Recurring Themes in Baptist History

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 games

On Covenantal Church Membership

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on March 20, 2013.]

During the Reformation era, different Christian groups were wrestling with the best way to think about the biblical covenants and their relationship to ecclesiology. Though there was some diversity early on, as a general rule Reformed thinkers argued that all of the biblical covenants were historical administrations of a single covenant of grace. From this presupposition, most of the Reformed argued that covenantal infant baptism was a better baptismal theology than the sacerdotal pedobaptism of Catholics and many Lutherans. Covenant theology continues to be the dominant view of Reformed pedobaptists and, with some significant baptismal variations, some Calvinistic Baptists.

Orthodox Anabaptists took a different route than the Reformed pedobaptists. Most Anabaptists denied the existence of a covenant of grace and focused on the uniqueness of each individual biblical covenant. Some Anabaptists also advocated a form of covenantal credobaptism by arguing that confessor baptism represented a binding covenant between the believer and God wherein the believer pledges himself to God and His church through the obedience of credobaptism. Though the covenant language is rarely invoked, the spirit of this idea lives on in many Free Church traditions, including among many Southern Baptists. (I’ve often heard baptism referred to as the new Christian’s “first act of obedience.”)

The English Separatists embraced the covenant theology of the wider Reformed tradition, but they were more radical in their ecclesiology because the earliest Separatists rejected the concept of a state church. (Unfortunately, they snuggled up with Caesar after migrating to New England.) This rejection helped contribute to the development of a covenantal ecclesiology among the Separatists. The Separatists agreed with the Anabaptists in advocating a believer’s church comprised of presumably regenerate individuals, though unlike the Anabaptists the Separatists continued to embrace covenantal pedobaptism. The unique Separatist contribution was organizing their churches around written covenants that obligated members to walk together under the lordship of Christ for the sake of their individual and collective sanctification.

A growing number of Separatists began embracing credobaptism in the generation between 1609 and 1650. These Separatists-turned-Baptists maintained their commitment to a covenantal ecclesiology, including the General Baptists who rejected belief in an eternal covenant of grace. By the mid-seventeenth century, there were at least four distinct groups of English Baptists: the Calvinistic Particular Baptists, the Calvinistic Independent Baptists (who embraced open membership), the Arminian-leaning General Baptists, and the soteriologically diverse Seventh Day Baptists (who worshiped on Saturdays).  Each of these groups advocated not only a regenerate church membership, but following their Separatist forebears they also embraced a covenantal membership.

A commitment to a regenerate church membership organized around a written covenant also characterized most Baptist churches in America, especially by the turn of the eighteenth century. Though early on most churches adopted their own unique covenants, after the publication of J. Newton Brown’s Baptist Church Manual in 1853 (still in print today), the model covenant he included in his influential volume became the most widely used covenant among Baptist churches in America. This is the church covenant that Broadman Press reproduced in poster or plaque form that still adorns the sanctuaries and fellowship halls of thousands of Southern Baptist churches. Unfortunately, the very ease of adopting Brown’s standard covenant contributed to the downplaying of a covenantal ecclesiology among two or three generations of Southern Baptists.

Over the past decade or so, my own church, First Baptist Church of Durham, has reemphasized a covenantal view of membership. This is demonstrated several times a year during our corporate worship gathering when a new group of prospective members stands before our church body, introduces themselves, and publicly expresses their desire to join our church. At some point prior to the gathering, these individuals have already met with one of our pastors and participated in a prospective member class. After the introductions, all of our members stand and recite our church’s covenant in unison while the prospective members publicly sign a copy of the covenant. It is always a meaningful time in the life of our church. Within a couple of weeks after the public covenanting, we have a member’s meeting where we vote to formally receive these brothers and sisters in Christ into our church’s membership.

I’ve been greatly encouraged in recent years to see the recovery of a covenantal, regenerate church membership among many other Southern Baptist churches besides my own. I suspect that even more Southern Baptist churches will (re-) embrace a covenantal ecclesiology as we continue to emphasize greater clarity in gospel proclamation, the centrality of both evangelism and discipleship, and the importance of redemptive church discipline. By God’s grace, these seem to be areas where Southern Baptists of many different stripes and emphases are in substantial agreement. We should rejoice in this trend and labor together to advance it further for the sake of the health of our churches.

(Note: This post is also published today at Christian Thought & Tradition.)

Church Membership: Do I Stay or Do I Go Now?

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on September 11, 2013.]

One of the topics I  teach on regularly at Southeastern Seminary and in local churches is the nature of church membership. When teaching on membership, I’m frequently asked two questions: 1) What criteria should I use when deciding whether or not to join a particular church? 2) What criteria should I use when deciding whether or not to leave the church of which I’m a member? I answer by sharing four criteria for each question. I list them below, in the order that I personally prioritize them.

Criteria for Joining a Church

1. Doctrine: What does the church believe about primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines? How clear are they in their doctrinal commitments? Do you share the church’s core beliefs? Are you willing to submit to the teaching ministry of the church when it comes to (presumably minor) doctrines where you might disagree?

2. Emphases: Does the pastor (or pastors) emphasize text-driven preaching and teaching? Does the church emphasize discipleship, accountability, and spiritual formation for all its members? Does the church emphasize personal evangelism and global missions?

3. Geography: Do you live close enough to regularly worship with this particular body of believers? Do you live close enough to regularly serve alongside the members of this church? If you live more than 20 minutes away from the church’s gathering place, are you willing to either drive frequently or relocate closer so that you can be vitally involved in the body life of the church?

4. Preferences: Are you comfortable with the church’s approach to music and worship? Are you comfortable with the church’s approach to age- or gender-specific ministry? Are you comfortable with the general ambience or atmosphere that is being fostered by the church?

Criteria for Leaving a Church

1. Geography: Have you relocated far enough from the church’s gathering place that it is no longer possible to be meaningfully involved? (e.g. you move across town)

2. Doctrine: Has there been a change in the doctrinal convictions you hold or those espoused by the church’s leadership that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the church changes its position on female pastors, baptism, speaking in tongues, or eternal security)

3. Emphases: Has there been a change in the church’s emphases that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the pastor has abandoned text-driven teaching and preaching or the leadership refuses to emphasize evangelism and missions)

4. Preferences: Has there been a change in how the church handles some of your preferences that makes continued membership difficult? (e.g. the music style has changed, the children’s ministry strategy has changed, church gatherings have become more or less casual than they were)

I am convinced that one of the reasons we have so much church-shopping and church-hopping in American evangelicalism is because we tend to join and leave a church based more upon our preferences rather than other matters that are more important. Perhaps better ordering our priorities will help us to be more discerning in pursuing and/or ending church membership.

Some of you may quibble with me over where I rank some of these matters–there is room for debate. Nevertheless, I hope you find these lists helpful.