Secular Media: Do they really understand Southern Baptists?

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Messengers worship together at the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The massive confluence numbering in the thousands, which will occur again this June in Phoenix, AZ, is the largest annual gathering of the very diverse group of people who call themselves Southern Baptists. PAUL LEE/Baptist Press

Many people avoid discussions on religion and politics. Not Southern Baptists! Election politics of an America president ranks up there very close to the intensity surrounding the call and election of a senior pastor in a local Southern Baptist church.

Since we are not a hierarchical body with one or several leaders handing down directives, we tend to iron out our wrinkles in public more so than other religious groups.

Leading up to our feisty national presidential election and soon thereafter, various news outlets from the Washington Post, The Atlantic, National Review, The New Yorker, and NPR showed great interest in our Southern Baptist family differences and disputes.

However, I wonder if secular outlets really understand my family of faith?

In 1700, there were less than 850 Baptists in America. By century’s end, Baptist historian Robert G. Gardner states that Baptists had become the largest denomination in America. By 1790, Baptists had 979 churches, almost 67,500 members, 42 local associations, and a college formed in 1764. Baptists were a leading voice in shaping the new idea of religious liberty in the colonies which was later reflected in The First Amendment.

Baptists were latecomers to the South. The Anglican Church was the established church in Virginia and most of South Carolina, and other groups were only tolerated and restricted. By 1696, Pastor William Screven had moved his entire Baptist congregation from Kittery, ME, to Charleston, SC, to which the First Baptist Church of Charleston traces its origin.

In my 40-year history with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), I have served SBC churches and denominational posts in Tennessee, the Kansas City area, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. I’ve preached in African-American, Hispanic, Chinese, Filipino, Laotian, Hmong, Korean, Thai, Tamil, and mainly white congregations in rural, inner city, suburban, and mid-town settings. Believe me, we are not monolithic, for we are the most ethnically diverse Christian group in America.

I wish to list eight subgroups within the SBC who either span the spectrum of our early American years of struggle, or came to identify with our church doctrines and practices or our unique funding of missionaries around the world. Most of these groups were listed in David Dockery’s 2008 book entitled Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal and are not listed in order of significance.

Fundamentalists: Jerry Falwell’s congregation was an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church until his church started giving monies in 1996 through the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia (one of two state conventions in VA). SBC congregations in this group tend to only use the King James Version of the Bible, believe strongly in Biblical inerrancy and strict separation from the world. Some in this group (and others) were greatly influenced by the Landmark Movement started by J.R. Graves in 1851 and hold to a continuous line of succession of churches dating back to the Apostles.

Revivalists: This tradition goes back to the three Great Awakenings in America before 1900, and later the Jesus Movement in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. SBC historians might trace this group back to Pastor Shubal Sterns as he planted the Sandy Creek Baptist Church in the Piedmont area of North Carolina in 1755. The Sandy Creekers planted other churches in the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, etc. Their pastors were usually bi-vocational. They farmed during the week and preached on Sunday while attending to other ministerial duties as needed. By 1835, the Sandy Creekers took a strong stand against slavery, passing a motion that advised their churches “to exclude members who will not abandon the practice, after the first and second admonition.” (Purefoy, pp.163-64).

Today, this group still believes in personal evangelism, revivals, praying for spiritual awakening in America, and for their members to live spiritually serious lives.

Traditionalists: While the Sandy Creekers were more rural and somewhat skeptical of educated clergy, the Traditionalists are in the same theological tradition but tend to be more educated and more townsfolk and city dwellers. They combine both evangelistic passion and theological scholarship. They tended to move away from Calvinism in the 19th to 20th centuries as seen in their adoption of the Sandy Creek Confession of 1845 (their 2nd), and the New Hampshire Baptist Confession or the Baptist Faith and Message 1925 edition.

In consultation with a group of pastors and professors, Dr. Eric Hankins drafted “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” (also known as the Traditional Statement or TS) in 2012. The TS was released on the website of sbctoday.com, making that website the #2 religion blog in the world as ranked by Technorati for the month of June, 2012.

Calvinists: This group is historically known as the “Charleston Tradition” and the framework of their doctrine came over with the Particular Baptists of England. Their theology concerning salvation can be traced back to John Calvin and later Reformed theologians. Beginning in 1982, Founders Ministries formed a fellowship to restore the doctrines of grace (Calvinism) to prominence in the SBC. Ernest Reisinger, Tom Nettles, and Tom Ascol were some of the founding leaders of this group. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville best represents this theological tradition in SBC life.

Orthodox Evangelicals: Trace the trajectory of evangelicalism in the last five decades of the 20th century America and it seemed to flourish with the energy and vision of the North Carolina SBC evangelist named Billy Graham. Billy led evangelicals to lift high Biblical authority, break down racial barriers, and engage the culture with the power of the Gospel. This group saw the need to partner with other conservative Christian groups in crusades, missions, education, and evangelism, thereby helping Southern Baptists to be less self-focused and insular.

Contemporary Church Practitioners: Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California led the way in new models for church planters in the 1980s and forward. Many of these congregations use a generic church name by deleting the word “Baptist.” Many of these new churches invested heavily in advertising and mass mailing to gather a large crowd and sought to incorporate new members through Bible Fellowships meeting in the homes of members with the purpose of starting more home groups.

Black Baptist Tradition: In 2012, Fred J. Luter Jr. was unanimously elected president of the SBC, thereby becoming the first black pastor to serve as convention president. Since 1972, over 16 SBC state conventions have elected African-American presidents. Men like George McCalep, Emmanuel McCall, and Willie McPherson are examples of the great preachers, pastors, and denominational leaders in the SBC.

Per Baptist historian H. Leon McBeth the earliest black Baptist in America was a slave man by the name of Jack, who was baptized into the First Baptist Church of Newport, RI in 1652. By 1790, blacks represent 20 percent of all Baptists in America. Today we have around 3,700 African-American churches in the SBC and new congregations being planted every year.

Ethnic Baptist Fellowships: Southern Baptists have been very intentional in starting new churches among every people group in the nation. These churches relate to the SBC at every level while many have also chosen to organize their own national fellowships with annual meetings and voting in their own officers. Some of these national fellowships are: Asian-American, Filipino, Messianic, Deaf, Korean, Chinese, Caribbean, Hispanic, and others.

In closing …

Today, all six of our SBC seminaries rank within the top ten largest seminaries in America with over 20,000 students. We have over 15 million members (now, I’m not saying all of them will be in church next Sunday) in 47,000 local churches in every state. Our Disaster Relief agency used SBC volunteers to serve 126,160 meals in 2015. We still believe in Vacation Bible Schools at the beginning of every summer for thousands of kids.

I know personally that we are not a perfect people! How? Because they allowed me to join them in 1976 as I was baptized by immersion (we dunk) thereby professing my faith in Jesus Christ.

© Ron F. Hale, April 4, 2017

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