FIRST PERSON: Healthy denominationalism or denominational ultraism?

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--A forgotten, but surprisingly prescient, approach to questions regarding the necessity and future of Baptist denominational identity can be gleaned from the words of John A. Broadus (1827-1895) when he addressed the American Baptist Publication Society's 1881 meeting in Indianapolis.

Broadus, one of the founding professors and later president of the Southern Baptist Convention's first seminary, titled his sermon "The Duty of Baptists to Teach their Distinctive Views."

In the main portion of his sermon, Broadus listed four specific reasons why Baptists should teach their distinct views: 1. It is a duty we owe to ourselves. 2. It is a duty we owe to our fellow Christians. 3. It is a duty we owe to the unbelieving world. 4. It is a duty we owe to Christ.

Considering his first reason, "It is a duty we owe to ourselves," Broadus noted that Baptists, in adhering to their distinctives, "stand apart" from other Christians in "separate organizations." Thus, Baptists should ensure that the cause for separation has "real importance," that their differences with other Christians are of "substantial value and practical importance as a part of what Christ commanded."

Moreover, Broadus explained that teaching Baptist distinctives also serves as "the only way of correcting excesses among ourselves."

Broadus spoke of some "Baptist brethren" who, in their zeal for their denomination, were often "violent" and "bitter" in their defense of Baptist distinctives. Later in the sermon, Broadus described these preachers as those who were "constantly going out of their way to find such topics through a bred-and-born love of controversy or a mistaken judgment as to its necessity and benefits."

Many Baptists were embarrassed by this excessiveness, while others opted to retreat, "scarcely ever making the slightest allusion to characteristic Baptist principles." Afraid of "appearing sensational in their own eyes, or in those of some fastidious leaders ... [they] shrink from saying the bold and striking things they might say, and ought to say." Broadus found no fault with the content of the violent preachers' message, but rather with the harm they cause by their sensationalism, in that they drive so many other preachers to the opposite extreme.

The only corrective Broadus saw for what he termed "denominational ultraism" is "a healthy denominationalism."

Broadus' observations have merit, in that, for those who understand their distinct Baptist positions as the outworking of biblical study, it is an inconsistent practice to shrink from or minimize what they hold as true. If the external commands in the Bible for ordering local churches are counter to the vast majority of the practice in contemporary Christendom, and if Baptists feel as though their views align with the teachings of the Bible, then Baptists owe it to themselves to teach their views. However, such teaching should follow the directive of Paul in Ephesians 4:15 and go forth "in love" for the purpose of building up the body of Christ, not for winning an argument or tearing down other misguided believers.

The errors in spirit among Baptists in Broadus' day have continued to exist among Baptists. Too often, zealous members of the Baptist faithful verge into sensational defenses of Baptist views, thereby ostracizing many who agree in principle and practice, just not in spirit and tenor.

The result is a cleaving among Baptist brethren whereby the extremists continue to marginalize themselves as they run like the cattle of Pamplona through the fragile wares of Tiffany & Co.'s narrow aisles. While often precisely correct in their views, their methods only overshadow their message and do damage to their cause. The world gains a distorted view of the Baptist perspective, and many otherwise capable Baptists shrink from attempting to offer a corrective.

The shrinking, though, is just as egregious of an error. These embarrassed Baptists often use their rhetorical abilities to caricaturize the extremists, remarking to one another of how baseless and harmful are the sensationalists. However, rarely do these Baptists respond with a defense of Baptist distinctives cloaked in humility and Christian kindness, much less a defense at all.

Instead, many are pulled toward the position of minimizing the distinctives as unnecessary or nonessential to the practice of the local church. Broadus described such Baptists in his day as those who "go out of their way to avoid all disputed questions, and want nothing to do with controversy of any kind."

Also, his charge to these kinds of Baptists continues to speak as a needed corrective when he advises them to "study the history and recorded writings of a man named Paul. He did not shrink from controversy. Yea, and his Master and ours is polemical on every page of his recorded discourses, always striking at some error or evil practice of the people around him."

Broadus' cure is still correct. The way to correct the practice of both extremes, sensationalism on the one hand and timidity on the other, is for some clear-thinking courageous Baptist preachers to get out in front of both groups and lead the parade.

Broadus' plea for the teaching of a healthy Baptist denominationalism will still find favor in the hearts and minds of many believers, not only because it is true, but also because of how it is communicated. Baptists owe it to themselves to teach their own distinctives.

Near the end of his sermon, Broadus cited a response that a leading Virginian Baptist, Jeremiah Jeter, gave regarding how he approaches teaching Baptist distinctives in the right manner.

Jeter said, "I never go out of my way to avoid such topics, and never go out of my way to find them. When naturally suggested by my subject or the circumstances, I speak of them, and I try to speak without timid fear of giving offence, and without fierce vehemence, as if taking hostility for granted, but just treating these matters, so far as I can, in the same tone with which I speak of other thing."

What is needed are Baptist leaders who will, like Broadus and Jeter, and even like Paul, model their views in such a way so as to say, "What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me -- practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you" (Philippians 4:9).

Jason G. Duesing is vice president for strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This article is adapted from his contribution to "Upon this Rock: The Baptist Understanding of the Church" (B&H Academic, 2010).

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