Sunday, June 24, 2007

Truth In Advertising

Many years ago I was in Baptist History class by one of my least favorite professors at Cedarville. Despite a well-earned reputation as Dr. Sominex, he said something that has stuck with me for thirty years. His words were to the effect that there is no Baptist “pope” to admit someone to or excommunicate someone from the faith. Rather that the term Baptist implies a set of beliefs and if you don’t believe those things you can’t honestly call yourself a Baptist and if you do believe them you can. He likened it to “truth in advertising.”

I recently heard of someone who criticized a Baptist church in the following story. He was asked if he’s a Baptist or not. He replied by asking, "What does it mean to be a Baptist?" I imagine that the answer was a faithful rehearsal of the Baptist distinctives: Believer’s baptism by immersion, Autonomy of the local church, Priesthood of the believer, Two ordinances of baptism and communion, Individual soul-liberty of the believer, Separation of church and state, and Two offices of pastor and deacon. In response to this, the critic said that he hadn’t heard any mention of love. And this is a valid criticism.

However, I believe that this was an unfair criticism. He was not asked if he was a Christian, but if he was a Baptist. You can be a Baptist without being a Christian, as (a century ago) the members of Fountain Street Baptist Church might testify. Moreover, Baptists, particularly Fundamentalists like me, have a reputation for being censorious. If you consider Christ’s summary of God’s law in the double-love command, this censorious attitude argues most articulately for the non-belief, the non-Christianity, of such Baptists.

The categories of “Christian” and “Baptist” are independent. But if you are a Christian, identifying yourself as a Baptist gives a picture of HOW you are a Christian. If I tell you I’m a Baptist, you’ll know my yard won’t have a half-buried bathtub holding a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

Trouble is that you may also draw some other inferences that are not accurate. I think this is why institutions like the Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College first “got rid of the Bible” and then became Cornerstone University. Instead of standing up and saying, “This is what Baptist means,” and living a positive example thereof, they ran from the word Baptist. I still think they erred.

A lot of Christians did likewise and a lot of Reformed, Presbyterian, Church of God, and other churches became “Community Worship Centers.” Each denomination can point to negatives in its reputation. Certainly an irenic spirit is a Good Thing within Christianity and the blurring of denominational partisan identities takes a step in that direction.

I can see why you might not want truth in advertising. If you’re trying to sell your religion to me, and you make some vague spiritual representation, I’ll be naturally inclined to probe what exactly you believe. The premise is that this will get the proselytizing off to a better start than if you identify denominational pigeon-holes up front. I don’t buy it.

First, you can be partisan without being a jerk about it. If you tell me you’re Catholic or Reformed and I tell you I’m a Baptist up front, we’ve got our theological cards on the table and I’ve got a conceptual framework with which I can lovingly relate to you. I’ll know where the sore points are and can handle them tactfully. I’ll know the things I cannot take for granted. The denominational categories are the result of millennia of careful thought about the theological issues in play and ought not be discarded because of some bozo’s bad example.

And then there are the intentional misrepresentations of the enemy. You know, the Father of Lies. Do we act as if the devil’s slanders are true by running? Think of the word “puritanical.” We commonly identify this adjective with a priggish, humorless sort that bears no resemblance to the Puritanism of Milton or Bunyan. I'm sorry, but the most humorless person I know is emphatically not a Puritan.

So, with this in mind let me remind everyone: I am a Christian. What sort of Christian am I? I am a Baptist. What sort of Baptist am I? I’m a Calvinist. What sort of Calvinist am I? I am a Puritan. What do I mean by this? You can find book definitions for all these things that'll give you a good starting point. After that you’ll have to watch me. If you think my life works and want to know its theoretical framework, those labels will tell you where to look.

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