifts are predominant, knowing the full revelation of God – as taught on a consistent basis – is minimized. Biblical authority, then, is thus deferred.
Liberalism and Cultural Relativism: The battle for the Bible in the twentieth century has led to liberalism and skepticism affecting most mainline denominational churches. Southern Baptists have had a resurgence of biblical authority by affirming our belief in the inspired, inerrant word of God.
The lack of biblical authority is apparent in these denominations when they accept homosexuality and ordain homosexual priests. Skepticism of Scripture has been the source of acceptance for many societal sins. In the political arena, a position of a political party becomes more important than moral values. Some said to me after learning of my criteria for a political candidate regarding moral values, “Why don’t you use something substantial?”
The basis for a low view of Scripture is changing, and the church feels the need to change with it. Gay marriage, abortion, and a lack of religious influence in society are all accepted today by a significant portion of our culture. While I was attempting to explain the Baptist view of things in a liberal church seminar, someone said, “Don’t we need to change with society to bring more people into the church?” I answered, “We don’t change the Bible for people’s sins; we bring people to the Bible and they are changed by its message.” The decline of these mainline denominational churches in the latter part of the twentieth century proves that accepting society’s trends contradictory to the Bible does not bring more people into the church.
Pragmatism: The diversion of pragmatism is more deceptive. Pragmatism is one of the driving forces of many contemporary churches. I will not lump all types of churches into this category. As already stated the driving force is usually a worthy one – to reach people for Christ by whatever means possible. “Doctrine,” unfortunately, in a majority of these churches is not a popular term.
Topical messages and need-oriented ministry predominates in typical churches driven by pragmatism. The “whatever works” mentality is different from liberalism in that it is usually driven by belief in God’s word as truth. The difference in approach to Scripture is the contrast that results in minimizing not only Baptist distinctives but all biblical truths that could be emphasized.
It is easy for me to mark the differences in groups who do not have a high degree of biblical authority. There must be clear delineation of these differences. These distinctives will be broadened and find more agreement with other groups. Yet, our emphasis of these truths determines our depth of authority. These are very definite. There must be a biblical authority in what we believe and basis for why we believe it. Then we will give a reason why we are people of the Book and not just make it a catch phrase.