The Baptist Name

by Rick Shrader

This originally appeared in the May/June issue of The Baptist Preacher with the title, “Why we won’t take the name ‘Baptist’ off our church.”

There is no denying we live in a generation that disdains labels. To assert any belief with a personal label is to be intolerant and insensitive to those who disagree. The modernist used to simply disagree and was willing to fight about it. The postmodernist says no one should be so dogmatic to say they are right and others are wrong. This is a change from our forefathers, says Bruce Shelley, “The first, now traditional, form of the Christian community in America emphasized denominations. The term for this new arrangement, denomination, comes from the Latin word nomen, meaning ‘to name.’ A denomination, then, is an association of congregations under a special ‘name’ with similar basic beliefs, similar goals in their mission to America.”1

With that positive and historic attitude toward church names, popular singer Steve Green disagrees. In the song “Let the Walls Come Down,” he sings, “Walls designed by Satan in the twilight of the ages, now stand as great divisions all across the world today; walls not born of governments nor strife amid the nations, but walls within our churches and between denominations; stones of tried tradition carved in fear and laid in pride, become a dismal prison to those withering inside; let the walls come down, let the walls come down.” Though these words are not historically accurate, they have become a convenient theology for many of today’s churches and only add fuel to an unnecessary fire.

Some say that they have been offended by unguarded and even unloving statements from some Baptist brethren. I don’t doubt these offenses nor the fact of these statements. However, I don’t see them changing their family name when someone proves to be a nut in the family tree. And I think the analogy is valid. Others say that the lost are offended by the name Baptist and it becomes a stumblingblock to them. But how far are we willing to follow this acquiescence? We could conceivably end up disallowing all speech except the literal reading of the biblical text. Anything else would be human interpretation and may give offense. Others point out the ignorance of our generation and the problem of laying this baggage on their brittle minds. Yet, that is why the schools have not taught Johnny to read. It would be an unkind difficulty to put upon the first-grader.

I have to agree with Spurgeon when he says, “I am unable to sympathize with a man who says he has no creed, because I believe him to be in the wrong by his own showing. He ought to have a creed. What is equally certain, he has a creed—he must have one, even though he repudiates the notion . . . The objection to a creed is a very pleasant way of concealing objection to discipline, and a desire for latitudinarianism. What is wished for is a Union which will, like Noah’s Ark, afford shelter both for the clean and for the unclean, for creeping things and winged fowls.”2 I am not ridiculing nor belittling my friends who have dropped their denominational name. I have been asked my opinion and I am saying I strongly disagree with them. I think the trade-off will pay very poor dividends.

Without trying to defend Baptist history in this short space nor delineating my agreement with its historic doctrines (doctrine being the first factor listed in Acts 2:42), I wish to give some reasons for retaining the name Baptist, especially in our generation.

1. Denominational names (I mean, of course, the one which describes you) are not divisive but unifying because they are up front and honest.

My grandparent’s generation knew what they believed, were honest enough to put it out front on a sign, thanked the Methodists for being honest enough to do the same and all went about their business as good citizens and neighbors. Don’t we today call that being open and genuine? It was the knowledge and forthrightness of their convictions that brought them together. It is today’s ignorance and lack of conviction that separates Christians. J. Sidlow Baxter wrote, “The fatal blight on modern Protestantism is not its plurality of denominations, and the WCC is wasting our time laboring that dreary blunder.”3

2. The willingness to discard the name Baptist is due more to a loathing of tradition than to a concern for the unchurched.

If this generation really doesn’t know what the name means, then what’s the problem? If they are that ignorant then it doesn’t matter to them what the name is. Evidently, it matters more to someone already there. G.K. Chesterton called tradition the democracy of the dead.4 It is allowing past generations a say in our present decisions. Jaraslov Pelikan of Yale University said, “Traditionalism may be the dead faith of the living, but tradition is the living faith of the dead.”5 Perhaps we have become more attached to the ethics of this generation than any other generation.

3. If these denominational names fade away, others like them will take their place.

We already see this happening with names like “Bible Church,” “Vineyard,” etc. Churches will gravitate to others of like faith and wear their labels. So what’s wrong with keeping the ones we have? Besides, any study of postmodernism will tell us that it was the moderns who discarded old labels, the postmoderns are into restoring. The name-changing fad may already be out of date! One postmodern writes, “The idea that all groups have a right to speak for themselves, in their own voice, and have that voice accepted as authentic and legitimate is essential to the pluralistic stance of postmodernism.”6

4. The recognition of our doctrine is still the most important testimony we have.

Our doctrine is our conviction about truth, and a denominational title is still a legitimate identification. We are to “stand fast in sound doctrine.” I know we can have correct doctrine without a label, but why? In 1966, Addison Leitch wrote, “But suppose we accept the ‘freedom from definition’ principle. After all, the important thing is to be a Christian, not a Presbyterian. Very well, a Protestant or a Romanist Christian? Will not the attitude that refuses to draw lines between Presbyterians and Baptists or between Protestants and Romanists eventually blur the distinctions between Christians and Buddhists and Moslems?”7

One Baptist wrote in the early 1800s, “From these remarks it will be perceived that while the subjects and mode of baptism is the external ground of difference between Baptists and others, that difference involves a great principle; and the primary question is not, shall infants be baptized? But, whether God’s Word or tradition shall be our guide.”8 I don’t mind wearing a title that indicates that commitment.

5. I’m more concerned with not saying enough with the name Baptist than fearing I have said too much.

I am constantly looking for ways at our church to inform the visitor of what we believe and how we practice. We used to be able to let new people come right into our membership with little or no orientation. But today people will join with little regard for our belief and practice, and we must be as careful as possible. I am not interested in discarding one more way of getting this accomplished. And, if someone mistakenly thinks that doctrine is stuffy and boring, it is our biblical duty to change that thinking (1 Tim 4:12-16). Chesterton said, “This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”9

C.S. Lewis said of his loyalty to his own church, “I found that it was the only way of flying your flag.”10 I have lowered the flag on the pole enough for this “untoward generation.” It has made me uncomfortable in almost every area of life outside my own home. I have simply drawn the line at the name of my church. They can’t have it too.

In a recent reprint of a Vance Havner article, I read and identified with these words, “The church began to degenerate, as Augustine tells us, when holy days were merged with holidays to please the influx of new pagan members. Today we have moved from the catacombs to the colosseum and revised our standards to suit a generation of pleasure-lovers who do not love God.”11 I think we’ve gone far enough.

Notes:  (This was originally an article without formal notes.  Updated footnotes are coming)
1. Bruce Shelley, The Consumer Church ( ) 59-60.
2. Quoted by John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993) Appendix 1.
3. J. Sidlow Baxter, Rethinking Our Priorities ( ) 29.
4. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1994) 47.
5. Quoted by Bruce Shelley, 72.
6. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity ( ) 48.
7. Quoted by Kenneth Myers in Power Religion, Horton, Michael. Ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992) 49.
8. John Adams, Baptists: Thorough Reformers ( ) 64.
9. G.K. Chesterton, 106.
10. C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994) 61.
11. Vance Havner,