The name “Baptist” does not indentify a single denomination, but actually distinguishes a family of denominations and churches. Among those who use the name to identify their church you will find diverse theological beliefs, worship practices and ecclesiastical organization, none of which really makes a lot of sense when you try to put them under the same umbrella and pin them down on some common issue. The single practice which links Baptists to their name is baptism by immersion following a profession of faith in Christ as personal savior. Beyond that, there are some points of agreement, many points of slight difference and some points of extreme disagreement. Some Baptists have more in common with Presbyterians than with most of their fellow Baptists, others are more like Pentecostals, some resemble Episcopalians and Anglicans, some would relate better with the United Church of Christ or the Disciples of Christ, and others just don’t get along with anyone, including any other fellow Baptists.
Against that kind of backdrop, there are some Baptists, mostly within the SBC, who are pursuing the pinning down of the elusive “Baptist Identity,” and if not out and out suggesting it, are hinting at doing some fine tuning by either determining the “majority view” or the “historical perspective,” to use as a basis for cooperation.
I was born and raised in Arizona, a state where the somewhat rootless population–most people who live there moved there from somewhere else because of jobs and the weather–has little common religious identity, and Baptists, including Southern Baptists, are a distinct and relatively small minority of the Christian population which in turn is a relatively small minority of the total population. So I do not have the “pedigree” to which many Southern Baptist pastors and church leaders lay claim. My Dad was sent to Sunday School at the Disciples of Christ congregation down the street from where he lived in Clarksburg, West Virginia, but never joined the church and did not attend very much after high school. My mother was raised in a rural Pentecostal church, not denominationally connected as far as I know, and essentially rebelled and left the church when she was 16. After they married, they briefly attended a Christian and Missionary Alliance church, but dropped out when they moved to Arizona in 1951. The Southern Baptist congregation in my hometown, an agressive church plant started that same year, found them, cultivated a relationship with them and got them to visit on occasion. From the time I can remember, I was in Sunday School every week, though they only attended church a few Sundays each year. But the relationship they had with the church blossomed when it succeeded in calling its first full time pastor in 1973, and through his influence, my sister, Mom and Dad made professions of faith and were baptized in 1974. I’d been baptized at age 6 following a two week VBS in a Salvation Army church so it was assumed I was already in the Kingdom.
Through every Baptist educational program possible, I learned about Baptist history, theology, polity, everything. We had Training Union on Sunday nights before church, R.A.’s on Wednesday nights before prayer meeting, and I was always there. When I went off to Grand Canyon University in 1975, the state’s only Southern Baptist related institution of higher learning, I did well in my Old and New Testament survey classes because I had a solid foundation from Sunday School, and I did well enough in my first Christian Doctrine class that my professor talked me into minoring in Christian studies. My background in Training Union helped me through Baptist History and Church Administration. I earned the highest grade in my Ministry Survey course, taught by the executive director of the state Baptist convention, because I had such a solid background from the church in which I was raised.
Through all of those experiences, I thought that, aside from our evangelical perspective on salvation by grace and regenerate church membership, what distinguished us from other Christian churches was the independence and autonomy of our local congregations, our lack of an ecclesiastical heirarchy, and the “rope of sand” cooperation by which we all worked together without imposing on each other. That we had enough doctrinally in common to do missions, ministry and theological education together was the distinguishing mark. Aside from things which we agreed were essential to cooperation, outlined in the Baptist Faith and Message, each church was free to follow the Spirit’s leading, and that, more than anything else, was the mark that made us Baptist.
So why has that changed?
That is not merely a provocative question. I’d like someone to explain to me how setting narrower theological parameters, getting into areas of church practice such as the serving of communion, the meanings attached to baptism, and requiring the defining of the finer points of reformation era theology, have become hot points in a debate about Baptist identity among churches in which local church autonomy was once taught and promoted as one of the most notable identifying practices.
Where I grew up, in Arizona, being a Baptist church was never the attraction that it once was in the South, and in Texas. It is ironic that I now serve on the staff of a church in Houston, Texas, where the identity of the church as Southern Baptist is more of a hindrance to its growth than a help. In that kind of environment, I wonder if narrowing the points by which we identify ourselves is a good thing.