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“Levels” of Baptist Polity and the Question of Identity

Most Southern Baptists are connected, at least financially, to a number of different "levels" of Baptist polity. By using the word levels, I do not mean to imply any type of hierarchy or some sort of connectionalism. Rather, I am contending that in most cases, members of Southern Baptist churches are in some way tied to other Baptist entities outside of (but not more important than) their local church. A looming question among Southern Baptists is how these different levels of polity inform an individual Baptist's identity.

First, the caveat. I am well aware that we are living in what many call a post-denominational era and that many Christians are totally unconcerned with and sometimes even appalled by descriptors like "Baptist." A case in point: I require students in my Baptist History and Distinctives class to write an ecclesiastical identity paper wherein they give me biblical, theological, and historical reasons they are members of Baptist churches. If a student is not a Baptist, he or she is free to tell me why they are not a Baptist. Almost all of my students are Southern Baptists, and a great number of them spend paragraphs giving me a bunch of qualifications: I am an evangelical that happens to go to a SBC church, I am a Christian first and a Baptist second, I go to a SBC church but I am really non-denominational, blah, blah, blah. And these are students at one of our theological seminaries. So I am under no illusion that the "average" Southern Baptist in the pew is even thinking about his or her Baptist identity.

But there are some Baptists that do care about these things, especially if they have a pastor or other church leader who takes the time to teach about Baptist distinctives, history, and traditions. And one mostly non-theological issue many of these folks want to know about is why their church is associated with all those other levels of Baptist polity and what that means for the type of Baptist they are.

Let's begin with Billy Baptist, a young man who made quite a splash in a Jerry Vines sermon in the late 1980s. Billy is a member of Knobby Hollow Baptist Church in Biting Gnat, Georgia. So first and foremost, Billy is a Knobby Hollow Baptist because that's the church he has covenanted with in membership.

Knobby Hollow Baptist Church is not an Independent fundamentalist church, so it is a member of the Unbearable Humidity Baptist Association in Southeast Georgia, which includes eighty-four churches and two missions. So Billy is not only a Knobby Hollow Baptist, but theoretically at least he is also an Unbearable Humidity Baptist.

Knobby Hollow Baptist Church is also a member of the Georgia Baptist Convention. The church gives 8.5% of their undesignated receipts to the Cooperative Program. They have hosted a state convention-sponsored Sunday School Teacher Training Seminar in their meeting house. Almost every year, Knobby Hollow's pastor, his wife, and a handful of the church's members attend the annual meeting of the state convention as messengers. Bro. Billy is not only a Knobby Hollow Baptist and Unbearable Humidity Baptist, but he is also a Georgia Baptist.

By virtue of giving through the Cooperative Program and not ordaining homosexuals, Knobby Hollow is also a Southern Baptist congregation. They use LifeWay curricula, have Southern Baptist missionaries speak at the church from time to time, and give annually to Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. About every other year Knobby Hollow's pastor and sometimes another member or two even attend the annual meeting of the SBC. Besides being a Knobby Hollow Baptist, an Unbearable Humidity Baptist, and a Georgia Baptist, Billy is a Southern Baptist.

So here is the million dollar question: if Billy is the type of Christian who is actually a Baptist by conviction, which level of polity best reflects his identity? In other words, when Billy is talking to his Methodist cousin, Cletis, does he tell Cletis that he is a Knobby Hollow Baptist? An Unbearable Humidity Baptist? A Georgia Baptist? A Southern Baptist? Or, does he just tell Cletis he is a Baptist and then chastise his cousin for having little Brant and Clementine sprinkled down at the Stinky Gap Methodist Church?

This question assumes that Billy is a member of a conservative church that does not give money to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia or the national CBF. If Knobby Hollow is dually aligned, then of course Billy could be everything mentioned in the paragraph above and also be a CBF Baptist or simply a "moderate" Baptist. He could also be one of these latter two instead of being a Southern Baptist or even a Georgia Baptist, depending upon where Knobby Hollow sends their money.

So assuming that Knobby Hollow, like most churches in South Georgia, does not give money to CBF and thinks churches that do are not really Baptist, which of the above levels does Billy most identify with?

I think this is an important identity queston in our denomination, and it has nothing to do with alien immersion, Calvinism, charismata, or blogging. I have met many Baptists who consider themselves to be primarily North Carolina Baptists, which is considerably more important to them than being Southern Baptists. I have also met many who prefer to think of themselves as Southern Baptists who happen to live in North Carolina, the implication being if they moved to Arkansas they would likely be Southern Baptist who live in Arkansas. And of course many think of themselves as members of Calvary Baptist, but if they moved to another town and all the Baptist churches were in disarray, they would be just as happy to become Covenant Presbyterians, Trinity Methodists, or Fellowship Bibles.

What does this diversity of self-identification mean for the future of each of the levels of polity? How does this diversity affect how people feel about Nashville, or their state convention, or even in some cases their association? How have various programs and denominational emphases, at whatever level of polity, played into these assumptions? These are questions I have been wrestling with for about two years, and I do not pretend to have answers. At the moment, I am just intrigued by the situation and the questions that are raised by it.

For the record, here is my own thinking on this subject:

I am primarily a convinced Baptist. In my biblical-theological understanding, claiming to be a Baptist by definition makes me a type of evangelical Christian (I would argue the most biblical type). It is of course possible to be a Baptist and not be an evangelical Christian, but such folks are not really Baptists in a biblical-theological sense so much as they are Baptists in a cultural or sociological sense, their protests to the contrary notwithstanding. I think the Bible models several basic ecclesiological convictions that, since at least the early 17th century, have been denoted by the label "Baptist."

As a convinced Baptist, I choose to be Southern Baptist because of our basic doctrinal convictions, heritage, and missions efforts. I do think there are other good churches and denominations comprised of baptistic Christians. If I lived somewhere where there were no Southern Baptist churches within a reasonable commuting distance, I could in good conscience unite with a handful of other ecclesiastical groups. But it is my firm conviction that the Lord has led me to be a Southern Baptist, for the reasons mentioned above, and so I intend to remain a Southern Baptist unless He moves me to some place where that would be simply impossible.

I live in North Carolina, which also makes me a North Carolina Baptist. While I am glad to be a North Carolina Baptist, and have become increasingly active in my state convention, my primary denominational identity is Southern Baptist. In the past I have been a Georgia Baptist and a Kentucky Baptist, and one day in the future I may again be a Southern Baptist who is a non-North Carolina Baptist. All that to say, while I like being a North Carolina Baptist, it is the case for me that I am a North Carolina Baptist because I am a Southern Baptist living in North Carolina.

I am an active member of the First Baptist Church of Durham, which makes me a FBC Durham Baptist. I am a member of this church because it is the Southern Baptist congregation in my area that best represents my own theological, methodological, and even cultural convictions. But there are a couple of other SBC churches in our area I could have joined and been quite pleased with, so my identity as a FBC Durham Baptist, though strong, is not necessarily permanent. If FBC Durham (God forbid) moved in what I was convinced was an unbiblical direction, there are other SBC churches in the Raleigh-Durham area I could join.

My membership in FBC Durham makes me a Yates Association Baptist, but this is admittedly to my chagrin. While I am actually an outspoken proponent of associationalism, my own association is too much of a theologically mixed assembly to be of any Kingdom worth. And I am not talking about secondary doctrines, unless you include things like the exclusivity of Christ and the approval and even endorsement of homosexuality as secondary doctrines. I don't. Right now, FBC Durham gives a small percentage of our budget to our association. If we took a congregational vote this Sunday as to whether or not we will remain a part of the Yates Association, I would publicly speak in favor of separating from that body and cultivating greater cooperative efforts with like-minded churches in Durham like The Summit, Greystone, Springs of Life, and Bethesda. Perhaps like many of you, this is the level where my identity is the weakest, though I wish this were not the case.