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The Bible and Baptist Identity

Baptists are a people of the Book.

It is a slogan we have all heard before, and when we are at our very best, no doubt these words ring true. As a denomination Southern Baptists have now spoken out loud and clear for the inerrancy of Scripture for almost three decades. For this, we should be grateful. But any denomination that is committed to the truthfulness of Scripture will wrestle with what the Bible teaches, so it is only natural that we find ourselves in the midst of several family debates about faith and practice.

For the last few years Southern Baptists have been debating aspects of our Baptist identity. Sometimes we debate Baptist principles themselves. For instance, there is an ongoing question as to whether or not a plural elder leadership model is consistent with the traditional Baptist belief in congregational church government. The ordinances are also being debated. Churches, seminarians, bloggers, and even trustees are discussing the nature and validity of some baptisms. Others have considered the possibility of allowing non-immersed Christians to be members of their churches. When it comes to the Lord’s Table, an ongoing question is whether communion should be “open” to all professing Christians or “closed” to only those believers who have been properly immersed. Even the character of regenerate church membership is being debated as Baptists consider issues like the proper age for baptismal candidates and the nature and function of corrective church discipline.

Then there are those debates that are not related to Baptist principles per se, but rather focus on appropriate boundaries for Southern Baptist belief. Is it kosher for Southern Baptists to affirm some spiritual gifts traditionally associated with the Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions? Are there particular worship practices that are inappropriate in a Southern Baptist context? Is it proper for women to serve in any authority positions, or can only men serve in teaching or leading positions in a local church? How many of the “points” of Calvinism can someone hold to and still be considered a “good” Southern Baptist?

Of course, all of these debates occur in a denomination that is committed to local church autonomy and liberty of conscience, so a variety of opinions exist on each of these issues. And these are just the things that conservative Southern Baptists debate; our moderate friends bring a whole list of other issues to the table.

As Southern Baptists continue to discuss these and other important issues, we would do well to remember that, as the Baptist Faith & Message says, our inerrant Scripture “reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.” In other words, the Bible alone is our ultimate authority for faith and practice, including Baptist identity.

It is tempting to appeal to what is popular when we discuss controversial issues. But what is popular may not be what is biblical. It is tempting to appeal to Baptist history—either recent or ancient—when we argue for specific positions. But Baptists are not infallible, and just because something may have been true of some Baptists in the past does not mean it is biblical. It is tempting to appeal to the practices of other Christian traditions when we try to defend our convictions. But other Christian traditions often miss the mark when it comes to biblical fidelity. It is even tempting to appeal to our current or historic confessions of faith when we make a case for certain beliefs, but we must always remember that minor (and sometimes not so minor) differences exist between the various Baptist confessions. More importantly, because most Baptists believe that confessions are non-inspired summaries of what most Baptists believe at a particular point in time, no confession is ultimately authoritative except insofar as it accurately conveys biblical teaching. And even then a confession’s authority is a derived authority, being grounded in Scripture and not in the confession itself.

I am thankful we are debating important theological and methodological issues; again, this should be expected in a denomination that takes the authority and sufficiency of Scripture seriously. But we must be willing to make the case for our positions from that Scripture rather than our own opinions, popular sentiment, history, the teachings of theologians, or even confessions of faith. We must be a people of the book as we debate our Baptist identity.

My prayer is that God will grant us great wisdom and abundant charity as we continue to wrestle with who we are and who we ought to be as Southern Baptists. I hope you join me in that prayer.