The Gospel and Baptist Identity: Introduction
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be blogging about a topic that has been dear to my heart since I was a seminary student. I think it is one of the most pressing questions facing Southern Baptists in the early years of the twenty-first century. As far as I’m concerned, it is a matter of biblical faithfulness, local church health, and denominational vitality. I’m talking about the relationship between the gospel and Baptist identity
In the past five or six years, I’ve noticed two tendencies among many Southern Baptists. The first tendency is a renewed emphasis on the gospel, especially the recognition that the good news is as much for Christians as it is for non-Christians. The second inclination is to emphasize Baptist convictions and priorities, particularly among those who are concerned that our current culture isn’t amenable to Baptists (or any Christians) being serious about their distinctive beliefs.
To be clear, I think both of these trends are healthy. Nevertheless, I confess I’m troubled by how some folks talk about the gospel and Baptist identity as if they are in competition with each other. In my experience, at least, this happens quite frequently, both publicly among bloggers and privately in casual conversation.
On the one hand, I meet many Southern Baptists, especially (though not always) in my generation, who think being gospel-centered means downplaying denominational distinctives and focusing on doctrines like biblical inspiration and authority, penal substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith. Whether intentional or not, at times they sound as though they consider their evangelical identity to be foundational and their Baptist convictions to be, at best, incidental. This is sometimes, though not always, due to a misapplication of Al Mohler’s “theological triage” model to doctrinal convictions themselves rather than the role particular doctrines should or should not play in inter-Christian cooperation.
On the other hand, I meet some Southern Baptists, typically (though not always) a bit older than me, who embrace what I call a Bapto-centric view of the world. Whether intentional or not, they sometimes sound as though they equate their understanding of Baptist identity to New Testament Christianity, plain and simple. Though I’m sure it’s unintentional, they frequently come off to others–including many of their fellow Baptists–as grumpy sectarians who are unwilling to cooperate in any meaningful way with non-Baptists. Because these folks often elevate Baptist ecclesiology over the gospel, at least in their rhetoric, they are often skittish about any type of meaningful cooperation with non-Baptist evangelicals.
In my opinion, this bifurcation between gospel-centeredness and a commitment to Baptist identity is both unnecessary and regrettable. The gospel and Baptist identity are, or at least should be, closely connected to each other. Southern Baptist Christians and local churches ought to emphasize both themes and labor to properly relate them to one another. We ought to be gospel-centered and convictionally Baptist, with no tension between the two.
In this blog series, which is revised and expanded from various conference talks and classroom lectures, I will argue that Baptist identity, when rightly understood, is simply the application of the gospel to ecclesiological matters. I pray these posts will make a constructive contribution to the ongoing debate about the nature of Baptist identity.