Recurring Themes in Baptist History

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Nearly every semester, I teach a course at Southeastern Seminary titled Baptist History: Heritage, Identity, Polity. Like any subject that you study historically, Baptist history is characterized by a number of recurring themes. Some of these themes represent perennial debates among Baptists, while others speak to historical developments that continue to influence Baptists to the present day. I try to highlight these themes during the course of the semester in my lectures and in our class discussions.

While there are no doubt other themes that could be highlighted, I point to six as being particularly important. These topics come up in class again and again because, well, they come up among Baptists again and again!

1. Reform vs. Restoration: Some historians interpret Baptists as a reform movement that arose among English Protestants, while others see them as a restoration movement that sought to bypass earlier movements and return to the purity of New Testament Christianity. Furthermore, how Baptists themselves have understood their own identity as reformers or restorationists has varied at different points in history. How one approaches this issue necessarily affects his or her understanding of Baptist identity.

2. Calvinism vs. Arminianism: From their earliest days, Baptists have enjoyed no consensus on doctrines such as predestination, the extent/intent of the atonement, the relationship between divine grace and human belief, and the eternal security of those who believe. Some Baptists have been strong Calvinists, while others have been convictional Arminians. Many Baptists (including most Southern Baptists today) have attempted to argue that a position between Calvinism and Arminianism is the most biblical position. While this is an important topic that should be considered first and foremost from a biblical perspective, historically, there is no such thing as “the Baptist view” of the doctrines of grace.

3. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Church Membership: While all Baptists affirm believer’s baptism, there is no unanimity in terms of how baptism relates to the Lord’s Supper and church membership. Historically, most Baptists have argued that believer’s baptism is prerequisite to church membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper. However, many Baptists believe that believer’s baptism should not be prerequisite to communion. A small but growing minority of Baptists believes that believer’s baptism should not be a requirement of church membership. This spectrum of views was already present by the middle of the seventeenth century.

4. The Relationship between Church and State: Baptists have historically championed full religious liberty and church-state separation. However, Baptists have frequently disagreed about the implementation of this principle. Some Baptists want religious liberty within the context of a broadly Christian nation, while others want the state to take a secular (though not secularist) approach and remain neutral on religious matters. In America, this particular theme has been a point of tension from the 1960s onward. Some Baptists accuse the Supreme Court and sometimes legislative bodies of advocating secularism while other Baptists accuse political conservatives of rejecting, or at least downplaying, the importance of church-state separation.

5. The Centrality of Missions: From the eighteenth century onwards, missions has been arguably the defining theme in Baptist history. Nearly every theological and methodological debate among Baptists has been related in some way to the desire of Baptists to obey Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20. As much as any denomination, Baptists are a tradition defined by a high level of commitment to evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. We have certainly witnessed this theme play in some of our family discussions in recent Southern Baptist life.

6. Increasing Denominationalism: As Baptists became more committed to missions, they were forced to develop increasingly elaborate denominational structures to better facilitate cooperation for the sake of missions. Sometimes, denominationalism has served as a catalyst to missionary efforts. At other times, denominational structures have arguably hindered effective missionary advance due to alleged bureaucratic expansion. For some Baptists, their denominational identity is part and parcel of their wider Baptist identity, while other Baptists see themselves as only partially—perhaps even peripherally—part of a Baptist denomination.

Again, I have little doubt there are other themes that could be highlighted, but these are the ones that stand out to me. To my thinking, it is impossible to understand Baptist history—or contemporary debates about Baptist identity, denominationalism, etc.—without some familiarity with these six recurring themes.

Race in America 50 Years Later (Brent Aucoin)

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[Editor's Note: Dr. Brent Aucoin is Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College at Southeastern. His published doctoral dissertation (completed at the University of Arkansas) is entitled, A Rift in the Clouds: Race and the Southern Federal Judiciary, 1901–1910. He continues to research race relations in America. So we asked him to evaluate where we are now 50 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. See below for more resources on race relations upcoming at Southeastern.] 

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008 and Fred Luter was elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2012, some predicted that the elevation of these two black men to their respective offices would help solve the racial problems in America and America’s largest Protestant denomination. In the case of President Obama’s election, some prognosticators even began speaking of the advent of a “post-racial America.”   However, events such as the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the recent upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri, make it clear that racial strife continues in America. Likewise, the Southern Baptist Convention continues to struggle with an image tarnished by its pro-slavery origins and the fact that it remains a predominately white denomination. While it is safe to say that some individuals expected too much from the elections of Obama and Luter (particularly the former), it is also safe to conclude that those expectations, and the extraordinary attention given to their elections, indicate that the issue of race continues to be an important and pressing topic in America and in the church.

It is for this reason that I believe Americans and Southern Baptists in particular must take time to learn about and to reflect upon the history of race relations in our country and denomination. As a society and as a church we are grappling with the issue of race. This has been the case since the founding of both the USA and the SBC. America and American Christianity have been on a long and arduous journey when it comes to the matter of the relationship between black and white. If one wants to know where we are now in this journey and how we can move forward, then one needs to know how we have gotten to this point, and what is the ultimate goal.

America’s observation of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act provides the perfect opportunity for us to do these very things. The passage of this monumental piece of legislation half a century ago has been dubbed as something just short of miraculous, considering its historical context. In a single moment racist practices and laws, which in some cases had plagued African Americans for nearly three centuries, were upended. The Act sought to transform America from a color-conscious society to one that is blind to race. The Act outlawed racial discrimination in employment, access to public accommodations, and education. Like the unprecedented, historic elections of Presidents Obama and Luter, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a momentous milestone in the history of American race relations.

However, like the elections of Obama and Luter, the Civil Rights Acts also failed to solve all of the racial problems that many hoped and expected it would. (See, again, the recent turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri as an example of that failure.) It, like other milestones, marked a significant turning point in American race relations, and the taking of another step closer to the ultimate goal of racial reconciliation. But how close are we to that goal? How far along have we come in the journey? We know we are not there yet, but are we close, and what needs to be done to bring the journey to a successful end?

During a two-day event being put on by the Center for Faith and Culture called “Christian Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” these questions and others will be explored and discussed. On the evening of Tuesday, September 16th, Dr. Gerald Smith will consider the role that Christianity played in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s and how Christians can guide the ongoing quest for racial justice and reconciliation. On Wednesday, September 17th a panel consisting of scholars and a veteran of the civil rights movement will examine the history of race relations in America from the 1960s to the present. This Casual Conversation event will begin at 10:00 AM and be held in Binkley Chapel.

For information on these events please check out this link. And if you have questions you’d like to ask Southeastern’s Casual Conversation’s panel please submit them here: https://sebts.typeform.com/to/iF5AXv. Join the conversation on Twitter at #Secasconvo and on the livestream: http://www.sebts.edu/news-resources/livestream.aspx

 

Scott Hildreth on 30 Days of Going

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Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday morning at Between the Times we highlight the work of Southeastern’s Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies. Directed by Scott Hildreth, the CGCS exists to produce students who are grounded in the scriptures, culturally sensitive, prepared to make disciples and equipped to plant churches that are healthy and reproductive. Scott and the team at the CGCS maintain a blog, Missions at Southeastern, as one part of this effort. So, every Wednesday we point you to their writing so that you might be better equipped as you and your churches go.

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This week we’re highlighting the 30 days of going campaign going on at Southeastern. As Scott recently wrote,

The purpose of this post is to extend an invitation to you too. We are asking everyone to make a commitment for the next 30 days (30 days of September) to not let one day pass you by without you speaking to someone about Christ. We know this is a heavy commitment and we also know that it will require a radical adjustment in lifestyle for you. But think of the benefit for you and for your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc.

 Read the full post here and get more info about #30daysofgoing.