I’m still here, in a Baptist church

churchWe’re coming up on the last Sunday of the “It’s Time” study at our church, and last Sunday the subject dealt with Baptist heritage. I was asked to speak to one of our senior adult classes and decided to talk about why I am a Baptist rather than deliver a message on the topic. My idea stemmed from a Paul Simon song in the 1970s called “Still Crazy after all these years.” I adapted the title to “Still Baptist after all these years.” This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this title used, and I credit former pastor Roger Lovette for his presentation of the issue.

There are so many dimensions of Baptist life to consider, and for this it is difficult to pinpoint only a few of them. I’m very appreciative of our Baptist freedoms as spelled out by Walter Shurden’s helpful book (Four Fragile Freedoms). This is wonderful primer of what being a Baptist is really all about, and part of that discussion relates to the local church. In thinking of Baptists 400th anniverary, I am especially grateful that Baptist churches have survived and thrived through four centuries of dissension and more importantly our shared faith in Jesus Christ.  

Baptists embrace the autonomy of the local church. Which means, that no one outside the church can tell it what to do or how to carry out its mission and ministry. Baptist churches ordain whomever they want to, without outside interference, and observe the ordinances as they see fit. The church carries out its own ministries in its own community and does not need approval from a higher ecclesiastical authority. Of course, parachurch entities can establish their own membership requirements and if a congregation violates those standards then it can be removed from fellowship. It is arguable how significant some of the issues are that cause division among Baptists. Some are considered primary, others secondary. The difficulty is finding common ground on which is which, but let me just say that Baptists respect the automony of the local church. I’ve found this especially true of CBF and ABC congregations.

As the Southern Baptist Convention meets this week, messengers will consider a recommendation to oust 125-year member Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX. There has been a great deal of attention directed at this church for its very public dispute over whether homosexual couples who are attending the church to be allowed to have their pictures taken together and seen in the pictorial directory. The church dealt with the issue by not taking individual family portraits for the directory and this has led some to conclude that the church is not serious in its opposition to this lifestyle. I mention this as an example of how local churches can choose to do what they wish, but this does not necessarily mean that they will be allowed or given approval by the larger ecclesiastical body. I expect the SBC to remove Broadway from fellowship, and both entities will move on with their respective work. You’ll find that affirmed here.

I recall Fisher Humphreys talking about the subject of local church autonomy, and his view was that the actions of the larger Baptist body did not necessarily violate the autonomy of that local church. The church was still free to do what it to in regard to its mission, ministry, ordination practices, and worship. The association, state and national conventions were also free and autonomous in establishing their membership requirements too. This approach is pretty much where I’ve come down, despite the cries of some pastors who feel the autonomy of their churches have been violated because they’ve been kicked out of the Convention. This opposition really is more a reflection on how the larger Baptist body has changed rather than how the individual church is being hindered in going its own direction.

It’s important to be part of a larger Baptist family. Connections are being made between churches more and more based on philosophical and theological grounds and not so much geographical or regional. Distance isn’t the barrier it once was, and Baptist organizations are becoming much more fluid out of necessity to remain relevant to the needs of churches. And that’s where real ministry takes place anyway. The local church in a specific community and social context is the headquarters for building the Kingdom of God. I’m glad to see this emphasis being emphasized and recovered once again. 

I was fortunate to attend New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary during a relatively good period of time when I could discuss, write, and learn under the guidance of wonderful professors who valued Baptist heritage and distinctives. Looking back, I can remember fellow students who are no longer in the Baptist tradition and live  out their life and ministry in other denominational structures. There are reasons for this, and I make no judgments here except to say that I understand why that is in some cases. Oftentimes it deals with conflict at some level or dispute with a Fundamentalist mindset. Other cases relate to the Baptist minister going through a divorce and finding little or no opportunity in the Baptist world.

The Lord has seen fit to keep me in the Baptist family, not so much the biggest one anymore, but a meaningful and significant one nonetheless. It’s not perfect, but it is the means to impact our world for Christ. So, to the surprise of some and chagrin of many, I say  “yes, I’m still in a Baptist church.” And one more thing: Happy 400th Birthday Baptists!


7 thoughts on “I’m still here, in a Baptist church

  1. Not that I hate to disagree, actually, I never hate to disagree, but the original point of the collaboration between churches was to allow groups with varying beliefs to work together. It is only after the Denominational leaders decided the convention should become hegemonic that churches really started to get kicked out. It’s the right of the churches to go their own way and rarely the right of the denomination to remove the membership of a church. Only heresy that conflicted with the BFM could really be grounds for this denial of membership, which is part of the reason the BFM was beefed up and made as a tool of coercion by the SBC leadership. These are not good men and women of faith and we shouldn’t pretend they are. Knowing this doesn’t excuse us from loving and forgiving them. But we don’t have to cooperate with them. Our best hope is to wait until the leadership is retired and to form relationships with their young membership now. We should improve our image and demonstrate our humility.

    David R.

    1. I actually had a conversation about this very thing today with an older pastor friend who had attended seminary with some of the leaders of the fundamentalist movement in the SBC. Hearing him talk about them in how they were in school and what they became in order to ascend the denominational ladder was interesting. His remarks are similar to yours in terms of their integrity and sincerity, only he lived it. I’ve read about these developments and experienced the fallout but this guy lived it and saw the denominational change from the inside.

      I still have some friends who serve as pastors in the SBC, and they hold out hope for the denomination as the younger guard takes over. There are those going beyond the BFM in determining membership as you suggest, and there are those who oppose this idea. Fortunately, our church doesn’t revolve in that denominational orbit anymore. I still think autonomy of the church remains intact despite how the winds of theological or political change blow, or regardless of the integrity of those in leadership in the denomination. The problem is that the paramaters for cooperation continue to shrink and more churches are excluded as a result. That is what happened to UHBC in our state convention because of the “single-alignment” stipulation. I think we are much better off. The MBC tried to tell the churches what they had to do to belong, and many have complied, and for those who haven’t we were shown the door. Your research shows you know this a lot better than most.

  2. What is local church autonomy? It’s more than the freedom to dictate what goes on within their four walls, but also the power to determine what occurs within the collaborative hierarchy. In losing that, churches have lost much of the power of local church autonomy. It has to be a conduit that goes both ways.

    I think our church had little choice and they made the right decision. But I would hope that if a new leadership emerged in the MBC, one open to reconciliation, our church would be the first to forgive and forget.

    Your friend would be quite interesting to meet and discuss things with because of his personal knowledge. After attending NOBTS with his brother-in-law in charge, Patterson’s foibles became more pronounced. I look forward to the day when SBC messengers are less belligerent and more compassionate. Because, as much as it is the fault of the triumvirate, the messengers were the unwashed masses with the vulgar ear. “Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears . . .”

  3. Danny,

    You have good words. I get to tired of explaining SBC stupidity to my church members. But, every time they are given the choice, they would rather live with the mess than chart a new course. I guess it really is easier to stay with the abuser than find healing away from him/her.
    I agree that autonomy goes both ways. The SBC severing ties with Broadway doesn’t hurt their autonomy; and it highlights the autonomy of the convention. Thus is the nature of fellowships vs denominations. In the end, I believe that the SBC is hurt more by this. Perhaps this will finally show the few SBC followers in Broadway that CBF is a better place to send their money. I feel especially bad for the few SWBTS professors that go to church at Broadway. Now, they have to choose between their job and their church family. My heart hurts for them.

    Tim Dahl

  4. You are right on, Danny. The church would have lost its local autonomy only if they had conceded to SBC Executive Committee requests that they clearly identify and repuditate those members whose lifestyles are unacceptable to the SBC leadership. As interim pastor Charles Johnson noted in a recent blog at ethicsdaily.com, the church was not willing to do that. Therefore, Broadway retained its autonomy.

  5. Sorry, but it’s not as simple as having independence. We still have our natural freedoms, what is God-given, no matter whether we live in a tyranny or in a free-society. Nothing can make those freedoms and liberties vanish or cease to exist. But local church autonomy is also about how a fellowship of churches should organize itself. I’ll stay out of your business because I don’t want you in my business. It’s about mutual respect between churches and the hierarchy. Further, a local church should be seen as more authoritative for the local congregation than the denominational leadership is. But the SBC no longer holds to local church autonomy. They hold to Pastoral Authority and believe that the higher up on the food chain, the more ordained by God you are to shepherd people. In replacing one with the other, the SBC can no longer practice local church autonomy because it is antithetical to Pastoral Authority (which easily devolves into cults of personalities). The SBC believes it can and should consider the business of every church as their business. If a church is SBC, it belongs to them. While they haven’t achieved the power necessary to replace the leadership yet in a local church, why do you thing they spend so much time and money indoctrinating the newest generation of pastors with their bilge and vile. The seminaries are nothing more than factories to reproduce carbon copies of SBC leaders; individuals incapable of independent rational thought needing to be spoon fed as much as the slumbering idiots in their congregations. They will eventually decide they don’t have enough power to determine matters of theology, morality, politics, and ethics, and require that a membership with the SBC follow a corporate model allowing the SBC regulatory agencies to remove pastors who are harmful to their sheep. And the sheep will vote, “Save us,” and that’ll be the end.

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