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Religion Library: Baptist

Modern Age

Written by: David Buschart

Perhaps the most notable theological issue was one that is foundational to Baptist belief, namely, the authority of the Bible. Some Southern Baptists, including some faculty members at Southern Baptist seminaries and colleges, embraced more "critical" views of the Bible and, correspondingly, reformulated their understanding of its infallibility and authority. Other Southern Baptists rejected these developments, seeing them as inconsistent with both the Baptist doctrinal heritage, including that of the SBC, and the teaching of the Bible itself.

Furthermore, the controversy over the Bible entailed other, related Baptist beliefs, including soul competence, with its commitment to freedom of conscience, and the autonomy of Baptist churches and institutions. Some people within the SBC contended that individuals who had come to a different view of the authority of the Bible were within their rights to hold such views by virtue of the Baptist commitment to freedom of conscience. Similarly, they held that Baptist church congregations and their ministers were also within their rights to hold such views by virtue of the Baptist commitment to the autonomy of the local church. Opponents replied that there are indeed some boundaries associated with Baptist identity, including those of the "Baptist Faith and Message" (the confessional statement of doctrinal beliefs of the SBC) and one's voluntary participation in the convention. The result was more than a decade of intense maneuverings within the SBC, and many realignments of churches, associations, and educational institutions, realignments reflective of these doctrinal differences.

In recent years, the Baptist tradition has wrestled with many of the same issues and experienced some of the same changes as many other Christian traditions. Three of these may be noted here. Beginning in the 1960s, questions of the ordination of women and the roles they could or could not fill were raised throughout many Baptist churches and organizations. Some Baptists, such as the American Baptist Churches, USA, eventually embraced the ordination of women and their role as senior pastors. Others, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, eventually rejected women's ordination and women as senior pastors.

Some Baptist churches have been among the leaders in the so-called "mega-church" movement that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, and continues today. The most well-known Baptist mega-church pastor, and the one who is the most influential outside the Baptist tradition, is Rev. Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. A graduate of Southwestern Theological Seminary, of the Southern Baptist Convention, and author of the best-selling books The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church, Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church, which has a weekend attendance of approximately 20,000. Most recently, he has had a prominent role in leading evangelical Christians to engage more seriously a variety of social, political, and health issues.

Study Questions:
     1.    What theological doctrines have become controversial within contemporary Baptist practice?
     2.    Who are two of the most widely known Baptist ministers of the 20th century? What did each contribute?
     3.    How did the issue of biblical authority divide the Baptist tradition?
     4.    What struggles have Baptist Churches shared with other contemporary Christian denominations?


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