Joel Rainey is the Director of Missions at Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, an adjunct professor at Capital Bible Seminary and blogs at Themelios (Twitter – @joelrainey).
Hopefully, it will surprise no one reading these words to discover that I’m a Baptist. I was brought to a Baptist church for the first time when I was just a few days old. I heard the message of Jesus, and became one of His followers in a Baptist church. I was licensed and duly ordained as a Baptist minister, I’m a two-time graduate of a Baptist seminary, and I lead a Baptist missions entity. So I’m about as Baptist as they come.
And when I say I’m a Baptist, that’s more than merely a statement of how I was raised or who cuts my paycheck. I am confessionally, convictionally, Baptist. I love my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, believe we will be in heaven together, and greatly appreciate their focus on the continuity of the Biblical narrative as it is contained in Covenant Theology. Yet my best understanding of the Scriptures teaches me that infants are not, automatically, children of that covenant and thus, are not candidates for baptism. So I could never be a Presbyterian.
I also believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still active today–ALL of them, including the ones that make some of my fellow Baptists nervous. As such, I love and appreciate my Pentecostal brothers and sisters for their focus on the empowering necessity of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, the Pentecostal understanding of how miraculous phenomenon like speaking in tongues are connected to Holy Spirit baptism are problematic for a guy like me, who believes we are as immersed as we will ever be by the Holy Spirit at the moment of our conversion. So I wouldn’t make a very good, faithful Pentecostal either.
Additionally, I see the book of Acts revealing an early multiplication of very strong, and very free, self-governing churches, which means I’d be inelligible for inclusion in the United Methodist Church also. Just about any way you cut me, I bleed a brand of Christian faith that can accurately be called “Baptist.”
Yet even with the convictions I hold, I’ve been blessed, encouraged, empowered, informed, challenged, and grown by men and women from across the denominational spectrum of evangelicalism. In many ways, I would not be the man, husband, father, or pastor I am today without the positive influences of people like Tim Keller, Lawrence White, D. James Kennedy, Jack Hayford, Chuck Swindoll, Anne Graham Lotz, Bryan Chapel, Loran Livingston, Chuck Colson, Eric Metaxas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and a host of others. And none of the above-named people are Baptist!
In other words, I don’t mind belonging to a particular “tribe” of Christianity, so long as it doesn’t succumb to tribalism. Yet a movement is afoot in my denomination that would seek to “cleanse” us from anything, or any influence that isn’t distinctly Baptist. Sometimes this is motivated by an apparent fear that our people will join another denomination because of someone who influences them.
And yes, sometimes, a brother or sister may come to different convictions than I do about something that causes them to be true to their integrity, and join a tradition that more accurately alligns with their beliefs. Truly, there are worse things that can happen in our churches than the above display of doctrinal integrity. But honestly, if reading a single quote from D. James Kennedy turns one of my parishioners into a Presbyterian, I don’t think the problem is D. James Kennedy!
Currently, there is much discussion in our denomination about a number of movements and/or theological persuasions, and whether these pose a threat to our existence as Baptists. But of all the “isms” I know of that exist within our ranks, none from my vantage point seem to pose as big a threat as does “tribalism.”
Tribalism might be a threat to you if:
1. Denominationalism is a substitute for discipleship. By any measurable standard, the evangelical world as a whole is not “making disciples,” as Jesus commanded, at least not those of the Romans 12:1-2 sort. So, when you discover someone who is actually making disciples–marriages are strong, kids are raised in the fear of God, addictions are overcome, and society is positively changed as a result of the Gospel–is your first reaction to celebrate that fact, or is it to make sure that ministry performs baptisms the same way yours does, or holds to your own doctrinal position on alcohol consumption, Calvinism, or worship style? If so, you may be a victim of tribalism.
2. Secondary issues are elevated to Gospel issues. A few years ago, one of our mission boards actually stated that baptism by immersion as a sign of conversion wasn’t enough to be a “Baptist” missionary. It had to have taken place in a church that affirms “eternal security.” So, if you were confessionally, convictionally Baptist, but were immersed in a Pentecostal or Nazarene environment, you were put out to pasture, unless you agreed to be “baptized” in an SBC church. When I asked one trustee about this decision, I was actually told that holiness and Pentecostal churches teach “a works salvation in reverse.” This man demonstrated both a horrible misunderstanding of the historical and theological underpinnings of Arminianism, as well as a grotesquely myopic view of the meaning of baptism. I’m not sure which of these caused the other in this “chicken-egg” conundrum, but the end result was a claim that because Pentecostals don’t believe as we do on an issue not central to saving faith, they don’t proclaim the Gospel at all. When a command of Jesus is domesticated and perverted to the extent that you believe it identifies you with a denominational tradition more than the King of Kings, you might be a victim of tribalism.
3. Identity turns to Isolation. Occasionally, I run into this in the church planting world, when I’m told, in spite of the fact that there may be multiple Gospel-preaching churches in a given area, that we may need to put a church there anyway because “there is no BAPTIST work there.” Thankfully, such hubris doesn’t exist in my Association or state convention, but I’ve certainly heard this sort of thing in the larger Baptist world. If you think we don’t need other Christian traditions working with us to accomplish the Great Commission–or worse yet, if you think the Great Commission can’t be accomplished unless we are driving the work in a given area–you may be a victim of tribalism.
I think our work is important, and I think our identity is important. As the head of a Baptist missions entity, that’s why I won’t put a Lutheran on the field to plant a church, or encourage one of my established churches to hire a Pentecostal, or consider anyone for missionary service under our banner who would be OK with throwing water on a baby and calling it baptism. But I don’t have to be your twin to be your brother, and the sooner all Southern Baptists realize our dire need for the wider body of Christ to accomplish His mission, the healthier and more effective we will be within our own tribe. Ironically, that will also be the moment when our identity is more firmly established, because it will be in Jesus.