What, Indeed, Does Make us Southern Baptist?

This post is in response to an article by Brad Whitt, Pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Simpsonville, SC.  I encourage your to read his post here first.  I attempted to place this post on Brad's blog, but the comment has not been published for about 2 weeks.

Dear Brad,

I appreciate your approach at defining Southern Baptist distinctions. It’s an important question, and its answers are far reaching into virtually every area of Southern Baptist life. Southern Baptist “born-and bred” like you, I’ve wrestled with these questions as well, and appreciate the opportunity to interact with you a bit online.

It seems you are concerned that a younger generation within the convention, influenced by some outside Southern Baptist life, would seek to weaken some distinctions, or eliminate some all together. More specifically, you seem to be especially concerned that these non-Southern Baptist entities are reformed.

Now, the issues raised here are “legion.” Let me ask a few questions and make a few comments, based on the three distinctions you mention in your post: common theology, common ecclesiology, and common missiology.

First, a common theology. Do we not have this in the Baptist Faith and Message? Do not the church plants we fund and support … even those who share with Acts 29 as well … use the Baptist Faith and Message as their statement of faith (some may not, but certainly some do)? Isn’t the fact that Paige Patterson and Al Mohler can present, sign, and affirm the Baptist Faith and Message a testimony to the document’s ability to give reformed and non-reformed Southern Baptists the common theology you espouse to desire?

Consider the doctrine of election or predestination, presented in Article V in our statement of faith. The statement beautifully affirms the sovereignty of God and the free agency of man, and rightfully reminds that the assurance of our salvation is grounded in election.

Consider the references to the extent of the atonement throughout the statement of faith. In Article 2, Section B, regarding Jesus, God’s Son, it affirms that Jesus “honored the divine law by His personal obedience, and in His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin.” In Article IV regarding salvation, we are taught that Jesus, “by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer.” The first of these statements tends to emphasize the universal extent Christ’s death, while the other emphasizes the specific scope of Christ’s death. Therefore, we have a common theology that both reformed and non-reformed Southern Baptists can affirm.

Additionally, Southern Baptist history affirms that a common theology among Southern Baptists includes reformed and non-reformed individuals. William Carey, Andrew Fuller, Adoniram Judson, Luther Rice, J. P. Boyce are examples of reformed individuals. Are we not grateful for the contribution of these men as well as their less-reformed brothers?

All of this to say that your desire for a common theology has been realized in the Southern Baptist Faith and Message since 1925. My view is that your idea that reformed Southern Baptists do not have a common theology with non-reformed Southern Baptists is a false premise. Both sides can affirm the statement with joy (as evidenced by the diverse committee members who crafted it); therefore, we have a common theology. As I have told my congregation, “If you all need a pastor who waves the flag of calvinism, you will be disappointed. If you all need a pastor who asks calvinists to leave or stay away from our congregation, you will be disappointed.” Our statement of faith is good for all.

Second, a common ecclesiology. I agree with you that we “dare not deny a local church’s right to do as they feel the Scripture and the Savior lead them to do,” and with our statement of faith that “each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes” and that the church’s “scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.” I, like you, do not believe that ecclesiology is a secondary or tertiary issue in principle (it’s not the main thing I’m working on in my current context, but principally I agree).

The autonomy of the congregation, combined with the fact that the Bible says nothing about what deacons actually do (I do not believe Acts 6 is the creation of the first deacon office), results in many variances within Southern Baptist churches. You don’t actually say this in your post, but you seem to imply that a local church’s desire to have an elder-led or elder-ruled governance is a breech of this view.

This is interesting to me. Our statement of faith, like the Scriptures, only affirms the existence of the offices and speaks to the character of those who hold them. In fact, nowhere in the Bible are we told precisely what deacons do (again, Acts 6 is not a model for the work of those who hold the office of deacon), a fact that affirms the autonomy of churches to do as they please, presumably (and only presumably) in a democratic process. Should a congregation decide to be elder-led or elder-ruled does not mean they also remove all democratic processes from their governance any more than a church being pastor-led does. A church with an elder board (one that rules or leads) is not a breech of our statement of faith, but falls well within its boundaries.

I think a better question is whether we give too much power to task forces and search teams. But, I digress.

Finally, you speak of a cooperative missiology. This truly is the distinguishing mark of Southern Baptists. One could argue that it is precisely because of our desire to cooperate in missions that we now exist as we do today. The revitalized efforts to plant churches in the United States is an expression of that unique cooperative missiology.

Admittedly, I am unaware of the details surrounding state or national Southern Baptist church planting efforts that are intentionally cooperating with Redeemer Presbyterian. While my best pastoral partner in my community is the pastor of one of the Presbyterian churches in town, we both would agree that planting a church together would be impossible given our distinctive views on baptism. I would stand with you in an effort to make sure we never compromise on believer’s baptism in our church plants.

Yet it would be a healthy thing to analyze the details of the requirements Acts 29 places on its church planters to see if they fall outside the scope of our statement of faith. I cannot answer this question and speak to it intelligently and with integrity right now.

In summary, I would submit to you that calvinists and non-calvinists have a common theology in the Baptist Faith and Message. Neither side need divide theologically if we agree to affirm this statement of faith, and both sides are free to lead congregations in a manner more or less reformed according to the vision God gives them. This includes ecclesiological variances and perhaps even missiological variances.

Thank you again for your thoughtful post. I enjoyed it very much! Working through it and my own response has been an edifying exercise that leads me to contemplate how I can better lead my current congregation in theological, ecclesiological, and missiological matters.