Let me first say that I write this as both a fan of Thom Rainer. I have found Dr. Rainer’s articles, books and resources the be exceedingly helpful to me in my pastoral career and I pray that God continues to use His ministry to bless scores of other pastors and leaders. If there is any sort of tone of criticism towards Dr. Rainer, it is not intended in the least.
I also write this as a Baptist. I’ve been one since I was born (kind-of. I guess technically since I was baptized and joined my church. You’ll see more of this later.) I’ve never been a member of any other type of church, have always attended a Southern Baptist church, and am currently the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church. Having said that, there are many flavors of Baptists in the world and our theological and ecclesiological beliefs range all over the board. I write as a confessional Reformed Southern Baptist. You may have to look those terms up if you don’t know what they mean.
DR. RAINER’S SOCIAL MEDIA POLL
Dr. Rainer recently posted online the findings of a question he posted on Twitter a few weeks prior in which he asked, “What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Baptist?’” He notes how this is a unscientific and rather informal poll but nonetheless informative.
Here are the top 15 responses in order of frequency based on Dr. Rainer’s Twitter question “What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Baptist?’:
- John the Baptist
- Sound theologically
- Suits and ties
Quite a list, wouldn’t you agree. Again, this is unscientific and informal. This was not done by a professional survey firm over a period of months. This was done by Dr. Rainer and his team on Twitter. But, I bet that if a professional survey company did a similar study over the frame of a few months, the results would be pretty stinkin’ close.
USE OF THE NAME “BAPTIST”
These results caused me to think about this list and the use of the name Baptist. There was a time when I was in the camp of doing away with the name Baptist in the name of a church. Back when I was planning and going through the church planting evaluation process I had anticipated not using the name Baptist in the church that we planted.
I was under the assumption that the word Baptist just brought too much baggage with it. That people think of Westboro Baptist or the crazy Baptist pastor in Jacksonville, FL who burns Qurans. I thought that Baptist left a bad taste in people’s mouth.
This is the same argument that many of the church leaders and pastors I know even in Southwest Florida have used in order to change the name of their churches or plant a church without using the word Baptist. In fact, my area Director of Missions unilaterally began using an unofficial nickname for our association by taking Baptist out of the title and adding “SBC” at the end of the name. SBC is short for Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Baptist denomination in the world. The argument is that people who are looking for a Southern Baptist church or group will automatically recognize SBC, and everyone else won’t be turned off by the word Baptist.
Well, apparently, he might be correct. It appears that the first thing people think of when they hear the word Baptist is legalism followed by potlucks. People, probably both inside and outside the church, do not think of evangelism or inerrancy or cooperation when they think of Baptists. They think of hell-fire and brimstone and, of course, fried chicken.
ARE WE REALLY THAT?
Let’s be fair, shall we? We’ve done this to ourselves. I’m a Baptist so I’m allowed to say this: we are legalistic chicken graveyards. Too many Baptist preach and teach about all the “Thou shall nots” of the Bible and too many Baptist eat all the casseroles at the church potluck.
But is this really who Baptists are? Are we really just a bunch of boring (#9,) traditional (#5,) fundamental (#12,) stiffs wearing suits and ties (#14) who sing outdated (#7) hymns (#13) in the southern states (#8)? I don’t think so. I mean, sure, some of us are. And some of us are proud to be that. There is a Baptist church 5 minutes from my house with a sign on the front of the church that proudly displays the fact that they are independent, fundamental King James-only, friend chicken lovers. Okay, maybe not the fried chicken part, but I’m sure that is implied along with the legalism and the suits and ties.
So, yes, to some degree we are those things. Baptists have a traditionally been legalistic in the areas of cards, movies, dancing and alcohol (all secondary and tertiary issues.) And yes, even my church has a monthly potluck meal (or is it pot-blessings since luck is an unbiblical idea?).
But there are plenty of Baptists who don’t wear suit and ties (even though I usually do), who don’t sing hymns (even though they should), and who aren’t in the south (though most of them are!)
WHAT SHOULD WE BE?
But what about the other words. Take out John the Baptist. He has nothing to do with what we know as Baptist today. What about immersion (#3), Bible (#6), sound theologically (#11) and missions (#15). Those are the words that I like to hear because those are the words that I think about when I think about what a real Baptist is.
BIBLICALLY SOUND THEOLOGY
Let’s start with the Bible and sound theology. These two go hand-in-hand. Baptists have long been considered people of the Book. We love the Bible and dive deep into the treasure trove of the infallible, inerrant and completely sufficient Word of God. The result: sound theology. Now, again, we have theological differences in the Baptist camp, but by in large most Baptists agree on the central tenants of the orthodox Christian faith. To quote Tom Hicks, “Baptists, along with all orthodox Christians, believe in the Trinity, that God is one in essence and three in person. We also believe in biblical Christology, that the incarnate Christ is two natures, a divine nature and a human nature, united in one person. We believe that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners through His death and resurrection. This means that it’s impossible for liberal theologians, who deny the deity of Christ but affirm the immersion of believers, to be considered Baptists. Orthodoxy has been an indispensably interconnected part of Baptist identity from the beginning.” (Hicks 2016)
In other words, Baptists usually believe what Baptists have always believed; and this comes from a robust understanding of sound doctrine and theology.
IMMERSION AND MISSIONS
This leads directly to the other two words that I think of when I heard the word Baptist; immersion and missions. Immersion is related to what we call credo- or believer’s baptism. This is following the teaching that baptism is reserved only for those who make a credible testimony of faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and are then baptized by immersion. It is in opposition to what is called paedo- or infant baptism. Christians who practice infant baptism do so because they understand infant baptism as the new covenant equivalent of circumcision. In this view, just as circumcision joined a Hebrew to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, so baptism joined a person to the New Covenant of salvation through Jesus Christ.
I am not here to defend my position on baptism. If you want to look up some resources, the internet has plenty of them.
What this belief in credo-baptism does is separates Baptists from other orthodox, Bible-loving, Jesus-honoring Christians like Methodists and Presbyterians, among others. This belief shapes our ecclesiology and how we view our church membership, church government and even church discipline.
If only people who can faithfully attest to the gospel of Jesus Christ with any sort of certainty can be baptized, then only regenerate Christians can be baptized and thus become true church members. If the members of the church are truly regenerated and converted, then they posses the Holy Spirit and have the spiritual capability to vote on important matters of the church such as leadership, membership and discipline.
True converted church members possess the keys to the kingdom given to us by Christ to bind and loosen the gates in order to accept members into the local church based on their testimony and witness and also discipline sinning members who are living in unrepentant, habitual sin (see Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5.)
Jonathan Leeman says there are six job responsibilities for every church member: help preserve the gospel message, help affirm gospel citizens, attend member’s meetings (where presumably members will be voted on), disciple other church members, share the gospel with outsiders and follow your leaders. (Leeman 2016)
This belief also leads us to a robust theology of missions. It is not coincidence that Baptist (the Southern Baptist Convention, more specifically) has the largest missions force in the world. The approximately 47,000 SBC churches care for almost 3,000 international missionaries and their families and nearly 6,000 missionaries in North America in many different contexts and categories. Now, obviously, with nearly 47,000 churches and 15 million people on our church rolls (though only about 5 million show up to church any given Sunday) those numbers should be higher. But, nevertheless, Baptists are missions-minded, Great Commission-focused people.
We believe that the church always has been and always will be God’s “Plan A” to reach the nations and there is no “Plan B.” We take the Great Commission seriously: we go to all nations and make disciples. And yes, we baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And, hopefully, we are teaching the converts to obey all that Christ has commanded us through His Scriptures with the promise of Jesus’ presence until the end of time.
BEING A BAPTIST
So, yes, Baptists eat too many potlucks. And yes, some have a tendency to be stuffy and Pharisaical. But a true Baptist loves God and His Word, loves people enough to tell them about Jesus and protect and defend their gospel witness, and loves the world enough to go and send missionaries to every corner of the globe for the sake of the gospel.
If that is what a Baptist is, then count me in.
Hicks, Tom. What is a Baptist. June 23, 2016. http://founders.org/2016/06/23/what-is-a-baptist/ (accessed January 11, 2017).
Leeman, Jonathan. Don’t Fire Your Church Members. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016.