I was raised an independent fundamental Baptist (IFB). My Grandfather was an IFB pastor for 55 years and I have now had nearly 20 of my relatives either attend or graduate from an IFB Bible College (including every single member of my immediate family). During the years I spent in my parent’s home, we never attended a church that did not have the word Baptist in its name. What I find interesting now is that my concept of Baptist history then only extended back about 100 years and was almost entirely limited to evangelists and handful of larger than life pastors. Men like Billy Sunday, John R. Rice and Jack Hyles were the major historic figures I heard talked about.
It was not until college that I gained a more robust understanding of Baptist history and discovered men like Bunyan, Keach, Gill, Fuller, Carey, Judson and of course, Mr. Spurgeon. A simple look at the names listed above illustrates that the Baptist tradition is pretty broad and encompasses a wide range of theological positions. There have been times when, as a convinced Baptist, I have struggled with my historic identity. I want to cling to men like Spurgeon, but am quickly reminded of the men like Hyles (and those who still stand more in his tradition than in Spurgeon’s) and I’m momentarily tempted to ditch the title altogether.
This hodge-podge of Baptist history started to come into focus for me the other day as I was meeting with a couple of men who are firmly entrenched in the Independent, Fundamental Baptist world. As we talked about church planting, Baptist history and the New Hampshire Baptist Confession, something occurred to me. Even though we both claim the title Baptist, we are almost entirely different.
I think there are generally two kinds of Baptists—theological Baptists and cultural/separatist Baptists. Theological Baptist are those that opened up their Bibles, searched the Scriptures diligently, came to Spirit-led conclusions and then figured out that their conclusions made them Baptist—their theological study led them to historic Baptist positions. Cultural/Separatist Baptists are primarily driven to embrace the title as a result of being raised in an IFB culture (or an SBC culture—I think these two classifications are generally true in the SBC world as well) or because they have figured out what they are against and who they are against. As convinced separatists, they find the Baptist tag the most fitting. I believe this group’s separatism is primarily a cultural separatism and not a theological/doctrinal separatism. For example, they tend to get much angrier about music than they do about easy-believism or inattentiveness to church discipline and regenerate church membership.
These groups differ in a number of other ways. Let me note a few:
- Look at their doctrinal statements. Theological Baptists will typically offer their longest and clearest articles in the areas of soteriology and ecclesiology, whereas the cultural/separatist Baptists will spill the most ink on their articles dealing with separation and eschatology.
- Listen to them talk about history. Theological Baptists talk about Baptist history and cling to names like Carey, Judson, Gill, Spurgeon and Broadus. These men represent a clear unity in their soteriology but not in every point of their eschatology. Cultural/Separatist Baptists talk, sometimes exclusively, about fundamental Baptist history and speak about men from the last 100 years who were passionate separatists—men who may or may not have shared a vital elements of soteriology, but certainly shared the same eschatology. I also find it interesting that when this group digs deeper into history, they tend to be drawn to men who were more known for their (political) separatism than their theological passion and clarity (Williams, Backus, Leland).
- Evaluate whether they are local church-driven or institutionally-driven. Theological Baptists believe that the local church is God’s primary means of carrying out His redemptive plan to reconcile to Himself peoples from every tribe, tongue and nation. Insomuch as institutions serve that purpose (while never infringing on the churches autonomy), they can be a tremendous blessing. Cultural/Separatist Baptist allow institutions to lead the way. Local churches can be a blessing to the institutions when the churches do not infringe on the institutional autonomy. In this line of thinking, institutional authorities tend to function with the spiritual authority of pastors in the lives of their students. Institutional employees and local churches may or may not help, but they are by no means central to the spiritual life and vitality of those under the authority of the institution.
- Observe whether associations or theology are the basis for separation and/or cooperation. Theological Baptists prioritize theology (and in most cases soteriology) as the basis for cooperation with other groups or individuals (i.e. Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition). What stands at the center of everything and towers over everything is clarity concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ. Theologically and functionally, it is of first importance. For the Cultural/Separatist Baptist the gospel is important, but functionally it is, at best, placed on the same shelf as their doctrine of separation (sometimes with musical style next to separation on that shelf). At the very worst, the gospel—functionally—takes a back seat to one’s associations. Therefore, the cultural/separatist Baptist will functionally make the gospel an issue of secondary importance when he separates from someone like John MacArthur because of his associations but continues to invite Joe Evangelist who butchers the gospel but associates with all the right people.
My objectives in writing this piece are twofold. The first is to encourage cultural/separatists Baptists to start evaluating honestly why they are “losing” their young men in droves. If they’re honest, I believe they will see some of the observations explained above. Secondly, I want to encourage young (or older) men who have come out of (or been heavily exposed to) the cultural/separatist Baptist world to be careful not to quickly abandon either the historic, theological convictions and ideals of Baptists—or even the title “Baptist.” A careful study of historic Baptists will uncover gospel-saturated, Word-centered, pastor-theologians who radically loved Christ and His church.
Jason Wredberg is a church planter in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. He previously served on the church planting pastoral team of a young, thriving church in central North Carolina. Jason and I have been friends since about the time God saved both of us in the mid-90s. We've also served as co-workers in several capacities and ministries.