The Need for Baptists to Learn Our History

For my Church History 2 class here at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the books we’re required to read is The Old Religion in the New World by Mark Noll. In this book, I recently came across the sentence, “Through and beyond the time of the [American] Revolution, Baptist and other dissenting conventicles were occasionally, and sometimes brutally, disrupted by Anglican ministers and their gentry allies.” This sentence reminded me of some accounts I had read in the book Kiffin, Knollys, and Keach: Rediscovering our English Baptist Heritage by Michael A.G. Haykin (a book I read just before this semester began), which told of Baptists being slandered, fined, beaten, made to stand in the pillory, imprisoned, and generally persecuted for daring to worship outside of the Church of England.

These accounts of persecution are of special interest to me right now, as I know of two couples within my own family who have begun attending congregations affiliated with the Church of England. And this causes me to wonder: How did we get to this point? That is, how did we come from a heritage in which men and women were willing to suffer the harshest legal penalties rather that submit to the practices of the Church of England- practices that early Baptists considered to be manifestly contrary to the Word of God- and arrive at a situation in which Baptist men and women choose to align themselves with Anglican or Episcopal congregations, believing that they find within these congregations something more biblical than what they encounter in their local Baptist churches?

I sincerely believe that a large part of the answer to this question lies in the fact that most Baptists today have lost a since of historical awareness. Baptists have been conditioned to trust the Scripture as the Word of God, but there has been a lack of education as to how the Baptist heritage has come to specific conclusions from God’s Word concerning issues in regards to the Church. Inadequate training in Baptist history has left many Baptists open to realligning themselves with other faith traditions based merely on matters of personal experience.

This ignorance of Baptist history leading to experience-based decision making is actually encouraged by the practices of many within Baptist leadership today. Baptist history, when mentioned at all, is often presented in such a grossly over-simplified fashion that church members are led to believe Jesus and the apostles were Baptists and that there has been an unbroken line of Baptist churches to the present day. This is very different from the historic Baptist assertion that our tradition is the modern expression of Christianity that is most in line with what is taught in the Bible, in terms of both the teaching of the Word and the practice of the ordinances. (The idea of an unbroken Baptist succession is commonly known as Landmarkism, an error that SBF blogger Gene Bridges has expertly refuted.) Once Baptist church members realize that there are other, older traditions claiming to be biblical, they are often at a loss as how to respond.

The problems raised by this historic uncertainty are compounded by the clearly pragmatic considerations that drive much of Baptist church life today. Take polity for example. Historically, there are very clear, biblical reasons why Baptists have rejected Episcopal or Presbyterian forms of church government in favor of a belief in independent congregationalism led by a plurality of elders (or pastors). Today, we see Baptist churches run by a single pastor, a board of deacons or trustees, an endless gathering of different committees, a professional staff that does not teach, etc. Many Baptists have certainly forgotten their history in this area, they have forgotten what the Bible clearly teaches in 1 Timothy 3, Acts 6, Matthew 18, etc., and they have come to the conclusion that the Bible has nothing specific to say about church government, so we can organize the church in whatever way we find convenient. Given this environment, what is to prevent Baptists from submitting to an episcopate, if that is the convenient thing to do?

This fidelity to convenience rather than to the commands and examples found in God’s Word- previously explored in our forgotten Baptist history- effects all areas of Baptist life. Historically, Baptists have rejected Anglican worship because we believed that the Church of England added human traditions to the Word of Scripture, thus denying the power of God. In our current situation, we see the human tradition of the altar call system (first popularized by the heretic, Charles Finney) glorifying human decision rather than God’s power in salvation [we hear phrases such as, 'Jesus is just waiting on you to take that first step, and He'll carry you right on down the aisle']; we see evangelistic methods geared to coercing people to pray a scripted prayer never found in the Bible rather than driving people to despair before the Law of God so that they cry out from their own heart in their own words, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” [For a historic Baptist perspective on biblical evangelism, see Charles Spurgeon’s The Soul Winner.] Both modern innovations, such as dramas or dances, and older unbiblical traditions, such as “the hanging of the greens” can be found in the Lord’s Day worship of Baptist churches across the land. [That is, if the church even meets on the Lord's Day any more, rather than gathering on Saturday evening for the sake of convenience.]

This submission to convenience is most reprehensible in regards to its effect on the preaching of the Word. Controversial topics, such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility, once a hallmark of faithful Baptist preaching, are now skillfully avoided in the pulpit. Many Baptist leaders, when preaching on divine sovereignty, cannot speak more than a few words on the subject without turning their sermon into an occasion to exalt human ‘free-will.’

To combat these fatal trends within Baptist life, I am urging pastors to consider devoting some time when the church is gathered to teaching Baptist history. I have also added a section in the sidebar of my personal blog where readers can have easy access to items linked above as well as other articles concerned with Baptist history.

About these ads
Explore posts in the same categories: General

8 Comments on “The Need for Baptists to Learn Our History”

  1. Gordan Says:

    Amen, Andrew.

    We are so easily seduced into thinking that ours is the most important generation yet to appear. No one could’ve possibly gotten it right before us. We doom ourselves to continuously reinventing the wheel. No wonder, then, we don’t get very far.

  2. Barry Says:

    I don’t think that issues and problems which continue to grow for Christians in this country can be simplified. It is a very complicated subject and simply knowing Baptist history doesn’t solve problems that Baptist’s have.

    We all know it, we just don’t want to face it.

  3. Evan Stewart Says:

    I agree that denominational distinctives and history should be known by the members of any particular denomination. However, I discern that this article is leaning towards an exaltation of tradition over an exaltation of biblical truth and orthodoxy. I sense that the Baptist history is equated with full Biblical orthodoxy. Although, each and every Christian denomination seeks to fulfill the will of God for the Church as prescribed in Scripture, to argue that one denomination is absolutely and without a doubt the ideal church denomination is bordering on foolishness. We must not forget that godly men with a passion and zeal for God’s word and the glorification of God have helped pave the way for and even laid the foundation of various ecclesiastical systems. We must surely live by the convictions God gives to us and certainly we must stand for the denomination we believe to be the most honest in regards to Scripture, but we cannot immediately cast doubt and question upon those who have other convictions.

    As for Baptist men and women who leave the Baptist church and seek membership with other denominations, even those which have been known to persecute Baptists in the past, they must not be immediately considered ignorant of Baptist history. Although I have not encountered many Baptist, including myself, who have much to any knowledge of our denominations history, some men and women may leave the Baptist church for reasons such as: a disapproval of the practices and theology of the Baptist church they attend which violates orthodoxy, a change of conviction about a particular denomination, or a respect for a particular local congregation even within a historically anti-Baptist denomination. We cannot necessarily assume that a knowledge of Baptist history would keep any person within the Baptist church. Although some people may come to a stronger conviction in favor of the Baptist movement without a more intimate knowledge of our denomination’s history, the knowledge of tradition does not guarantee loyalty.

    Before we begin a history lesson in denominational tradition and history we must preface this kind of study with a study of Biblical orthodoxy. Only after we have established what we understand Scripture to teach can we then judge rightly the convictions and beliefs of any denomination. If we preface our beliefs by “This is what Baptists believe” we may wrongly encourage the false notion that Baptism is the only valid Christian denomination. However, if we preface our beliefs by “This is what I understand the Bible to teach” we rightly encourage church members to seek the Holy Spirit’s direction through a study of Scripture. After we discern and decide what Scripture teaches we can then appropriately compare the Baptist distinctives with the truth of Scripture.

    I am confused as to how an “ignorance of Baptist history [leads] to experience-based decision making”. What kind of decisions are being made and how are these qualified to be experience-based? The choice to leave the Baptist church does not necessarily fall under subjective experience-based decision making if that decision is ignorant of the knowledge of Baptist history. The practice of the church that is being left must be considered as well as the convictions and beliefs of the person(s) leaving the church.

    Furthermore, the conclusion that other church governments differing from the understanding of government implied in the article are created and continued out of a desire for convenience is unfair as a final conclusion based not on the true knowledge as to why a particular church government is formed. Many leaders within the church may practice different governments because they honestly believe Scripture to mandate such a government. Surely, we can disagree with different understandings of church government and we can even argue that these are non-biblical, but we cannot immediately or rightly presume that such beliefs and convictions are based upon mere convenience and a dislike or disfavor with the word of God.

    I am also concerned by the implication (or assertion) that methods different from a traditional Baptist practice which are used to promote the worship of God are practiced due to convenience or experience-based decisions. How is a drama or dance necessarily unbiblical? How is even the altar call necessarily an usurpation of God’s power in salvation? I have heard many a Calvin equivalence of this concept; “Go out and live for God.” If the altar is performed in accordance with God’s message of salvation, that of offering an opportunity for the newly believing to come forward and relate their faith to their congregation, then there is nothing immediately anti-gospel or anti-Biblical about it. Moreover, there is no command in Scripture mandating that a local fellowship must meet on Sunday. The choice of the Church to fellowship on Sunday and not the traditional Saturday of Judaism most likely is due to a desire of the early Christians to make a noticeable break from the Old Covenant and declare to the world that under Christ the Christian is no longer bound to the letter of the Law for the Law is fulfilled in Christ. Therefore, since a command from God for the local church to only meet on Sunday is absent from the word of God a local church is more than welcome and more than free to meet on Saturday especially if a meeting on Saturday is more convenient for the church members than a meeting on Sunday. The point of a local fellowship is not WHAT day the corporate worship is held but HOW well the corporate worship glorifies God by adhering to the guidelines of Scripture and God’s clearly revealed word. We should reject any notion that a church who breaks from the normal tradition has some how fallen under the secularization of the culture and has defiled true and authentic worship of God for this notion is nothing more than nonsense.

    In addition to this thought of convenience led churches, in regards to a timidity of many pastor’s and preacher’s to preach the “divine sovereignty of God and human responsibility” we cannot automatically charge these men with a shameful submission to convenience. More often than not, a shyness from the total sovereignty of God in relation to human freedom is due to a misunderstanding of the biblical doctrine and more commonly a gross misunderstanding of Calvinism. I assume many preachers who pass over Romans 9 and like passages do not think, “Golly, this doctrine is so difficult and I just do not want to spend the time wrestling with it” or “Well, I know this is what the Bible teaches, but I cannot tell my congregation this. They would run me out of town!”, but think, “I do not understand this well enough and I do not trust that the Holy Spirit will lead me to a proper understanding” or “I honestly do not think that Holy Scripture affirms the Calvin doctrine”.

    In the end, although members of any Christian church will benefit from a knowledge of their denominations history, a study of church tradition will not necessarily bring us closer to Biblical orthodoxy but in fact could prompt a Christian to filter the Bible through tradition and not tradition through the Bible if church history is exalted over an honest reading of Scripture.

    Yes, teach Baptist history, but let us Baptists remember not to inadvertently abandon our other brothers and sisters in Christ who worship under a different and sometimes rival denomination.

  4. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    I just finished a rewrite of our churches constitution and by-laws and under a section on the responsibilities of our “new” plurality of elders and the Great Commission of the church to be about discipleship (that means teaching disciples to be faithful ministers of the Word of God) and evangelism as the outworking of discipleship, I slipped in a clause on the History of the SBC Churches. Perhaps I should have just made it the history of the protestant movement. I hope that the idea is clear, that we need to know our past. The ample teaching of Scripture is that we are not to remove the ancient landmarks. The Israelites were instructed to build alters, plastering them with the Law inscribed so that the Israelites would always be mindful of where they came from.

    I am from Cheyenne, and part of our heritage is sheep ranching. If you go out into the country you will find shepherds stones. On the tops of several hills are piles of stones, that if lined up lead the shepherd back to town. When we line up the Word of God from past to present it points the way home. As Joseph, through the revelation of the Living word, we can look back through history and say that all that has happened God has purposed for our good, and know what plans he has for us.


  5. Barry said: “simply knowing Baptist history doesn’t solve problems that Baptist’s have”

    -I agree that simply knowing Baptist history doesn’t solve ALL problems that Baptist’s have. Also, imply knowing Baptist history doesn’t NECESSARILY solve ANY problems that Baptist’s have. But I would say that being historically aware of our roots could provide an important help in solving many of our problems.


  6. Evan said: “I discern that this article is leaning towards an exaltation of tradition over an exaltation of biblical truth and orthodoxy.”

    -Tradition is only as helpful as it is in line with biblical truth and orthodoxy. Any time a particular tradition falls short of Scripture in any particular area, it should be rejected on just that point. But the beauty of the Reformation tradition is that it has, as a core principle, an affirmation of what I just said in the last sentence. The value of studying history is not to exalt history above Scripture, but to benefit from the wisdom of those who have gone before us- we are not the first people to wrestle with most theological issues and it is arrogance to approach every subject as if we were. The Reformed slogan “semper reformanda” means that we are always to be reforming our beliefs and practices in accordance with Scripture. It is my conviction that the Reformed Baptist tradition has been, on the whole, the most consistent in applying this principle, specifically in areas that other churches in the Reformed tradition have fallen short- church government and the practice of the ordinances.

    Evan said: “even those which have been known to persecute Baptists in the past, they must not be immediately considered ignorant of Baptist history.”

    -While people may certainly align themselves with other denominations for the very reasons you express, I was addressing a specific reason why some leave Baptists for other traditions. Whatever other considerations there are for those who leave, they fall outside the subject of this post.

    Evan said: “begin a history lesson in denominational tradition and history we must preface this kind of study with a study of Biblical orthodoxy. Only after we have established what we understand Scripture to teach can we then judge rightly the convictions and beliefs of any denomination”

    -This makes a very good point. I was pre-supposing that churches would start with this, but in our current situation I certainly shouldn’t’ve taken this for granted.

    Evan said: “I am confused as to how an “ignorance of Baptist history [leads] to experience-based decision making”.”

    -Right. I typed this based on my own observations and didn’t make the connection clear. What I was trying to get at is the idea that all Christian traditions have equally as much truth and error mixed in and that the church where we join ends up just being a matter of personal preference. The main remedy to this, as you’ve intimated, is biblical education as well as teaching on dicernment as well as how to apply biblical texts. A big help, however, is to study how our particular tradition has come to the conclusions we have reached concerning specific applications of Scripture.

    Evan said: “I am also concerned by the implication (or assertion) that methods different from a traditional Baptist practice which are used to promote the worship of God are practiced due to convenience or experience-based decisions.”

    -To respond to everything within this paragraph headed by the sentence above would require an entirely different post on the Regulative Principle of Worship. In short, I can say, ‘Because the distance between God and His creatures is so great, the only acceptable way of approaching God in worship must be revealed to us by God Himself, and He has graciously done this in the Scriptures. Therefore, He may not be worshipped in ways invented by us. This principle protects us from idolatrous worship and focuses our energies on those activities through which God has called us o draw near.’ For all the different worship issues mentioned in the paragraph referred-to, there is no New Testament command or example.

    Evan said: [Quoting hypothetical pastors], “I do not understand this well enough and I do not trust that the Holy Spirit will lead me to a proper understanding”

    -This also is convenience in terms of laziness or in terms of lack of pursuing faith in the clarity of God’s communication. The other instance you give- that of a pastor coming to a contrary understanding on these issues- is indeed different than convenience. But again, I was making observations on the general landscape of the situation and not declaring universal pronouncements.

    Evan said: “In the end, although members of any Christian church will benefit from a knowledge of their denominations history, a study of church tradition will not necessarily bring us closer to Biblical orthodoxy but in fact could prompt a Christian to filter the Bible through tradition and not tradition through the Bible if church history is exalted over an honest reading of Scripture.”

    -This is a good point and one that needed to be said. Discernment is needed in studying history, as in all other areas.

    Your brother in Christ,
    -Andrew

  7. Barry Says:

    Studying a movement’s history is illuminating. Andrew is quite right in suggesting that people study the progression of their own movement. I think that it is helpful to study others as well as it tends to give one an appreciation of how and why a movement started. It also gives one points for healthy discussion when attempting to talk with one another.

    It could be that a person leaving a movement, however, has less to do with the historical perspective as it does with not meeting needs they feel are relevant today.

    I have respect and empathy for both sides. I think it is admirable for people to want to keep their movement going forward through positive change and at the same time I have a soft spot for people who are unswerving in their old ways.

    Jesus was a good model. Wasn’t he an advocate of change from the Mosaic law?

    Barry


  8. Re: Jesus was a good model. Wasn’t he an advocate of change from the Mosaic law?

    -I would say that Jesus was the fulfillment of certain aspects of the Mosaic law and that He re-emphasized the spiritual nature of other aspects, which had been obscured by traditions of men. But again, this conversation would have to be fleshed out in another post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: