Da Bears for the Southern Baptist Future
By: Ron F. Hale
The long-standing family feud among Baptists has dusted-up since the early part of the seventeenth century. After each dust devil has settled, our differences on the atonement seem to be the point of impasse.
In England, Baptists divided up into two groups called General Baptists and Particular Baptists. The General Baptists held to a general or unlimited atonement, while the Particular Baptists contended for a restricted or limited atonement. Many historical theologians would say that the Generals leaned more toward an Arminian view and the Particulars leaned toward the Calvinistic position.
This in-house theological tiff followed us to the New World. The names changed several times in America, so you have to be careful with the different Baptist brand names. The Particular Baptists in England became known as the Regular Baptists in America. This group adopted the more Calvinistic Confessions of Faith, and they came to embrace more rigid predestination doctrines. Their sermons were mostly of the expository type, delivered with calm deliberation.
The General Baptists were eventually called Separate Baptists. In 1957, Jesse L. Boyd, secretary-treasurer of the Baptist Historical Commission of the Mississippi Baptist Convention wrote about the General Baptists, when he said they:
… repudiated confessions of faith as man-made, insisting that the Bible is the all-sufficient guide in faith and practice. They were more emotional in their worship services, with an insistence upon the upheaval type of conversion. Their sermons were delivered with fire and great fervor, which produced harrowing convictions of sin and wickedness, followed by extended and fervid exhortations to repentance at the “mourners’ bench.” The Regulars looked askance on these strange “goings-on,” refusing with few exceptions to open their houses of worship for the meetings.
Boyd goes on to explain that the Great Awakening blessed Baptist churches with an ingathering of souls (more than any of the other denominations). Some Congregational churches withdrew bodily from their denominational connections, and sought fellowship with the Baptists, achieving a measure of success with the General Baptists churches. The merged group came to be known as Separate Baptists, with whom the Regular Baptists declined to have fellowship. The Separates were called “New Lights” because of their special emphasis on the continued enlightenment by the Holy Spirit. The Regulars were, in derision, called “Old Lights.” The leaders of the two groups eyed each other with suspicion, referring to one another in the press and on platform with vituperation (I think this word means very harsh criticism).
As time wore on both sides softened, came to see their folly and tried to join forces in fighting the devil and extending the kingdom of Christ. Regular and Separate Baptist sought to join hands and hearts in North Carolina in 1777. Again they came together in Georgia in 1787, in South Carolina in 1790’s, and in Kentucky in 1801.
In Virginia (1787), the two groups agreed “to keep two bears in their house – bear and forbear.” They became known as The United Baptist Churches of Christ in Virginia.” These two groups of Virginia Baptists seemed to have a greater respect for each other because both groups had been persecuted by the state sponsored church of Colonial Virginia — the Church of England or Anglicans. Virginia Baptist preachers spent a lot of jail time together.
The “two bears” statement was later used by Charles Haddon Spurgeon as he masterfully said, “This day let us try to give and forgive. Let us mind the two bears — bear and forbear. Let us be kind, gentle, and tender.”
On May 31, 2013, the 19-member committee on Calvinism issued its 3,200 word report to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Frank Page. It is entitled: Truth, Trust, and Testimony (In A Time of Tension).
It is a good report. It is well written and thoughtfully nuanced. I was encouraged at many points as the truths and tensions were rolled out into the light of day. I am glad the committee included the following paragraph under Testimony:
We affirm the responsibility and privilege of every Southern Baptist to advocate his or her doctrinal convictions. We affirm that theology should be honored and privileged in our conversations and cooperation. We also affirm that theological and doctrinal debate can be a sign of great health within a denomination that is devoted to truth and is characterized by trust.
History has proven that our long-standing family feud will never die; the embers will always smolder. When certain denominational leaders and CP paid employees take one-sided views and positions and write books toward that end, do conferences toward that end, hire new CP paid employees toward that end, and make public statements toward that end — “to the exclusion of the other” — then the old fires will be stoked again and again and again. May our leaders abide by this statement in the report:
We should expect all leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention and all entities serving our denomination to affirm, to respect, and to represent all Southern Baptists of good faith and to serve the great unity of our Convention. No entity should be promoting Calvinism or non-Calvinism to the exclusion of the other.
As we think about the “two bears” that the Virginia Baptists and Spurgeon spoke of many years ago, may we “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2 KJV) and “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (Eph.4:2 KJV).
Da bears of Galatians 6:2 and Ephesians 4:2 will help us greatly as each historical side contends for the things we believe.
© Ron F. Hale, July 4, 2013