I have been asked on several occasions recently to comment on why I believe it is okay for IMB missionaries to plant "baptistic" rather than specifically "Baptist" churches.
Let me start by saying I don’t have anything against planting specifically "Baptist" churches. The last thing I want to do on this blog is "throw stones" at someone for planting "Baptist" churches. My intention is rather to defend those who feel that, in their particular context, it is best to plant "baptistic" churches.
While it is true that the term "baptistic" can mean different things for different people, there is also a wide divergence of belief and practice among people and churches that identify themselves as "Baptist". As IMB missionaries, we already have a good doctrinal guideline (the BF & M 2000) as well as definition of church (the Church Definition and Guidelines referenced on my last post).
In some contexts, the name "Baptist" has negative cultural connotations that serve as an unnecessary impediment to lost people giving a fair listen to the Gospel message. This perception of Baptists may be deserved or undeserved, but nevertheless exists in some cultural contexts. There are some contexts, for example, where Evangelicals, or even Christians, in general, are in such a small minority, that additional labels bring unnecessary confusion to the uninitiated.
Here in Spain, for example, the majority of evangelical churches of all denominations use the same logo and sign on the front of their church building, which says simply Iglesia Evangélica (Evangelical Church). It is felt that this helps to build a better image in Spanish society, lessening the confusion in people’s minds between Evangelicals and various cult groups. When you throw the name "Baptist" into the mix as well, it can confuse the issue even more, as many people don’t understand there are different denominations of Protestantes or Evangélicos, or why.
In several countries of Latin America, from what I understand, Evangelicals are known merely as Cristianos. I long for the day we can say the same thing here in Spain. For the time being, the term Cristiano, for most people in Spain, is equivalent to Catholic.
Even in the States, in recent years, church growth experts point to the advantage of non-denominational church names, especially in certain areas of the country, and with certain population segments. I wonder, for example, if Rick Warren would have had the same success in Southern California, if his church had been known from the start as Saddleback Baptist Church. Even in the middle of the Bible belt, in suburban Memphis, Tennessee, since the time of my father’s ministry, my home church has intentionally linked its public image to the name "Bellevue", opting to play down the official name, "Bellevue Baptist Church". Ed Stetzer, of NAMB, in his book Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, goes as far as to affirm: "Most new churches being planted today do not identify their denominations in their names."
Some have suggested that to avoid identifying oneself publicly as "Baptist" is tantamount to being ashamed of Bible doctrine. I would definitely agree we should not be ashamed of biblical doctrine. But I see as completely separate issues being ashamed of biblical doctrine, and naming or not naming your church after a particular doctrine. Why specifically baptism, and not, for instance, substitutionary atonement, or bodily resurrection, or virgin birth, etc.? It would seem to me that the purpose of the name "Baptist" is mostly to separate (or at least to create a separate identity) from other Christians who do not share "Baptist" (or "baptistic", if you will) distinctives. I do not think going without the name "Baptist" necessitates compromising on biblical doctrinal beliefs (which, in my point of view, would almost certainly match up almost completely, if not completely, with what many call "Baptist" distinctives).
Paige Patterson, as you will remember from a recent post, says:
…to call a church a Baptist church is to tap into the historic march of a people bent on a restoration of the New Testament Church. Clearly, the Baptist name is not found attached to churches in the New Testament. But the name apparently assigned to a movement by its enemies came to stand for a body of truths that marked the movement as distinctive. To the three Reformation principles of sola scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide, Baptists would add sola Trinitate, doubtless with the approval of the Magisterial Reformers. But then they would also insist on sola ecclesia regeneratorum witnessed by baptism and ordered by the ban, working to disseminate the liberating Gospel of Christ to every person on the earth. For these truths, Manz, Hubmaier, Sattler, and a host of others paid with their blood. For those of us in this generation to trifle with those principles for which they shed their blood would be reprehensible.While I am certainly "proud" of the theological and testimonial heritage of the Anabaptist leaders, and would not hope for their legacy to be lost to posterity, I think it perhaps even better to commemorate the example left us by the martyrs of the early church, who were content to be identified by the term "Christian". Perhaps, in some contexts, as ours in Spain today, that term creates confusion in people’s minds. But, the truth is, whatever term you choose in most contexts around the world creates confusion in one way or another.
Perhaps the following example will help to illustrate my point. I unreservedly believe in believer's baptism by immersion. I wholeheartedly embrace it as the biblical model of baptism. I also happen to believe in "common loaf communion". My reasons for this are basically the same as my reasons for my beliefs about baptism: 1) The Scripture clearly teaches it in 1 Cor. 10.17; 2) it is a symbol of the important spiritual reality of the essential unity of the Body of Christ (just as immersion is of death, burial, and resurrection); 3) Biblical example almost always refers to "breaking bread", not passing out "pre-prepared wafers" (in the same way biblical example points to believer's baptism by immersion).
Would it not make as much sense to call my church a "Common Loaf Communionist" church as it would a "Baptist" church? However, I would not choose to call my church a "Common Loaf Communionist" church for several reasons: 1) it would, in my opinion, place the main emphasis on a doctrine or practice, which, although important in my mind, is not the central doctrine of the Gospel; 2) it would be communicating to all "non-Common Loaf Communionist" Christians my separation, rather than essential unity with them; and 3) I would be concerned that the name "Common Loaf Communionist" church might provide an unnecessary barrier to the lost.
Am I saying that I believe Baptists are therefore wrong to call their churches "Baptist" churches? Not at all, especially if that name helps you in your quest to reach people for Christ. But please don’t tell those who hold to biblical and even "baptistic" convictions that they are compromising their faith, and are ashamed of the Gospel, when they choose to call themselves something other than "Baptist".