The Baptists, Their Doctrine and Their Nasty Politics

Next week the Southern Baptist Convention meets in Nashville. They’re facing a number of serious issues: declining membership, Critical Race Theory, and sex abuse scandals, both opposite-sex and same-sex. They’ve had some high-profile departures from the Baptist universe such as Russell Moore, an enlightening analysis of which is here. The denomination everyone thought “had it all” is in trouble.

People who come out of Apostolic churches always find the Baptist–and Evangelical–idea rather strange. They attribute this to “lack of discipleship” and “lack of community.” Neither of these is true; in some ways, the Baptists can make a more effective case against Anglicans and Roman Catholics than can be done the other way. The reason why Baptist and Evangelical churches are the way they are stem from one simple thing: their idea of unconditional perseverance, or “once saved always saved.” When coupled with a generally Arminian view of election, the results look good on the surface but eventually kick back, and that’s what we’re seeing now.

For me this is personal: I had to get the Baptist thing “out of my system” before moving forward. I always tell people that 2.5 years at FBC was the longest 2.5 years I’ve spent anywhere. I hope this will be enlightening for people who don’t understand how this style of mind plays out.

To do this I’ll take a leaf from the Landmark world, in the form of a debate. I feature the The McPherson-Bogard Debate elsewhere, but this is the Garner-Smith Debate. It took place in Gainesville, FL in May 1974 between Albert Garner, a well-known Missionary Baptist preacher, and James Tilden (J.T.) Smith, one from the Church of Christ. The two topics under consideration are as follows:

  1. Baptismal Regeneration; and
  2. Unconditional Eternal Security

It may surprise Apostolic types that the Church of Christ, so far away in many ways from their idea, supports baptismal regeneration, but in a way they do. The Baptists of course are very strong supporters of eternal security, irrespective of which form of election they pick.

By the time of the Garner-Smith debate projected visuals were reasonably common, in the form of the infamous “view graphs.” Some (like these) look primitive now, although they’re not much better than some of the ones I saw at Texas Instruments. The first one I want to put up is from Smith, showing his idea of what the Baptists believe about salvation (and their idea that baptism isn’t necessary for that.)

Smith doesn’t miss a chance to take a pot shot at groups neither one of them likes (Roman Catholics, Methodists, etc.) But basically he’s spot on, especially with the “straight shot” part of the diagram. Although it’s part of the baptismal regeneration part of the debate, his characterization of salvation as “cannot be lost–unconditionally secure–idolatry and murder not make soul in danger” is basically either what the Baptists believe or the logical conclusion of that belief.

That concept is a game changer for the life of the church. The people I normally associated with being free from moral constraint were the Communists, who deny the existence of a non-material reality. But here we are. And Garner never responded to this. This basically turns the life of the church into a numbers game; once you’ve got them saved, that’s it.

It’s true that the Baptists have a thorough program for follow-up, especially in their Sunday School system and other types of training. But these are not for salvation: these are for giving believers a credible witness in the world. It’s the key counterweight to their idea of perseverance, and I’ve known many Baptists who are faithful to that. (The only thing I never quite grasped was why Baptists, when they prayed, frequently asked God to forgive their sins: my impulse was to ask them “Why?”)

But as anyone who has done church work knows, the higher up you go in the system the fewer contacts with people outside the church–and by extension the lost–you have. That decreases the need to maintain a witness, especially outside of the realm of publicity. In turn this leads to the viciousness of Baptist politics, as was on display in Paige Patterson’s ouster. It’s little wonder under these circumstances that Russell Moore chose the carefully planned exit he did: he knew that an ecclesiastical piranha tank awaited him if he didn’t, and then he would be ruined for sure.

This leads to the next observation for those institutions that welcome Moore and other refugees from the Baptist world: you need to force them to do “pew time” until they free themselves from their Baptistic idea of eternal security. That’s easier said than done. My Baptistic mother, who put me through the Episcopal system of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the Comfortable Words, and being characterised as a miserable offender every Morning Prayer, was shocked years later to discover that I didn’t believe in Baptistic eternal security. She said she “hoped” I would come around to it! Raise up a child in the way he should go…

Which leads to another of J.T. Smith’s graphics, at the right.

All of this should show that the Baptist’s ways are certainly unequal, in this regard at least. They’ve produced a successful system which has transformed a region, but they took a slick shortcut to do it. That slick shortcut has affected the American Evangelical world in ways that it does not understand, even in those groups that don’t formally share its eternally secure theology. It’s the real source of a great deal of “easy believism” that gets attacked by people like Robin Jordan.

The Baptists need to wake up to the dilemma they’ve created. If they don’t, their love of evangelism won’t come to much: the eternities they profess to care about won’t be changed, and then they won’t be the only ones in trouble.

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