A reader recently asked me why, given my knowledge of and interest in church history, I remain a Baptist. There are powerful arguments for apostolic succession, infant baptism, and other non-Baptist principles that other low-church evangelicals have found compelling. Why do I stick around?
It may help to know that I did not grow up in the Baptist tradition, so my commitment to it does not come with the “baggage” that I know some feel about the church of their childhood. I gravitated toward Baptist doctrine and polity as a landing spot out of the parachurch evangelical ministry (The Navigators) that shaped my faith in college. I did not actually join a Baptist church until I went to Notre Dame for my Ph.D. work. (Figure that one out…)
Maybe it seems obvious, but I am a Baptist most specifically because I think that believer’s baptism – the signature practice of the Baptist tradition – is the biblical mode of baptism. I also believe (less strongly) that congregational rule, as opposed to church hierarchy, is the polity most obviously recommended by Scripture. I love the rich, courageous history of the Baptist movement, in its seventeenth-century English beginnings, and its remarkable growth in eighteenth-century America.
Anyone who knows my work (or Twitter feed) knows that I have broader Christian sympathies, however. Being a Baptist hardly cuts me off from the resources – or my brothers and sisters in – the wider Christian tradition. And Baptists do need help in a number of areas. Most obviously they need to mine the intellectual treasures of non-Baptist writers, from Augustine to Calvin to Edwards.
I think of myself as located in increasingly larger circles of Christian tradition. The smallest, which represents my denomination and my church community (Highland Baptist Church, Waco), is Baptist. But I’m also part of the evangelical tradition, the Reformed tradition, the Augustinian tradition, and (largest of all) the “holy catholic church” of the Apostles Creed.I resonate with C.S. Lewis’s analogy of “mere Christianity” as a hall with doors that open into many rooms. One should identify with the “mere” affirmations of the broader Christian tradition, but you can’t just hang out there in the hall. “It is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.” The rooms are not equally “true” choices, either. As Lewis said, we must ask (with all due regard for our limited understanding) which room – which denomination or tradition – is as faithful as possible to Scriptural teaching and to Christ’s mission for the church. Then we will select a congregation which is part of that tradition. Here factors will come into play about that congregation’s health, ministries, vision, etc.
No denomination or church will be perfect, and it is inevitable that doubts will come about doctrines, practices, policies, or leaders. Some will occasionally choose to switch not only to another congregation, but to another denominational room entirely. But ultimately, to live out the Christian life, we must plant ourselves in a church tradition, and a local congregation. As for me and my house, that tradition and congregation are Baptist.