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Friday, February 22, 2013

Are Baptists "Mainline Protestants?" or "On the Installation of Suzii Paynter as CFB Executive Coordinator"

            I’ve come across two independent sources this week that have both made an interesting assertion regarding Baptists. The first is Kenneth Cauthen’s book I Don’t Care What the Bible Says[1] and the other is an article[2] by Jim Hinch that appeared in The Orange County Register on February 15th. In both documents the authors include Baptists in lists of “Mainline Protestants.” This seemed odd to me, as I have never seen my theological relatives listed in such a way with Episcopalians, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Methodists. I was led to wonder if I had been wrong in my assumptions of just where my denomination fit into the grand scheme of the American Religious Landscape.
            The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life actually lists[3] Baptists under both the “Evangelical Protestant Churches” and the “Mainline Protestant Churches” headings. These broad categories are then broken down into sub-groups, for example the SBC is the largest Baptist group under the Evangelical list, while the ABC is the largest among the Baptists in the Mainline group. What gives? How can one theological denomination have such a split identity?
            I realize that these categories, much like the denominations listed within them, are relics of modernism. As we move into whatever is next in American Protestantism, we must realize that we are not only witnessing the development of post-modernism, but also of post-evangelicalism.[4] In the same breath, though, we have to understand that as we move to something like post-evangelicalism we will inevitably move toward post-mainlineism.[5]
            Baptists do not, by definition, fit into the categories that organizations like the Pew Forum try to fit them into. Baptists are not centrally-directed like other hierarchical denominations. We believe in the Autonomy of the Local Congregation as a bedrock Baptist principle. That means we cannot so neatly be categorized as “Mainline” or even as “Evangelical,” whatever that word means. Both Cauthen and Hinch imply in their writing that Baptists are just another group that can be generalized in the way that the PC(USA) or the UMC. Unfortunately, this is probably perfectly reasonable for the purposes of sociology. Whether or not Baptists are just another mainline denomination probably never crosses the minds of most members of our churches.
            Whether or not we are counted by Pew Research or other entity as Mainline or Evangelical is not really the point – it’s whether or not we count ourselves in those categories. Baptists have a long history of not allowing themselves to be included in the mainstream of society or religious life, and for good reason: our heritage is one of dissent, resistance, and martyrdom. We forget this heritage when we cast ourselves in with either mainline denominations or with evangelicalism. Baptist churches and the believers that constitute them, are autonomous and independent, participating in denominational activities out of a spirit of cooperation and mutual leading by the Spirit. Therefore it is largely impossible to authentically count Baptists as one counts Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or other groups with less-independent church structure.
            Consider the case of the historic installment[6] of Suzii Paynter as the CBF Executive Coordinator. While this event will understandably draw scorn from more Fundamentalist Baptists, the election of a woman to the Fellowship’s highest office reflects the very nature of Baptist life. I celebrate her election, though I doubt that her leadership will have an immediate impact on the day-to-day operations of my congregation. I doubt anyone joins or leaves the Fellowship simply because she was elected.
            What does matter is the nature of cooperation that the CBF is modeling by Paynter’s election. She has not been elected to a presidency or to a bishopric; the CBF Executive Coordinator is a post of vision-casting, of cooperation, and of vocal leadership. We remember, though, that the Exec. Coordinator does not make policy for my church, nor does she interpret Scripture or make doctrinal pronouncements that become orthodoxy.
            I do not believe that “Baptists” can rightly be pigeon-holed into either the Evangelical or Mainline categories. Certainly sub-groups of Baptists can be so categorized. However, to declare that “Baptist” churches are on the decline or that “the Baptist Church” did such-and-so is incorrect. If one congregation sees itself as Evangelical or another as Mainline is fine – to group all of us into one or the other is not.
            The beauty of Suzii's election is that it models exactly what the CBF stands for and, I believe, it indicates what being a Baptist is all about. Her job is to coordinate the mission of the CBF, to make partnerships, to grow and maintain the Fellowship. That is the essence of Baptist life - different congregations uniting in purpose and mission to reach the world for Jesus Christ while maintaining a firm grasp on their own local responsibility to do just that. Thanks be to God for Suzii Paynter, and thanks be to God for Baptists. 

[1] See Kenneth Cauthen, I Don’t Care What the Bible Says: an Interpretation of the South, Macon, GA: Mercer, 2003.
[4] This word has been thoughtfully developed and explored by my dear friend Roger E. Olson in his book Reformed and Always Reforming, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.
[5] I know this isn’t a word, and as far as I know has not been explored as a corollary to the definition of post-evangelicalism.

1 comment:

  1. Brock,

    It's difficult to lump Baptists together. That's why I and many Baptist historians prefer to describe to multiple Baptist denominations.

    With regard to those different denominations of Baptists, without a doubt, American Baptists who are part of American Baptist Churches USA are and should be described as mainline Protestants.

    Historians have described them this way for many decades as American Baptists have worked closely and shared a set of common principles with the other mainline Protestant denominations such as EC, PCUSA, UMC, Disciples of Christ, ELCA, etc.