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An Uncomfortable Fit

A Complex, Post-Denominational Ecclesiastical Identity

April 25, 2015Filed under theology#m. div.#papers#sebtsMarkdown source

The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Nathan Finn's Baptist History and Identity class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

I grew up in a small, non-denominational, baptistic, charismatic church. Speaking in tongues, the use of private prayer languages, claims to words of knowledge and prophecies, and the expectation of miraculous healings were common. Unfortunately, even granting a continuationist view of the gifts, the church’s practice was never in line with New Testament guidelines for the gifts—no translation of tongues, for example, or requirement that prophecy be fulfilled for the prophet to be judged true. I grew disillusioned with the charismatic approach to the gifts by late high school, and spent several of the following years as a near-cessationist. I remain skeptical of most charismatic churches’ practice of the gifts, but am not a cessationist: I see no compelling exegetical argument for the position. I am especially open to the likelihood of the miraculous gifts in frontier missions context, where they serve to validate the proclamation of the gospel over and above demonic powers worshipped in polytheistic, animistic, and shamanistic cultures.

In college, I spent two years attending a fairly traditional Southern Baptist church. For the latter half of my time in college and the three years following, I was a member of a non-demoninational, baptistic, broadly evangelical church with my wife Jaimie. During that time, I remained baptistic, but began to become concerned with the lack of confessional moorings in most baptistic churches (denominational or non-denominational alike). Along the way, I shifted from the non-Calvinistic views held by most charismatics and Baptists to an Edwardsian Calvinism and developed stronger convictions about church polity. Finally, since moving to North Carolina, we have been committed members at First Baptist Church of Durham—a healthy, elder-led, Calvinistic Southern Baptist church that we love.

However, even here, we find that we are not totally “at home”; it is not quite right to call even Calvinistic Southern Baptists “my tradition”. Indeed, it is perhaps most accurate to say that I have not yet found my tradition. What I have found instead are points to appreciate in a number of traditions, and an increasing identification (at least from the outside) with many elements of the Presbyterian tradition. A friend once described me as a “Pres-matic Bapt-erian”, and he seems to have been right. I find much to appreciate in the charismatic background from which I sprang, and much to value in the Baptist tradition where I currently live—but at the end of the day, it is only my credobaptist convictions keeping me within the Baptist world, rather than transitioning into Presbyterianism.

From the charismatic tradition in which I grew up, I learned the value of affections oriented toward Christ. It is not enough to understand the things of God; we must also love him and one another. Our faith must be true and experiential. John reminds us that “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3) and that “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness” (1 John 2:9). Moreover, they emphasized that walking in the Holy Spirit is essential to the healthy Christian life. Though I might now characterize the Spirit’s primary work differently from the church of my childhood, I still affirm whole-heartedly that the Christian life is deeply and profoundly dependent on the Holy Spirit. Paul enjoins us, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh…. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, 25). Likewise, John reports Jesus’ shocking statement that it is better for us that he left and sent the Spirit than that he should have remained with us (John 16:7ff.). The life of the Christian must be a Spirit-filled and Spirit-empowered life. We can never overemphasize the work of the Spirit in our lives (though we may sometimes articulate that work inaccurately).

From the Southern Baptist churches I have attended I have gained a deeper appreciation for the importance of evangelism and missions. Whether from the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20 or the similar notes sounded in Luke 24:45–49 and then throughout the book of Acts, it is clear that God’s people are called to evangelize wherever we go. (Closely related to the above point, however, this is not mere salesmanship. As Luke points out in Acts 1:8, the power for the church’s missionary work is the Holy Spirit, not human wisdom.) If the church forgets that her first and foremost calling is the proclamation of the gospel to all the nations, she will rapidly fall off the cart in one direction or another.

The historic Baptist emphasis on regenerate church membership and the congregation’s responsibility for discipline are also essential ingredients to healthy, flourishing churches (and therefore for flourishing individual Christians). The countless “one another” passages of the New Testament (e.g. John 13:34–35, Ephesians 4:25–32) emphasize mutual service as an essential mark of Christian fellowship. Moreover, the well-known church discipline passages (Matthew 18:15–20) indicate clearly that the members of a congregation are to look out for each other’s spiritual well-being. Although this care has sometimes been twisted to abuse in other churches, we are blessed to participate in a context where the passages’ emphasis on forgiveness and restoration is kept front and center. Meaningful membership and congregational care through church discipline are not universally popular, but they are among the hallmarks of our particular corner of the Southern Baptist convention. This kind of care for the saints is not only necessary: it is beautiful.

From my Presbyterian friends I have increasingly come to appreciate a more thoroughly confessional identity and the value of churches connected not only by sharing funds but also by polity. Acts 15 highlights that the early church resolved its most significant outstanding tension not by letting each church go its own way doctrinally, but by issuing a decision that was binding on all the churches. Granted: the presence of the apostles then means our situation is not identical. Still, the event demands attention. Even a church with the illustrious history and (apostolic!) leadership of the congregation at Antioch did not feel equipped to make serious doctrinal decisions without consulting the rest of the church. This is not to deny that there are clear marks of local congregational responsibility throughout the epistles, only that the New Testament pattern was of churches in active contact, cooperation, and doctrinal dependence with each other in a way that appears very similar to a proto-presbytery, and quite unlike the radical autonomy of Baptist churches.

I also find the historic Reformed articulation of the relationship between the various spheres of life extremely compelling. Calvin and his heirs often advocated clearly and coherently for the goodness of the created order and for human activity therein. Here, vocation (including the arts) is taken not merely as a means to gospel proclamation, but as genuinely good in itself. This theme runs throughout Scripture: God commanded man to work before the Fall (cf. Genesis 2:5,15), and though work has been corrupted and made toilsome by the Fall, it remains good. The world itself was created good (Genesis 1), and though it groans with us for redemption (Romans 8:19–23) it still proclaims the glory of God (see Psalm 19 for just one of many examples). Many evangelicals pay lip service to the goodness of creation and vocation, but few outside the high church traditions (especially Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian) carry the doctrine through in their practice. This leaves me hungry for the kind of intellectual, vocational, and artistic engagement I see in those traditions.

From late modern evangelicalism more broadly I have imbibed both my essential Christian temperament—my unsettled, “post-denominational” eccesiastical identity included!—and two other essential ingredients: a sense of catholicity, and a desire to do more and better in caring for “the least of these.” Set against Jesus’ “new command” in John 13, the divisions within the church are painful realities we should strive to see undone wherever possible. Our disagreements are not trivial; we cannot simply toss them aside. We can, however, glory in our common experience of “mere Christianity” and take opportunities where possible to worship our risen Lord together. We can also work together across denominational boundaries to care for the orphans and widows (James 1:27), to confront injustice in this age. The needs of the world around us are severe and painful; the various wings of the church can and should unite to bring what tastes we can of the justice and mercy of Christ’s kingdom into the present age—in the church, and everywhere else (Micah 6:8).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have found in all of these movements a consistent emphasis on the centrality, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture. From my charismatic, Arminian-leaning youth minister to the pastors of the middle-America Bible church I attended during and after college to the elders of Calvinistic Baptist church we now call home, all have pointed consistently to God’s word as his ultimate self-revelation. These churches have all lived out a commitment to the idea that God’s word is living and active (Hebrews 4:12) and profitable in every way (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the number of shifts in my past, the transition to another tradition would be relatively straightforward; apart from the issue of believer’s baptism, Presbyterianism looks quite appealing even now. Even beyond these more important convictional differences, I do not fit comfortably within the Baptistic tradition culturally. Its populism often verges on (and sometimes crosses into) anti-intellectualism. Its broadly helpful focus on evangelism and missions too often translates into a reductive approach that reduces all spheres of life to vehicles for gospel-proclamation—not recognizing that while in God’s providence they often serve as such, the myriad spheres of life are good in their own right. The Southern Baptist identification with the culture of the South is also problematic for someone culturally not a Southerner.

Discussions on the nature of the church and the history of the Baptist movement in this class have largely solidified my pre-existing discomfort within the Baptist tradition and somewhat intensified the struggle to define my ecclesiastical identity. The theological commitments and cultural habits of (especially Southern) Baptists trouble me deeply. Reading The Baptist Way had precisely the opposite effect Norman intended: his polemical rhetoric bore the marks of profound ignorance of other traditions. Much of the reading on believers’ baptism was similarly dismissive—arguing not against the substance of other positions, but instead against caricatures thereof. Dockery’s call for renewal and consensus was more helpful, but it, too, had a sectarian bent. The denomination’s (and the broader tradition’s) deep anti-intellectualism and lasting suspicion of creeds and confessions make it unlikely that Southern Baptists will be able to claim the confessional identity or theological consensus they need.

It is an unfortunate reality that my experience of Baptists has too often been marked by denominational sectarianism, anti-intellectualism and anti-creedalism, and reductionistic and utilitarian approaches to God’s world. To be sure, there are exceptions to these trends, and I am grateful for them. But it means that, credobaptist though I am, “Baptist” and especially “Southern Baptist” are not and cannot be my ecclesiastical identity unless they comes to mean something very different than they have for many years. In the meantime, I will remain a “Pres-matic Bap-terian”, and deeply grateful for the traditions that have shaped me and especially our current church—even when they are not a “perfect fit”.