COMMENTARY | “Do Southern Baptists consider themselves Protestants?” I was asked recently. The question seemed innocuous.
“Why do you ask?” I said.
“Well, in my former church, we were taught that Baptists aren’t Protestants. That we weren’t part of the groups that withdrew from the Catholic Church. You can’t really protest what you weren’t part of to begin with.”
Normally I wouldn’t spend much time pondering how Baptists emerged on the scene, because I would find it outweighed by the question: How does that matter now? But here on the 498th anniversary of the Reformation, and peering over the cultural and moral precipice of the 21st century, I find the question is deep—and important.
In my friend’s church background, the teaching is that there always existed on a sort of parallel track to the Catholic Church a string of truly New Testament churches that were faithful to the biblical doctrines of salvation, believer’s baptism, and local church autonomy. They don’t identify themselves with Martin Luther, the agitated priest who on All Hallows Eve in 1517 started a movement—and a schism—with a hammer and nail as he posted his complaints on the door of his church building. Nor do they fully identify with Calvin, Knox, and Zwingli, Luther’s contemporaries. These Reformers nailed down faith by grace alone, but ultimately they kept the practice of infant baptism and a hierarchical church polity.
Methodists technically didn’t “protest” the Catholic Church. They withdrew from the Anglican Church, which was formed by Henry VIII because the Pope refused him permission to divorce and remarry—and remarry—and remarry. About 200 years later, Anglican priest John Wesley got saved and unintentionally started another movement. Not really a protest.
But in our day, the denominations that cite these Reformers as their antecedents are called Protestants. Mainline Protestants in America are Lutheran (of various types), Presbyterian (mostly PCUSA), United Church of Christ, Episcopalian (ECUS), United Methodist, American Baptist, and a couple of others.
We Southern Baptists never considered ourselves Mainline. But are we Protestants?
The reason this is important today was underscored at the symposium on “SBC in the 21st Century” hosted by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in September. All the presenters—mostly seminary presidents and leading SBC thinkers and pastors—referenced the current cultural decline and the need for Southern Baptists to take biblical stands against it.
David Dockery, former president of Union University and now head of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in metro Chicago, masterfully explained the shifts in Southern Baptists’ relationship to the prevailing culture.
He recited the SBC’s history as a series of six generations starting with its founding in 1845, each delineated by the death of some significant SBC figure. The period from 1950 to 1980 was one of expansion and accommodation, as the SBC grew dramatically and surpassed the Methodists to become the largest “Protestant” denomination in the U.S. The period was marked by movement toward the mainline, as downhome Southern Baptists moved up in the world. For a while, it was cool to be Baptist.
Dockery described how our cultural accommodation resulted in theological drift, identity crisis, and the Conservative Resurgence, intended to stop liberalization of the denomination. From that time, the SBC and society-at-large began moving in opposite directions. Here, 35 years later, we find ourselves on the fringe again, decrying moral decay and building battlements to preserve what remains of our religious liberty.
Perhaps my friend is right. Out here on the edge, we are not served well by the label “Protestant.” As applied to people and churches today, Protestant has lost its theological meaning. By it we are lumped in with those who have surrendered their doctrinal standards for the sake of cultural acceptance.
Perhaps we should consider ourselves simply “Baptist.”
Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist. Read the most recent issue of the Illinois Baptist online.