Southern Baptist Identity
October 12, 2009
I am currently reading the book Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future, edited by David Dockery. Most of the material in the book was presented at Baptist Identity conferences at Union University. Since these chapters have been published, even more has been written on the subject. I would like to generate some discussion about this topic by summarizing each chapter and offering some of my own thoughts. So here goes.
In the introduction, “Southern Baptists in the Twenty-first Century,” David Dockery demonstrates the need for clarification about Baptist Identity by briefly explaining how that identity was defined in the twentieth century and why that is not sufficient today.
According to Dockery “for almost five decades, during the middle of the twentieth century, Southern Baptists followed the same organizational patterns, the same programs, and the same Sunday school lessons. These practices were to Southern Baptists what the Latin Mass was to Roman Catholics” (13). He names some of these programs as Bible drills, GAs, RAs, Training Union, WMU, Brotherhood, Sunday School, and similar worship patterns such as the Baptist Hymnal. Dockery uses the words cultural and programmatic to describe Baptist identity during these years. He states that this unified identity gave Southern Baptists its pervasive influence particularly in southern white culture.
Dockery maintains that this identity no longer suffices because Southern Baptists have become more regionally and ethnically diverse, and often look outside of the SBC for church models and heroes. We must move toward “consensus and renewal.” This will include “convictional and confessional beliefs” and “collaborative and cooperative service.” In summary of the first, Dockery says “we need an authentically confessional faith, grounded in Scripture and the best of our Baptist heritage, a convictional faith that will not give in to this secular age with a spirit of defeat” (17). Under the section “Collaborative and Cooperative Service,” the author emphasizes that Christian love and cooperation authenticate our confession. He advocates a compassionate sense of cooperation.
He closes the introduction with 12 “initial steps toward renewal. I’ll list them without his explanations for the sake of space.
1. We must begin afresh to appreciate the best of Baptist history/heritage.
2. We must balance commitment to the material principle of the gospel and the formal principle of inspired Scripture.
3. The new consensus must be built upon a full-orbed doctrine of Scripture, which affirms that only those beliefs and practices that rest firmly on scriptural foundations can be regarded as binding on Southern Baptists.
4. Defining the circumference is necessary, but we should not expect or demand uniformity, lest we impose a straightjacked on our fellow Southern Baptists.
5. We must recognize that a confession of the Bible’s truthfulness is an important safeguard, a necessary, albeit an insufficient, statement for the SBC to maintain consistent evangelical instruction and theological method, which is needed for an orthodox statement on matters of Christology, the doctrine of God, and salvation.
6. A model of dynamic orthodoxy must be reclaimed.
7. We must recognize that Southern Baptists have historically reflected considerable diversity.
8. We must take seriously the biblical call to unity in accord with the Nicene affirmation of the oneness and universality of the church, as reflected in the Orthodox confession (1678).
9. We need to be reminded of where Southern Baptist might be were it not for the conservative resurgence — as well as a recognition of where we could be if we ever become untethered to Holy Scripture.
10. We need a new spirit of mutual respect and humility to serve together with those with whom we have differences of conviction and opinion.
11. We want to begin to build a new and much-needed consensus around the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
12. Twenty-first-century Southern Baptists need not only to affirm the Bible’s truthfulness and the saving power of the gospel, but we need to evidence our concern for these matters by careful biblical interpretation and theological reflection, faithful churchmanship, proclamation, worship, repentance, and prayer.
I have three concerns about this introduction. First, I’m not convinced that SBC identity was ever fundamentally programmatic. Nor am I convinced that we are as culturally diverse today as Dockery suggests. If SBC identity did once revolve around having the same programs and orders of worship then shame on us. And we should not seek to correct this identity problem simply because it doesn’t work anymore, but because it is a wrong basis for unity and a sad basis for identity.
Second, though Dockery does issue several calls for unity in confession, there is no call to the centrality of the glory of God. Point 6, calling for dynamic orthodoxy sounds good, but it is not enough. The list of conversation partners makes me wonder what is meant by “orthodoxy.” (He lists Nicea, Chalcedon, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, the Pietists, and the revivalists.) It is not enough to have an orthodox doctrine of God. Our doctrine of God must make us God-centered in theology and practice. Our goals must all be subordinate to the chief end of glorifying and enjoying God.
Third, the call to consensus around the gospel is good, but there is no definition of what is meant by gospel. When talking about ecclesiology he names specific points (“We must also clearly affirm the importance of worship, regenerate church membership, and local church autonomy and cooperation, as well as believer’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” 19) But when calling for gospel consensus the most that is said is “Jesus Christ and his atoning death for sinners” (20).
I very much appreciate his remark about getting the gospel right as prior to missions and evangelism. “We need to take a step back, not just to commit ourselves afresh to missions and evangelism, as important as that is. We need to commit ourselves foremost to the gospel, the message of missions and evangelism, the message that is found only in Jesus Christ and his atoning death for sinners” (20).