The topic of “Baptist identity” seems to be a rather hot one these days, at least, it is in the Baptist blogosphere. There is a movement, among some pastors, seminary professors and in some churches, to strengthen particular doctrinal positions, and in that process oppose others, in order to apply a theological definition to the term “Baptist,” with Southern Baptist churches as the main focus of the process. If I’ve read my Baptist history thoroughly, and understand the nature and essence of what has become the Baptist expression of Christianity, then such an attempt would be very much like trying to herd cats.
Baptists, in the broadest sense of the term, are defined by common theology, not in lock step conformity, codified in a set of statements officially adopted by ecclesiastical authority, but in what I see as remarkable agreement that comes out of a commitment to belief that the Bible is the authoritative, written word of God, revealing Christ, the living word, and illuminated by the indwelling Holy Spirit. There are those who think that Baptists tend to shy away from the Holy Spirit, but while we may not be as emotionally expressive as our Pentecostal and Charismatic brethren, I think most Baptists who are deeply committed to their faith are moved by the Spirit right along with the intellectual development of their faith.
The key element of Baptist identity is the independence and autonomy of the local church. Baptists tend to cluster around their institutions and entities, particularly convention bodies and educational institutions. Churches tend to express their faith in a way that demonstrates an identity related to those things which have had a profound influence on them over a long period of time. Many independent, fundamentalist Baptist churches have an indentity influenced by a particular individual like Jack Hyles or Jerry Falwell, or by particular schools like Liberty University, Tennessee Temple or Bob Jones. Disagreements over the finer points of doctrine between individuals in these circles can appear to be severe and hostile, but they are usually over very finite, hard to define points of interpretation. There is really very little difference between them. On the other side of the spectrum, churches identified as being more moderate to liberal have also been profoundly influenced by similar factors, including their location. Many of those in the Alliance or CBF, for example, are located in inner city areas where they have drawn their membership from a much more diverse, urban population and their leadership from among those exposed to educational institutions outside the Baptist “bubble,” and have worked and ministered in a much more ecumenical environment. Yet even across this spectrum, there are identity marks in congregations that make them distinctively Baptist, including regenerate church membership, baptism by immersion, and a strong emphasis on a biblically directed faith.
Movements to get churches under a particular doctrinal umbrella, and excluding those who can’t be herded underneath it, are not new. Many of the various Baptist fellowships, conventions and denominations are remnants of past efforts to do just that. Now, there are several groups in different parts of the country, trying to put such an umbrella over the Southern Baptist Convention, to the point where they have moved to exclude those who don’t fall in their camp, and have apparently justified doing so on theological and doctrinal grounds. On the one hand, increasing theological awareness and discipleship among church members can be a good thing. On the other, some of the finite divisions and separations that are created by what I would say is “theological overkill” have a tendency to divide. In light of the broader teachings of the Christian faith, and the principles associated with faith in Jesus as Lord, and the grace that saves us, some of these attempts at doctrinal conformity come dangerously close to what Paul called “foolish controversies”.
“But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissentions and quarrels about the law for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” Titus 3:9-11 ESV
The most common element of Baptist identity is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus as Lord. Just prior to these verses from Titus, Paul speaks of Jesus bringing this to us, not by our own works of righteousness, which includes getting all of our doctrinal ducks in a row, but by his grace. Our faith is maintained by a generous outpouring of the Holy Spirit, not by our lining up with the finer points of theology that someone thinks gives us a “distinctive” identity apart from other Christians.
Ironically, Baptists are widely known for their disagreements. The quest for “Baptist Identity” has not accomplished much if its end result is the division of a family that is united by its common experience of salvation by grace.