Dave Miller has posed this question, and the answers we’ve seen and given range from tragic to comic to, well, just this side of ridiculous. This is a challenging question. In recent years, there’s been an apparent shift to a post-denominational world in American Christianity, with many of the fastest growing churches either being non-denominational or being the head church of a new denomination. Then there’s the age-old argument that Southern Baptists aren’t a denomination at all, but that’s another argument. If solved in the comments, great, but if not, we’ll table that for another post.
Part of the challenge in answering this question is that any short definition will require using words that, in turn, require their own defining statement. To take an outside example, one can define being President of the United States as “being the chief executive of the United States government.” This defines the role without telling you anything, until you examine “executive” “United States” and “government.” Likewise any definition of Southern Baptist Church will be difficult.
For example, I used the definition that included the term “Bible-believing Christians.” However, what do we mean by that? While many of us hold different viewpoints, and while some will accuse others of not believing the Bible, how many Christians don’t count themselves as Bible-believing? How do you get the word Christian without believing at least part of the Bible (Acts 11:26)?
So, if we define a Southern Baptist Church as an association of Bible-believing Christians that gather to worship and cooperatively engage in and support the work of the Great Commission, what does that get us? It gets us a definition, but not a distinctive one.
However, this problem is not new to our generation and times. In his book The Baptist Spirit by I.J. Van Ness, published by the Baptist Sunday School Board in 1914, he stated that Baptist life consists of three things:
- A belief in New Testament Principles
- A desire for the New Testament Spirit
- A proper zeal for the great purposes to which this spirit naturally and surely leads
Who can disagree with this description of a church? Yet it gets us no closer to knowing what to expect when I show up at Fourth Baptist, No Hope Baptist, or any other Baptist Church.
Van Ness also recognized that this definition was inadequate. Rather, like the one I gave above, he called these three items essential to have and understand before you dig into the distinctive Baptist principles. A further word from his book: our principles without spirit make a cold creed and an attempt to deny the principles while imitating the spirit is like trying to make a stalk grow without roots.
Likewise, we see that today, there are certain principles that should be assumed in any church that claims to be a New Testament church. These would be recognizing the deity of Christ, the validity of Scripture, the personal work of the Holy Spirit, and the need for and provision of atonement. Many of these are named in Dave Miller’s list of “Brick Wall” doctrines, but since I’m writing without the benefit of an internet connection, I’m not for certain.
Churches that lack those doctrinal markers are for a different discussion, namely whether they are a church or not. The real question is how the churches that do, at the least, allege to hold those doctrines differ and become Southern Baptist or not.
Here are 4 items I would find as distinctive of Southern Baptist Churches:
1. Observed Ordinances and not Saving Sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are pictures, symbols, reminders of the life of grace, and not the means of grace.
- Baptism by immersion after salvation. This is part of our Baptist side. Not only the mode and method, but the timing is necessary. We also hold that local church membership comes after baptism. We will accept the testimony of a trustworthy church regarding your baptism, but it has to have happened somewhere.
- The Lord’s Supper for those who are disciples. Even though there may be lousy disciples, like Judas, present, we hold that the Lord’s Supper is for believers to remind themselves of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The sacrifice is sufficient for salvation without the supper, but the supper is a vivid reminder and an ongoing testimony of the cost of our salvation.
2. Expected Evangelism: a Southern Baptist Church understands that if believers don’t tell about Christ, people will not hear. Therefore, people will not become believers, and will go to hell. We can split heretics all day over resistible grace or irresistible, but you have to get on the fringe to find “Don’t tell” as a policy in Baptist churches. A mark of a Southern Baptist Church we see is that Southern Baptist Churches expect someone to evangelize.
3. Multiple Missions: Southern Baptist Churches fund multiple efforts, or missions, of the church. The missions include: caring for children, healthcare, education, national evangelism, international evangelism, and national religious revival efforts. In all, though, a Southern Baptist Church has a method to fund a multitude of missions, more than they can individually vet and verify. Currently that method runs through a combination of the Cooperative Program and special offerings, including designated giving. As the years pass, this will all be called Great Commission Giving for a little while, and then it will be something else. However, one of the markers of a Southern Baptist Church is multiplied missions funding as compared to individual missions funding, where the church selects each individual it supports.
4. Word-based Worship: while this needs a closer look, Southern Baptist Churches make the Word of God the focus of their worship. The service revolves around presenting the Word, whether in song or sermon, drama or dance (ed. Interpretative movement).
While there have been others at times, many of those may be common, but they are not universal. Others are better known in stereotype than in reality. Local church autonomy remains a mark of many Baptist groups and non-Baptist ones, so I’ve left it out.
What have I ignored? What am I wrong about? What am I right about?