I cannot claim authorship of the following for at least three reasons. First, several people have looked at drafts for the past several months and have suggested helpful improvements. Second, the concepts articulated below are biblical and historical, and are in no way an innovation attributable to me or to anyone else alive today. Third, a great many strong leaders like Mark Dever, Stan Norman, John Hammett, Malcolm Yarnell, Paige Patterson, Nathan Finn, Tom Ascol, and too many others to count, have championed in part or in whole the concepts listed below long before I came to the scene. So, I offer this text for your consideration. In the near future I will supplement these words with related proposed actions and invite your participation.
The Fifth Century Initiative
Recapturing the Baptist Vision
Baptists embark upon their fifth century of modern existence beginning in 2009.1 Seventeenth-century Baptists asserted several New Testament precepts that we can isolate as the distinctive tenets of Baptist identity. These concepts coalesced for the seventeenth-century Baptists into a prescription of interconnected propositions for congregational reformation.
Four centuries have nearly elapsed. As the fifth century of modern Baptist existence dawns, the key New Testament precepts that define us have recently waned in influence and support among Southern Baptists. We are forgetting who we are—who Christ has called all Christians to be. At a moment when we once again need spiritual awakening and reformation, the New Testament prescription that served so well in the first and the seventeenth centuries beckons us again.
An initiative is in order to place before God’s people once again a vision for renewing the New Testament foundation of our congregations. Several tasks await faithful Baptists who would pursue this end:
- The Restoration of Biblical Literacy: None of the initiatives stipulated in this document are feasible in their fullest sense apart from a concerted campaign to acquaint the Southern Baptist people with the sacred text. Southern Baptists must develop viable congregational strategies for pursuing biblical literacy among our members.
- The Pursuit of the Great Commission: New Testament congregations are a construct intrinsic to the gospel and universally relevant to all people, cultures, and ages. Our congregations must visit afresh the Divine imperative to reproduce themselves throughout the world, embracing opportunities to engage the task with greater vigor than before.
- The Proclamation of the Gospel: Southern Baptists must regain a confidence in the power of the unadorned gospel to win the lost and to effect a lifetime of transformation. A confidence in the converting power of the gospel is in many ways the theological premise underlying the entirety of the Baptist vision.
- The Recovery of Regenerate Church Membership: Southern Baptists must restrict membership to visible saints.
- The Defense of Believer’s Immersion: Troubling signs of erosion have appeared on the bedrock of Baptist belief—the ordinance of believer’s immersion. Southern Baptists must assert not only the biblical certainty of this doctrine, but its biblical importance. Christian immersion is the nonnegotiable initial act of obedience for every Christian disciple.
- The Development of an Updated Southern Baptist Church Covenant: Many issues have emerged in the past century to pose new challenges to congregations. An updated covenant would greatly assist in recalling Southern Baptists to covenantal accountability as foundational to congregational life.
- The Renewed Exercise of Biblical Church Discipline: Several leaders have done significant work to commend to Southern Baptists the biblical mandate for church discipline and to provide practical guidance for the recovery of church discipline in lapsed churches. Building upon this work, the Southern Baptist Convention must assert these reforms not merely as one way to “do church” but as the New Testament model for mutual accountability among Christians.
- The Rehabilitation of Congregational Church Polity2: Baptist polity has far too often degenerated into the unholy pursuit of personal agendas. After an embarrassing hiatus, Southern Baptists have found once again the New Testament basis for congregational church governance. Now we need practical guidance to demonstrate how to restore the Lordship of Christ in the midst of congregational church governance.
- The Mobilization of the Universal Priesthood: Southern Baptists do well to consider one of the most robust New Testament doctrines for Christian mobilization—the recognition of all believers as members of a universal Christian priesthood with responsibilities for spiritual service. If the members of the congregation are all regenerate, then all are obligated to participate in the congregation’s mission.
- The Revitalization of Cooperative Association: Pragmatism and an inappropriate competitive spirit have sometimes marred relationships between sister congregations. Also, the waning of Baptist identity has diluted the fraternal doctrinal accountability that has historically marked the relationship between churches in their associative bodies. Southern Baptists need to recover a healthy cooperative life that encourages healthy congregational life.
1The year 1609 is, if nothing else, the first year to which the vast majority of historians—successionist or non-successionist—can point and identify genuine Baptists. Whatever disputed Baptist existence occupied 1608, the modern phase of the movement begins in 1609.
2Congregational church polity describes a broad category of polity with many viewpoints on such matters as the number and role of elders.