Some Thoughts on Southern Baptists, Baptism, and Communion

When I teach Baptist history, I argue that there are three perennial debates among Baptists. The first (and oldest) is soteriological: where should we fall on the spectrum of beliefs historically identified as Calvinism and Arminianism? The second is related to the application of a key Baptist distinctive: what is the best way to articulate and defend liberty of conscience for all people? The third is ecclesiological: what is the relationship between baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and (sometimes) church membership? All three are alive and well among contemporary Southern Baptists.

LifeWay Research released a study yesterday demonstrating that a slight majority (52%) of the Southern Baptist pastors they polled believe that any professing believer can participate in communion. Only about a third of those polled (35%) believe that baptism is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. Still others advocated other positions, which are less relevant to this post. (The poll also had some interesting statistics about how frequently Southern Baptists celebrate communion, but that’s another topic for another day.)

What is interesting about LifeWay’s findings is that they suggest a disconnect between what the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) affirms and what is practiced by the majority of our churches. The BF&M says of baptism that, “Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.” This language is present in all three versions of the BF&M and is similar to language used in most Baptist confessions except the Second London Confession and its daughter confessions, all of which are silent on this issue.

So according to LifeWay Research, a majority of Southern Baptist churches practice some form of open communion, even though the BF&M affirms close communion. Frankly, I’m not surprised by these findings. I’ve long argued that most Southern Baptists, whether by conviction or apathy, practice some form of open communion. This was not the case two generations ago, but the momentum has been in the direction of open communion since at least the 1970s.

There are probably many reasons why so many of our churches have moved in this direction. Bart Barber suggests some on his blog (see also the comments by Malcolm Yarnell, David Rogers, and Ben Stratton). Steve Weaver offers a brief defense of close communion, urges churches to consider taking their confessions more seriously, and pleads with Southern Baptists of different views to work together. Dave Miller at SBC Voices reported on the study and offered his own support for open communion, though the comments section demonstrates the variety of perspectives on this issue.

I think I have an interesting vantage point on this debate as a professor who teaches Baptist history courses. As best as I can tell, a sizable majority of my students have never thought about this issue prior to my class. Once we start talking about the debate, most of them lean towards open communion and have a hard time believing that close communion advocates would restrict the Lord’s Table to a particular group (i.e. baptistic Christians). Some, however, hold to close communion and have a hard time believing that open communion advocates would depart from the New Testament example of conversion, baptism, membership, communion. I actually think LifeWay’s statistical breakdown (52% open communion, 35% close communion) is fairly close to what I’ve observed in my classes among students who offer their opinion on these matters (I’d guess my students who speak up are 60/40 in favor of open communion).

The elephant in the room, of course, is the Baptist Faith and Message. Some will argue we should revise the BF&M because the majority is out of step with the confession. Others will argue that the BF&M is descriptive rather than prescriptive and local churches are autonomous anyway, so nothing should be done with the confession at this time. Still others will argue that the BF&M offers the more biblical position and suggest that open communion churches need to revisit this issue. I would agree with the latter two positions.

I do want to mention one word about our denominational ministries, however. While the BF&M is descriptive in terms of our churches, it is prescriptive in terms of denominational servants such as missionaries and seminary professors. In other words, denominational employees are expected, in theory, to believe the entirety of the BF&M. I think it is at least worth asking if trustee boards should be allowed to grant exceptions on this issue in light of the fact that a majority of Southern Baptist churches practice communion differently than the BF&M affirms. I’ve actually argued, in print, that trustee boards should have the freedom to allow exceptions on this very issue, since it seemed to me at the time (and has been verified by LifeWay Research) that the BF&M is out of step with what most Southern Baptist churches practice.*

For what it’s worth, I’ve written fairly often on this issue in the past. I wrote a descriptive essay for Between the Times titled “Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Southern Baptists: Some Options.” I’ve also written a prescriptive white paper for Southwestern Seminary’s Center for Theological Research titled “Baptism as a Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper.” I’ve also written a prescriptive blog post for my personal blog titled “Consistent Communion: Baptism as a Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper.” I would also refer you to Russ Moore’s excellent essay “Table Manners: The Welcoming Catholicity of Closed Communion.” See also the positions defended by Mark Coppenger and Paul Chitwood in “The Lord’s Supper: Who Should Partake?

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* See Nathan A. Finn, “Priorities for a Post-Resurgence Convention,” in David S. Dockery, ed., Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future (Crossway, 2009), pp. 277-279.