Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Baptist Distinctives and Presbyterian Wannabes

My Presbyterian pastor friend has quipped to me that Baptists make the best Presbyterians. This is possibly because of all the repressed Baptist interest in alcohol and cigars that blossoms in Presbyterian environs. He reminds me of an old joke that illustrates this:

Q: What do you call a Baptist in the liquor store?
A: Nothing, because he wouldn’t acknowledge that you saw him there, anyway.

And yes, it is possible to be an unapologetic Southern Baptist and have Presbyterian friends.

Much proverbial ink has been spilled regarding “Baptist distinctives,” “Baptist Identity,” “Landmarkism,” “Great Commission Resurgence,” and so forth. (I say “proverbial” because I haven’t touched a paper magazine or newspaper in ages, and the phrase “much digitally encoded data has been transmitted through human/digital interface devices” doesn’t quite have quite the same literary ring). It all seems to boil down to what makes Baptists Baptist, rather than Presbyterian, Methodist or travelling snake oil salesmen.

I noticed a good way to address this question when someone asked me why I was attending a Southern Baptist seminary. He was also planning to go to seminary, and was torn between some of the premier Reformed/Presbyterian schools and some of the Reformed-leaning SBC schools. He asked why I wouldn’t feel more at home theologically attending a Reformed/Presbyterian school. After thinking about it for a minute, I answered in a way that clarified and revealed my view on Baptist distinctive, from the perspective of a prospective pastor.

In my understanding of Presbyterian polity and theology, two issues would keep me from preaching in one of their churches. First, I could not in good conscience baptize infants. I believe that Scripture plainly teaches that baptism is for those who have professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which infants cannot do. Second, as a pastor in a Presbyterian church, I could not opt out of that practice. That is, Presbyterian polity is, well, Presbyterian, in the sense that a group of people outside the local church governs theological definition and practice. The local congregation could not decide to stop baptizing infants and remain a “Presbyterian” church.
On the contrary, even a Reformed/Calvinist pastor trained in Southern Baptist Convention schools might disagree with the predominant view on certain theological issues, but could find an SBC congregation compatible with his views. For instance, a pastor might believe that the altar call – other than following explicitly evangelistic sermons – was inappropriate. He might believe it inappropriate to admit members on a “vote” immediately following their request to join on a Sunday morning. He might believe that God is sovereign over all aspects of salvation, while believers remain responsible to proclaim the gospel (Calvinism). He might believe that the church should have both deacons and elders. He might believe that the church should practice the discipline of members. He might NOT believe in a pre-mil, mid-trib Rapture.

On all those points such a pastor would be marching to the beat of a drummer much different than and rarely heard in the majority of Baptist churches. But the SBC won’t dictate (at least thus far) that he cannot pastor ANY Southern Baptist church that wanted to call him. He might not be invited to all the premier SBC conferences, but he would still be able to shepherd a flock in accord with his calling as a minister of the gospel. This particular distinctive sometimes goes by other names, such as local church autonomy, and is manifested in the recent controversy surrounding the decision of the Georgia SBC church to call a woman as its pastor. (This incident provides an interesting example of how the concept of church discipline and accountability are not simply intra-congregational matters, but also apply in an inter-congregational setting – but that is another post).

So, under this “prospective pastor” analysis, the distinctive Baptist elements come to two: believer’s baptism and congregational authority. But these both presume and flow from something logically prior: the authority of Scripture. One’s standing on the subject of baptism (believers or infants) and the mode of baptism (immersion or sprinkling) should be dictated by what Scripture teaches. Similarly, one’s position regarding the local congregation’s authority should flow Scripture. So the functional authority of Scripture is a foundational distinctive for Baptists not similarly crucial to the faith and practice of other denominations. This leaves us with three Baptist distinctives: authority of Scripture, believer’s baptism, and congregational authority.

Some might include other things as distinctive, such as our position on the Lord’s Supper, missions, cooperation with other Baptists, and cultural engagement. But there doesn’t seem to be consensus even among Baptists about what is a proper “Baptist” position on these matters. Instead, if a church rejects the functional authority of Scripture, or rejects believer’s baptism by immersion, or rejects congregational authority in favor of some Episcopal or Presbyterian governmental form, it ceases to be Baptist.

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