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.