The Southern Baptist Identity Crisis: An Appeal to Rediscover Our Ecclesiological Revolution -- By: Rod Gilbert

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 17:1 (Fall 1999)
Article: The Southern Baptist Identity Crisis: An Appeal to Rediscover Our Ecclesiological Revolution
Author: Rod Gilbert

The Southern Baptist Identity Crisis:
An Appeal to Rediscover Our Ecclesiological Revolution

Rod Gilbert

Regent’s School of Raleigh
Raleigh, North Carolina
ThM. Student
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina 27587

Even though many Protestants consider themselves to be individual spiritualists, they are nonetheless integral parts of a vital organism, the church. For the most part, Bible lessons, basic theology, and missionary adventures are learned from the local church. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have usually taken place in the context of a local church. Most Protestant marriages are performed in a local church before mostly Protestant adherents. Children learn simple songs about Jesus in Sunday schools.

In spite of this group vitality, the Western mind strives to protect individualism. From freedom of speech to personalized license plates, Westerners are an individualistic lot. Perhaps our modern freedom of individualism is a generational trait passed down from the adventuresome settlers and frontiersmen of this young America. The origin is difficult to locate, but the presence of freedom as an inalienable right permeates almost every area of Western life. The soul of America cries, “Down with socialism and communism! Long live free enterprise and capitalism!”

From economic principles to spiritual beliefs, Protestant Americans perceive themselves as free believers. More precisely, Southern Baptists foster disdain against patriarchal religious systems. Schleiermacher accurately concluded that the antithesis between Protestantism and Catholicism may be conceived thus: the former makes the individual’s relation to the church dependent on his relation to Christ, while the latter, contrariwise, makes the individual’s relation to Christ dependent on his relation to the church.1 Protestants cry, “Salvation is a personal matter! Faith is not passed down mystically! God has no grandchildren!”

Problems arise when the freedom factor of individualism is forced into a defined stucture, be it catechism, creed, or statement of belief. For instance, a

group of disgruntled Southern Baptists burned a copy of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, in 1992. This group was making a statement for freedom that they believed represented the free-church tradition. More recently, a Baptist paper printed an editorial that attempted to encapsulate the essence of the free-church tradition: “There are two dimensions of Baptist polity: soul liberty for the individual and autonomy for each B...

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