What’s In A Name? Why We Should Retain the Name Baptist (Part 2)
by Matt Shrader
This article will appear in two parts. The first part was written by Rick Shrader, president of Aletheia Baptist Ministries. The second part is written by Matt Shrader, Educational Consultant at Aletheia Baptist Ministries.
Because this article carries on with the theme from the previous article, I do not get the enjoyment of providing a title for this essay. But if I did…I would name it something along the lines of: “A Plea for Wardrobes, Lampposts and other Enigmas.”In C. S. Lewis’ famous children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia we are introduced to much of Lewis’ sanctified imagination. Most people have not read all seven books from this series. If you have read one (or seen any of the movies), it is probably The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this book two particular items stick in the mind’s eye: the wardrobe in the spare room and the lamppost in the woods. They are clouded with mystery and enchantment. The wardrobe leads the Pevensie children from the drab mansion in the countryside to the wonderful woods of Narnia. The lamppost provides light in the middle of the woods seemingly without any outside energy source. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe does not bother to reiterate from where these came and to what their magical qualities point. Imagination compels readers to try their own wardrobes for secret passageways and causes readers to look at most lampposts with a bit of wonder.Oftentimes there are certain things that seem mysterious and sometimes unneeded (what good does a lamppost do in a random part of the woods?). Are such mysteries worthwhile? Can we do without them? Of course for the person who has read all the books, the wardrobe and the lamppost did not pop into existence out of thin air. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe was the second book in the series. The first book, The Magician’s Nephew, provides the narrative by which we understand both the lamppost and the wardrobe to have significance in that they point to the awesome creative power of Aslan. The absence of the meaning behind the wardrobe and the lamppost is of consequence. Maybe not earth-shattering, but still important.Often times we see certain markers that are not fully understood and we may pass over them as if they are inconsequential or they are even hindrances. Perhaps the memorial stones of Joshua 4 were seen in a similar light? The “plea” that I made reference to is really concerning attitude. More specifically, attitude toward history. I would argue here for conservatism over progressivism. At its heart, conservatism is the idea to prolong something as long as possible with the understanding that we owe much to the past and to the future along with the present. I see keeping the Baptist name on Baptist churches as consequential because it is trying to preserve certain ideas for as long as possible because we owe something to the past that struggled with these ideas and we owe it to the future to pass on a worthwhile legacy.
Ideas, of course, are much more important than the name attached to them. However, I will argue that downplaying the name often downplays the idea, especially in certain contexts, be they cultural, historical, or theological. I also want to be careful that my concern for history is not just a romanticized sentimentalism that sees the past as the longed-for-pristine-environment needed in the present. I rather want a critical appropriation. Paul Hartog succinctly summarizes my point: “Those who are self-consciously indebted to the early traditions without naively romanticizing them often demonstrate an ideal mix of sympathy and critique.”1
The main points of this article will show why I believe the Baptist name is worth keeping. Several objections will be mentioned throughout and in closing that can be answered by considering the main points.
The “Baptist” Argument:
There is a recognizable Baptist identity that is important and needed, and fellowship at a local church needs unity on certain issues. “Baptist” as a label refers to a certain understanding of doctrines related to a certain denomination. These doctrines are important in that they create a boundary by which fellowship at a local church is enjoyed. Agreement or disagreement with each doctrine has consequence upon whether full fellowship in a church can be enjoyed. Let me list the basic ideas of Baptist ecclesiology:
Biblical authority and New Testament priority; believer’s baptism by immersion; regenerate and baptized church membership; soul competency seen in the priesthood of the believer and individual soul liberty; congregational government, local church autonomy, and the offices of pastor and deacon; and the separation of church and state.2
“Baptist” on a church name signifies these important church doctrines, or at least it should. It labels what happens at that church. It performs a great service. Disagreement over the subject and mode of baptism is important and these are proper issues to consider when joining a church. Disagreement with one or all of these church doctrines does not equal denial of the gospel. Though, disagreement over Baptist ecclesiology will affect whether full local church fellowship with someone is possible.
It is not hard to find examples of people or churches who use the name Baptist and have no intention of agreeing with Baptist doctrine. However, I do not think that the exception disproves the fact that there is a clearly identifiable Baptist theology. Also, taking the Baptist name out does not mean that someone disagrees with Baptist doctrine. I can understand that as well. But it does make me wonder about one’s attitude toward several other issues, which are the remaining points.
The “Theology” Argument:
Theology is important and we downplay it at quite a risk. One’s view of church polity is important. One’s view of comprehensive theological systems (covenant or dispensational theology) is important. One’s view of Jesus’ deity is important. One’s view of inspiration is important. One’s view of the authorship of Ephesians is important. All these are important, but they are not all important in the same way. We must recognize that there are levels of doctrinal importance. But, each doctrine we have has importance at its own level.
When someone takes Baptist out of the church name, it makes me wonder what view he may have toward the importance of certain doctrines. In matters of salvation, the doctrines of the gospel are going to be important. In the local church setting, the doctrines of the church are going to be important along with the doctrines having to do with the gospel. To remove the denominational name communicates to me a few things about one’s stance toward church doctrine. For one, the church may no longer be Baptist. Of course a church is free to do that. Or, the church may subscribe to non-denominationalism (which is its own kind of denominationalism). To be purposefully non-denominational is making a theological statement and does downplay the doctrines of the church (I will say more about this below).
When the name is removed, I assume there is a reason for doing so. Whatever the reason is, it communicates to me a certain view of doctrines, especially “churchly” doctrines (those having to do with the church).
Again, the ideas are more important than having the name. Some take the Baptist name out to prove that point, though they remain “Baptistic.” Is that shame of being Baptist? No, I actually do not think so. Is that because Baptist theology is misunderstood? Yes, quite often, but surely we can be patient and explain what we are. To argue that ideas are more important than names (I agree) and then to remove the Baptist name and claim that such a move somehow reinforces the idea does not understand that in the evangelical culture of the last sixty years removing denominational names has almost always meant exactly the opposite. Plus, it has insinuated a certain view of how a Christian ought to relate to culture with which I do not agree. Such a move by the church makes a cultural statement, let me explain:
The “Cultural” Argument:
Omitting the name can make the statement that a church is not Baptist and it can make the statement that a church does not see certain doctrines as worthy of disallowing church fellowship. Similarly, getting rid of the Baptist name makes a cultural statement. Actually, it makes cultural statements. It makes a statement in the evangelical culture we currently live in and it makes a statement about a church’s attitude toward broader culture.
Evangelicalism re-made a name for itself in the middle of the 20th century through its emphasis on interdenominational cooperation. This type of cooperation was not invented by those evangelicals, but it was given a new emphasis and thus a new problem. They emphasized the need to cooperate across denominational lines and to avoid unnecessary separation in order to do so. One problem this spawned was that of not emphasizing certain doctrines, especially ecclesiastical ones. Carl Trueman, commenting on the death and significance of Carl Henry, 1913-2003 (who was the frontrunner for this new-evangelicalism), writes:
The problem of interdenominational, popular-front evangelicalism is that, by its very nature, it serves to relativize significant theological distinctives and thus, ironically, to weaken the theological dimension of evangelical Christian identity. It is, in a sense, always doomed to be sub-Christian because it forecloses the debate on many of those things that are important to Christian orthodoxy.3
Trueman, who is also grateful for the new-evangelical enterprise, goes on to explain that the problem is the downplaying of churchly doctrine.
Taking out the Baptism name does not mean that one agrees mutatis mutandi with interdenominationalism. However, it is hard to see how there is not at least some identification (or acceptance) with the evangelical culture of the last 70 years; and, by extension, its interdenominationalism and downplaying of churchly doctrine. It is making a certain statement in the evangelical culture we live in. These Baptist church doctrines are specifically those that were mentioned above in the “Baptist” section; and, as Trueman (who is a Presbyterian) noted, such churchly doctrines are important for the life of the church.
Another argument is that taking the Baptist name out of a church can make a statement concerning broader culture and the church’s relationship to it. If someone is taking the name out because they are worried someone outside the church is offended by or misunderstands what the name means, then they are saying that someone outside the church determines how we identify ourselves as a church. That kind of cultural acquiescence makes me uncomfortable. It reminds me of the seeker-sensitive emphasis of Rick Warren, and merits a question: How much should those outside the church determine what we do inside the church? I would say not much, especially (and this is the issue at play with the Baptist name) if the issue is how a church identifies itself or how a church worships. Such activity is questionable.
Taking the Baptist name out often does makes cultural statements, and some are those with which I am uncomfortable.
The “Historical” Argument:
I made this point in the introduction, but I will repeat it here and add another. Church history and church tradition mean something and to discard them also means something. The whole idea of “tradition” and “confessional” Christianity is largely misunderstood. Quite simply, I would say every church has its own tradition and its own confessional history it holds their people to.
The church looks to its past in order to see how others (who were also indwelt by the Holy Spirit) faced similar issues. We all recognize that the church of today needs to find agreement with its past, in some measure, in order to be properly Christian. A critical appropriation or dismissal of history is important. Likewise, an uncritical appropriation or dismissal is dangerous.
Discarding church history and tradition, even removing the Baptist name, argues that some part of that history and tradition is no longer needed and such action should not be done without due consideration. That is why this essay asks why we still need the Baptist name. I have argued that Baptist theology still means something very important. I have argued that removing the name makes me wonder about the church’s stance toward theology and culture.
Another argument I want to make in this section is that it is good to have history and to identify with the parts of that history with which you agree and which you find important.
History and tradition become great tools to us. There is no need to constantly reinvent the wheel (unless the wheel becomes worthless). As the church has aged, it has experienced practical dilemmas that needed theological answers. The word Trinity is not found in the Bible, though the ideas are. At a certain point in church history, those ideas were under attack and church tradition gave us the doctrine of the Trinity. We agree with the doctrine of the Trinity through our exercise of critical appropriation. Likewise, as a Baptist, I agree with the doctrines of Baptist identity. Therefore, I hold to the word Baptist. And, since it is a set of churchly doctrines, and has consistently been understood as such, I attach it to the name of my church. Unless the Baptist ideas are of no consequence or need not be fought over any more, I cannot discard them if I agree with them.
Identifying with our past is not only good because it publically states what we believe, but also because it does a great practical service to the life of the church by creating theological standards of agreement by which our church functions in its day to day life. We are stating what we believe is acceptable and not acceptable in the church. Identification with a “churchly” history (in my case: Baptist) is important for at least these reasons: it gives ecclesiological roots, theological definition, and practical boundaries. The next section will talk more about the boundaries.
The “Fellowship” Argument:
This is really the “fundamentalist” argument. But, because fundamentalism and its ideas are usually misunderstood, I will focus on the central idea of fundamentalism as I understand it.
When we are asking about the Baptist name, we are asking about how a specific church intends to identify itself. We are asking a local church question. Every local church performs certain functions which are necessary for any church. For the church to function correctly, doctrines at the boundaries of church identity are important. These boundary doctrines provide the essential elements of agreement by which “local church fellowship” is attained. To have meaningful church fellowship, surely we have to agree on what baptism means, what the communion means, who is a member, what a member can and cannot do, and agreement on the other “churchly” ideas. The local church is to desire as much unity and fellowship as possible and that can only happen when local church doctrines are agreed upon. Agreeing upon Baptist theology and identifying with it provides a ready made practical boundary by which to attain unity and fellowship.
The fundamentalist idea mentioned is that there are different types of fellowship and different levels of doctrinal importance. Depending on what kind of fellowship we desire, we must have a corresponding level of doctrinal agreement. This is because fellowship is a function of unity.
If we desire the most basic kind of Christian fellowship, we must agree simply on the doctrines of the gospel. These would include sinfulness, the reality of judgment and penalty for sin, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and the deity of Christ. Another type of fellowship is organizational or quasi-organizational fellowship. If cooperation is desired, we must decide what kind of fellowship we want. A missions organization will desire more doctrinal agreement than only the doctrines of the gospel. A Bible college and seminary will also. The question becomes how much doctrinal agreement those who fellowship together in those organizations want to require. This will be answered by determining the type of fellowship they want or need to fulfill their purposes.
Another type of fellowship would be local church fellowship. To have local church fellowship we must have unity on those doctrines which pertain to the definition, purpose, and activities of the local church. For a Baptist, these would certainly include those Baptist distinctives mentioned already.
Having the Baptist name affirms certain doctrines which are necessary to define the proper doctrinal boundary for church membership and fellowship. As I have said already, when the name is removed I wonder if these churchly doctrines are being downplayed. The point of this section is to say that when churchly doctrines are downplayed the result is that the kind of fellowship within that church is reduced because less unity is needed, and specifically, less unity on issues that fellow church members should be united around. To me, removing the Baptist name makes theological, historical, and cultural statements concerning the things that a church wants to unite around. This produces a certain kind of fellowship, but not full local church fellowship.
Objections and Conclusion:
Here are some further common objections or arguments for removing the name:
Some argue that the New Testament churches simply put the name of the city on their title. This argument is countered by the historical argument and the need for doctrinal clarity and refinement as history has progressed.
One objection to my viewpoint says that I have made denominationalism more important than the Bible. This objection could only be correct if I had no argument at all but just wanted to keep the Baptist name. Theology is important, and church theology is important for the life of the local church. This is not putting the Bible in subjection to denominationalism. It is asserting that the Bible communicates meaning for our praxis. Plus, this objection reveals a serious historical naïveté.
In the end, having the Baptist name is not necessary (!?!?). In the right circumstances I would not have a problem not identifying as a Baptist. But I have a hard time imagining that such days are nigh at hand. If taking the name avoided the problems that I have with such a move, then I could do it. But that would demand a climate when doctrines of the church, theology in general, cultural statements, historical appropriations, and local church fellowship are all understood in vastly different ways. Perhaps the theological, cultural, ecclesiological, historical, and political environments could all change and produce such a climate. Today, I find no compelling reason to remove the name. Meanwhile, I do find compelling reasons to keep .
G. K. Chesterton was once asked by the London Times to submit an essay on the topic: What’s wrong with the world? Chesterton wrote back: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.” Such a short answer to a good question, though accurate and witty, of course makes more implications than actual statements. Chesterton made this short statement, but he also wrote a book-length discussion of the issue entitled: What’s Wrong with the World. I have answered the question: why keep the Baptist name? I feel like I have given the short answer. It may not have the wit of Chesterton, but I hold that the points made are as serious and tenable as his short answer. A longer answer is certainly possible, though this is not the venue.
Good questions deserve good answers. Short answers (when given seriously) to good questions ask for patience to understand their full implications. The Baptist name is often discarded because someone sees more value in removing it than in keeping it, and often no value is found in the name. I mentioned in the beginning that I am concerned about the attitude that such a response reveals. It is an attitude toward history, theology, culture, church fellowship, and the importance of Baptist theology. Reactionary responses, refusals to understand reasons why something is there, and pot shots are best replaced by patience, generosity, and understanding. In controversy I will listen to history and tradition before I listen to culture and pragmatism. Lampposts, wardrobes, and the Baptist name are not meaningless novelties destined to be discarded. They are rich reservoirs fed by deep springs.
Why keep the Baptist name? Because there is a Baptist theology that is identifiable, important, and agreeable (I am a Baptist!). That being understood, keeping it means something and removing it means something. I would rather stand with the meaning of the former.4Notes: 1. Paul A. Hartog, “Evangelicals and the Tensions of Ressourcement,” in The Contemporary Church and the Early Church: Case Studies in Ressourcement, ed. by Paul A. Hartog (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 204. 2. For further discussions of each Baptist distinctive, I would recommend: Kevin T. Bauder, Baptist Distinctives: and New Testament Church Order (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012). 3. Carl Trueman, “The SBJT Forum: Testimonies to a Theologian,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 8, no. 4 (Winter 2004), 93. 4. Some may self-consciously agree with the theological, historical, and cultural points that I disagree with. They are free to do so. But, most I have spoken with simply believe there are no reasons at all for keeping the name. Hopefully, they can see that arguments can be made. If disagreement is there, let it be informed disagreement. That is my point. However, if someone wants to remove the name, they should! This is so because they have already departed from, or never had, these convictions.