So is the “Baptist” Brand Really Worth It?

In the next four posts we will be extending Jonathan Leeman’s breakout session at the Virginia Baptist Convention entitled “So is the ‘Baptist’ Brand Really Worth It?”

So is the Baptist brand really worth it? This is a question I first asked in 1996. I had just moved to Washington, DC in 1996 and had begun looking for a church. I hadn’t attended church since leaving home for college, but I had grown up with good evangelical parents, mostly in non-denominational Bible churches, and so I  knew it would be good for me to get back into church. A friend recommended Capitol Hill Baptist Church. I tried it. Liked it. And decided to join.

The pastor and I walked down to Subway for a membership interview, and on the way back I asked him, “Why do we have to make such a big deal about being Baptist?” I felt more like a Northern evangelical, and not like a Baptist, much less a Southern Baptist. And so it was not clear to me why the pastor and the church as a whole would make such a big deal over what I perceived to be it’s sectarian denominational distinctives.

I think my 23-year-old attitude is fairly typical today. It’s hard enough to hold onto the gospel as culture grows more and more antagonistic to Christianity. Should believers really emphasize those secondary doctrines which divide us like church government and the ordinances? Let’s talk about what it means to be a Christian, right?

Sure enough, if you look around the Christian landscape, there seems to be a decline in membership or at least identification with traditional denominations, whether Episcopalians out on the theological left or Southern Baptists on the right. Instead, young pastors and planters increasingly identify themselves and their churches with networks and associations held together by theology, by charismatic personalities, or by philosophies of ministries. Here I’m thinking of everything from the Willow Creek Association, which is a loose network of churches who all share Willow Creek Church’s seeker sensitive approach to ministry, and to Acts29, which is a church planting network emphasizes Reformed theology and a missional methodology. And when was the last time you heard someone name a new church with the word “Baptist” in it?

Beyond these formal networks the evangelical landscape seems to divide into various tribes, each tribe defined by its own conferences, favorite conference speakers, authors, publishers, and parachurch ministries who host booths at those conferences. Just think of names like Andy Stanley, Rick Warren, John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Tim Keller, Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. You get the idea. You’ll find different clumps of churches and pastors surrounding men like these and their conferences.

And the differences between these men and their tribes is part theological emphasis, part philosophy of ministry, part posture and tone toward the culture and cultural-engagement. And I’ve said nothing about ethnic-based church associations or the friendships formed between urban prosperity gospel churches.

These kinds of theological and philosophy of ministry questions are important. For instance, a pastor and church’s stance on Reformed or Calvinistic theology, whether for or against, will have dramatic implications for that church’s ministry.  Or in deciding how to build our church life together, as well as to reach our community, do we look only to the Bible, or to the latest marketing surveys, or to the nudging of the Spirit on a prayer walk? That’s an important practical question.

And since it’s the answers to these types of questions that are defining different clumps of evangelicals, how important is it that we hold onto our Baptist distinctives and Baptist brand? I mean, I certainly have more in common with the conservative Presbyterian or Methodist who affirms the gospel and preaches the Bible as true than I do with the liberal Baptist who does neither. So what is the Baptist brand worth?

Well, in answer, as a “brand,” as that word is typically used in contemporary marketing circles, it’s not worth much at all!

In other words, we don’t need a sub-culture defined by a certain way of dressing, a certain way of speaking or spiritual phrases that mark us off from other group, a certain style of music; and certainly we don’t need a self-congratulatory, inward looking, back-slapping culture that makes any non-Baptists who wander into our churches or conversations feel like second-class citizens.  I remember hearing one speaker at a Southern Baptist Convention about a decade ago say, “As goes the Southern Baptist Convention, so goes America. And as goes America, so goes the world.” We don’t need that kind of parochialism. I’m an American and a Southern Baptist, and I’m grateful for both. But Jesus doesn’t need America. Jesus doesn’t need the Southern Baptist Convention. He tells us that Hades will not overcome the church. Hades might overcome America and the SBC. We’ll work against that, but let’s keep things in perspective.

So is the Baptist brand worth holding onto as a cultural phenomenon and something that I should identify with as a point of pride. No. Being identified with Christ is my boast and primary source of identity.

But are Baptist doctrinal distinctives worth holding onto? Absolutely! And to be clear, what the Baptists contributed to the Protestant Reformation was not a doctrine of salvation. We have Luther to thank for that. And it was not a doctrine of God or a doctrine of Scripture. Baptists said good things on these topics, but we didn’t contribute anything unique here to the larger Protestant and evangelical fold.

Rather, the Baptist contributions lie in the realm of ecclesiology: who exactly is the church, and therefore a worthy recipient of the ordinances? The Baptists were the first to emphasize that only believers were worthy recipients of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and therefore only regenerate believers constitute the church, not believers together with their children, as the Presbyterian book of church order will say.

The independence of each local church and the final rule of the congregation was not unique to Baptists. They shared it with the Congregationalists. Nonetheless, with as few Congregationalists as there are today, I think we can essentially call it a present-day Baptist distinctive.

So should we continue to promote regenerate church membership and congregationalism? Yes. Absolutely. What’s more, because the Baptist doctrinal distinctives of believer’s baptism and its corollary regenerate church membership as well as congregationalism are biblical, we should work to promote them across evangelical tribes. Whether you read the books of Andy Stanley or John Piper, or attend the conferences John MacArthur or Mark Driscoll; whether you’re a Calvinist or not, a ministry pragmatist or not, I think you should be a Baptist and a congregationalist.

In the next three posts we will look at Jonathan’s answers to three questions:

(i) why should we emphasize believer’s baptism and regenerate church membership?

(ii) why should we emphasize congregationalism?

(iii) How can we do both of these things without being tribalistic, but appropriately supportive of the gospel work of non-Baptists?