Why I still call myself a…Baptist

Some of my theological friends criticize me for holding on to my “Baptist” identity in the current theological and political context (especially the U.S.A.) where these labels have largely come to mean mean-spirited, narrow-minded, legalistic, even hypocritical religiosity and where they are virtually equated with the Religious Right, of which I am not a part.

Many Baptist churches have dropped the word “Baptist” from their names because it has been so tarnished by television evangelists, right-wing religious politicians and the so-called “Baptist wars” of the last twenty-five to thirty-five years.

Besides, they say, Baptists have very little in common beyond getting people wet. Many (perhaps most) no longer believe in separation of church and state. In fact, Baptists have become known for opposing it. Many no longer believe in or practice congregational autonomy. All the traditional hallmarks of Baptist faith and practice have been sacrificed on various altars political, theological and practical.

Who have been in the forefront of the church growth movement, the Religious Right, neo-fundamentalism, rationalistic theology and apologetics, so-called “complementarianism,” etc., etc.? Baptists.

My friends challenge me to realize it’s too late to rescue the label; the barbarians have invaded and taken over and there’s no point in trying to rescue what is now a hopelessly sullied label and identity.

Besides, as I said (and they keep reminding me) there is very little that has ever or now holds “Baptists” together as an identifiable tradition. So, they tell me, stop reifying or hypostasizing “Baptist” as if it were a real phenomenon. Stop essentializing it, they say.

Also, my northern friends tell me “Baptist” has become a primarily southern phenomenon.

A few years ago my late friend Stan Grenz, who proudly called himself both Baptist and evangelical, told me an interesting little story of an incident at his (then) institution of higher education. A well-known Anglican theologian, a colleague, had traveled to the American South (from Canada) to give some lectures at a Baptist university and seminary. When he returned, at a gathering of professors, this Anglican theologian said (commenting on his trip to the South) “Baptists are uncouth.” Of course, Stan spoke up to him and said “Am I included?” The Anglican theologian said “Present company excepted.”

Well, I’m just stubborn enough not to give “Baptist” over to the barbarians or give in to non-Baptists who vilify it; I will defend the label and tradition, as it really was and should be, until I die. Every label has its problems. I prefer to do the hard work of rescuing “Baptist” from all the distortions that surround it in popular culture and even among those who proudly proclaim it.

What I find ironic is that some of my friends who, though moderate, proudly identify as Baptist tell me I should give up calling myself “evangelical” or identifying myself with that movement–for the same reason others tell me to give up calling myself “Baptist” or identifying with that tradition.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Roger,

    May your band of supporters increase.

    Some background by Jonathan Merritt on his recent book “AFaith of our Own: Following Jesus beyond the Culture Wars” may be good medicine. You can find it at:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/06/01/the-story-of-a-centrist/
    under ‘The Story of a Centrist” The comments should be interesting. The reviews on Amazon, so far, are very positive. 

    Blessings,
    Bev

  • http://biblemanblog.blogspot.com Stan Harstine

    Roger, one of the primary difficulties that the “defenders” of any position have today is to re-educate others on what terms actually mean. In our current culture individuals attempt to hijack short, pithy terms in order to use them as identifying tags. We no longer discuss what the term actually means, but simply what the term is. Regardless of the term, Christian, inerrant, baptist, Pro-choice/life, the depth of meaning is forgotten in order to stake a boundary claim. Continue to fight the fight.

  • John Inglis

    Creation of new labels is not a long terms solution anyway, because eventually they will get corrupted too. So we might as well try to “save” existing labels, or at least ensure that people recognize that there is more than one definition for the term and that they shouldn’t assume that the term means the same thing every time it is used. Moreover, it probably takes just as much work to create a new label that is accepted by everyone as it does to rescue an existing one. Plus, a new label loses a lot of valuable connections to history, etc.

  • Emil Turner

    I had a “phase” during which I decided I was “too spiritual” to be a Baptist. I’ve outgrown the urge to confuse “critical” and “spiritual”. Baptists in the south have done a lot to spread the gospel, the SBC church in my state sends more than 20% of its budget to mission causes, Disaster Relief workers help non baptists and non-southerners without charge in each national and international disaster, and through colleges, universities, and seminaries (the three largest of which are the largest America, and maybe the world) we educate thousands. I, too, am embarrassed at some of our past positions, and personalities, but I am not embarrassed by the good work our churches have done. Baptists are often a contrary group, but always a concerned, and compassionate group.

    • rogereolson

      I’m not sure about the “always” part if it implies “everyone.” I know too many Southern Baptists (and others) who aren’t compassionate toward the poor. But I agree that the SBC has done a lot of good work on behalf of the poor in terms of charity.

  • Glen

    Is this post at all in response to the “Traditional Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” that was recently released? Would like to know your thoughts on it. http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=37939

    • rogereolson

      I am working on that. No, the particular post was a response to something else–friends who proudly proclaim themselves “Baptist” and work hard to rescue the label from its contemporary misuses and distortions but criticize me for doing the same with “evangelical.” There is a trend among contemporary moderate Baptists (especially in the South–exiles from the SBC) to eschew the label “evangelical” because very public religious and political figures have attempted to hijack it for their own exclusive use. What really gets my dander up is the claim these people often make that “evangelical” is a “Yankee word.” Huh? Ever hear of Billy Graham? Hardly a “Yankee!”

      • Luke

        I’m around “contemporary moderate Baptists” as much as you (probably more because I’m involved in moderate Baptist life). I’ve never ever heard any moderate Baptists claim that evangelical is a “Yankee word.”

        That’s something that Foy Valentine told a reporter some 30 years ago. It’s a quote that regularly gets trotted out in criticism of moderate Baptists. Yet, who other than Foy Valentine several decades ago has said “evangelical” is a “Yankee word”?

        • rogereolson

          I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard it since moving to the South 13 years ago. Some folks are nicer and say it’s a “Northern” word. They mean the same thing–especially (as recently here) they link it with “Carpetbaggers.”

  • Steve Dal

    Roger
    Here in Australia the word Baptist is really not such a big deal as it apparently is in the US. We have a bunch of denominations that have more presence. What Baptists there are here are divided into all sorts of groups. Some are charismatic, some are full on Calvinist predeterminists and many don’t know where they stand. Most people in these organisations really don’t care much for the heavy theological debates. Particularly the younger people from teens through to mid 30s. I am not even sure that many people in these churches really understand a lot of the foundational stuff that their church is built on.I really think they look for friendly fellowship around the Scripture.
    As far as holding onto the Baptist label…go for it. The impression I have of Baptists in US would be Southern Baptists. People I know have a very wacky Calvinist predeterminist setup here and they recently had a guy from the US who was “Baptist’ (Primitve) and he is quite abrasive and preaches with a snear which was weird.

    • rogereolson

      Thank you for illustrating one of my points. Many evangelicals in the North of the U.S., including many Baptists, consider Baptist mainly a Southern phenomenon because over the years that is how the media portray it. And the vast majority of U.S. Baptists live in the South. My response is “So what?” There have always been Baptists in the North–going back to Roger Williams (hardly a Southerner!). Many Southern Baptists think of “Baptist” as their possession because they haven’t been taught anything about Baptists who are not and never have been Southern Baptist. Not too long ago I read an article in a Southern Baptist state newspaper (every state in the South has its own state Southern Baptist newspaper) claiming that the first Baptist churches in Minnesota were founded by Baptist missionaries from Texas–about 50 years ago! I was appalled and shocked and stunned. We were members of First Baptist Church of St. Paul, MN for years. It was founded by a woman (!) from New Hampshire in the 1840s. I have never been a Southern Baptist, but I’ve been a Baptist for most of my life now. Should I stop calling myself “Baptist” because the term carries connotations I don’t like and it may be “too late” to turn around its use to where I can feel comfortable using it to identify myself? No, I won’t do it. That’s the way I feel about “evangelical” also.

  • http://www.donbryant.wordpress.com don bryant

    In my theological journey I have always seen a nobility in the Baptist way. Most of my buddies in ministry from Westminster Seminary days are PCA. But I could not shake a vigorous belief in credobaptism, the nature of the church as a spiritual democracy, a suspicion of overly complex doctrinal systems and the full-throated cry of “Bible alone,” no matter how insane the embarrassing beliefs it seems to unleash. I have paid a bit of a price for being a Baptist. I have been unmercifully lashed by the premillenialists, who are particularly numerous among the Baptists, during my 35 years in pastoring and who think my eschatology just simply can’t belong to the baptist tradition. I have been bombarded over the years by not doing the typical Baptist things – revival meetings, altar calls, etc. And the messiness of congregational business meetings make me pull my hair out. But it has always felt like home to me. My desire to bring a wider scholarship to the the Bible and my years teaching in college along with pastoring don’t naturally fit with the demographics of many Baptist churches. I might nuance my preaching and teaching in ways that do not fit with usual Baptist ways, but their instinct is mine. Now I pastor in the land of Roger Williams, Rhode Island. In fact, I pastor a church where Edwin Gaustad, noted scholar of the American religious experience, pastored when he was doing his doctoral studies at Brown. Baptist in Rhode Island is not Baptist as most people conceive of it!!! I hang on energetically to my Evangelical identity. But my Baptist identity is every bit as real, maybe more so.

    • John Inglis

      God continue to bless you and give you wisdom in your perserverance as a pastor. Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.donbryant.wordpress.com don bryant

    By the way, in response to the observation that Baptists are uncouth – there is a certain plain outspokenness to Baptists that can be shrill and demanding. Part of this is simply an aspect of Baptist demographics. Baptists reach across the swath of socio-economic classes, with a large proportion of the less prosperous and less educated filling their ranks. This makes for some very interesting dynamics in Baptist deliberative bodies. The dialogical ways of the intellectual class have to get in the ring like anyone else. No one gets a pass. By and large, its good for those who nuance and split hairs to have Mixed Martial throwdowns with the people. Keeps everybody a bit sharper.

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  • http://Leadme.org Cal

    The first congregation I attended was under the Southern Baptist umbrella (though they were considered “liberal”, as my friend told me with tongue in cheek, because they allowed drinking and dancing) and I appreciate the lot that I learned and the people I met. I was baptized there and was pretty ignorant of all modern church history. I live in Maryland and surprisingly (contra normal demographics!) the congregation is very mixed in terms of races and nations.

    I’m not sure if I even agree with credo-baptism, though like the Waldenses, I did right to be baptized again over my sprinkling as a child as I do not believe I was baptized in Christ but I was christened into Western culture/christendom. Point aside, though labels can be obstructive and hinder and I think denominational/theological labels should be laid aside (not that there is a debate over the point) I’m glad you’re fixing the label.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    TO BE [BAPTIST] OR NOT TO BE [BAPTIST]?

    “Denominational membership was once a badge of honor to most Christians, but nowadays identification with a particular denomination is not all that important. In fact, the average person on the street could care less about denominational affiliation; many don’t even know what a church denomination is. Consequently, many churches are electing to adopt new non-denominational names in an effort to attract a demographically diverse population.”
    (An excerpt from a new ’5-Star’ book, “Dropping Hell and Embracing Grace,” by Ivan A. Rogers. Available from Amazon.com, also on Kindle).

    • rogereolson

      That’s true, of course, but I think it’s sad. Nowadays you can’t tell anything about a church by its name. And what do all those “independent churches” accomplish in terms of mission? Less than they could if they banded together, something they could do without having an authoritative hierarchy that robs them of their autonomy. I see the drift (rush?) toward “plain label Christianity” and entrepreneurial church planting (many pastors now actually own their churches) as a manifestation of accommodation to American consumerism and individualism.

  • Beth

    “…mean mean-spirited, narrow-minded, legalistic, even hypocritical religiosity and where they are virtually equated with the Religious Right.”

    Gee Roger, if I didn’t know better… I’d think that was a description from the national nightly news [or my liberal friends ;-) ].

    As a new Christian (not even yet a year), here’s what I’ve learned:

    Baptist vs. Methodist (Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc., etc.)
    Calvin vs. Arminius
    Egalitarianism vs. Complementarianism
    ESV (or NIV, NRSV, etc.) vs. The Message
    Evangelical vs. Fundamentalist
    Traditional Church vs. Emergent Church
    North vs. South
    etc.
    etc.
    etc.

    Here’s what I have learned after reading the Bible for the first time in my life (42 years later): None of that is mentioned. To be very basic in thought (perhaps not appropriate for this blog, but nonetheless…), these are all “people-centric” ideals vs. “God-centric” truths. (I am not a theologian, nor do I play one on TV, but I once was the person Christians sought to save. I simply seek to show how a new Christian experiences these conversations.)

    You are only talking about a Baptist vs. Baptist issue. But what you bring up spreads throughout Christianity.

    The Bible says: “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” Matthew 12:25 (NIV)

    Abraham Lincoln famously said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)

    Richard Dawkins said: “My last vestige of ‘hands off religion’ respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th 2001, followed by the ‘National Day of Prayer,’ when prelates and pastors did their tremulous Martin Luther King impersonations and urged people of mutually incompatible faiths to hold hands, united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place.”

    Who do you think most people today listen to and agree with?

    I used to think the demise of Christianity would come from the secular world. If I were a betting person, I’d now bet that the demise of Christianity will come at the hands of its own people. The enemy is coming after us with force and we have proven to be an easy target. Christians seem to have their own agendas that including being more concerned about whose theology is correct, which views towards equality are right and what Bible someone reads vs. how they live their lives as Christians.

    I truly hope to lose that bet as my journey is just beginning. I pray for a day when all Christians come together to truly fight those that would rather see us ALL silenced and destroyed.

    Thank you for your blog and the opportunity to share my perspective. I truly enjoy your blog and learn something new with each of your posts.

    Blessings to you.

    • John Inglis

      Check out
      Rachel Held Evans blog. She is currently blogging about Christian unity. Frank Viola also has several posts on his blog about this issue, and the Patheos blog “Jesus Creed” by Scot McKnight has a post up about Viola’s comments.

      Grace and peace from God our Father

      J

    • John Inglis

      Good thing God is not at the mercy of our denominations or what you say about demise might come true. Fortunately, through the Spirit, God is much more powerful in our world–both to us as individuals and through the church as Christ’s body, cut up though it may be.

  • http://waynepark.wordpress.com/ Wayne Park

    As a former student of Grenz’ up at Regent, I have a hunch about who that Anglican theologian might have been – is he an octogenarian with the initials J.I.P.?

    • rogereolson

      Possibly


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