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.

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About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

7 responses

  1. Ken Coffee says:

    We think alike, Lee. Great post. I fear, however, that people who think like we do will not long be welcome in the SBC, if we keep sliding down this slippery slope of creedalism and narrow doctrinal “theory”. The most precious Baptist identity is the right and ability to think out one’s own beliefs and seek to practice his own understanding of the teachings of Christ. These days, however, it appears we have to subscribe to what someone else says we should believe.

  2. I agree with Ken, Lee. And part of the reason, if I may be so blunt, is that we cannot or will not use the tactics used by those who wish to exclude. I’m personally glad of that, but it doesn’t always lead to victory in this life. In fact most times the opposite occurs.

  3. Todd Pylant says:

    Not to join the Amen pew, but I think your thoughts are correct. I don’t know if you quoted the phrase “rope of sand” or made it up, but it is a great analogy. When the waves wash up on the shore, the formations made of sand simply vanish. The SBC is in danger of such when some of its most basic and cherished concepts become heresy. Local church autonomy is one, but another is our relationship to the BFM. In my baptistic understanding, I thought it was OK to question the BFM. There are some things in the BFM that I do not agree with, but I don’t have a problem being a baptist because the BFM is neither final nor infallible. I am committed to the Scriptures alone and faith in Christ alone. However, it seems that an absolute, unquestionable devotion to the most recent BFM is required to be accepted in the SBC today. That will make the rope of sand fade away very quickly.
    Todd Pylant

  4. Robert R says:

    I the ‘Big tent’ way you pointed out the faults in the SBC nufoundations.

  5. Robert R says:

    er I mean I like…etc.

  6. Lee says:

    “Rope of Sand” was a term I first learned in college in a class on Baptist History. It was a self-descriptive term from the SBC leadership back in the 1960’s, I believe. It was mean to characterize the way Southern Baptists came together for missions and ministry cooperation that was not based on ecclesiastical heirarchy or doctrinal conformity, but rather on a common vision and doctrinal similarity.

    Historically, the SBC brought churches from four major Baptist traditions that existed in the US at the time of its founding. There were those who, at the time, predicted it wouldn’t work, and that the differences that existed among the churches, including some hard boiled historical and theological ignorance, and an anti-educational bias, would cause the loosely connected churches to eventually go their own way.

    I think those who made that prediction were thinking it would happen within twenty years, and not in the beginning of the 21st century.

  7. Dave Samples says:

    Good post, Lee. It seems that to some, “cooperation” has become a dirty word. I still think it’s a good idea! Blessings!