Friday, September 8, 2006

What's Wrong with a Little Sectarianism?

sec•tar•i•an [sek' ter ē ən] (If you had a real computer, the phonetic spelling would look really nice.)
Rigidly following the doctrines of a sect or other group.
I am unapologetically a Baptist sectarian. As such, I am "one untimely born." This is not the age of sectarianism—not by any system of interpretation. Sectarian is a dirty word today. If someone calls you a sectarian, they generally do not intend to compliment you.

I write today in the hope of redeeming the concept of sectarianism from its present low estate. I believe that Baptist sectarianism has something to offer the body of Christ. I hope you'll read along (which always takes some level of commitment with things that I post).

Defining Baptist Sectarianism

Slightly modifying our definition above, we arrive at:
Baptist sectarian
Rigidly following the Baptist distinctives
The first step in defining Baptist sectarianism is to define the Baptist distinctives.

Many have systematized this list in different ways, but these different schemas reflect more the grouping of the same concepts into different clusters than any actual significant difference over what the Baptist distinctives are. As for me, I recognize the following as distinctives of the Baptist faith:
  1. An Authoritative Bible. Baptists have traditionally held that searches for proper Christian faith and practice must withstand review in the final court of appeals, the inerrant text of the Bible. The sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries constitute perhaps the most Bible-conscious age of Christian history, and it was this epoch that gave birth to the Baptist movement. Baptists belong within the biblical wing of the radical reformation. Baptists have tended to believe in something akin to the perspicacity perspicuity of scripture, and have therefore supported the idea of an accessible, well read, and well discussed Bible within the Baptist churches.

  2. A New Testament Church. Baptists believe that the church was established in the New Testament and that the pattern for the church is found exclusively therein. The Massachusetts Pilgrims, like many Reformation churches, believed that some pattern of church organization and practice was contained in the Old Testament. Thus, the Massachusetts church saw its task as the construction of a new Christian Israel in the New World. Williams differed, asserting that "the state of the land of Israel, the kings and people thereof, in peace and war, [are] figurative and ceremonial, and no pattern nor precedent for any kingdom or civil state in the world to follow." (A Plea for Religious Liberty) The doctrine of the relationship between the two testaments is perhaps one of the least appreciated but most influential planks in a person's theological platform. Much of what underlies Baptist ecclesiology and makes it consistent is this idea of a New Testament church.

  3. An Evangelical Church. I mean "evangelical" as used, for example, in the phrase "Evangelical Revival" denoting the eighteenth-century awakening in England, a movement that paralleled the First Great Awakening in America. In other words, I am indicating that Baptists are conversionists—we believe that the gospel is a call to a conversion experience. We are not sacramentalists and we do not believe in sacerdotalism. A person must respond to the gospel by personally undergoing conversion. Furthermore, we (most of us, that is) believe that the calling of people to conversion is the mission of the church given in the Great Commission.

  4. Symbolic Believer's Immersion. For a recent review of Baptist beliefs about baptism, see Dr. Thomas White's recent paper here.

  5. A Visible, Local, Gathered, Regenerate Church. Although Baptists have held a wide variety of viewpoints about the invisible church or the universal church, every variety of Baptist theology has given primacy of place to what distinguishes every variety of Baptist theology is the particular emphasis that we place upon the doctrine of the visible, local church—a single local congregation. Baptists affirm that each of these churches is autonomous. The churches cooperate as peers, and not in subservience to one another. There is no hint in the New Testament of secondary congregations enslaved to primary ones. Baptists believe that these local churches are gathered churches. In other words, the Lord gathers into a particular congregation whom He wills, and no earthly authority assigns individuals to the "parish church" that they must attend. The concept of a regenerate church deserves special attention, as it is perhaps the foundational Baptist distinctive. Baptists believe that these local autonomous gathered churches must do all that they can to limit the membership of the local congregation to those who are actually Christians—who have actually been "regenerated" through valid conversion. The regenerate church is all about church membership, and church membership is all about the regenerate church. Those who will reject the idea of church membership are rejecting the idea of the regenerate church. Regenerate church membership involves excluding from the church all whose status as a believer comes grossly into question. We either exclude them immediately when they seek to enter the local church (through careful admission of members) or we exclude them along with believers persistent in unrepentant public sin, all through sound, effective church discipline. Our belief in a regenerate church is a presupposition that fuels our stance on baptism, on church polity, on evangelism, and on believer's soul competency. Our belief in a regenerate church is built upon our belief in an authoritative Bible and our belief in a New Testament church. It is no mystery to me that (formerly?) Baptist churches are wandering away from so many of the Baptist distinctives when we have lost sight of the vision of the regenerate church.

  6. Believer's Soul Competency. Baptists did not come to articulate this distinctive in quite this way until relatively late. Also, many have stated this distinctive in terms that many Baptists could not affirm—in terms that seem to negate some of the other Baptist distinctives (or even the idea that other distinctives may exist). Nevertheless, it is a foundational concept among Baptists (related perhaps to our doctrine of the idea of perspicacity perspicuity?) that God makes every believer competent to conduct a relationship with God unmediated (although not necessarily unencouraged or unaided) by anyone other than Christ. Related to this doctrine is the scriptural concept of the priesthood of all believers: the fact that all of us collectively are charged by God to perform priestly acts of spiritual service before Him, a responsibility that will devolve upon each of us. Congregational church polity is related to this cluster, as this biblical doctrine asserts the responsibility of the congregation to seek the will of God.

  7. Religious Liberty. Baptists have historically been champions of the idea that governmental authority does not reach into matters of religious conscience. Roger Williams's concept of the two tables of the law is instructive here. The first four of the ten commandments deal with a person's relationship with God. In these matters, the state has no jurisdiction. These are the jurisdiction of the church, which must not call upon the state to wield the civil sword in such matters. The last six of the ten commandments deal with interpersonal issues. These are the rightful jurisdiction of the state, which has the authority to enforce compliance with its dictates on such earthly matters. Williams's views are representative of the Baptist position.
I rigidly follow these tenets of our faith. I will not compromise them, nor will I do anything to undermine any of them. That makes me a Baptist sectarian.

Advocating Baptist Sectarianism

Now, why am I a Baptist sectarian? Because I believe that these ideas are biblical and that they will help any church that rightly embraces them. My Baptist sectarianism does not make me a Baptist bigot, nor is it a manifestation of denominational pride. If anything, it is a cause for denominational shame, because many of our own "Baptist" churches have given a very poor showing to the Baptist distinctives. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton (admittedly against his will), the Baptist distinctives have not been tried and found wanting, they have been found difficult and left untried. However, where practiced faithfully, I believe that the Baptist distinctives will provide to any church the rewards always associated with fidelity to biblical teachings.

I acknowledge that, although I believe these distinctives to be biblical teachings, these are not the only areas in which the Bible has anything to say. There have been other areas in which Baptists have differed. There have been a few areas in which Baptists have enjoyed(?) substantial unity around positions that have been contrary to the truth. When I speak of myself as a Baptist sectarian, I am not by that affirmation commiting myself to a position on any of those issues. I may have opinions on those issues, and if I do I will probably eventually articulate those opinions if I have not already done so :-), but when I speak of myself as a Baptist sectarian, I am referring particularly to the ideas articulated above.

About those ideas I am excited and zealous. When I wish them for my Presbyterian, Methodist, or Episcopalian brethren, I am not wishing them ill. I do not wish to browbeat them or terrorize them out of existence. I wish to enhance their ministries and give them the great present of adherence to a set of biblical doctrines. Because religious liberty is a Baptist distinctive, they can rest assured that I will never do anything to prevent a Nazarene from being a Nazarene, etc. I am no threat to them, but I will seek to champion these ideas to them.

I will not spend a penny to subvert these concepts. I will only work to plant churches that embody these ideals. I will not work to unplant anyone else's churches, but I will not be a party to the establishment of churches that violate what I believe to be clear and important biblical principles.

See...I told you I was a Baptist sectarian. And I don't see anything wrong with that.

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