Strange (but Real) Baptists: An Exercise in Diversity

Strange (but Real) Baptists: An Exercise in Diversity July 1, 2013

Strange (but Real) Baptists: An Exercise in Diversity

Americans are woefully ignorant about religion. Most claim to be religious or spiritual in some sense but they know little to nothing about various religious groups that are all around them. Very few people understand Baptists. Okay, maybe that’s expecting too much. “Understanding Baptists” may take a lifetime. I’m not sure I can claim that! But what I mean is very few people realize how diverse Baptists are. There is no one person or group that speaks for all Baptists—that would go against the very nature of being Baptist. And yet I meet people who think there must be a Baptist headquarters somewhere. Even the local newspaper, in this metro area packed with Baptists, occasionally refers to “the Baptist church” even when it is referring to all Baptists generally. I have tried to inform them that no such thing exists. One can speak rightly of “The United Methodist Church,” but one cannot speak rightly of any Baptist group using the word “The” followed by “Church” except the local Baptist congregation (as in “The Baptist church on the corner”). Baptist denominations are always only voluntary associations, conventions, conferences, of local Baptist congregations and have no authority over them (except to expel them in which case the local congregation keeps everything and can simply join another Baptist group).

Like many other movements and religious-spiritual groups “Baptists” are a centered set, not a bounded set. We (I include myself as a Baptist) are a group without borders or boundaries. If someone thinks there are boundaries around “Baptists,” I’d like to know what it is. When they mention it (or them) I simply ask “Who says?” There’s no magisterium to say; there’s no Baptist pope to say; there’s no Baptist headquarters to say. As a religious type Baptists have a history and all we can do is talk about certain historical commitments common to most Baptists and then admit there are always exceptions. Of course, someone might say of the exceptions “Well, they’re not true Baptists.” But they can’t make that stick. All they can really mean, at best, is “In my opinion that group of so-called Baptists have wandered so far away from anything historically recognizable as ‘Baptist’ that I don’t consider them Baptists.” I will say that about some groups of Baptists, but I can’t enforce it. Nobody can. After saying that, I still have to admit that if they call themselves “Baptists,” given the peculiar history and character of Baptists, they are.

So let me illustrate with three groups of Baptists about which few people are aware—including most Baptists. Even most Baptists scholars, scholars of Baptists, aren’t aware of them. But they should be.

First, Christianity Today recently reported on a Baptist denomination (if any Baptist groups can be called that this one can!) in the former Soviet republic of Georgia (not the state of Georgia in the U.S.). It’s called the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia and mimics the Eastern Orthodox in some theology, church leadership (bishops) and worship (incense and icons). (See the on line article “The Baptist Bearing Robes and Incense” dated June 22, 2013. “Google” it!) Fascinating.

Second, a group of Baptists in the Caribbean (especially Trinidad and Tobago) is called “Spiritual Baptists.” It exists in organized form in New York as The Spiritual Baptist Archdiocese of New York. All one has to do to see diversity among Baptists is “Google” this group and/or watch some of their worship services and ceremonies on Youtube. According to some scholars who have studied them, at least some of their churches have incorporated communication with the dead into their services—not séances per se but the pastor receiving greetings from recently deceased members and passing them on to the congregation. Rumors of syncretism abound about this group of Baptists and especially rumors about the blending of Orisha beliefs and practices with their Christianity.

Third, there exists in the Appalachian Mountains of the U.S. a “sub-denomination” of Baptists called “No-Hellers” by some observers. See scholar Howard Dorgan’s book In the Hands of a Happy God: The “No-Hellers” of Central Appalachia (University of Tennessee Press, 1997). These are “Regular Baptists” who do not believe in hell—fundamentalist universalists! They have entire congregations that together constitute a network although there is no headquarters as such.

There are at least “57 Varieties” of Baptists in the U.S. alone and hundreds more around the world. What do they all have in common beyond the word “Baptist” (and in some cases even that’s missing!)? Well, that’s hard to say. So far as I know, however, all 1) practice believer baptism and not infant baptism, 2) deny that water baptism is necessary for salvation but make it a condition of full church membership, and 3) emphasize religious liberty. Historically, all trace their roots back in one way or another to the first Baptist congregations in England (that sojourned in Holland for a time) in 1610/1611 if not further back to the radical Reformers, the Anabaptists.

So what lesson does this teach? We should be wary of generalizing about any religious group; there is likely to be more diversity than we suspect if it is old and large. Baptists are among the most diverse of Protestant groups. Baptists of all people should learn to acknowledge diversity.

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  • Tom

    I have a question of admittedly profound ignorance. What is the Baptist religion called? Baptism can’t be right; and Baptistism isn’t much better. So if there is no word other than saying ‘that which Baptists believe”, that alone my tell us a lot about how hard it is to pin down. Maybe if there is no word definition; that explains why there is no word.

    • Roger Olson

      I struggle with the same problem when writing about “the Baptist tradition.” That’s the only phrase I’ve been able to come up with the cover what Baptists distinctively believe. “Baptistism” is just too awkward. It’s a problem. I have no good solution. Maybe some one else does.

      • John Shakespeare

        I’ve always had to settle for ‘the baptist position’.

        • Roger Olson

          The problem with “the Baptist position” is–Baptist diversity is so great (manifold) that “the Baptist position” always has exceptions (except the three points I mentioned in my post).

          • you could identify a position as something like “a southern baptist position” if it is spelled out in the BFM or governing documents. While there would still likely be a small group included in the number of SBC churches who disagree, the majority position would be reflected in those documents. As to matters outside of official documents, the old saying “wherever there are 3 baptists there are at least 5 opinions” holds true…

          • Roger Olson

            Yes, of course. Many Baptist conferences, conventions, church associations have statements of faith. Some function as creeds within those particular groups. My point was that there is no single document that all Baptists adhere to other than the Bible (and they interpret it differently).The Baptist Faith & Messages is a distinctively Southern Baptist document; it does not speak for other Baptists.

    • Andrew Watson

      the Baptist religion would be Christianity, just as Methodists, Lutherans or Catholics would be.

  • OK, I’ll admit to not having known that. I assumed there were Baptist denominations, such as the Southern Baptists and the Cooperative Baptists. If a church is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, does the Convention have no authority over the church?

    • Roger Olson

      None except the power to expel it from the SBC–which doesn’t affect the church’s status (other than no longer being SBC-related). But you’ve opened a can of worms. I should blog about that! To the best of my knowledge, the SBC “counts” as members all churches that send money to its programs. If even one member of a church puts an envelope in the offering plate designated for an SBC program and the church sends it and the SBC accepts it, that church is considered SBC-related–even if the SBC would not seat its messengers (delegates) at the state or national convention. So when I read statistics about SBC churches and members (numbers) I take them with a big grain of salt. I think (last I checked) the church I belong to is considered SBC by the SBC even though we have had a woman pastor and we ordain women deacons and pastors. The SBC would not seat our messengers should we send some to its state or national meetings. (We don’t.) But someone (probably an older member of the congregation) still gives to SBC missions and (last I checked) the church still sends the money to the SBC. So that makes our church SBC whether we really want to be or not. I don’t know how a church actually (voluntarily) gets out of that status. I recently heard of a local Baptist church that long ago voted to separate from the SBC and notified the SBC of the vote but recently received a letter from the SBC stating the church was being investigated for having a woman pastor. Very strange. Some years ago I asked our local DOM (Director of Missions–like a district superintendent) if the SBC simply counts all members of our and every Baptist regional association as SBC and he said yes. (That was a former DOM, not the current one.) And yet several of our local Baptist association churches aren’t even Baptist! And several ordain women deacons, etc.–causes for being expelled. So, SBC statistics are, I think, highly suspect.

      • Andrew Watson

        One of the problems with autonomy is that there is very little oversite. A lot of whether a church is Included in the SBC comes down to the local director of missions, most of whom are retired pastors or missionaries from that area.

    • Andrew Watson

      As an SBC pastor, let me see if I can help a little bit. we do call ourself a denomination, but I think a better term, and one used in SBC circles is “cooperative fellowship”. Membership is voluntary, any church can apply for membership.The SBC does not own any individual churches or control pastorship of churches in any way. The convention actually only technically exists during the week or so that they have annual state or national meetings. There are state mission boards for each state and and international mission board, but these use the money they receive to cooperate and help local churches and have no position of authority over local churches. the SBC can expel churches that they feel no longer represent their core values, but this very rarely happens, these churches usually leave of their own accord long before.

  • Van

    “None except the power to expel it from the SBC–which doesn’t affect the church’s status (other than no longer being SBC-related).”
    I’m confused! If the SBC is not an official organization (spell denomination), how, then, can it expel member churches that are, supposedly, not members of any such religious organizations?

    • Roger Olson

      The SBC is an “official organization” but membership by congregations is totally voluntary and has nothing to do (as in other denominations) with owning or controlling property. When the SBC expels a congregation from its membership, that has no effect on the congregation’s status other than it is no longer considered a member of the SBC which only means the SBC will not accept money from it and will not seat its messengers (delegates) at its state and national conventions. An expelled church goes right on doing what it did before (except not sending money to the SBC or delegates to its conventions).

  • William

    The same is true of Pentecostal/charismatics that probably have 1000s of groups, from kooky to biblical. We cannot stereotype, but should strive for unity/diversity without compromise.

  • Agni Ashwin

    I’ve heard that there are some Baptist Buddhists running around out there, too.

    • Roger Olson

      I wouldn’t be surprised. 🙂

  • James Ellis

    The exception to a church being controlled by the SBC would be a church plant or mission church being funded by co-op funds.
    Great article though and I am glad I an not the only one who gets there is no Baptist denomination.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, you are right. If a congregation owes its Baptist denomination money, it has to pay it back. I’m sure the details are in the contract. I can imagine that such contracts might include clauses that the SBC can confiscate church property if it leaves or is expelled by the SBC.

  • JDub

    Thank you for writing this article. I appreciate so much those of you who entered into the conversation and not the debate.

  • wonderdog

    I remember seeing on the news a baptist church that practiced polygamy.

    • Roger Olson

      Add another strange point of diversity to the list!