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FIRST-PERSON: Confessions of a 19th-century Baptist

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–As I observe some of the happenings in contemporary Baptist life, I am reminded of a truth I have known for some time. Deep down, I am a 19th-century Baptist.

You may be wondering how it is possible for someone who was just 19 only four years ago be a 19th-century Baptist. Have I discovered a way to be transported back to an earlier time? In a sense, yes I have. As I began to read about Baptist history back in college, I came to the conclusion that in many respects I prefer the way Baptists “did it” back in the 1800s.

Now, I am very willing to concede that not everything in Baptist life was perfect before the turn of the 20th century. Most contemporary Baptists have moved away from the Landmarkism that was so popular after the Civil War. The majority of us also differ with the hyper-Calvinists of the frontier who refused to witness to unbelievers. And of course we cultured moderns now recognize the error of most Baptists in the South of trying to defend the institution of slavery with the Scriptures.

In light of these “blemishes” on the 19th-century Baptist record, why would any 21st-century seminary student feel more at home in the 19th century? There are several reasons.

One reason is theology. In a day when many self-appointed “mainstream” Baptists are playing fast and loose with the authority of Scripture, I think back to a simpler time when Baptist people could say they believed the Bible was the Word of God without adding a qualifying “but …” As those of us from the Deep South like to say, “either it is, or it ain’t.”

Another reason is evangelism and missions. In a day when some Baptists are capitulating to the unbiblical (and dangerous) notion that non-Christians can inherit eternal life, I think back to a time when Baptists were serious about taking the gospel to all those who were outside of Christ. Baptists planted churches on the American frontier and sent missionaries such as Lottie Moon to faraway lands to proclaim the good news.

A third reason is our Baptist distinctives. In a day when some Baptists believe that the priesthood of the believer means that there should be no authority in the church of Christ, I think back to the days when Baptist people realized that while every Christian is called to service in Christ, to deny genuine spiritual authority would lead to spiritual stagnation, ecclesiastical pandemonium, and eventually heresy and apostasy. You don’t have to look far to find a “Baptist” congregation or fellowship that will allow virtually anything to go in the name of “Christian freedom” or “soul competency.”

Thankfully, the above problems are no longer widespread in the churches and seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention (though pockets continue to persist in many Baptist colleges). The conservative resurgence begun in 1979 worked to reverse many of the problems in Southern Baptist faith and practice. However, there is still much to be done. As faithful as we seek to be to the teachings of Scripture, in many areas we are still behind the wisdom of our Baptist forefathers. I would like to offer a few suggestions of how we can renew the Southern Baptist Convention by returning to the practices of days gone by.

Contemporary Baptist congregations should work toward having a regenerate membership. One of the reasons our Baptist ancestors fought for the doctrine of believer’s baptism was their conviction that a church’s membership should only be made up of individuals who were genuinely converted. We must remember that ultimately church growth is not about the number of baptisms per year, but the number of lives that have radically been changed by the power of the gospel. In a denomination of almost 16 million members, of which only 5 million or so attend a local church regularly, this is a most important practice to recover. Most of our congregations have a multitude of “members” who in reality are nothing more than names on a role. What many of these absentee members need is not another invitation from the Sunday School outreach director to come back to church. You can rest assured they will do that if there is a controversial vote to take at an upcoming business meeting! What they need is to be converted.

Contemporary Baptist congregations should recover the lost practice of corrective church discipline. Far too many churches have individuals in leadership positions who are willfully and regularly participating in activities contrary to the teachings of Scripture. Such people not only tarnish the image of their local church, but also bring reproach on the whole body of Christ. These individuals should be made to submit to the discipline of their church, including rebuke, correction and possibly the revocation of membership. This will seem harsh to many people, but we must keep two things in mind. First, our Lord and Savior himself outlined a process of church discipline for us to follow in Matthew 18. Jesus approved of the practice of disciplining wayward church members. Secondly, church discipline exists not to condemn, but to correct. When church discipline is practiced in love on a genuine believer, often that individual will repent of their sinful act(s). Reconciliation occurs, and the church is the stronger for it.

Contemporary Baptist pastors should remember the primacy of preaching. Anyone can “preach” colorful anecdotes and self-help sound bites with a Scripture verse or two mixed in, but these discourses (I hesitate to call them sermons) only serve to tickle the ears of the unconverted. We have all heard people complain that some sermons make them feel depressed or uncomfortable. These folks say they want to feel good about themselves when they leave church. They want sermons that are positive and upbeat, presumably leaving out such “depressing” topics as sin, repentance and eternal punishment. Baptist people don’t need those types of sermons. What we need are men in our Baptist pulpits who will preach the whole counsel of God, realizing that sometimes people will indeed be offended. Such is the nature of the gospel.

Contemporary Baptists should develop a love for doctrine. In a world of gimmicks and novelties, we should cling to that which is unchanging — the Word of God. Someone once remarked that now that the Southern Baptists have agreed the Bible is inerrant, they should read it. Well said indeed. May we love the wonderful doctrines of God in the same way as men like Richard Furman, P.H. Mell, J.L. Dagg, W.B. Johnson, J.P. Boyce, Basil Manly Jr. and John Broadus did in the 19th century.

Like these men, may we unashamedly trust in the full authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of our great God, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, the final and successful preaching of the gospel to all the peoples of the earth, and the glorious second coming of Christ. May we allow those doctrines to reform our churches and renew our people.

I am indeed a 19th-century Baptist. I continue to hope and pray that the Southern Baptist Convention as a denomination would recover its 19th-century roots. This second “conservative resurgence” could only serve to strengthen our people, our churches and our convention.
Finn is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

    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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