Concerning Labels: Why Labels Matter

A few weeks ago, another semester began here at Southwestern Seminary, and I began another course on Baptist Heritage, a class in which the people, places and ideas of the Baptist movement are discussed. On the first day of class, I ran through the usual first day of class procedures (introductions, syllabus, etc.) and then asked the question, “How many of you, honestly, have not been looking forward to this course?” This is a question I typically ask at the beginning of each semester, and the typical response is usually a handful of reluctant but honest students who raise their hands. The reason I began asking that question is that I have come to realize at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that many students not only do not have an understanding of what “Baptist” means, but also, many of them are negative to ambivalent about being labeled “Baptist.”

This is the case in my classroom, and I have found it to be the case in many churches as well. As I interact with these positions of reluctance about the label “Baptist,” I do recognize that they are borne from good questions, such as, “Should not my identity be found in Christ?” “Is being Baptist more important than being Christian?” or “Are denominations perpetuating division?”

In addition, historically, there have been legitimate problems with denominational labels, denominationalism, and responses to it. First, there is the problem that many denominations (beyond Baptists), at times, have claimed sole ownership of true Christianity or have dogmatically excluded others for not believing as they believe. In reaction to this thought, some have blamed denominationalism and eschewed denominations altogether, believing such division is detrimental to being a follower of Christ. Thus, we have seen the growth of “non-denominational” churches. Second, and, at times, in response to this broader sentiment, churches have begun to remove any denominational affiliation from their name. This is not necessarily because they dislike being Baptist, etc., though sometimes that is the case. At times, these churches no longer think the denominational descriptor is valuable for their church, nor is it helpful in ministering to or attracting the community in which they are engaged. Many of these congregations are still affiliated with Baptist conventions and fellowships and affirm Baptist confessions, but they are not Baptist in name.

These questions and situations—and many like them—are legitimate and deserve consideration, but if we can concede that Baptists are Christians, though a particular type of Christians, let me briefly address the question of the value of utilizing the label “Baptist” at all.

Before presenting a few values of being named Baptist, which is a contemporary debate, let us remember that Baptists had reasons for accepting the term. These reasons are found in the way in which they read and interpreted the Bible. In particular, these Baptists would strongly hold to Believer’s Baptism, the Believers’ Church, Congregationalism, and other doctrines related to the church. These reasons for being Baptist are theological at the core and, as such, are as much a defining element in Baptist identity as any other factor. Though many have opted to label themselves with the softer term “baptistic,” meaning they hold to these theological ideas, in reality they are, in fact, Baptist, whether they self-identify or not.

Though Baptists have been a people who strongly held to their principles, the majority of Baptist history shows a people who identify with the larger history of Christianity. And, as a part of the larger narrative, Baptists are a people who have contributed to the building of God’s Kingdom throughout history and around the globe. There are good, positive things about being Baptist that we should recognize and that should lead us to reevaluate our acceptance of the label “Baptist.” Let me provide a few reasons.

Voluntarily Cooperative

It is common to see a definition of “Baptist” in direct relationship to a regional or national body of believers. Thus, we have Southern Baptists, American Baptists, Independent Baptists, etc. Many of these political labels are intended to show the way in which various Baptist churches cooperate or fellowship with one another. For instance, to be a Southern Baptist says more about how one engages in missions than what one necessarily believes. However, the membership of the congregations in these fellowships is autonomous—that is, they are not constrained by any institution. This political connectedness of varying Baptist groups is based upon voluntary participation. Though we can say that many Baptists are often identified by their various connections with one another, we must affirm that there is something more to being Baptist than these connections alone.

Historically Rooted

Being named Baptist is finding oneself in relationship to a people whose history goes back hundreds of years. Though there is debate as to the general and particular origins of Baptists, there exists a history of those who today number in the millions worldwide. In looking at these people, one finds many accounts of sacrifice and even persecution. There are countless stories of those maintaining dissenting positions on how to read the Bible, of the struggles and victories in planting and operating churches, and of engaging the world with the Gospel. More than seeing a history of a people of closed-minded division, we find a robust history of a people who have been transformed by the Spirit and the Word and long to make ways for others to participate in this transformation.

Committedly Biblical

Though this point is by no means unique to Baptists, a commitment to the Bible is historically a consistent theme for Baptists. From the beginning of the Baptist movements, the concern has been to see the Bible as the supreme authority for life and practice. Baptist teaching for 400 years has asserted the authority and necessity of the Bible, even to the extreme of claiming there is no authority but the Bible. Though at times it may be hard to pin down some Baptist doctrine, Baptists have exhibited a strong commitment to the Bible.

Solidly Theological

As mentioned above, being Baptist, on a foundational level, is a commitment to a particular theology, and in it, there is a rich tradition of theological engagement. Historical and contemporary Baptists have been broadly engaged in biblical exegesis, interpretation and theological formulation. One need only look at the panoply of Baptist Bible colleges, universities and seminaries to see the commitment to the theological enterprise. The tradition of Baptist theological thought often is neglected simply due to the reticence of acceptance because of the label “Baptist.”

Confessionally Orthodox

Finally, Baptists are a people that fall in line with the majority of Christian history in matters of orthodoxy. On questions such as “Who is God?” and “Who is Jesus?”, Baptists have affirmed what orthodox Christianity has affirmed from the beginning. Though there are some doctrines Baptists hold that distinguish them within Christianity (baptism, etc.), we must remember that Baptists as a whole are Christians and have traditionally confessed orthodox Christianity.

These are five general points about who Baptists are, and by no means are they intended to be exhaustive in defining what it means to be Baptist. These are merely some points of consideration for those who are uneasy about being labeled Baptist. My encouragement is for you to take time to read and study the history and theologies of those named Baptist, and I believe you will find less of a disdain for the label and more of an appreciation for the name “Baptist.”