Southern Baptist Identity:
An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future

July 29, 2012

David S. Dockery, Ed., Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books 2009. Pp. 304. $19.99. Paperback.

It has often been said that, thanks to the battles of the last generation in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to return the convention to a commitment to biblical inerrancy, we can be grateful that theological discussions in the SBC can be conducted on that basis. We do not spend our time debating and arguing the veracity of the creation narrative or whether the teachings of Paul on gender roles and homosexuality are culturally conditioned. We have been set free to have robust theological debate on the basis of a firm reliance on scripture, and our disagreements are family ones among brothers and sisters in Christ. David Dockery has contributed greatly to the family discussion in this presentation of essays, compiled from two conferences held at Union University, where he presides. The topics addressed are the ones we ought to be discussing, not allowing less important issues to sidetrack us. The present writer was privileged to attend the second of these conferences, and is grateful for the opportunity to review this important book.

SUMMARY

In the preface, Dr. Dockery discusses our heritage, and the challenges it poses for the future. He also points out how postmodern thinking and the loss of our programmatic identity as Southern Baptists pose risks to our future cooperation. It is precisely this loss of a programmatic identity that points to the need for a renewed consensus on which to base our future cooperation. His itemized steps focus primarily on the authority of scripture, but they begin by pointing out the importance of our heritage as Baptists. This neatly provides the rationale for the content that follows.

Dr. Dockery has organized that content into two parts. The first part, “Theological and Historical Perspectives,” is composed of chapters written, as the heading suggests, by theologians and historians. An essay by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. asks if we as Southern Baptists have a future together. He concludes that we do, and in this chapter introduces the concept of “theological triage” (p. 31) as a way of categorizing our disagreements by their ultimate importance as we continue debate. Though itself often the subject of debate, this concept of triage is an important contribution to our ongoing discussion in the SBC.

The outstanding Baptist theologian R. Stanton Norman seeks to answer the question, “What makes a Baptist a Baptist?” He does so with thoroughness, helpfully identifying the “constituent elements of Baptist distinctives,” (p. 44) and ecclesiological distinctives rise to the top as primary. Gregory Wills contributes an essay offering a historical perspective. He begins with the recent controversy surrounding inerrancy, but then goes on to trace the history of Baptists, and again, ecclesiology surfaces as a prominent distinction.

Timothy George follows with a chapter asking, “Is Jesus a Baptist?” The Beeson Divinity School Dean offers three strategies by which our cooperative work can continue. Russell Moore’s chapter, “Learning from Nineteenth-Century Baptists,” is an application of the life and work of T.T. Eaton (1845-1907) to our current situation, offering many helpful insights. Paige Patterson contributes an essay discussing what we can learn from the Anabaptists. James Leo Garrett, Jr. closes Part 1 with a discussion of the beginnings of Baptist belief, beginning with the church fathers and the early creeds and continuing through the Reformation to the English Puritans.

Part Two, “Ministry and Convention Perspectives,” is a wide-ranging discussion of the state of our cooperative union, from the perspective of those serving in all areas of denominational life. These perspectives originate from the Executive Committee to our publishing house to the seminaries, and all the way up to the local church, the top of the ladder in SBC life. Jim Shaddix offers a pastor’s perspective on the future of the traditional church. Michael Day gives a somewhat radical picture of the future of associations and state conventions, suggesting that theological and mission-focused affinity will soon trump geographic proximity in these organizations.

Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer address the way in which we see our mission, given by our Savior, to take the gospel to every nation. Richard Land discusses the nature of religious liberty, a hallmark of Baptist identity since the Anabaptists, and Nathan Finn outlines those things that should mark our cooperation into the future, primarily a recovery of our identity as Baptists. Part Two begins with an essay by Morris Chapman, past president of the Executive Committee, discussing the nuts-and-bolts of our cooperative, yet independent, work together as Southern Baptists.

CRITIQUE

The content of these essays, though varied in background and intent, hold together well on the basis of the overall purpose of the book, which is to call us back to a family discussion about who we are as Southern Baptists. Though at times they can seem to veer off topic, as a whole the book accomplishes the purpose set out in the introduction, namely to call us back to a discussion of what it is that sets us apart from our brothers and sisters in Christ who hold to other traditions.

The distinctives that emerge consistently from the essays in this volume are baptism by immersion, a regenerate church membership, and a commitment to the idea of a free church in a free state, with no power vested in either to interfere with the other. These are the ideas that make us Baptists, and this volume is supremely helpful in focusing us on these discussions, to the exclusion of those things that would distract us.

CONCLUSION

Throughout the excellent essays contained in this collection, one theme continually resurfaces as the definitive distinctive of Southern Baptists: ecclesiology. More than anything else, the way that we approach the function and work of the church sets us apart from the rest of the evangelical world. It is here that our discussions as Southern Baptists ought to be focused, because it is here that our true unity lies. When we seek uniformity on issues not foundational to our identity as Baptists, the result will be bickering, infighting, fracture, and perhaps ultimately the dissolution of our great cooperative union.

As illustration, one need look no further than the cautions put forth by Dr. George in chapter four. In the first strategy he identifies, “Retrieval for the Sake of Renewal,” he argues that we must not ignore our history in seeking to be New Testament Christians, but that all of our history ought to be understood and embraced only as it lines up with the clear teaching of scripture. To that end, he addresses the question, “Are Baptist Calvinists?” His approach to that issue can teach us a great deal as we look at the discussions currently ongoing within our convention of churches.

His answer to the question speaks directly to us in these discussions, and his answer ought to be the end of them, at least as they are now dividing Baptist from Baptist within our confessional denomination. He says, simply, “some are and some are not, and it has been thus among Baptists for nearly 400 years.” (p. 95) This ought to be understood by every Calvinist in the SBC who believes and writes that to be less than fully Calvinistic is to flirt with the heresy of Pelagius. By the same token, it ought to be taken to heart by every “traditionalist” who believes in his heart that the convention, in order to survive, must be purged of all those who hold to all five of the Dordtian responses to the students of Arminius.

In an article first written at the request of the present writer, and recently republished in Baptist Press, Paige Patterson addressed the relationship between Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention by pointing to the split that occurred between the General and Particular Baptists in eighteenth century England, and the disastrous results for both camps. The General Baptists lost their doctrinal emphasis and headed into universalism, while the Particular Baptists became anti-missionary hyper-Calvinists. The emphasis of each group balanced the other, and without each other, both became irrelevant in fairly short order.

This is a clear warning for the Southern Baptist Convention. Both Calvinists and “traditionalists” need to appreciate the contribution of the other without insisting on uniformity. We are a confessional people, and the confession adopted by our convention is big enough to contain both groups.

What is needed in the SBC today is a vigorous discussion of the topics addressed in this excellent book. Issues of ecclesiology are being minimalized in churches large and small across our convention, and this is where the energy we have for debate must be expended. Our very existence as Baptists is at stake, yet we are being distracted by debates that matter less. In the process, we are in danger of losing the distinctives that make us Baptist.

 

 

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Tom Parker

It was said:”It has often been said that, thanks to the battles of the last generation in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to return the convention to a commitment to biblical inerrancy, we can be grateful that theological discussions in the SBC can be conducted on that basis. We do not spend our time debating and arguing the veracity of the creation narrative or whether the teachings of Paul on gender roles and homosexuality are culturally conditioned. ”

This to mean sounds like great praise for the CR. I am confident there are many questions that the CR did not solve but the tactics used by the CR warriors have caused most folks to be silent or leave the SBC on many of the issues mentioned above.

I never thought I would see a day in which to be a practicing Baptist one had to sign off on a creed–the 2000 BF&M.

But those that think the CR solved all of the problems have their heads in the sand IMO.

    Norm Miller

    Tom:
    Pray tell, what is the CBF’s stance on homosexuality? A military chaplain associated with the CBF resigned from NAMB recently because his views on homosexuality didn’t square with Scripture, and, therefore, neither with today’s SBC won by the CR warriors. Had the CR failed, I suspect the chaplain would not have had to leave NAMB. No, the CR didn’t solve every problem. But it warded off many others. — Norm

Shawn

Dear Tom Parker,

Baptists have always been a creedal people. In fact, Baptist are responsible for authoring more statements of faith than any other denominational group since the Protestant Reformation. We do this because we believe right doctrine matters, particularly the doctrines of biblical inerrancy, the exclusivity of the gospel, the triune nature and absolute omniscience of God, etc. All manner of heretics have claimed “No creed but the Bible. . .” Case in point, most of those who left the SBC for the CBF are still trying to figure out how to avoid doctrinal distinctives because they believe “doctrine divides,” and they hang dying on the vine because of it.

Whether Calvinists or Traditionalists, we here in the SBC gladly together call ourselves conservatives. We are not perfect, and we we have much work to do within our own denomination, but we all agree that the world needs Christ and we are commissioned to go forth and proclaim to them what is ultimately a doctrinal message: We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and the wages of sin is death. But God sent His Son, Jesus, to fulfill all righteousness and accomplish our redemption: He lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death on the cross, and rose from the grave on the third day, defeating death. Whosoever repents of their sins and believes in Jesus Christ shall be forgiven of their sins and receive the promise of eternal life in Christ. Whoever does not believe in Christ shall be eternally separated from God in a literal place of eternal torment known as hell.

To conclude, the conservative resurgence didn’t solve all our problems, but it solved our main problem. We no longer wonder or debate whether or not 2 Tim 3:16 is true, and we are no longer victims of the sad tactics used by the liberals who wanted to build an imaginary unity around an ecumenical message devoid of salvific truth.

Luther

Good article. I appreciate the gentle, unattacking way this article was written. A breath of fresh air. And I appreciate the call for unity among us Southern Baptists, Traditionalist and Calvinist. Amen!

In the words of Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get a long?”

JohnS

At a time when many responses to the presence of calvnists in the Convention are filled with anger and inventive, this article is a breath of fresh air. It is timely, on mark, and speaks a lot of truth to what is happening today. I am glad this was written, I hope the message here (and Dr. Dockery’s book) find a wide audience within the Convention.

Chris Roberts

Good words.

“Throughout the excellent essays contained in this collection, one theme continually resurfaces as the definitive distinctive of Southern Baptists: ecclesiology.”

I appreciated seeing this reminder. At the end of the day, the points that make Baptists distinct from other denominations are chiefly found in our ecclesiology: the work of the church in the life of the believer, including matters such as polity and ordinances. I understand Wes’s chief concern to be a weakening of these distinctives. I would add my own concern that too many churches in the SBC have not simply weakened distinctives in theology but also weaken faithfulness in preaching, teaching, and upholding the truth. Too many churches, including too many SBC churches, are pursuing pragmatism in the pulpit through seeker sensitive methodology, self-help psychology, encroachments of the prosperity gospel, and strong residual influences from the (mostly defunct) emerging church movement.

Obviously I’m passionate about the Calvinism debate, but I am not worried about the future and influence of non-Calvinist churches, if they be faithful churches (and there are many, many of those). What bothers me is the growth of churches like Steven Furtick’s Elevation church, Troy Gramling’s Potential church, Ed Young’s Second Baptist, Houston, Andy Stanley’s North Pointe church – and the list goes on and on, trickling down to too many smaller churches following their methods. While some see Calvinism as the great threat to the SBC, these churches continue to spread the message of moralistic therapeutic deism and the gospel of feel-good theology.

    volfan007

    Chris,

    I agree with you that the biggest danger in the SBC is the moralistic, therapeutic messages and the feel good Gospel of these Churches that seem to just be interested in pragmatism, or in having a “Kum ba yah” experience…. and throw doctrine to the wind. They dont seem to really care about doing Church in the Baptist way, which is the Biblical way.

    Of course, this is what a bunch of us said not too many years ago, and we were called every name you can think of….Landmarker being one of the most used. Bart Barber, Wes Kenney, Robin Foster, Tim Rogers, Scott Gordon, and myself…along with many others…..were crying out this very thing not too many years ago…..

    David

      abclay

      David,

      You wrote:
      “I agree with you that the biggest danger in the SBC is the moralistic, therapeutic messages and the feel good Gospel of these Churches that seem to just be interested in pragmatism, or in having a “Kum ba yah” experience…. and throw doctrine to the wind.”

      Amen, and Amen.

      I hope we can expect to see several articles in the near future at ‘Voices and ‘Today where these real problems within the SBC can be discussed?

      A very close relative of mine is a youth director at my former church and his theological hero is Rob Bell. Expressing to me that “The words of Christ are the really important ones in the Bible”, I don’t even have a basis with which to even begin an argument with him about the problems with the universalism/socinianism that Bell espouses. Because this is a small church (200-300 in worship service) and the current financial problems existing in America, the general consensus of the church seems to be “well as long as someone is doing something with the children and youth…..”.

      How do we combat this “New Liberalism”?

        Donald

        “How do we combat this “New Liberalism”?”

        The CR was, to a large extent, a battle over the institutions of the SBC. Liberals still flourish in Baptist Colleges and there are still many SBC churches that are liberal. Back in my Seminary days, my family and I ended up (for a time) at a fairly liberal church at First Baptist Hillsborough, NC. The pastor is a GGBTS & Duke Divinity graduate and they are still dually affiliated with the SBC and the CBF. (Interestingly, this was the only time that I have seen a really well run RA program). We still love those folks and have nothing but fond memories of our time there. There is no problem with these folks being SBC and I don’t think anyone wants to run them out of the SBC. There is also no reason to “combat” them.

          Donald

          abclay,
          I seem to have merged (in my mind) your post and the one below from Tom Parker. I was actually intending to respond to him.

    Chris Roberts

    Correction: I mentioned the church for the wrong Ed Young. I had in mind Ed Young Jr, who is at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX. 2nd Baptist Houston is his dad’s church.

Tom Parker

abcclay:

007 said:\”“I agree with you that the biggest danger in the SBC is the moralistic, therapeutic messages and the feel good Gospel of these Churches that seem to just be interested in pragmatism, or in having a “Kum ba yah” experience…. and throw doctrine to the wind.”

and you said: \”Amen, and Amen.\”

and then you said:\”How do we combat this “New Liberalism”?\”

For both of you: How can liberalism be a problem in the SBC?–the CR got rid of all of the liberals.

    abclay

    Tom,

    I think you missed the “New” describer that I used. I would, however, argue that this type of error is as bad as the “Old” liberalism because this “New” Liberalism changes the gospel in many ways.

    I wasn’t trying to imply that the old liberals were coming back. Perhaps it was a bad choice of words. It is a result of a very Liberal interpretation of the Bible, non the less.

    Chris Roberts

    Tom,

    There is a new liberalism which is not interested in the more academic liberalism ousted in the CR yet embraces a kind of practical liberalism in its use of Scripture, view of the church, and ways of addressing the problem of man.

Jeremy Crowder

I’m rather negative on creeds and largely dispute the idea that Baptists have always been creedal because that is almost half true. You don’t find mentions of creeds reading the histories of African American Churches founded before the Civil War for example. Some Baptists had creeds vast numbers of Baptists never had them historicaly and vast numbers still don’t have them. That being said if it safe guards principals that keeps the denomination from abandoning values that uphold the seriousness of sin then I think they serve a purpose. The Baptist Faith and Message serves a useful purpose but I’d prefer the SBC not to have any creed sadly with the state of the world it’s needed.

    Tom Parker

    Jeremy:

    You said:”The Baptist Faith and Message serves a useful purpose but I’d prefer the SBC not to have any creed sadly with the state of the world it’s needed.”

    The 2000 BF&M is nothing but a CREED! It allows some men to keep others under control. If you buck the CREED they will marginalize you in whatever ways it takes.

    From where I sit it is truly sad and mighty SELF RIGHTEOUS!!

      Jeremy Crowder

      Tom Parker The 2000 BF&M is something I understand is needed to safe guard the SBC. I wish we didn’t need though such a document I’d prefer in an ideal situation for us to all accept the Bible and need no formal statement or creed. The sad thing is some people refuse to follow the Bible and the SBC needs this protection. I’m concerned about the movement towards Creeds, tougher membership requirements, and other safeguards taking place. To me it puts in jeopardy the revival spirit that grew the SBC for decades with millions coming to salvation in the process. I think leaving revivalism spells a dark future because we are at our best at Pentacoast when we are in celebration and at our worst as we bottle that into something instutionalised.

Darryl Hill

I like this article very much because it focuses so strongly on our agreements! Praise the Lord for our common ground! It is this common ground that is most important. I have not always done well at focusing on the common ground but I am very much in favor of continued cooperation. The CP is possibly the greatest single Great Commission strategies in Christian history and has at its heart the very heart of God, in my opinion. To throw that away because of our differing views of whether or not regeneration precedes faith would be sinful in my view. Certainly we can be gracious to one another. I would not hesitate to stand up beside any brother or sister here, even though we have had strong disagreements at times. I applaud the spirit and purpose of this.

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