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.”