“Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly–mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,” and another, ‘I follow Apollos,” are you net mere men?” I Corinthians 3:1-4 NIV
“Do not deceive yourselves. If any one thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a fool so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’, and again, ‘The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.’ So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or present or the future–all are yours, and you are of Christ and Christ is of God.” I Corinthians 3:18-23 NIV
I’ve seen some fine, academic arguments in the past year and a half or so on the subject of Baptist distinctives and Baptist unity. Don’tyou just crack the slightest bit of a smile when you read someone who writes passionately about the need for Baptists to be united under a specific doctrinal umbrella, namely theirs, while they are attempting to shoot holes in the doctrinal positions of fellow Baptists who take another position?
Frankly, I don’t believe there is any such thing as a “Baptist distinctive,” unless it is agreement on the cliche that when you have two Baptists in the room, you have three opinions. There are over twenty different Baptist denominational groups in this country alone, and a wide diversity of independent, autonomous churches not affiliated with any denomination, but identifying with the broader family known as “Baptists.” They represent everything from extreme Arminianism to super Calvinism. There are liberals, moderates, conservatives and fundamentalists. There are sabbatarian Baptists for whom a “distinctive” is insistence on Saturday worship. There are Baptists for whom a distinctive is practicing foot washing as a church ordinance. There are Baptists who practice communal living as it was described in the early Jerusalem church in the book of Acts. Most of these Baptist groups are as critical of others who label themselves “Baptist” as they are of other denominations. Perhaps criticism and disunity are “Baptist distinctives,” though it seems that those are things that Baptists have in common with most other Christians.
Symbolic believer’s baptism by immersion, the priesthood of the believer, the independent, autonomous church with no ecclesiastical or state ties, and the freedom to interpret and apply the scripture under spiritual illumination are the four most common things I have heard characterized as “Baptist distinctives.” And while it may be that all four of those things together are distinctive in Baptist churches, there are other Christians who hold those same convictions. The concept of Baptist distinctives is a hard one to pin down.
The passages I cited from I Corinthians at the beginning of this post would seem to suggest that groups of individual Christians or churches attempting to distinguish themselves from other churches and other Christians is not what the Apostle Paul had in mind. In fact, it is the opposite of what he had in mind. The vision that Christ had for his church, which is so clearly articulated in scripture all through the New Testament, was not one of denominations and factions gathering groups of people together around a set of “distinctives” for the purpose of setting themselves apart from other Christians and other churches. Paul says that the jealousy and quarreling among the believers in the church at Corinth was the result of worldly thinking. People were grouping themselves around personalities, and I don’t have much trouble imagining what those conversations sounded like, because I’ve heard them many times before. They are sentences that begin with the words “I like…” or “I think….” or “I prefer…”
Right here, in I Corinthians 3, we have one of the New Testament’s best arguments against not only “denominational distinctives,” but against the idea that there would be divisions of any kind, particularly those based on the personalities of church leaders, on doctrinal disagreement, or on “distinctives” which are based on worldly wisdom and personal preferences. Yet, not only do we have denominations, with a lot of divisiveness and hostility to go along with them, but within the denominations we have the same.
I’m not suggesting we accept heresy, or submit to false, or poor, teaching regarding the scripture for the sake of unity. I realize that it would be an almost impossible task to reverse the course that the church has taken, and try to undo the tangle of denominations, factions and groupings that are characteristic of the Christian church. Using the church to advance the Kingdom, even in the condition in which it exists today, is not impossible for God. He simply works around what we have done and uses it for his glory. But there are things that we can do. Jealousy and quarreling are signs of immaturity, according to Paul. The idea of a church divided into denominations is absent from the Bible, which we believe is the authoritative Word of God. Thankfully, Paul does use the term “infants in Christ.” At least it is not a matter of salvaton. If we are “in Christ,” the rest, while it may not be easy, is possible.
There are places in this world where the church is undergoing the severest of restriction and persecution, or has endured that sort of thing for decades. In that atmosphere, denominational distinctives become unimportant and take a back seat to the business at hand. It’s no coincidence that Paul talks about trial by fire in the same passage where he takes on divisions in the church. It’s a matter of either being tested by fire and learning how to survive and thrive, or barely excaping the flames with your life. You can learn from observing the experience of others.
Considering what has happened in Baptist circles in recent years, I’d have to conclude that we have been far too comfortable, and have not had to endure a test of fire. The jealousy and quarreling among us would, under the evaluation of the Apostle Paul, be a clear sign of immaturity. Only the names in the scripture passage need to be changed. Christian unity, which is both Christ’s and Paul’s ideal, is a long way down the road when we can’t even find common ground with those who claim the same tradition, heritage and theology.