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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Apparently I'm Not a Baptist

I learned today, somewhat to my surprise, that I’m not a Baptist. The surprise came because I’m an ordained Baptist minister, a graduate of a Baptist Seminary, the son of a Baptist pastor, the grandson of a Baptist pastor, and because I have 31 years of experience in Baptist life. I learned the hard way, though, that these things are not enough to make one a Baptist, much to my chagrin.

The source of my revelation was an article[1] by Dr. Kevin McFadden, formerly of Louisiana College. He was one of the three professors at that school who had their contracts “not renewed,” a thinly veiled attempt to fire those who didn’t toe the political line of the administration and trustees of LC. His firing is unfortunate and demonstrates the continuing cannibalistic nature of fundamentalism in the SBC. Once the moderates were excluded, there was nothing left to do other than to exclude those who were less doctrinally pure than those in power. McFadden was let go because he held to a particular theological position that is well within the bounds of Orthodox Baptist life, namely Calvinism. However, it has been made clear by reports in Baptist media and from personal conversations with at least one now-disenfranchised Trustee of LC that politics was the issue more than theology.

Yet it is theology that McFadden claims to be the cause of his dismissal. In his article the professor explains a three-tiered approach to theology. His hope is to demonstrate that there are some things at the foundational level of faith, specifically, those things that lead to Christian orthodoxy. The other two levels of theology are, in McFadden’s mind, less important than the first. He comments, “Not every disagreement over doctrine is important. Some are more important than others.” He leaves room for disagreement over non-essential doctrines, which is essentially his plea for academic freedom in his now-vacant post at LC.

McFadden’s argument betrays his position, though. He contends that Calvinism (not Hyper-Calvinism, which he claims is not an authentic Baptist position) is Biblical and in line with historic Baptist principles. However, to support this position McFadden does not rely on Calvin, Zwingly, Luther, Mullins, or even Scripture to make his point; rather he relies on his theological position being consonant with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. He says, “The Baptist Faith and Message comes from a line of Calvinist confessions, rooted in the Second London Baptist Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is our theological history as Southern Baptists. Our confession has been modified over the years to allow views that don’t fit strictly within the Reformed tradition, but it was certainly never modified to exclude Calvinists, because the current revision of the Baptist Faith and Message included five-point Calvinists on the committee. You can be a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist and be a Southern Baptist. Both views are permitted under the umbrella of our confession.”

This is an unfortunate move, but it is telling of McFadden’s real point. McFadden and the other professors who were let go are victims of political maneuvering rather than theological boundary setting. By relying on the BF&M McFadden is attempting to restore his SBC orthodoxy in the eyes of those who fired him.

Here’s where I learned that I’m not a Baptist. In his argument about theology (which is really about politics within the Convention), McFadden describes his position within the faculty of LC. He says, “…not every teacher at Louisiana College has to agree with the second level doctrines—that is, you don’t have to be a Baptist to teach here. However, to teach in the religion department, you have to agree with everything in the Baptist Faith and Message. In other words, you have to be a Baptist.” To be a Baptist, therefore, is to adhere to the Baptist Faith and Message, and to be a Baptist professor at LC is to teach from that perspective.

As a believer who cannot place a “confession” over the Spirit-revealed truth of Scripture that is expressed and made real in the person of Jesus Christ, I have a hard time framing my life of faith in terms of the BF&M, especially on the sections that are contrary to historic Baptist principles of church polity and autonomy. I must, therefore, not be a Baptist.

In a pitiful attempt to reclaim some ground in the eyes of his political persecutors McFadden comments “the Baptist Faith and Message explains the doctrines which are important for us to agree upon so that we can work together in churches and as a denomination. It also allows disagreement on other doctrines that are not as important. It protects us from forcing others to agree with our theological pet-peeves and from being forced to agree with the theological pet-peeves of others.” Unfortunately, as he demonstrated in his citations of Creedal statements in his article, pet peeves are the forte of such statements. As he has learned the hard way, theological orthodoxy is a fire that will burn even those who think they are a part of the pure crowd.

Maybe I can still be a Baptist in spite of McFadden’s confession that to be a Baptist means to adhere to the BF&M. Maybe he meant that you can’t be a Southern Baptist without such slavish adherence. Certainly there are faithful Baptists who thrive in both ecclesial and academic circles without need for that document!

I find confidence in the fact that I can be a Baptist without the BF&M, and, in fact, can be a more spiritually and intellectually honest one in such a state. The real issue here is not theology, creedalism, or even foundational Baptist principles. Instead, the issue is how we use magisterial documents as litmus tests for orthodoxy rather than the testimony of transformed hearts and lives by the Spirit of God.
McFadden’s conclusion is telling of this point. He recognizes the inherent danger of the Fundamentalist position within the SBC. He calls it the “conservative resurgence,” but he’s living out the fundamentalist takeover. Sadly, he probably never thought he’d be a victim. Here is his conclusion in full:

“And this is what some who opposed the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention prophesied would happen. They said in effect that if you cause divisions over first level doctrines, then the divisions will never stop. This prophecy is beginning to come true. I hope you will see that the situation at Louisiana College didn’t have to happen, and it doesn’t have to happen in the future.”

No, it doesn’t. Faithful Baptists have known that for decades, and we’ve found faithfulness to God through Jesus Christ. I pray that the bloodshed will cease and that theological, intellectual, and political freedom will once again be the theme of Baptist life at LC and in our nation. As for me, I’m a Baptist. God have mercy.


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