Keeping the Baptist Name

by Rick Shrader

The practice of removing the name Baptist from Baptist churches has become increasingly popular.  It seems that more and more Baptist churches are opting for displaying a generic name even though they may retain a legal title (as a not-for-profit organization) with the name Baptist in it.  Some Baptist organizations are encouraging this as a way to allow the churches to advertise themselves as a nondescript church without jeopardizing their relationship to the organization or the state.

There are still some negative connotations from Baptist history.  Yet, only a few of the many Baptist groups throughout our history have actually believed, for example, that only churches with the name Baptist are real churches or that only believers in Baptist churches are the bride of Christ (known as “Baptist Briders”).  The insistence on the name Baptist has rather been due to a long and good history of specific Biblical doctrine that categorizes a church as a Baptist church.  The great Southern Baptist Greek scholar of a century ago, A.T. Robertson said, “Give a man an open Bible, an open mind, a conscience in good working order, and he will have a hard time to keep from being a Baptist.”1 Andrew Fuller, associate of William Carey in eighteenth century England wrote, “If the first fruits of our zeal be laid out in making proselytes to that denomination, however right the thing may be in itself, the Lord will frown upon us, and leave us.  But if we be mainly employed in making men Christians, we need not fear but they will be Baptists.”2

So why are many Baptist churches removing the good name from their signs and literature?  I hope to address six areas of concern that I hear or read from our Baptist brethren, and also to add some reasons why I think it is Biblical to retain one’s descriptive name.  I have been as adamant against this new trend as anyone and often feel churches are doing this merely for expediency or even for fear of criticism and I am sure that is true of some.  But I also think there are reasons given for removing the Baptist name that need to be thought through and answered.  One thing upon which I know all Baptists agree is the independency and autonomy of each local church to make their own decisions before God.  With Baptists there are no denominational headquarters that can dictate these things to local churches nor should there be undo peer pressure.  Let every church be persuaded by its own doctrinal convictions and then be true to those convictions outwardly as well as inwardly.

1. “Many people are turned off by the name Baptist.”

This is a reasonable consideration seeing that believers ought to “give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God.  Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32-33).  But here Paul is speaking of partaking in questionable practices and of flaunting one’s Christian liberty with little regard for those who are observing.  There is a world of difference between suffering for wrong-doing and suffering for the truth’s sake.  We should avoid every action and situation that offends unnecessarily.  But the cross, explained by our Christian doctrine, will offend and often must offend.  Paul wrote to the Galatians, “And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? Then is the offense of the cross ceased” (Gal. 5:11).

There is no real reason for an unbeliever to be offended by the name Baptist except in his own mind.  To acquiesce at this point only removes the opportunity to teach doctrinal truth and answer his own objections to Christianity.  If we retreat from the challenge at this point, when do we stop retreating?  Do we quit singing Christian songs also?  Do we cease to pray when lost people are present?  Do we not give invitations because lost people really don’t like them?  No.  As with one’s own children, the time to begin the education process is immediately, in this case, at the door.

Besides this important teaching tool for unbelievers, we should remember that the local church is first and foremost for the family of God.  The name means important things to knowledgeable Christians.  They deserve a straight-forward statement from a church they are about to visit.

2. The legal name is still retained.

As I noted, many Baptist churches are removing the word Baptist from their advertising but retaining it in their legal documents.  This resembles a stealth tactic which many businesses use that operate with one name but are actually owned by an unknown source.  Cults have typically used stealth tactics to get in the door of unsuspecting people and then later explain who they really are.  The honest citizen would rather know the source up front.  It ought to be true that what we say publicly is what we really are.  If, therefore, a church changes what it says publicly, then let it also change what it is telling the government privately.

Is a name change true to the church charter and constitution?  Would the original signers of these documents think the same way?  Should we be “originalists” with our founding documents or more “fluid” in our interpretation?  I think experience shows that this approach does not foster the original intent of the church but rather weakens it considerably.  I remember an Assembly of God church, in a town where I  pastored, that dropped its denominational name when it relocated. The church grew larger, but in a short year or so you would have been hard pressed to find anyone in the church who knew that it was still (legally) an Assembly of God church much less what Assembly doctrine really was.  Perhaps someone who can’t publicly live with the legal name of the church ought to seek one where he can.

3. Denominational names aren’t in the New Testament anyway.

This argument is not taken lightly by Baptists.  We firmly believe that the Bible is our sole authority for faith and practice.  Many now are thinking that the whole history of denominational names has been a mistake.  We first ought to reflect on our modern way of thinking.  Obviously, hundreds, even thousands, of years of great men and women have not agreed.  Are we really in such a time that we can be much more objective and biblical than they?

I have always objected to those who not only drop the name Baptist but also drop the name Church.  How can one reject a denominational name because they don’t think it is in the New Testament and then also drop the very description that is?  I never liked the word Temple for a church, much less Family Center or Happening!  As a Baptist I have always thought it a great advantage that we have the name of our church used in the New Testament when it describes John “The Baptist.”  It literally means John “The Baptizer” and that is exactly what Baptist churches have always meant by it as well!

The idea of “denomination” only means “the act of denominating” or listing.  What is unbiblical about listing, in any way we can, the beliefs or actions of the church?  Aren’t we to “earnestly contend for the faith” (Jude 3)?  If our name properly denominates our faith, then we should earnestly contend for it, not carelessly remove it.

4. There are so many kinds of Baptists that the name is meaningless.

With a little reflection it seems that this reason will be discarded.  There are many careless people wearing my family name, but it won’t help clear the name if I abandon it as well.  The best way to clear the name is to use it proudly and properly.  The Baptist name has a rich history of good and proper use.  Of course it has its enemies, but more from a hatred of truth than from a disgust with Baptists in particular.

It is not going to help Christianity in general to lose denominational names.  Past generations were better off when they could kid one another, laugh at one another, go to their own denominational churches, and still be good neighbors.  They were better informed and religiously educated when they had to learn these things.  Denominational names tell you up front what “kind” of Christian church it is, which is honest and forthright.

5. People today don’t know and don’t care about these names.

I have never understood, if this is true, why we would feel the need to change anything.  Some might argue that since the postmodern movement began, people have liked the retention of older and original things.  And for those who don’t care, well, it doesn’t matter anyway.

Again, we are not better off by passing up this opportunity to instruct in a good thing.  Why have we dropped words like “Ebenezer” from our song book?  Are we better off because we have?  No!  We’re not better off but are more ignorant.  We have opted out of our obligation to teach a Biblical word and concept because it was too inconvenient for the adults and parents to insist that the younger generation learn some things they didn’t know.  Churches are often held hostage by their own laziness.  The same thing is happening by finding excuses not to teach our denominational heritage (regardless of one’s denomination!).  It is not that our Baptist name has been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and left untried.

6. We are entering a whole new era of “doing church.”

Are we really in such a new age that denominational names no longer function or carry valid meaning?  The answer will always be “yes” from the unbelieving world.  The believing world may answer “yes” but they don’t mean it.  Labels have always been necessary and they will continue to be.  Whether Donatists, Montanists, Anabaptists, or Dissenters, the world has always found a name for religious groups.  God has made the human mind with a need to organize and categorize information.  I remember when “Bible Church” was intended to be a generic name but now it has become its own denomination.  We may call a church “Purpose Driven” or a “Willow Creek” church but we do it for a reason, and that purpose is to denominate what we see with what we know.  At least the older names gave descriptions of doctrine and polity (Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian) whereas today’s names usually are reduced to methodologies (Seeker Sensitive, contemporary).  But they still will serve the purpose of denominating churches into understandable groups.  “Emergent” churches have been the loudest critics of denominational names but they would be nowhere without the denomination “Emergent.”

But is it Biblical?

Surely we would agree that it is not Biblical to take our direction from the world.  We cannot seek the Lord’s will and the world’s blessing at the same time.  This should be a “given” to believers.  It is Biblical to be apologists, always looking for an opportunity to give a reason for what we believe.  It is Biblical to be evangelists, quick to use our resources to preach and to teach in places where the lost do not understand.  It is Biblical to be sound in doctrine, and the denominational names are an open statement about what we believe.  It is Biblical to endure hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, not avoiding ridicule from the world when it comes because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.  It is Biblical to earnestly contend for all of our faith, not merely being content to speak of the common faith.  It is Biblical to let our light shine before men, so that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.

If we are to be relevant, then let us be Biblical!  Let us use every tool we have in our arsenal for proclaiming everything that we believe.  If someone feels there are times and places where speaking less and being less forward has a place, surely it is not in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth!

1. Quoted by Everett Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography (New York: MacMillan, 1943) 181.  Gill is quoting ATR from his book How To Make Baptists.
2. Michael Haykin, The Armies of the Lamb: The Spirituality of Andrew Fuller (Dundras, Ontario:  Joshua Press, 2001) 194.