Southern Baptist Identity | A Book Review

One of the most recent books I have read is “Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future.” It was highly informative, candidly thought-provoking, and engagingly eclectic. I am thankful for the book form of these many essays from varying leadership among the Southern Baptist Convention.

You’ll read my full commendation at the end of this article, but I will go ahead and tell you that I believe every Christian would benefit from reading this book. Furthermore, I believe every Southern Baptist should read this book in order to contribute to the necessary discussion about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

 

Introduction

David Dockery, a proven unifier in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), edited essays from several leaders and thinkers in the SBC. The content is well introduced by Dockery himself.

He opens the book by writing,

“The SBC is the largest evangelical denomination in the country, with over 44,000 churches in all fifty states. Southern Baptists have often functioned separately from the rest of American Christianity because of their sectionalism, their inability to separate from Southern culture, their parochialism, and their self-sufficiency, though there are some indicators that these things are beginning to change. For almost three decades the Convention has been embroiled in controversy regarding theological issues and denominational polity. We now find ourselves asking important questions about the future and identity of the SBC” (p. 13).

With this introduction in mind, the rest of the book seeks to explain and propose how Southern Baptist might rediscover their identity and forge ahead into the future.

Summary and Interaction

The book has two larger perspectival sections: Theological and Historical Perspectives and Ministry and Convention Perspectives. I will provide a brief overview of each section below.

Theological and Historical Perspectives: Chs 1 – 7

Albert Mohler (ch. 1) begins the theological and historical section by asking the question, “Is there a future?” This is a good question. It seems that many Southern Baptists have simply assumed the answer is, “Yes, of course there is a future for the SBC!” This assumption would be foolish, however, given the changing culture around us and the declining numbers (statistically speaking) among us.

Mohler points to the historic roots of Southern Baptist identity in three theological principles with practical implications. First, one essential mark of Baptist churches has been the understanding that only genuine Christians should be embraced members of a local church (regenerate membership). Second, believer’s baptism has marked the affirmation of a Christian profession of faith and one’s entry into the visible membership of the local church. Third, covenanted church members of a local church are responsible for ordering the mission and function of the church according to Scripture.

Mohler, like all the authors in this first section, celebrated the “Conservative Resurgence” among the SBC and the positive results that have come from it. One should certainly read this book and others on the matter (Wills provides an excellent overview of the history and context of the Conservative Resurgence in chapter 3), but the Conservative Resurgence was essentially a massive shift in the SBC (1979-2000) away from liberal and moderate theological positions toward conservative ones.

Obviously, the history may be perceived through differing lenses, but there is no doubt that what Mohler says here is true. “Southern Baptists are now exceptional in the broader theological world” (p. 29). Marriage, abortion, and gender identity are all issues upon which Southern Baptists generally stand against the rest of the Western world (including other Christians). But, Mohler concludes his essay by reminding us, “Baptists are always better when we are outsiders. When Baptists are forced to be nonconformists, we are forced to go back home” (p. 40).

R. Stanton Norman (ch. 2) asks another crucial question in the discussion, “What makes a Baptist a Baptist?” Surveying the vast landscape of Baptist writings, Norman isolates what he calls “constituent elements of Baptist distinctives.” These are the essential or fundamental legs upholding the proverbial stool of Baptist identity.

First, the sufficiency and authority of Scripture is the starting block for any discussion of Baptist distinctives. While other Christian denominations also affirm the Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura, Norman says, “Baptists distance themselves from other denominations… by claiming a complete dependence upon Scripture as the principal foundation for their beliefs and practices” (p. 44).

Second, Baptists are intentionally polemical. This is not to say that Baptists must be cantankerous (though some have earned the moniker deservedly), but it is to say that Baptists consistently “highlight the supremacy and uniqueness of the Baptist position in contrast to the theological deficiencies of other positions” (p. 46).

Third, Baptists are very interested in the way church is done. Ecclesiology (especially regenerate membership, believer’s baptism, and congregational polity) is essential to the identity of Baptists. Fourth, Baptists are blatantly volitional. From the necessity of an individual commitment to follow Christ to the liberty of all people to freely believe and practice religion without coercion, Baptists place personal responsibility on the individual.

Norman concludes his essay by naming two major challenges for Baptists today. One, Baptists must be “faithful to the heritage that is uniquely Baptist;” and two, Baptists must take on the “task of articulating our distinctive identity to our contemporary culture” (p. 62).

Russell Moore (ch. 5) highlights a 19th-century Baptist figure to draw out some lessons we might learn from those who have gone before us. Moore says,

“T.T. Eaton is not a hero; nor is he a villain. He was a hell-deserving sinner who often gave the world empirical proof of his theology of total depravity. He was also, however, a man of the church – who… ‘stood athwart history, yelling, Stop! with a Bible in his hands’” (p. 106).

Some of Eaton’s concerns are Moore’s concerns today. Moore claims that we have generally lost the faithful witness of past Baptists in the areas of (1) regenerate membership and believer’s baptism, (2) celebrating the Lord’s Supper, (3) practicing church discipline (led by pastors, and practiced by faithful congregations), and (4) the centrality of the local church (rather than parachurch ministries). With piercing words, Moore says,

“The decline of Baptist identity is not the fault of Joyce Meyer or Joel Osteen, Wheaton or Colorado Springs. It is the fault of local congregations who refuse to teach and mentor. If more churches taught Titus 2 women’s discipleship, there would be less need for Beth Moore DVDs. If more churches taught men to keep their promises, there would be less need to rent stadiums. If more pastors preached the Bible with passion and insight, if more churches actually crusaded for Christ on the campuses in their community, there would be less need for Campus Crusade for Christ” (p. 111).

Moore advocates for a return to essential Baptist principles. His candid and biting transparency may be offensive to some, but his voice merely echoes the thoughts and words of many younger Southern Baptists – at least many of those who have not yet given up on the SBC.

Paige Patterson (ch. 6) traces these same themes of Baptist identity from those common among the dissenting Anabaptists. While there in no direct line of heritage, there are many similar identifying marks. James Leo Garrett Jr. (ch. 7) looks back even further to the earliest councils, creeds, and church fathers for the themes and marks which Baptists hold dear today. Only the Landmark Baptists would see a need for a unique Baptist line all the way back to the 1st century, but Garrett shows us that Baptists may indeed claim a long Christian legacy.

Baptists have been around a long time, and we share the Christian heritage of those who came before the time when anyone was claiming to be a ‘Baptist.’ The essential and common practices of those who came before us did not arise from societal pressures or mere preference. These practices were built on theological foundations, and Baptists today must rediscover and recommit themselves to the essential doctrines that have made Baptists what they are. It should go without saying, but Baptists of today (and tomorrow) should not think, speak, and act out of step with the Baptists of yesterday.

 

Ministry and Convention Perspectives: Chs 8 – 14

This second section deals more pointedly with the current activities and structures of the SBC, including the national and state conventions, the various SBC entities, local associations, and local churches. The first section was focused on “Who we are,” though there were significant implications for activity, and the second section focuses on “What we do and how we do it.” Both sections contain a strong call for reform, but this second one will likely be perceived as the greater assault on the status quo.

Morris Chapman (ch. 8) lays out some axioms of cooperation among Southern Baptists. He provides six in all – a theological, a societal, an ethical, an ecclesiastical, an attitudinal, and a political – but first Chapman sets the stage and lists some problems. Tracing the formation and methods of associations in the past, Chapman ably demonstrates that cooperation is a precarious thing.

So many things lead to the decay of cooperation, and he lists three worldviews that we may recognize among Southern Baptists today. One is “perfunctory performance” (p. 162). Chapman says, “Hundreds of our contemporary churches have fallen into this pattern. They value their human traditions over the movement of God” (p. 162). The second is “pragmatism” (p. 163). This is a methodology based on a single question: “Does it work?” Chapman identifies the third problematic worldview by calling it “politics” (p. 163). This is the worldview that confuses Southern Baptist (even Christian) identity with partisan political affiliation.

Chapman offers six axioms as solutions. One, the theological axiom of Confession. Chapman argues that we must, as Southern Baptists, cooperate with one another based on a common confession of faith. He says, “If we must choose between heresy and schism, we always, always, chose schism” (p.166). Two, the societal axiom of Courage. Chapman says, “God honors the man who has not only convictions but also the courage of his convictions” (p. 168). Three, the ethical axiom of Character. Chapman says, “Consistent character is a necessary component of the Christian life. No admonition is more useful to those of us who highly value sound doctrine than the phrase ‘practice what you preach’” (p. 168).

Four, the ecclesiastical axiom of Collaboration. Chapman says, “We can do more together than separately. We, as Great Commission Christians, elevate cooperation of Christians as a core value” (p. 169). Five, the attitudinal axiom of Charity. Chapman says, “Cooperating conservatives believe it is entirely possible, in fact necessary, to maintain an irenic (peaceful and reconciling) spirit without bending one iota on basic doctrine” (p. 170).

Six, the political axiom of Co-belligerency. Chapman says, “Cooperating conservatives cooperate where it is possible… we can join together with folks whose theology we do not share in order to accomplish good works, as long as we do not compromise our theology. Simply working with them is not a compromise itself” (p. 170). These axioms form basic principles for moving ahead. As Chapman also acknowledges, the SBC is certainly in need of some intentional work.

Ed Stetzer (ch. 9) and Thom Rainer (ch. 11) both advocate for much the same thing, but regarding different aspects of Southern Baptist life. Both of these men hope for and invite others to act on a spirit of fundamental solidarity and gracious liberty. Solidarity among Southern Baptists should be found on the goal (missional living – evangelism), and liberty should be enjoyed and granted as to the precise methods we use to achieve it.

Stetzer, the quintessential SBC missiologist, urges all Southern Baptists to understand their role in this world as missional. Stetzer says, “’Missional’ is used in most Southern Baptist contexts to describe the attitude of obedience to sharing the Gospel around the world that all believers should possess” (p. 175). He goes on to say, “’missional’ does not refer to an activity or a program, but rather to the very nature of true, God-honoring, biblical, missions-focused, contextualized church” (p. 181).

Stetzer sobers his reader by saying,

“Day after day, as the culture around us becomes more unfamiliar and even hostile toward Christianity, many Southern Baptist churches separate themselves further from the culture they are called to reach, with a self-affirming and predictable comfortable denominational subculture contributing to this widening distance. This chasm of cultural understanding makes it increasingly difficult for our ‘church culture’ to relate to ‘prevailing culture’” (p. 185).

Stetzer argues that churches must intentionally resist becoming communal silos, but instead plan and train themselves to be missional. Missional churches, Stetzer says, must “(1) contend for the faith, (2) contextualize their ministries, and (3) cooperate with other churches for the kingdom of God” (p. 190). As churches seek to be missional, he says, “our task is not to listen to those who love church culture more than they love Christ’s commands” (p. 197).

Jim Shaddix (ch. 10) does a masterful job of conveying the predicament and the possibilities of the ‘traditional’ church. I believe any attempt I make to summarize his chapter would diminish the very potent work he has produced there. I urge the reader to read Shaddix’s essay in full.

As mentioned above, Stetzer and Rainer have much the same goals in mind, but Thom Rainer (ch. 11) focuses especially on evangelism and church growth. His statistics are heartbreaking, citing the number of baptisms as having decreased in 2005 when compared with 1950. While baptisms are not the only measurement by which we gauge our success as a church, as Rainer acknowledges, there is certainly cause for concern when we are seeing less conversions among a growing population. Rainer says that the lacking evangelistic zeal and activity among Southern Baptists might be due to a few things, but he boils it down to a matter of personal responsibility. Rainer says, “when evangelism is not my responsibility, it does not happen” (p. 220). This is certainly worth our time and consideration, and Southern Baptists must change course on the matter of personal evangelism.

Michael Day (ch. 12) gets down to the nitty-gritty of Southern Baptist structure in his essay on the nature and future of associations and conventions. This content will likely only be of interest to those who are in leadership in the SBC (including pastors of local churches), but I strongly encourage the laity to at least engage with these matters on an elementary level.

Day first points to the foundation of associations before there was a Southern Baptist Convention. It is informative, to say the least, to know how the structure we have today developed, and this will certainly help us to make a wise assessment about how we bring about positive change for the future. Day explains that associations were originally formed around common faith and practices, and they understood themselves to be responsible for defending their unity in such matters. In the early 1900s, however, there was a redefinition of associations, when state conventions and other cooperative entities were formed. Quoting Glynn Ford, Day wrote about the shift among associations. He wrote,

“The changes involved shifting from a doctrinally based fellowship of churches to an implementing agency of the denomination; shifting from a guardian of the fellowship to a denominational promoter; and shifting the initiative for mission from the churches to the state convention and national convention” (p. 227).

Day helpfully summarizes the history as follows:

We were birthed by biblical Baptists who embraced biblical models of the church and the mission of God in the world;

We were nurtured by believing Baptists who were certain the mission of God in the world was too large for a single body and demanded cooperation among the many;

We were shaped by bureaucratic Baptists who have worked long and hard to guide and administer what have become large and often bulky organizations;

We have been defined by battling Baptists who have fought most often for the right things, occasionally for the wrong things, but always toward producing the refinement and redefinition necessary in cooperative bodies; and,

We are questioned by befuddled Baptists who are confused and concerned about the future of our cooperative efforts. As Frank Page (past president of the Southern Baptist Convention) said at a chapel address at Union University, “There is a lot of what we have been practicing for a long time that needs to be questioned” (p. 230).

Day candidly admits that a new operational model for state conventions and local associations is still emerging and not yet fully developed. The new paradigm, Day says, is developing as church-driven, priority-based, resource-focused, institutionally free, strategically managed, geographically unfettered, and Kingdom-conscious. Day also makes clear the fact that local churches and pastors are the driving force and strategists behind the development and implementation of the new paradigm. This is certainly an interesting chapter that deserves close reading and much discussion.

Richard Land (ch. 13) articulates what many Southern Baptists seem to know, but do not want to concede. We are no longer living as cultural drivers, and we are often not even welcome in the vehicle. Southern Baptists must learn to engage the American (and Western) culture as it is, rather than simply lament what it has become. Indeed, our ability to do this will have a huge impact on our very existence in the future.

Nathan Finn (ch.14) helpfully lays out three priorities for Southern Baptists as we move into the future from here. He also lists some specifics under each. First, we must renew our Baptist Identity. This includes an uncompromising view of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, a renewal of our unity with Baptists and non-Baptists alike regarding the Gospel, and a renewal of our distinctive Baptist commitment to regenerate church membership (which has an implied commitment to believer’s baptism).

Second, we must renew our commitment to the Great Commission. This includes recovering a “robust understanding of the Gospel.” Finn says, “In too many of our churches, the Gospel is being downplayed, confused, dumbed-down, or redefined” (p. 265). With a renewed understanding of the Gospel message, Finn writes, “Southern Baptists must believe that the Lord is a missional God and that His church is a missional people” (p. 268). This, of course, will motivate us to be personally evangelistic and engaged in church planting efforts as well.

Third, we must renew our commitment to Confessional Cooperation. As of today, there is no confessional statement of any kind to which a church must adhere to be a Southern Baptist church. Cooperative Program giving is the only requirement.[1] Finn leans on suggestions from other Southern Baptists (David Dockery and Jim Richards) and proposes a way forward. He writes,

“I would propose that post-resurgence Southern Baptists adopt a brief abstract of the Baptist Faith and Message that affirms a high view of Scripture, an orthodox statement of the Trinity and Christology, an evangelical understanding of salvation, and a basic Baptist understanding of ecclesiology. This would form an adequate confessional basis for churches cooperating with the SBC” (pp. 274-275).

I believe that this proposal is a wonderful idea, but it will be interesting to see how other Southern Baptists perceive this same proposal.

These three priorities do indeed provide thought-provoking substance for a discussion about how the SBC meets the future as a post-Conservative Resurgence denomination. Only time will tell where we will go from here.

Conclusion

Danny Akin (Concluding chapter), desiring to send us off with marching orders, lists ten mandates for Southern Baptists in the 21st century. These are as follows:

1) Regenerate Church Membership. Southern Baptists must understand church membership is a privilege (not a right), guard against easy ‘believism,’ and cautiously baptize professing believers.

2) Believer’s Baptism. Southern Baptists must desire evidence of regeneration before one is baptized, cautiously baptize younger children, emphasize baptism as obedience to Christ, refuse admission into church membership without believer’s baptism, and uphold baptism as the public profession of one’s faith (not merely walking an aisle or saying a prayer).

3) Church Discipline and Disciple-Making. Southern Baptists must know and teach what the Bible says about church discipline, lovingly and wisely implement church discipline, and apply discipline to areas like absentee membership as well as the specific list provided in 1 Corinthians 5.

4) Genuine Word-Based Ministry. Southern Baptists must preach and teach the content of the Bible (not psychology, felt-needs, self-help, or any other popular content).

5) Faithful and Biblical Ecclesiology. Southern Baptists must guard the membership of the local church, expect the marks of (1) the Word, (2) ordinances, and (3) church discipline to be visible and practiced, and apply the biblical model of elder/pastor led and congregationally governed local church bodies.

6) Missions and Evangelism with Healthy Theology. Southern Baptists must live missionally in their own contexts, give charitably to missions abroad, and ground all missions and evangelism in a healthy theology that will guard against compromising truth for the sake of partnership or methods.

7) Church Planting. Southern Baptists must focus prayer, planning, money, and resources on densely populated areas to apply the 1st century Christian model of church planting.

8) Biblical Marriage. Southern Baptists must understand the divine covenant of marriage, affirm the value and necessity of premarital counseling and mentoring, acknowledge the gift of singleness that God gives to some, and affirm the gift of children as a ‘heritage from the Lord’ (Ps. 127:3).

9) Seminaries and Churches. Southern Baptists must view seminaries as servants of the churches, hold seminaries to a serious confession of the faith, and seek to form partnerships between seminaries and churches for a more well-rounded educational experience.

10) Remembering as we move Forward. Southern Baptists must remember who we have been, understand who we are now, and fervently seek to live authentically as Southern Baptists in the future.

 

My Commendation

This book, more than any other I have read thus far, has renewed my own hope for the future of the SBC. Whether all Southern Baptists agree with the proposals and conclusions found within, I am encouraged by the fact that such things are being discussed among those with platforms as influential as these authors.

I commend this book to any Christian who wants to know what it looks like to thoughtfully consider your place in the world and the right way forward.

I especially commend this book to Southern Baptists. I look forward to the conversations that must take place over these topics, and I pray that God will help us to be faithful on those matters that are essential to our survival as a people of the Book.

God does not need Southern Baptists to accomplish His work of redeeming a people for His glory, but I am glad He has used Southern Baptists in the past, and I long for Him to revive us as useful tools again.

 

Bibliography:

Dockery, David S., R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Gregory A. Wills, Timothy George, Russell Moore, Daniel L. Akin, Nathan A. Finn, R. Stanton Norman, Paige Patterson, James Leo Garrett, Jr., Morris H. Chapman, Ed Stetzer, Jim Shaddix, Thom Rainer, Michael Day, and Richard Land. Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.

Get it HERE at Amazon

Footnotes:

[1] Recent cultural controversies have caused the open acceptance of homosexuality to disqualify a church’s participation in the SBC, but this is much more indicative of our remaining conservative values and not necessarily our strong theological convictions. There is simply no clear theological standard by which the SBC admits or dismisses churches. We may claim the Bible all day long, but so did Marcion, Arius, Joseph Smith, and nearly every other heretic.

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