Saturday, September 09, 2006

Denominational Distinctives

Back at Southwestern Seminary in 1989, I remember one of my professors talking about how the younger generations do not have much denominational loyalty, and how it used to be, whenever someone moved to a new town, they always looked for a church of the same denomination, but now, denominational affiliation was not near as important a factor as it used to be. Then, this professor talked about our need, as Southern Baptists, to educate our young people about our “denominational distinctives” or “Baptist identity,” lest we wake up to find ourselves losing members and influence as a denomination.

I remember thinking to myself: “This guy, and others like him, are fighting a losing cause. It’s true. My generation does not have much use for denominational labels.” Of course, there are sociological reasons for this. The spirit of post-modernism, moral relativity, and tolerance are certainly “in the air” and contribute to this dynamic. There is a growing distrust of institutions, and especially of institutionalized religion.

But, as an “insider,” to a certain extent, in the “Conservative Resurgence,” I don’t see this as an issue of “conservative,” “moderate” or “liberal.” Yes, there are “liberals” who are strong proponents of the “ecumenical movement” a la the World Council of Churches, et al. But there are also those, like myself, who are strong defenders of the inerrancy of the Bible, and are generally conservative in doctrine, who see as part of their commitment to the authority of the Bible, a concomitant commitment to the biblical doctrine of the spiritual unity of the Body of Christ. At the same time, there are “conservatives,” “moderates” and “liberals” who are all more “denominational” in their mindset.

For some time now, there has been a “battle” to define “real” Baptists. Some emphasize such “Baptist distinctives” as “the priesthood of the believer,” “soul competency,” and “freedom of the will.” Others choose to place more emphasis on such things as “closed communion,” “cessationalism,” and “total abstinence.”

Now, however, that the “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC has, for all practical purposes, been “consummated,” there are those, it seems, who are not content without a battle, and who have maneuvered to make “denominational distinctives” or “Baptist identity” the “next assignment” of the “Conservative Resurgence.” This can be seen through the smattering of conferences and seminars organized by Baptist institutions, entire seminary courses on these issues, articles in Baptist publications, as well as public communication (including blogs) by Baptist leaders. When all is said and done, there are a lot of Kingdom resources being used, essentially, to defend and promote a certain denominational mindset. It seems like for more and more people, “Baptist identity” is becoming more and more of a “hill on which to die.”

I, personally, don’t see what’s the big deal. I support the Cooperative Program, because I think it is a good way to be good stewards with the Kingdom resources with which God has entrusted us. I am grateful for the support I receive as a missionary, and for the help I received from the SBC in paying for my seminary education. As a “biblical conservative,” I have no problem with emphasizing the teaching of biblical doctrine. I think we do well to talk about, and teach “biblical ecclesiology.” I have no problem with teaching “believers baptism by immersion,” nor any of the other doctrines in the Baptist Faith & Message (*with the exception of “closed communion”). We must, in fact, teach the “whole counsel” of Scripture. I am not arguing for reducing our teaching to a minimalist “lowest common denominator.”

What I don’t get is why it always has to be posed as “Baptist identity” and “denominational distinctives.” Why can’t we just teach the Bible? Why can’t we just major on being “Christians”? Also, why do we insist on putting unnecessary barriers in front of lost people (who don’t give a flip about our “denominational distinctives”)?

One day, when I stand before the judgment seat of Christ, I don’t know exactly what He will ask me. He may well ask me about how good a job I did at being faithful to His Word. He may well ask me about how good a job I did at being obedient in fulfilling the ministry tasks He gave me to do. He may well ask me how good a job I did at loving lost souls. And he may well ask me how good a job I did at loving my brothers and sisters in Christ. But I seriously doubt He will ask me how faithful I was at defending my “denominational distinctives” and promoting “Baptist identity.”


Debbie said...

I am a member but am using the beta blog(which I love) and therefore cannot make a comment without marking other or anonymous and I just had to comment on this post.

This is so true and so well said David. I agree with everything you have said on this post. Kudos.

Alan Cross said...

Um, yeah. What David said.

"When all is said and done, there are a lot of Kingdom resources being used, essentially, to defend and promote a certain denominational mindset. It seems like for more and more people, “Baptist identity” is becoming more and more of a “hill on which to die.”."

I think that's something worth looking at. It seems that some are more proud to be "Baptist" than they are to be a follower of Jesus Christ. How much talk is there about Jesus, the glory of God, and taking part in the missio dei, and how much talk is there about being baptist? It's rather sickening. But, the same folks who do that will tell other conservatives that they have no place in Baptist life because they don't see EVERYTHING the way they do. Unless we wake up, things are going to get progressively worse. Good words, David.

A 10-40 Window Missionary said...


this post really resonated with me. For quite a while, I had been contemplating what I would do after I retired (in less than 3 years). At one time I thought that I might find a medium sized Southern Baptist Church, 250 - 300 in SS, with a pastor who was relatively secure, and offer to teach a new members class on what do Baptists believe. Then, with the passing of time, and the inclusion of extra-Biblical practices or policies, I started wondering, "What do Baptists believe, today?" What will Baptists believe, tomorrow?"

Now, I, as it appears you believe, we should teach the people in the pew "What does the Bible say?" Unfortunately, if I wanted to teach this to new members, it would need to be in a church with a very secure, well grounded pastor, not afraid of what the Bible says. Fortunately, it seems that the younger pastors just might fit that category. Hmmmmmmmmm, maybe there is hope for me in retirement, yet.

Alan Cross said...

10-40 Missionary,

Please, please, please don't think of your retirement plans along the lines of teaching a Sunday School class regarding what Baptists believe! I know that is not all you would do, and I understand that you were speaking to that in relation to David's post, but we need you to lead us out in mission. We need you cross cultural experience to help us understand how to incarnate the gospel in a post-Christian America. We need less church and more relationship with God, one another, and redemptively, with the world. You have so much to offer, I would hate to see you just teaching about denominational distinctives.

Teaching what the Bible teaches to be true is a wonderful thing and you should do that. It's just that maybe God doesn't want you to "retire." Maybe He has even bigger plans for your life. If you are still walking with the Lord and a passion for Him burns within, bring that back to the U.S. and lead us into a broken society. We need your leadership, not your retirement! (And I say this with the utmost respect to encourage you!)

mr. t said...


Well said. Amen! The "defending the Baptist distinctives" thing is not going to win the lost or even save our denomination. Someone once said: "The best defense is a good offense." Let's get on offense and live the word of God. (And quit obsessing over the BF&M).

(Sorry, I watched American Football today ;-)

Anonymous said...

David, I couldn't agree more! Well said, as usual.

By the way, it was great seeing you in church this morning. I wish I could have gotten out of the balcony in time to say hello.

Paul said...

I used to consider myself one of the "younger guys." Those days are coming to an end, I guess. Nevertheless, at 41, I'm almost always the youngest person at local gatherings of Baptists. Actually, I don't even go any longer.

It is sociological and if we keep spending our time and resources trying to defend these distinctives I believe we may win a few battles but we will resoundly lose the war.

Good words.

Debbie said...

As I watched the convention this year for the first time I think I was surprised that it was more of a pep rally for being Southern Baptist than it was a Christian. As I saw motions being swept aside quickly that at least to me as a mere church goer were important, it made me wonder the very same things that you have written about in your post David. Is it more important to be a SBC Christian or Christian? Is it more important to have the SBC version of doctrinal purity on non-essentials or to discover and believe for ourselves what the Bible says? I am a SB by choice because I agree with most of what SB believes. I got away from a church system that dictated one must believe stringent beliefs on non-essentials. It can lead to spiritual abuse if left unchallenged.

SBC Layman said...

David, great post!

I hope that as we mature in the faith we become less Baptist and more Christ-like.

Man's interpretation and emphasis are influenced by times and are sometimes fallible; while God's revelation through the written and living Word is sufficient, unchanging, and without error.

I think the Word gave us the "hill on which to die"


1 Cor 2:2
For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

Gal 6:14
But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.

tim rogers said...

Brother David,

I certainly do not desire to be the first to post a comment that is in disagreement to some extent as to what you posted, but here goes.

Why did we have a Conservative Resurgence in the SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION? Why didn't all of the people that led in this thing calling for the belief in the Inerrant Scriptures do it with the Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, ________________, you fill in the blank? Or, why didn't the leaders just begin a Denomination on their own? I believe the answer to these questions would be Baptist Distinctives.

David, you say; "I am not arguing for reducing our teaching to a minimalist “lowest common denominator.” I sense by the comments on this post and others, you may not be arguing for this, but others may be. This, I believe, is why you see the reaction from others like myself. IMHO, I see us headed to the minimalist leaning for denominational affiliation. I may be wrong, and I pray I am.


Paul said...


You may be right and I pray you are.

SBC Layman said...


The reason for any revival or reconciliation with God's always begins at home.

First in the heart, then in the home, then the local church, then in the region and denomination.

God used various men and women with a fervent desire for the Word of God to ensure that it retained its importance in the local church and the SBC.

To Whom we worship is more important than where we worship and what our distinctives are.

We still teach what and why we believe according to Baptist distinctives.

I don't think that is reducing to a minimalist stance our teaching, just placing things in a proper perspective.

Baptist Theologue said...

David, you asked,

“Why can’t we just teach the Bible? Why can’t we just major on being ‘Christians’?”

When people ask me about my religious affiliation, I first say I am a Christian, and I next say I am a Baptist. Obviously, the fact that I’m a Christian takes priority over the fact that I’m a Baptist. The two classifications, however, are not in conflict. It’s a “both/and,” not an “either/or” type of situation.

A cautionary note: The sentiments you expressed in the quote above are the same as those expressed by Alexander Campbell in the 1800s. He bemoaned the existence of the “sects” (as he called denominations). He was against confessions of faith—he called the Westminster Confession a “creed.” He said that the Bible was all that was needed. Of course, he had his own interpretation of the Bible that included baptismal regeneration. It turned out that he was more divisive in Baptist churches in America than almost any other individual. Campbell was a Baptist for a while, and his first publication was called “The Christian Baptist.” (His contributions to that publication ran from 1823 to 1830.) A few quotes from Campbell:

“ ‘I pray—for those who shall believe on me through their teaching, that all may be one.’ . . . Was there at any time, or is there now, in all the earth, a kingdom more convulsed by internal broils and dissensions, than what is commonly called the church of Jesus Christ!”

Campbell, Christianity Restored (Indianapolis: Faith and Facts Press, 1998), 101.

“And what shall I say of the twelve or fourteen sects of Baptists—many of whom have as much affection for the Greek or Roman church, as for one another!”

Ibid., 105.

“While the Calvinian five points generated the Arminian five points; --and while the Westminster creed, though unsubscribed by its makers, begot a hundred others; --not until this present generation did any sect or party in Christendom unite and build upon the Bible alone.”

Ibid., 5 (from the preface he wrote in 1835)

David Rogers said...


Thanks for your comments. Let me see if I can make myself more clear. I am not here in any way arguing against any of the beliefs that have traditionally been held by those Christians known as "Baptists." Nor am I arguing against the wisdom and strategic expediency of working together with other churches who share a common doctrinal commitment (BFM) in order to more effectively contribute towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission (CP). I just think it would be better for us to talk about these beliefs from a more positive framework, in the context of what we believe the Bible teaches, and our essential union with the Body of Christ, rather than what I interpret to be a defensive posture, essentially pitting Baptists against other groups of Christians. Perhaps Frank Page said it best, when he said (if I remember the quote correctly) he would like to see us be known more for what we are in favor of than what we are against.

Baptist Theologue,

I agree the term "Baptist" can be helpful when someone is wondering about our particular doctrinal position, and ecclesiological affiliations. When someone asks me, I do not deny my Baptist affiliation, but like to make a special point, that my commitment to the Body of Christ at large supersedes my denominational affiliation.

In regards to Campbell, I share your concerns. I especially like the quote I referenced on an earlier post on this blog by D. G. Tinder, from his article on Denominationalism:

"One response has been to oppose denominations and urge all true Christians to leave them and meet simply as churches of Christ, Christian churches, churches of God, disciples, brethren, Bible churches, evangelical churches, and similar inclusive names. Despite obvious appeal in times of denominational confusion, strife, and declension, the reality is that no such movement has anywhere attracted most Christians to itself. Instead this has been just another way of increasing the number of denominations, and sects, usually with the group's reluctance to admit it."

Baptist Theologue said...

David, it was good to see you yesterday. I hope you enjoy your time in Memphis.

Anonymous said...

There is only one Baptist distinctive...fighting fellow Baptists.

Gordon Cloud said...

Great article. I believe if we teach our young people the truth of God's Word, when they are older, they will be able to recognize it (or the departure from it) in a different setting.

While I consider myself to be a theological conservative, one of the most liberating days of my ministry was the day I discovered that God wasn't a Baptist.

tim rogers said...

Brother David,

God is not Baptist???? Oh No!


Blessings Tim

Bro. Robin said...

Bro. David

Sorry I have been slow to get to your blog. I believe we are real close on some things yet distant on others. No need for division though. I have responded back on my blog to your last comment.

Whether or not you or anybody thinks it is fruitful or unfruitful to emphasize in particular Baptist distintives will not matter. I believe the debate will continue and therefore we all need to be engaged in it. If I misunderstand what you are saying, please forgive me.

I am glad and honored to be able to support missionaries like you through the cooperative program. May you experience the wonderful grace of God as you serve him.

God Bless

Bro. Robin