Monday, October 04, 2010

When Adjectives Attack: What Separates Theological Baptists from Cultural/Separatist Baptists

What follows is a guest post from Jason Wredberg. More about Jason at the conclusion.
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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
While I truly believe that Cultural/Separatist Baptists are a dying breed, they do control a handful of colleges and seminaries that, at least for the time being, will continue to perpetuate their movement. However, while I have no scientific way of proving this, my sense is that many (if not most) of the graduates of these colleges and seminaries are quickly becoming theological Baptists.

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.


d4v34x said...

Wow. A few things.

1. Hi Jason. David Oestreich here. Long time.

2. I think you would agree that these two categories represent poles with some churches clustered towards those poles and others scattered on the spectrum in between (those latter demonstrating interesting and amusing paradoxes in what they accept and reject).

3. I agree in general that the "Culturals" are dying and propose that the institutions you refer to which they control may actually hasten the decline rather than prolong it.

4. You left Bauder and Doran's Preseving the Truth Conference out of your list (TGC, T4G, etc.)

5. When you refer to institutianlly driven Baptists, do you mean devoted to a particular University or College or personality?

6. What happened to that one church in Sun Prairie?

Anonymous said...

Dave, I use the word "generally" because I understand there are some scattered in between my two "poles".
I didn't know about Bauder and Doran's conference... but I *think* what I am writing about here is, in some way, connected to what they have been writing about lately.
In reference to #5... yes, but I would also suggest that in one way, there are those (pastors/local churches) that functionally allow particular institutions/personalities to exercise a measure of governing authority over them. They so want to be "approved" (this may be official or unofficial) by the institution that they end up conducting themselves in perfect harmony with the institution/personality. They will actually make decisions about church life and practice based on what a particular institution/personality would say or think, giving only secondary thought to what might be best for the actual people in their church (or their life personally). The other way this manifests itself is when certain people choose to become an official part (staff, faculty, student, etc) of one of these cultural/separatists institutions and in doing so they are put in a place where the institution/personality actually exercises more authority over their life than their local church. If their pastor disagrees with their employer, they go with the employer and they do so with the understanding that because they work at a religious institution, their bosses are in some way like a pastor in their life. What makes this ironic is that institutions like this claim to be "local church centered" while functionally dismissing the local church altogether unless the local church conducts itself like I mentioned earlier in this comment.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Dave, previous comment from Anonymous was from Jason.

d4v34x said...

Jason, thanks for the clarification on number 5. Although I have probably witnessed that one in the past, I probably did not have (at the time) sufficient frame of reference to recognize it.

Also, I forgot to ask the really important question:


d4v34x said...

Hmm, somehow my question didn't show up and totally ruined the irony. Anyway, it was


Anonymous said...

Come and visit... you'll probably be disappointed though. I am not nearly as controversial as I am generally made out to be...


Ben said...

Dave, if I know Jason, he'll be too conservative for the fundamentalists. Not enough solos, duets, quartets, and choir performances.

Ben said...

Let me just echo something Jason said:

"What makes this ironic is that institutions like this claim to be 'local church centered' while functionally dismissing the local church altogether unless the local church conducts itself [in subservience to the influence and will of the institution]."

I'm hoping Jason will expand on this in a subsequent post.

d4v34x said...

If Jason's church doesn't recognize the NT church office of Vocal Soloist, I'll not be darkening the door.

*shakes the dust of his Sketchers off against the very thought*

Anonymous said...

Great thoughts Jason. I think you are right on the money.

Your reference to institutions controlling local churches makes it seem like these institutions are like cartels with pastors kissing the rings of these leaders.

Joel Gearhart said...


One thing I'm not so sure about is the title of the post. It seems to imply that beings a theological baptist stands opposed to being a separatist baptist. Don't get me wrong, I'm not for the cultural/separatists pole that you write of, but you can (and I think should) still be a committed separatist baptist while at the same time being a theological baptist.

I struggle seeing how someone could be a theological baptist as you describe and not be a separatist baptist. Of course, that separatism will look different in every person. And the separation that I speak of is not the kind of separation that is based on what women wear, what version you use, what your music is, etc. This is the kind of separatism that I am speaking of:

"1 - For the sake of the purity of the gospel, believers & churches must separate from those that deny essential doctrines of the faith. (Jude 2; 2 John 9-11; Rom. 16:17)

This is speaking of those things that have a root that runs to that which is essential. An example is separation from one who embraces baby baptism that is salvific but not from someone who has not been baptized or embraces baby baptism that is not salvific.

2 - For the sake of the clarity of the gospel, believers & churches must separate from those who compromise the faith by granting Christian recognition & fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith. (Romans 16:17; Phil 3:17-19)

3 - For the sake of the credibility of the gospel, believers & churches must strive to reflect God's holiness & to live differently than those who have not experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ. (I Pet 1:15-16; Eph 4:17-19)"

These are Doran's irreducible minimums of separation from the notes I took at last year's Mid-America Conference on Preaching. It is this kind of separatism that I believe has it's foundation in first being a theological baptist.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. I termed them Cultural/Separatist in a sense to qualify what I mean beyond simply using the term separatist.
I think you (via Doran) outlined a case for theologically/gospel driven separatism... I have no problem with that.
In fact, I tried to imply this in #4 when I outlined how each group determines (or denies) certain associations.



Ben said...

Joel, I wrote the title, so if Jason wants to distance himself, he can. What I see him saying is that it's theology or culture/separatism that *drive* the two groups. That's what they're about—the flag they fly. That doesn't mean theological Baptists are necessarily non-separatists any more than it means cultural/separatist Baptists are wholly atheological.

Sometimes the categories are less clear, such as when otherwise theological Baptists talk so much about separation that it's difficult to determine what really drives them.