Big Issues Facing Baptists Today

(part of the Baptist Heritage in the 21st Century Pamphlet Series)

by Charles W. Deweese

Although Baptists routinely deal with critical issues, at least five rise to the top in 2005. These issues have the potential to disrupt forward progress; frankly, they have already contributed to such disruption. However, the Lordship of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and historic Baptist ideals rise above all Baptist issues. In fact, all issues challenging Baptists today must be measured by, put in line with, and subjected to the plumb lines of Christ, Scripture, and Baptist values.

RAW SECULARISM—Raw secularism daily rips holes into the morality and spirituality of Baptists. It affects individuals, churches, associations, conventions, fellowships, unions, federations, and alliances. No facet of Baptist life is exempt from the temptation to succumb to the powerful influence of worldly enticement. In the past, Baptists exercised strong patterns of discipline in church life; today, that is virtually non-existent. Therefore, when churches take less interest in the accountability side of church membership, individual church members must become more responsible for their own patterns of conduct and behavior.

The good news is that millions of Baptists regularly fight off the secularistic impulse and its temptations through private prayer and Bible reading, corporate worship, attention to Christian ethics, and massive contributions to humanity through Christ-centered discipleship, education, lifestyle evangelism, ministry, and missions.

WIDESPREAD REJECTION OF HISTORIC BAPTIST VIEWS OF CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION— Today, church-state issues dominate religious news. Faith-based grants, “Justice Sunday” telecasts, Ten Commandments cases, Supreme Court appointments, religion in public schools, religious discrimination, religious fundamentalism’s cozy relationship with right-wing politics—these are just some of the topics that work their way into the news. The work of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty in combating illegitimate mergers of church and state has become more challenging.

Early Baptists in England and America in the 1600s struggled mightily to convince themselves and the world around them that a state-church was a mockery of New Testament teaching, an affront to infants baptized into it against their will, an endorsement of civil religion, and a disservice both to the church and to the state. Those Baptists took two simple positions: coerced faith driven by directives of the state was meaningless, but free faith driven by liberty of conscience and sheer voluntarism was the pattern taught and practiced by Christ. Perhaps the time has come to listen up to these Baptist heroes of religious freedom.

LOSS OF THE PROPHETIC VOICE IN BAPTIST NEWSPAPERS AND PULPITS—Many Baptist state paper editors and preachers have abandoned the prophetic element of their calling. They simply refuse to provide “Thus-says-the-Lord” editorials and sermons.  The net effect is that they routinely subject Baptist readers and congregations to biblical half-truths, leaving out the prophetic thrusts of the Old Testament and the prophetic claims of Christ. A big question arises: Where are the leadership models of courage like that of Daniel willing to defy the dictates of a king and to go to a lion’s den rather than worship a false god?

Several factors help to account for a decline of the prophetic side of the Baptist experience. First, many Baptist state newspapers and pulpits have been converted into public relations outlets; thus, there is no reason for an editor to write an editorial countering a convention’s decisions or activities or for a preacher to question obvious doctrinal flaws in church or denominational life, no matter how wrong they are. Second, many editors and preachers have virtually abandoned studies of Baptist history, and therefore are unfamiliar with the thousands of highly prophetic writers and preachers who, at whatever risk was necessary, told the truth and nothing but the truth.  Third, job security sometimes provides a powerful motivation to keep one’s pen quiet or mouth shut.

PERSISTENT FRAGMENTATION—Baptist fragmentation started in the early 1600s, and it has never stopped. Baptists disagree about everything; sometimes, that causes organizational rupture and the multiplication of new Baptist bodies. Today, in the United States alone, there are more than 50 Baptist groups or sub-groups. That number grows many times when one looks at Baptists worldwide. The nature of Baptist life feeds disagreement and diversity. Put simply, no authority exists in Baptist life that can control how Baptists think, believe, and practice their faith. Respect for the rights of private interpretation of Scripture is paramount. Congregational self-determination is important. The power of dissent, nonconformity, and liberty of conscience drives Baptists in different directions. Personality factors feed Baptist battles. A decline in trust always causes Baptists to view one another suspiciously.

Crises, however, have helped some Baptists rediscover more accurate biblical perspectives of what it means to be Baptist. They have also learned some valuable lessons through controversies. For example, championing biblical causes in the context of heated debate, even if it results in organizational fracture, can lead to spiritual progress.

ENTRENCHED FUNDAMENTALISM—Religious fundamentalism has rigidly entrenched itself into some facets of Baptist life. Built on the need to control religious thought, faith, and practice, fundamentalism constructs tactics designed to guarantee such control. One obvious technique is to convert voluntary confessions of faith into enforced creeds, to which absolute compliance is expected of all denominational professors, missionaries, curriculum writers, and the news media. It focuses on Old Testament law, not on the freedom-based ministry of Christ. It is a religion of regulation, rather than deregulation.

Despite it all, wonderful resources for Baptists result when fundamentalism systematically squeezes out of its camp those Baptists who refuse to buy into its tenets and practices. New seminaries emerge. New mission programs are born. New publications find the light of day. New centers for ethics and Baptist history come into being. New life is breathed into hurting people.

My reply to these and other issues facing Baptists today is this: Being Baptist is still worth the effort. Careful reading of the primary resources produced by the earliest Baptists in the 1600s reveals heavy reliance on the Lordship of Christ and the authority of the Bible. Rather than cave in to secularism, church-state mergers, prophetic decline, more fragmentation, and religious fundamentalism, perhaps we should focus increasingly on what we can do to advance the cause of Christ, as defined by him in the New Testament, in every phase of life.

The best Baptist principles are biblically-based and positive; they rise above negativity. They recommend aggressive efforts to be in the world, but not of it; they urge appropriate contributions to church and state, but not a marriage between the two; they make bold calls for justice by editors and preachers, not pathetic departures from the prophetic call; they offer opportunities for conversations and joint actions among Baptist groups, not endorsements of continuing segregation and relational breakdowns; and they endorse liberty of conscience and authentic voluntarism, not the control orientation of fundamentalism.

Charles W. Deweese is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Atlanta, Georgia.

[1] John Smyth, “Paralleles, Censures, Observations,” The Works of John Smyth, 2 vols., ed. W. T. Whitley (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1915), 2:509. Spelling updated.

[2] William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, rev. ed. (Valley Forge:  Judson Press, 1969), 121-22. Style and spelling updated.

[3] John Calvin, “Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” in Calvin: Theological Treatises, trans. J. K. S. Reid, Library of Christian Classics 22 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 58.

[4] Lumpkin, 210.