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BAPTIST IDENTITY: 19th-, 16th-century
faith worthy of emulation, speakers say

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)–Two leading seminary educators called on Southern Baptist churches to emulate principles emphasized by 19th- and 16th-century believers, whom they said focused careful attention on ordinances, courageous convictions and church discipline.

The two seminary leaders, Russell D. Moore and Paige Patterson, were among the featured speakers during the Feb. 15-17 Baptist Identity Conference II at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s school of theology, recalled the life of Thomas T. Eaton, a key Baptist voice in debates and controversies of the late 19th century.

Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, presented examples from the experiences and historic beliefs of Anabaptists, a 13th-century movement that often faced persecution for its departure from prevailing doctrines of the day.

Moore recounted how Eaton, a Union graduate and faculty member, frequently became embroiled in heated debates over matters such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This occurred while Eaton was a pastor in Louisville and editor of Kentucky’s Baptist newspaper, the Western Recorder.

“At the heart of the 19th-century Baptist concern was a conviction that the ordinances matter,” Moore said. “The 19th-century Baptists argued so much about the Lord’s Supper precisely because they believed it was important — indeed, crucial.”

Moore said many Baptist congregations in the 21st century do not focus on that significance and fail to view the Lord’s Supper as a celebration of Christ’s victory over sin.

“We chew tiny pieces of what seem to be Styrofoam and cough back shot glasses of juice while scrunching up our faces and trying to feel sorry for Jesus,” Moore said. “Jesus doesn’t want us to feel sorry for Him. He gives us the supper as a victory party in advance, declaring that we are invited.”

Moore also discussed Eaton’s apprehensions about para-church groups. He said Eaton feared the well-intentioned organizations would displace the primacy of the local church.

Moore said some of Eaton’s fears proved unfounded, but his overall concern was justified.

As a modern-day example, Moore said campus-based outreach organizations introduce a growing number of seminary students to the Gospel message and nurture them in the faith. He said he is thankful for those effective ministries, but he wonders if local churches are losing their influence.

“Why are so few of our young people being called to ministry because of the example of a godly pastor?” he asked.

Patterson listed six characteristics or practices of the 16th-century Anabaptists that he said should become priorities in 21st-century Southern Baptist church life: a redeemed, disciplined church; faith witness baptism; the Bible as the source of authority; a church that looks different from the outside world; the Lord’s Supper as a fellowship trust; and courage of conviction.

Patterson said the Lord’s Supper and baptism were treated as acts of solemn commitment in the Anabaptist congregations of southern Germany and Switzerland.

“The Anabaptists, like their New Testament counterparts, baptized with confidence those who wished to profess their faith in Christ,” Patterson said. “But they also made certain that the new believer understood that he was acting out the death of the old man and the resurrection of a new man.”

The name Anabaptist literally meant “rebaptized,” since most early converts also had been baptized as infants. As Anabaptists professed a belief that baptism should be reserved for people capable of making their own decisions, Patterson said many were tortured, burned at the stake or drowned.

“Remarkable courage, doubtless born of sincere convictions and enhanced by the power of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, transformed suffering, sorrow and even death into superlative witness,” Patterson said. “Our churches will have to recover the Anabaptist vision of suffering as a part of what it means to follow Christ.”

Both Moore and Patterson called for renewed church discipline. They referred to statistics cited by earlier conference speakers that show only about 7 million of the SBC’s 16 million members attend church on an average Sunday.

Moore said the indifference to inactive members is “not just a scandal to the Gospel, it is a form of anti-evangelism.”

“The bloated membership rolls of Southern Baptist churches,” Patterson said, “coupled with the worldliness apparent in the church, bear painful witness to failure at two basic levels: lack of care with new converts and the virtual absence of church discipline.”

Other speakers at the Baptist Identity Conference II included Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School; Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources; and David S. Dockery, president of Union University.

    About the Author

  • Mark Kahler