Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Twenty-First-Century Baptists:Shaped by the Word and Gospel

 
Baptists have been well-known for a number of characteristics at various times throughout Baptist history. Baptists of the seventeenth century emphasized immersion as the mode of baptism, clearly distinguishing them from other Christian sects. During the nineteenth century, Baptists built a reputation as mission-minded Christians, creating large mission boards and agencies, distinguishing them from other denominations of that era. Likewise, modern Baptists hold a number of strongly held beliefs, including orthodox, ecclesiological, missional and societal convictions. However, the beliefs and practices of twenty-first-century Baptists did not arrive spontaneously in this century, they are the by-product of 400 hundred years of Baptist heritage. Thus, to understand the convictions that shape twenty-first-century Baptists, one must understand Baptist history and the foundation that lays at the core of Baptist identity. 

Orthodox Christianity

Baptists of the twenty-first century embrace the doctrines of historic orthodox Christianity. During the 1900s, Baptist life was absorbed in controversy thanks to the rise of modernism and theological liberalism in Baptist churches and institutions. As a result, some of the most basic and cherished doctrines of Christianity were under attack. By God’s grace, these controversies led Southern Baptists to reclaim the historic tenets of the faith by the close of the twentieth century.

By the 1950s, some professors in Southern Baptist seminaries denied the resurrection of Jesus and other supernatural events in the Bible. Other professors denied substitutionary atonement and questioned the doctrine of the Trinity. Some were espousing Rudolph Bultmann’s demythological view, while others began to question the historicity of Genesis 1-11. These controversies gave rise to the conservative resurgence among Southern Baptists.

During the 1980s, conservatives began moving the Southern Baptist Convention systematically back in the direction of historic orthodoxy. Conservatives achieved victory as they won successive presidencies to the Southern Baptist Convention, allowing conservatives to appoint biblical inerrantists to important leadership roles throughout the various Convention institutions and agencies. By the 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention was firmly controlled by conservatives who held firm convictions regarding the historic tenets of the Christian faith.

Therefore, twenty-first-century Baptists are marked by a love for historic Christian orthodoxy. To be a Baptist in this century means to believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, inerrant and authoritative in all areas of faith and practice. It also means to believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ, his penal substitution and that faith in Christ is the only way of salvation. In sum, a twenty-first-century Baptist believes the Bible is inerrant and holds firmly to the doctrines of historic biblical Christianity. 

Ecclesiology

From the inception of the Baptist tradition, Baptists have clearly distinguished themselves from other Christian denominations in regards to ecclesiology. One of the primary distinctions of Baptist ecclesiology is the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The first significant Baptist confession—the First London Confession, written in the mid 1600s near the beginning of Baptist history, maintained that baptism is rightly performed by immersion and is reserved for regenerate believers in Christ, in contrast to other denominations that practiced infant baptism. Likewise, the earliest Baptists held that the Lord’s Supper is performed in memory of the death of Jesus Christ and is reserved for believers only. Further, the Second London Confession, written in the late 1600s, clarified that these ordinances do not transfer grace, but are performed in memory and out of obedience to the commands of Christ.

Baptists have also historically held to the autonomy of the local church, a doctrine that was clarified in Benjamin Griffith’s A Short Treatise on a True and Orderly Gospel Church in 1743. Rather than the Pope, a bishop, or some other ecclesiological body, Baptists believe that Jesus Christ is the supreme head of the church and that the congregation is the highest earthly authority. Because the congregation has such authority, Baptists maintain the importance of regenerate church membership and the use of restorative church discipline. These ecclesiological distinctions are still important to Baptists of the twenty-first century.

The gospel has also been at the forefront of Baptist ecclesiology from the beginning. It informs how Baptists perform the ordinances, church membership and church discipline, and how Baptists view each as an expression of the gospel. The gospel also informs Baptist worship services, which are ordered around songs and sermons that exalt Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Twenty-first-century Baptists continue to maintain the centrality of the gospel and the Word of God in church services.

Ecclesiological matters, then, are important to modern Baptists, who guard the right administration of the ordinances and the centrality of the gospel as the heart of the church. Therefore, to be a Baptist in the twenty-first century means to have an affection for the local church by being a committed and faithful member of a local congregation in support of its mission to exalt God and proclaim the gospel.

Missions

For the last 200 hundred years, American Baptists have emphasized both home and international missions for the purpose of advancing the gospel via collaborative efforts. Beginning in 1814 with the formation of the Triennial Convention and continuing through the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Program, Baptists have a long and distinguished history as a people who embrace cooperation with one another for the purpose of gospel-centered missions. Modern Baptists are still a missional people who come together to accomplish more in the name of Christ.

However, not all Baptists have been ardent supporters of missions. Some, like John Taylor, have opposed mission boards and conventions based on the large bureaucracy they create. Still others, such as Daniel Parker and Primitive Baptists, have objected to missions based on theological convictions. Others, such as Alexander Campbell, have opposed cooperative missions on biblical grounds, arguing that mission boards do not exist in the Bible and are therefore unbiblical. However, such objections to cooperative missions have been the exception rather than the rule to Baptist life.

Beginning with Adoniram and Ann Judson and Luther Rice, Baptists have committed themselves to completing the Great Commission by cooperating together to achieve more. Individuals such as Francis Wayland, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, to name a few, continued that commitment and contributed greatly to the modern expression of Baptist missions. Their legacy lives today through the Cooperative Program, which funds the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board.

Although missions are foundational to Baptist life, the centrality of missions was overshadowed by denominational strife during the mid to late twentieth-century. Now that the Southern Baptist Convention is unified under historic Christian faith and values, Baptists are again emphasizing missions, both foreign and home, in the twenty-first century. Thus, to be a Baptist today is to actively support international and home missions through giving to the Cooperative Program, praying and participating in short or long-term mission trips. Twenty-first century Baptists also embrace missions in the home, at work, at school and wherever they may be, believing that every believer is called to live on mission for Jesus Christ and his gospel.

Social Action

From William Carey to Francis Wayland to Walter Rauschenbusch and Jerry Falwell, Baptists have a long and diverse history of social action in the name of Jesus Christ and his gospel. Some have devoted their lives to calling attention to grave injustices—such as slavery and economic injustice—while others have been committed to calling society to pursue Christian morals and values. Whatever the case may be, Baptists of the twenty-first century are just as concerned with the problems of society as those who came before.

Today, Baptists are at the forefront of the battle to overturn the injustice caused by legalized abortion in the United States, standing to fight for the sanctity of human life. Many Baptists are heeding the biblical call to care for orphans and widows. Modern Baptists are also engaged and committed to ending all forms of slavery in the world, including the highly profitable and pervasive underground sex trade that enslaves girls and women of all ages. Similarly, Baptists are on the front lines of the battle for marriage and the nuclear family, standing opposed to same-sex marriage while calling Christians to pursue gospel-centrality in their marriages and homes and exhorting Christian men and women to live according to God’s design. These are but a few of the ways in which modern Baptists are active in the social arena.

In many ways, to be a Baptist in the twenty-first century is to combine the social concerns of Carey, Wayland, Rauschenbusch and Falwell, all of whom—in their own way and during their own time—believed that the power of the gospel to change the human heart was the primary agent of societal change. Likewise, contemporary Baptists are motivated to social action because they believe deeply that the gospel, when rightly proclaimed and lived, can and will overturn injustice, greed, selfishness, sexual immorality of all kind and all forms of idolatry.

Conclusion

The one common denominator between past and present generations of Baptists is the conviction that the Word of God is both true and authoritative and that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the fundamental message of the Bible. Based on those convictions, Baptists in the twenty-first century, like so many Baptists who came before, are a people concerned with doctrinal and ecclesiological purity while also pursuing missions and social action. Twenty-first-century Baptists are people whose entire worldview is shaped by the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is these twin convictions that inform how Baptists understand the nature and purpose of Christian orthodoxy, ecclesiological matters, missions and social action. Therefore, to be a twenty-first-century Baptist is to be a person whose foundation is the Bible and whose purpose is to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ in all avenues of life.

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