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Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Fifth Century Initiative: Recapturing the Baptist Vision

With the 400th anniversary of Baptists right around the corner, Dr. Bart Barber, a Southern Baptist pastor and conservative blogger, has put together a document entitled The Fifth Century Initiative: Recapturing the Baptist Vision. Check it out:

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.

At his blog, I told Dr. Barber that I could do without footnote #1. I guess in the context of the current Southern Baptist Convention, historians like Barber feel the need to acknowledge their successionist (Landmarker) brothers. To acknowledge Baptist successionism is tantamount to a 8th grade Physical Science text citing the Flat Earth hypothesis in a positive light....in my opinion.

Nevertheless, I believe most Baptists, even moderates, would agree with much in this document. So, bravo to Dr. Barber for that!

However, what is wrong with the document is what is missing....

There is no mention of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, a Baptist concern from the earliest days of Helwys. The two issues that Baptists wrote on the most in their first century were baptism and religious liberty. No focus on religious liberty in a 21st century or Fifth Century vision? What gives?

The Fifth Century Initiative never mentions dissent! And and you can't tell the "Baptist story" without the D word! No liberty of conscience, no religious liberty, and no dissent....all hallmarks of the people called Baptists.

While nothing in the document gets my panties in a wad, I am "bothered" by this line:
"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."
Immersion has been a major theme no doubt, though technically it was believer's baptism that mattered first - the method, which was pouring, was less significant. Baptists began to immerse about 30 years later or so in the 1640's. Anyways, what about the Christians that are baptized but not immersed? Are they not being obedient?

I'm okay with the church discipline part. Churches can't turn their heads at blatant sins by members, especially those with money. But, church history has shown that the desire for purity must be balanced by the need for forgiveness and restoration. This document would be better if it mentioned both the need for holiness and forgiveness rather than a Calvin type strictness. As Baptists climbed the social order into the middle class, they realized that much church discipline is nit picky vindictive legalism. I'm not okay with that type church discipline.

Associations, as Barber says, often had doctrinal accountability. But I believe the purpose of associational life should be for ministry and fellowship. It seems that here and throughout the rest of the document, uniformity in thought is of the utmost importance.

What say you?

I'm interested in reading the response of Southern Baptist "dissenters" on this subject....


Anonymous Lee said...

Religious liberty is a tough issue for fundamentalists and conservatives to swallow because of their practices related to conservative secular politics. A truly Baptist historical perspective doesn't support the actions or involvement that many of them have taken.

I'd be interested to know what constitutes his definition of the "embarassing hiatus" from congregational polity. If he's alluding to the modern megachurch movement, AMEN!

Conservatives generally mean doctrinal conformity when they talk about cooperative association. Barber pastors a church that belongs to a cooperative association that refuses to be cooperative on any except for its own terms. That's not historically Baptist.

I do find much with which to agree, depending, of course, on the definition and intention of some of the terminology. He's right on target as far as Biblical literacy is concerned. In the wake of the conservative resurgence in the SBC, it's interesting that the proclamation of inerrancy has not been accompanied by a renewed interest in studying the scriptures.

11:55 AM

Blogger Bart Barber said...


I replied over at Baptist Life, but I will offer a more concise version here. It was my intention to present, not a thorough list of the Baptist distinctives, but those that I perceive to be most in trouble and in need of rehabilitation.


With regard to the "embarrassing hiatus" I was referring to our lapse in teaching the biblical basis for this doctrine more than to any lapse in its practice. Sometimes we continue to do something long after we've forgotten why. With the emergence of recent monographs regarding Baptist ecclesiology, I see light at the end of that tunnel, perhaps. In The Baptist Way, Stan Norman relates his experience of discovering that many Southern Baptist seminary students had never been exposed to any biblical foundation for congregational church governance. I must admit that, although my parents had me in church every time the doors were open, I never heard anyone offer a cogent biblical defense of congregational church governance until I was in Ph.D. studies.

3:53 PM


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