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FIRST-PERSON: Baptist history and Baptist ministry

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it.

It’s an old cliché, and a bit of an oversimplification. But it also has a ring of the prophetic to it, especially in the context of Christian ministry. There have been many times that the church has made tremendous mistakes, mistakes that could have been avoided if Christian leadership had known their history (not least the history of the early church recorded in the New Testament).

For many Christians, the past is about what happened “back then,” offering little light to illumine our contemporary context. This mentality frequently crops up when I hear seminary students claim that they don’t want to take a course in Baptist history. The reasons are legion.

To be fair, some of these students just think history in general is boring, and while I cannot relate to their preference, a fair number of people are just wired to think that way. But many students I talk to claim that Baptist history is also irrelevant to their current or future local church ministries. Baptist history is about what people did in the past; seminary students want to know what they should do in ministry now. Baptist history is accused of being about names and dates, and the only statistics many seminarians care about are baptismal statistics. Baptist history is by nature at least somewhat sectarian, and many seminarians are committed to a decidedly post-denominational (which is really anti-denominational) identity. In short, Baptist history — and church history in general — is not necessary in preparing an individual for ministry.

I want to be clear that I do not believe Baptist history is the most important class that seminary students should take; far from it. Classes in biblical exegesis, systematic theology and ethics are significantly more important. Nor do I think that those who are already pastors should spend as much time reading Baptist history as they read theology or biblical studies. But I do believe that a good deal of the animosity toward Baptist history is a result of two unhealthy attitudes: the glorification of the practical and the trivialization of the old.

We live in a “results-now” culture, often even our evangelical and Southern Baptist culture. People have little patience with any task that requires serious time, reflection or effort. Seminarians with this attitude are not just opposed to Baptist history, but to almost any class that is not in the areas of practical theology like preaching, evangelism, missions, church education and administration. Unlike those disciplines, Baptist history doesn’t facilitate the ministries of the church nor does it get people saved.

We also live in a culture where old is equated with irrelevant. The result is rushing to buy all the newest gadgets, books or cars. Having an item that is older is somehow less virtuous than owning something brand new. Seminarians with this mentality are only interested in the newest works of theology, biblical studies or church health because what people were saying or thinking hundreds of years ago (or even a generation ago) doesn’t work in our contemporary ministry context.

This aversion to Baptist history on the part of many seminarians and pastors has led to many problems in Southern Baptist life.

Many moderate and liberal Baptists forgot, ignored or redefined historic Baptist theological distinctives. Two generations of seminary students were taught that “being Baptist meant freedom.” Incidentally, this idea of freedom had a lot more to do with Enlightenment individualism than it did freedom from sin or religious tyranny. The results of this vision of Baptist identity include a deficient view of biblical authority, a radical view of individualism, a nigh unto secularist view of religious liberty and a softening of the historic Baptist understanding of the ordinances, particularly believer’s baptism by immersion. Some segments of Southern Baptist life remain infected with the moderate virus, while others are still on the mend.

But moderates have not been the only ones to ignore Baptist history to their peril. Many conservatives have bought into ministry practices that are not compatible with the historic Baptist (and biblical) way of doing church. Some churches have rejected congregational polity in favor of models that draw from hierarchical denominations or mirror trends in corporate America. When a prominent church in another Baptist denomination recently considered eliminating immersion as a membership requirement, some Southern Baptist congregations began to do the same. Some churches are baptizing children as young as three or four. Many congregations downplay the significance of regenerate church membership and virtually ignore church discipline.

If pastors and seminarians knew more about Baptist history, they would be better equipped to avoid the mistakes of the past and incorporate helpful insights from previous eras. I want to suggest three quick ways Baptist history can be useful to local church ministry:

— Matters of theological conviction.

Every church leader is faced with difficult questions that require godly wisdom and biblical reflection. Historic Baptist confessions of faith and catechisms can aid a pastor as he wrestles with weighty issues. Though these historic documents are not inspired, many of them are wonderful summaries of what the inspired and infallible Scriptures teach. Pastors (and congregations) only stand to benefit by becoming acquainted with our confessional tradition. Most of these documents are widely available on the Internet.

— Matters of church health.

In a day when method often trumps message, pastors do not have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to what constitutes a healthy church. Historically, Baptists have written extensively about the doctrine of the church. In fact, many of our Baptist distinctives are nothing more than the uniquely Baptist way of doing church. As many seminarians and younger pastors especially consider the merits of postmodern ministry models, it should be important to remember that those who have gone before us have much to offer in the area of church health. “Contemporary” issues like church discipline, membership requirements and church structure have all been studied from a historical perspective by Southern Baptist scholars like Greg Wills, Stan Norman, John Hammett and Mark Dever.

— Matters of Christian edification.

Most pastors have occasion to recommend edifying books to their congregations. Christian biography can be a tremendous source of both spiritual nourishment and ministry insight. What pastor cannot learn something new by reading one of the many good biographies of Charles Spurgeon? What youth wouldn’t be encouraged by reading Timothy George’s fine biography of William Carey? What WMU director wouldn’t be inspired by reading through Keith Harper’s edited collections of the letters of Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong?

Baptist history is critically important for Baptist ministry. Our history tells us where we have been, provides perspective to where we are and helps instruct us in where we are going. Seminarians, enjoy your Baptist history class. May it help you learn more about who you are and how you can better serve the church. Pastors, add a little Baptist history to your regular reading. May it encourage you in your faith and provide insights into how to build a healthier church. And let’s all pray that the sovereign Lord of history would teach us how we can turn our world upside down with the Gospel.
Nathan Finn is associate archivist at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and a Ph.D. student in church history.

    About the Author

  • Nathan Finn

    Nathan A. Finn is professor of faith and culture and executive director of the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University. He is also the Recording Secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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