Are the most useful churches the ones strongest in their denominational convictions?
A forgotten, but surprisingly prescient, approach to questions regarding the necessity and future of Baptist denominational identity can be gleaned from the words of John A. Broadus (1827-1895) when he addressed the American Baptist Publication Society’s 1881 meeting in Indianapolis.
Broadus, one of the founding professors and later president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s first seminary, titled his sermon “The Duty of Baptists to Teach their Distinctive Views.”
This is the third article examining Broadus’s sermon. Read the previous articles:
- Healthy denominationalism or denominational ultraism?
- Are some commands in the Great Commission more important than others?
In the main portion of his sermon, Broadus listed four specific reasons why Baptists should teach their distinct views:
- It is a duty we owe to ourselves.
- It is a duty we owe to our fellow Christians.
- It is a duty we owe to the unbelieving world.
- It is a duty we owe to Christ.
Considering his second reason, “It is a duty we owe to our fellow Christians,” Broadus contends that the teaching of Baptist distinctives is a duty Baptists owe to Christians residing in Roman Catholic or other Protestant traditions. Operating from the premise that “there are but two sorts of Christianity—church Christianity and Bible Christianity,” Broadus argues that both Catholics and Protestants alike are all “holding some ‘developed’ form of Christianity” in that they have all “added something, in faith or governances or ordinances, to the primitive simplicity” of what he calls Bible Christianity. With specific regard to Roman Catholics, Broadus believes that the Baptist position, because of its roots in the New Testament, has an advantage over other Protestants for leading Roman Catholics to embrace evangelical truth (4). He states,
If well-meaning Roman Catholics become dissatisfied with resting everything on the authority of the church and begin to look toward the Bible as authority, they are not likely, if thoughtful and earnest, to stop at any halfway-house, but to go forward to the position of those who really build on the Bible alone (4).
With regard to Protestants, Broadus states one large source of the differences between Baptists and Protestants is “a widespread and very great ignorance as to Baptists” and their views. Broadus explains that Baptists owe it to other Christians to teach their views so that they “may at least restrain them from wronging us through ignorance” (5). Lest one think that Broadus has elitist motives, he clarifies, stating,
If there were any who did not care to know, who were unwilling to be deprived of a peculiar accusation against us, with them our efforts would be vain. But most of those we encounter are truly good people, however prejudiced, and do not wish to be unjust; and if they will not take the trouble to seek information about our real views, they will not be unwilling to receive it when fitly presented. Christian charity may thus be promoted by correcting ignorance. And besides, we may hope that some at least will be led to investigate the matters about which we differ. Oh that our honored brethren would investigate! (5)
Indeed, Broadus affirms that there are many “noble Christians” within Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. Later in the sermon, he advocates that teaching Baptist distinctives to other Christians will only serve to “render them better Christians” (7). Broadus explains,
I fully agree with an eminent Presbyterian minister who recently said, “We make people better Christians by making them better Presbyterians, better Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians.” There are some very excellent people in our time who think it a merit to be entirely undenominational, and who proclaim that they “love one church as well as another.” But, where not deluded, such persons are few and quite exceptional; in general, the truest, most devoted, and most useful Christians are strong in their denominational convictions and attachments. I repeat, then, that by proper instruction in our distinctive views we shall really make our young people better Christians (7).
If that is the case, then is it not arrogant for Broadus to “wish them to adopt other opinions?” Broadus explains that “it is not necessarily an arrogant and presumptuous thing in us if we strive to bring honored fellow-Christians to views which we honestly believe to be more scriptural, and therefore more wholesome.” Just as Apollos received instruction from Aquila and Priscilla, Broadus believes there is a place for Baptists to teach those of other denominations who might be willing to learn. He concludes, “He who tries to win people from other denominations to his own distinctive views may be a sectarian bigot; but he may also be a humble and loving Christian” (5).
What served as true for Broadus in 1881 has an even greater opportunity for service in the 21st century. In a day when, worldwide, there are as many groups who identify themselves as Baptist as there are countries in the world, the articulation of Baptist distinctives will only help other Christian traditions to understand what a particular group of Baptists believe. As Broadus suggests, if 21st-century Baptists believe their views reflect scriptural truth, then there exists a place for Baptists to reach out to Catholics and Protestants, albeit with humility and graciousness. Broadus later advises,
We must learn how to distinguish between abandonment of principles and mere practical concessions in order to conciliate . … One of the great practical problems of the Christian life, especially in our times, is to stand squarely for truth and squarely against error, and yet to maintain hearty charity toward Christians who differ with us. This assuredly can be done. The very truest and sweetest Christian charity is actually shown b.y some of those who stand most firmly b.y their distinctive opinions (10).
However, reaching out to other traditions might prove difficult for some churches.
- First, there are those Baptists who prefer to minimize any semblance of their historic Baptist identity.
- Second, there are local churches who practice biblical distinctives that Baptists would identify as their own, but never embrace the Baptist historical tradition either in name or in cooperative denominational effort.
These groups are not who Broadus has in mind and neither do I.
My concern rests with those churches who are functionally Baptist, either in name and/or in denominational affiliation. If these churches will embrace their identity as Baptist because they are convinced they find those teachings rooted in the Bible, then churches of all kinds, both present and future, have the potential to draw closer to biblical truth. In an age of financial insecurity, real persecution, and hostile opposition to the Gospel, the only churches who will survive are, ironically, the ones who are most fit according to the external commands provided in the Bible. That is, churches “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph 3:17) toward one another while, as Broadus says, standing firm on their denominational convictions.
Jason G. Duesing is vice president for strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This article is adapted from his contribution to “Upon this Rock: The Baptist Understanding of the Church” (B&H Academic, 2010). Dr. Duesing writes regularly at jgduesing.tumblr.com. Follow him on Twitter @JGDuesing.