Southern Baptist Identity
- Thursday, July 09, 2009
P A R T O N E
THEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES
C H A P T E R O N E
SOUTHERN BAPTIST IDENTITY: IS THERE A FUTURE?
By R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
ADDRESSING THE FUTURE OF any movement is an inherently dangerous affair. Winston Churchill once remarked to one of his classmates that he was certain that history would treat him well. His schoolmate, a bit incredulous, asked how he could be so certain. Churchill raised an eyebrow and said, "Because I intend to write the history." That is certainly one way to make sure history looks favorably upon you—provided you have the luxury of writing it yourself. The rest of us, however, are left simply wondering whether the historians of some future age will look back and say we got it even approximately correct. That is a risky business, of course, but it is even more dangerous not to envision the future. The greatest risk is assuming the future will somehow "just happen" in a way that brings glory to God.
As we consider the Baptist movement in the twenty-first century, we can look back on four centuries of Baptist history, Baptist work, and Baptist witness. By no accident, that history also includes four centuries of debate over Baptist identity and the Baptist future.
I have to begin with some word of autobiography. I can remember as a small child explaining to my neighbors that I belonged to the Baptists. That was the terminology—I never knew a time when I did not consider myself a Baptist. Of course, now I know better theologically, but I was a part of the tribe before I ever understood the theology. I was a Baptist by custom before I came to be a Baptist by conviction. That Baptist heritage leads me to feel at home in this discussion. I understand something of the grandeur, something of the vibrant texture of faith that has produced not only the Baptist movement as a whole but the SBC as we know it now.
I was raised by parents who were convictionally Baptists. They were so Baptist, in fact, that when I wanted to become a Boy Scout, my parents would not let me until I was also a Royal Ambassador. This was an extreme position in my view. The Boy Scout troop was sponsored by the same Southern Baptist church as the Royal Ambassadors, so it was essentially the same boys dressing up in different uniforms on different nights. It was a very small world. To me, the external world was a panoply of different faiths—people called "Methodists" and "Presbyterians." There was a sectarianism there, to be sure, but one that is not to be despised; it was a deeply held sense of belonging. We Baptists knew who we were, and thus would know who we should be looking to in the future.
Understanding the present and preparing for the future requires us to consider not only our own autobiographies, but also the biography of a great denomination, the SBC. One of the key issues for our understanding the current situation is to recognize that Baptists have always debated our identity. From the very beginning, there has been a both/and character to the Baptist understanding of what it means to be a Christian. First, Baptists did not intend to start a new faith. The seventeenth-century Baptists were never about the task of creating a new Christian religion. In fact, they went to great lengths to point out that they stood in continuity with the faith "once for all delivered to the saints." Yet at the same time, Baptists were defined by certain unique theological convictions that framed our understanding. Those convictions were of such passionate strength and theological intensity that the early Baptists had to set themselves apart even from other English separatists and non-conformists. Essentially, our Baptist forebears were non-conformists even within the world of nonconformity. So they joined themselves together in congregations of likeminded believers who were uniquely committed to three principles.
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