Define ‘Baptist,’ give three examples

westboro 2There’s no doubt about it. The Rev. Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is a Baptist — because he says so.

Then again, so is Bill Clinton. So is Al Gore Jr., now that you mention it. Ditto for the Rev. Bill Moyers, Dr. Harvey Cox and the Rev. Jesse Jackson (last time I checked).

What’s the point? Well, one of the big stories of the week was that a federal jury in Baltimore delivered a $10.9 million verdict against Phelps and his Westboro congregation, due to its ugly protests at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder, who died in Iraq.

It’s a story that everyone, or almost everyone, wishes would go away. It’s the dark side of free speech and it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Can ACT UP crash a Mass? How far could protesters go at a funeral for, let’s say, Vice President Dick Cheney if he died with the Iraq war still raging? Is a soldier a “public figure” if he died in a war? So many ugly, ugly questions.

Veteran Julia Duin of The Washington Times found an interesting angle on all of this, the one I was hinting at with my references to Phelps, Clinton, et al.

How would you like to be a Baptist minister in Kansas right now? How would you like to have the same brand name on your church sign as the Westboro crew? Duin wrote this, focusing on the efforts of other Baptists to disavow Phelps and his church:

Although the 75-member church led by the Rev. Fred Phelps uses the name “Baptist,” it is an independent congregation not affiliated with any known Baptist convention or association.

“It’s a little bit frustrating,” said a ministry official at First Baptist Church of Topeka, who asked that his name not be used.

“People want to know why Baptists allow it,” the First Baptist official said. “Every church is locally autonomous, and anybody can call themselves ‘Baptist’ if they want to.” Speaking of the Westboro congregation, he said, “Their views don’t reflect anything at all of our church.”

One of Westboro Baptist Church’s most vociferous opponents has been the Southern Baptist Convention, chiefly because Mr. Phelps was ordained an SBC minister in 1947 at age 17. It is not clear when he left the denomination, but Westboro was founded in 1955 as an independent church.

godhatesSo what does the word “Baptist” mean, in the first place? I grew up in the home of a Southern Baptist pastor and executive and, you know what, I don’t think I have ever heard anyone agree on a common definition. Here is one online take:

A member of an evangelical Protestant church of congregational polity, following the reformed tradition in worship, and believing in individual freedom, in the separation of church and state, and in baptism of voluntary, conscious believers.

Ah, but the Baptists predate the “evangelical” movement. And is that “reformed” or “Reformed”? And are Baptists united in a common definition of the “separation of church and state”? Clearly not.

So you have to start stacking up the adjectives. Duin notes:

Westboro describes itself on its Web site as an “old school or primitive Baptist” congregation. Primitive Baptists are a decentralized denomination scattered across the country. A call to their Arkansas headquarters got no response.

Mr. Phelps describes himself on the same site as a “five-point Calvinist who urges all people to carefully study and discern what are the signs of the times.” The church also says it is a “TULIP Baptist church,” referring to the acronym TULIP for the five points of Calvinist thought: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.

As you would imagine, that draws yowls from Calvinists. It isn’t fair to pin Phelps on them, either.

So what should the totally free-church Baptists do to shut down a free-church Baptist without violating all the principles of what it means to be a free-church Baptist?

Just asking. It’s a sad story and, alas, a good news story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Eric W

    Just as anyone can call themselves a Christian, any church can be a Baptist Church. The acts of the Phelpses should no more be considered to be what it means to be a Baptist than the acts of Jeffrey Dahmer should be considered to be what it means to be an American.

  • http://www.merefaith.com/blog Chris S

    Well, Baptists aren’t necessarily “totally” free church if by that you mean that there aren’t ways that Baptist congregations may hold each other accountable. The difference between us and top-down ecclesial bodies is our aversion to accountability becoming coercion, so we’re willing to let churches go their own way even if their dissenting practices become abhorrent. But while some may argue that the independent Baptist churches are the logical conclusion of our ecclesiology, in reality Baptists were more connectionally organized (particularly in Britain) until the Enlightenment made us (mostly) a bunch of individualists.

    An interesting in-depth piece of journalism could explore how the external confusion over what makes a Baptist reflects vigorous internal debates over the goods that constitute Baptist identity. It’s not just a fundamentalist-moderate divide: within each of the two major perspectives one may find various contested claims.

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  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Who would bring any complaint? I am sure that American Baptists and National Baptists would fiercely resent any implication that “Baptist” means SBC, as would all the General Baptists, Freewill Baptists, Separate Baptists, Landmark Baptists, Particular Baptists, Primitive Baptists, and buzzard Baptists (who only show up for funerals.)

    And in response to the stories about “Catholic churches” and “Catholic priests” who are clearly not in union with the Holy See, and my question as to exactly what makes them “Catholic”, the popular wisdom of the combox commentariat appeared to be that “Catholic” means whatever self-labelers want it to mean. Is “Baptist” entitled to more protection than “Catholic”? If that is NOT what people have been saying, then what in [expletive deleted] ARE they saying?

  • Julia

    Re: Problems with names.

    the popular wisdom of the combox commentariat appeared to be that “Catholic” means whatever self-labelers want it to mean

    Now perhaps you guys might understand our opposition to the free-wheeling use of the name “Catholic”. After all, Catholics in union with the Bishop of Rome baptize people, too. Are we then not entitled to call ourselves “Baptists”? If not, why not?

    Here’s something I’ve never understood: If Protestants each decide for themselves what they believe, what is it that differentiates the Protestant churches and groupings that go by different names?

    The new term currently booted around – “tradition” – as in the “Episcopalian tradition” or the “Methodist tradition” – isn’t that counter to the Protestant Reformation idea that Tradition is out because it is “man made”?

    And also on the subject of names and adjectives, just as Catholics are saddled with the supposedly negative label “medieval”, perhaps as Protestantism (with the exception of Unitarian Universalists), also gets hoary with age, Protestantism could be negatively labelled “pre-Enlightenment”. Getting old is h____.

  • Dale

    Are we then not entitled to call ourselves “Baptists”? If not, why not?

    Customary usage. “Baptist” in English and American idiom means a Protestant who believes that baptism is appropriate only for those people old enough to consciously confess belief. The adjective “Baptist” originally was a pejorative used by other Protestants and Catholics to mock the practice of adult baptism of converts from other Christian sects. That’s somewhat similar to your complaints about the idiom “Roman Catholic”. IMO, the negative connotations have long since faded for both terms, and trying to change the linguistic habits of 500,000,000 English speakers is a fool’s errand. What should be made clear in press reporting about a “Baptist” church is its affiliation, if any, something that this article did appropriately.

    Here’s something I’ve never understood: If Protestants each decide for themselves what they believe

    Right. That’s why we have the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, the Canons of Dordt , etc. Even though we were completely free to make up whatever doctrine we liked, we thought it would be a hoot to write up long, painfully boring creedal documents just to ignore them.

    what is it that differentiates the Protestant churches and groupings that go by different names?

    Start with the Augsburg Confession, then Heidelberg . . . . Even among Baptists, who come closest to the theological free-for-all that you describe, there are doctrinal statements that define affiliations. If I was to publicly speak against my church’s doctrine, I would be kindly asked to desist or withdraw from membership. If my church taught against the doctrinal statement of its affiliation, the affiliated churches would force it to withdraw. The fact that Westboro is unaffiliated with any other Baptist organization is a good indication of other Baptists’ feelings toward Fred Phelps and his public statements about sexuality.

  • http://david-jaime-jason.blogspot.com Jason

    I live in Topeka. My grandparents have told me a story about Fred’s first arrival in our fair town. My grandparents’ church helped Fred get his church set up. My grandparents’ church were Baptists who hold the belief that God saves everyone who repents and accepts Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior. So, they were mighty surprised and deeply hurt when, after getting set in his own church, he revealed his Calvinists beliefs. They still express hurt over the whole affair. Especially when he pickets their church (not the same one they went to in the 50s).

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    That’s just it. “Protestant” used to mean holding specific teachings — salvation by faith, sola scriptura, priesthood of all believers. Now, the sacrosanct “popular usage” just means “NOT Catholic” (“wedon’tbelieveinthepope”). And when I point out that this means Eastern Orthodox and Mormons are “Protestant”, and indeed, by this nondefinition Osama bin Laden is a “Protestant” leader, they just fly off the handle.

    Nobody gives a coherent explanation of why LDS, etc, are not “Protestant”.
    In PROFILES IN BELIEF, the New Church is in volume 2 under “Other Churches of the Reformation”, but the Christadelphians, who are AT LEAST as “Protestant” as we are, are relegated to the limbo of “Other Christians”, along with Unitarians. LDS, Watchtower (“Witnesses”) and the Christian Community are not included in the published volumes at all — but the Livberal Catholic Church and numerous minor Arian sects are, obviating any claim to make a coherent definition of “Christian”.

    “….and I hope you will understand this some day when the sea is less wet.” — DAVY

    Ex-president Will (Call me a Protestant, and you’ll get a Dakota pine cone planted where it’ll germinate real quick.)

  • Aaron Armitage

    My grandparents’ church were Baptists who hold the belief that God saves everyone who repents and accepts Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior. So, they were mighty surprised and deeply hurt when, after getting set in his own church, he revealed his Calvinists beliefs.

    Calvinists believe that too. I’ve heard Phelps is a hyper-Calvinist (which is actually as different from regular Calvinism as Arminianim is), but hypers don’t even want him.

  • http://www.oldsolar.com/currentblog.php Rick Ritchie

    It’s the dark side of free speech and it’s hard to know where to draw the line. Can ACT UP crash a Mass?

    I think that property rights have a place here. Perhaps this is where things would work out better in a libertarian world than they do in our mixed world.

    Public sidewalks, understood as we understand them now, make it very difficult to find space where someone is not within shouting distance of you. This cuts into the important negative side of free association. Your choices of disassociating yourself from someone are more limited than they might be in a world with much less, or perhaps no, public property.

    A Mass is a public gathering in a private place. (Or should be.) For ACT UP to crash it is for them to trespass on a church.

    Maybe a good clarifying question is whether Fred Phelps can stand up and deliver a sermon in the middle of a movie at a movie theater.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Does “hyper-Calvinist” mean that “regular Calvinists” are MODERATES?

  • Dennis Colby

    Phelps’ theology is something I’ve wondered about for years. If you go to his group’s Web site, you don’t find very much actual theology – I could be wrong, but I don’t recall actually seeing the name “Jesus” anywhere on the site. Nor do I recall the group referring to themselves as Christians – they seem to prefer the more eccentric tag “Tachmonites.” What, actually, do they believe about things like the Resurrection? Does anyone know?

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    One of Westboro Baptist Church’s most vociferous opponents has been the Southern Baptist Convention, chiefly because Mr. Phelps was ordained an SBC minister in 1947 at age 17.

    I’d be curious to know why the SBC finds him objectionable more because he used to be one, than because of his despicable statements. Is the implication that Southern Baptists believe the same as Phelps, but to a lesser extent? That would make him more like embarrassing-but-beloved Uncle Fred who has too much brandy at Christmastime and goes off on a tirade, than like somebody whom they oppose wholeheartedly. Somehow I doubt that’s how the SBC sees him.

  • http://www.newscloud.blogspot.com Becktemba

    About the “Rev.” Fred Phelps there seems to me that he is possessed by an evil spirit. It fits the modus operandi.

    Only through prayer and fasting will he be freed.

    Pray for him and that whole group.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I tried to access “the Group’s web site” in the hope of seeing what Dennis is talking about, and maybe even verifying for myself that what They say is the same as what Everybody Knows that They say. Not only was [politically incorrect].com inaccessible (of course, any suggestion that an ISP might be blocking it without telling users would be paranoid), but Google appears to have inserted its own description in the search results to insure that people get the right idea. (and correct thinkers seem to agree that suspicion of Google is not “paranoid”.)

    I agree that “Baptist” has a specific meaning. But does anyone suggest that Mr. Phelps has been baptizing infants while everybody’s back is turned?

    Here in New York, the Hands of the Cause took the dissident owners of a “Baha’i Bookshop” to court, and for their pains were told that no, they did NOT own the word. (Baha’i Community vs. Chandler).

  • http://david-jaime-jason.blogspot.com Jason

    Why doesn’t the press call WBC a cult and be done with it?

    If these folks can be called a cult, so can Fred’s group.