Baptists Inherently Fractured? Noll Thinks So

I have Baptists on the brain. Three current events form the nexus for my current state of mind. First, my friend The Ex-Reverend sent me a link to Mark Noll’s piece in Books & Culture, “So You’re a Baptist – What might that mean?” Second, I am attending the Annual Meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (last night and today). Third, I will be attending the New Baptist Covenant 2 Regional meeting at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Thursday and Friday. I am speaking at a session in the afternoon on Friday. Major Jemison is the pastor and what a preacher he is.

So there you have it, Baptist on the brain. The three reasons come together in an interesting way. Yesterday during a panel discussion at the annual BGCO Pastor’s Conference, panelists responded to a question wondering if there was need to evaluate ecclesial methods. Now, for those of you not Baptist, and maybe not even interested in things sectarian and Christian, we Baptists tend to chapter and verse our methodologies. Don’t believe me? Many use the Bible in support of multi-site congregations. Others fail to read the text the same way. It is certainly not a prescription. If I find it questionable for its consequences for community, that is my opinion. I won’t tell J.D. Greear he is wrong on the subject. And, I expect he will not tell me I am wrong. Though . . . .

Back to the panel. All three pastors agreed that all methods must be evaluated. Everyone was tracking when one panelist interrupted the conversation to remind everyone that the most important thing for the church is what the Bible says. Now, here is where it ties into Noll’s article. Whose Baptist interpretation of said Scriptures sets the agenda for all others in these (ecclesial methods), and all other matters? There is often an appeal to the Scriptures in our particular Baptist tribe. In many cases it as if it is an authority being called down on all sides. Noll notes,

For each of these questions [atonement, adult baptism and the laying on of hands, worship on Saturday or Sunday, alien immersion, confession or creed among others], and for many more that would come later, sincere believers were able to cite biblical chapter and verse that were completely convincing to themselves but that did not convince other Baptists.

Noll points to two recent books on Baptists, one by David Bebington and one by Robert Johnson. His review forms the nexus for his thoughts in “So You’re a Baptist.” Noll draws some conclusions he admits may not be those of either Bebington or Johnson but believes his conclusions are derivative of their respective works. Here it is in simple form. Baptists submit to a series of commitments that create varieties of Baptists. Noll puts it this way, “Other Christian traditions also manifest great internal diversity, but Baptists seem to outdo them all.”

These commitments create the grouping/denomination Baptist and at the same time these same commitments produce a diversity illustrated by at least 76 different Baptist groups/denominations in the United States. Here Noll describes it this way,

From this combination of positive and negative commitments arose the advocacy of “soul competency,” “religious freedom,” the right of private judgment,” and a “gathered church” that have resonated through Baptist history. Yet as both Bebington and Johnson point out, beyond the common approach to baptism itself, these prominent Baptist principles did not lead to a common theology, common church practices, or common attitudes to social engagement.

Almost inevitably, the very principles that Baptists shared made it difficult for Baptists to agree among themselves. …

It is here the three reasons for Baptist on my brain come together. Oklahoma Southern Baptists will meet for two days. Few of those same Oklahoma Southern Baptists will join other Baptist groups in Oklahoma who gather on Thursday and Friday for the New Baptist Covenant meeting. The reason? It is the Baptist experience.

I have friends within two of the many sides of Baptist life in Oklahoma. Our church is an Oklahoma Southern Baptists in the BGCO. There are differences among these two particular groups to be sure. But, these same differences that have forced different Baptist identities show up in both groups. What keeps these two groups from either working together, attending the same gatherings, or reconciling? What they have done or said about the other. Just ask them.

For several years I have preferred to hold hands with both groups wishing one day the reconciling work of God in Christ Jesus would win the day among my Baptist friends in these two groups. But, if Noll reads Bebington and Johnson right, I will have to wait for that sort of unity, as Alex Himaya said yesterday afternoon, for eternity.

Last evening during the opening session of the BGCO, our President addressed the intersection of love and time. Were Baptists, Oklahoma Baptists, to take his words about love to heart, I suspect we may not have to wait for eternity for Baptist unity.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.