Baptist Identity, Great Commission Resurgence and How We Read the Bible

Much has been written recently about “Baptist Identity (BI)” and a “Great Commission Resurgence (GCR)” As I previously noted, broadly speaking, those terms have emerged as representing two competing visions for the future of the SBC. However, it would be inaccurate to suggest those designations mean that the BI crowd does not care about the great commission or that the GCR crowd is indifferent to Baptist identity. The difference between the two lies at the point of emphasis and centrality. Perhaps we might say, the difference emerges from the way that one reads the Bible.

When Dr. Danny Akin called for a “Great Commission Resurgence” at the Building Bridges Conference co-sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (of which he is President) and Founders Ministries (and hosted by LifeWay) in November 2007, his words resonated not only with those present but with Southern Baptists across the convention who listened to the audio of his talk and heard about this call. Dr. Akin is widely known and respected as an outspoken proponent of expository preaching with a passionate commitment to getting the Gospel to the nations. Anyone who would question his devotion to either simply cannot be taken seriously.

The vision that Dr. Akin and those who stand with him are casting for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention is one that arises out of a deep devotion to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. That devotion is what makes the Gospel central in the articulation of a Great Commission Resurgence (GCR).

Baptist distinctives are not ignored or forgotten by the vision that Dr. Akin has cast. They simply (and rightly) grow out of a primary devotion to Gospel. That is, after all, how Baptists developed in modern history. It was out of commitment to the Gospel that our 17th century forebears were led to form separate churches.

As I listen to and read what some BI guys are saying I come away with the impression that there is a lurking fear among them that a GCR-inspired future will lead Southern Baptists down an ecumenical path toward indistinct evangelicalism.

One of the clearest examples of the differences between the vision of the GCR and that of many identified with the Baptist Identity movement can be found in considering the issue that Al Mohler dubbed “theological triage.”

Dr. Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an institution dedicated to training ministers for Baptist ministry, wisely recognizes “theological seriousness and maturity demand that we consider doctrinal issues in terms of their relative importance. God’s truth is to be defended at every point and in every detail, but responsible Christians must determine which issues deserve first-rank attention in a time of theological crisis.”

Mohler includes the Trinity, person of Christ and justification by faith as examples of “first-order truths” while the meaning and mode of baptism would be a “second-order” issue and eschatology a “third-order” concern.

What Christ-loving student of God’s Word who is even mildly aware of the history of the church would not agree that belief in the deity of Christ is vitally more important than belief in believers’ baptism? It is hard for me to conceive that any right thinking Baptist would disagree with this. As Dr. Mohler puts it, this is a matter of “theological maturity.”

Contrast this way of reading the Bible, however, with that of one of the contemporary champions of the Baptist Identity movement. Dr. Malcolm Yarnell is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Theological Seminary. In an October 30, 2008 chapel message at Southwestern, Yarnell rejects of the kind of theological triage that Dr. Mohler says is necessary to theological maturity. He asserts,

You cannot perform theological triage on the lordship of Jesus Christ without severing His will into pieces and picking and choosing what you want to do. You will find out what he says and you will do it all because you know your life is totally dependent on Him.

Dr. Yarnell reads the Bible in such a way that there can be no allowance for theological triage. For him, making a distinction between first-order, second-order and third-order teachings of the Bible is a denial of the lordship of Christ. He says,

New Testament Christianity has no secondary doctrines when it comes to the lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s why I say Baptism is not secondary nor is it tertiary. It is essential.

In Dr. Yarnell’s vision of Christianity, baptism is just as essential as the deity of Christ or salvation by grace through faith. Nothing can be secondary if a person is truly committed to the lordship of Christ. He clarifies his meaning with the following words:

Now, does that mean that baptism saves you? No! But if you are saved then you will obey and you will be baptized according to Christian baptism not according to something of your own invention.

Note the distinction he makes. While believers’ baptism does not save, “if you saved then you will be baptized according to Christian baptism.” Do you see what he is asserting? If a person has not been baptized as a believer then that person is not saved, or at best, that person has no reason to hope that he or she is saved. Yarnell gives no room to the prospect that a brother or sister may be sincerely mistaken in their views of baptism and thus may fall short of complying with what is required, not out of rebellion or wilfull disobedience, but out of error.

That kind of narrow-mindedness strikes me as more than simple theological immaturity. It strikes me as dangerous to biblical Christianity. It makes no allowances for spiritual growth nor for the kind of apostolic charity that Paul displays in Philippians when he write, “Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you” (v. 15).

As a convinced Baptist I can fellowship with brethren who are right on the Gospel but wrong on baptism. While I wouldn’t try to start a church with them, I can learn from them, respect them and rejoice in the grace of God in their lives while disagreeing with their understanding of the meaning and mode of baptism. I don’t see how Christian love can do less.

There is a significant difference between the vision of those who believe that Baptist distinctives are just as important as Christian essentials and the vision of those who believe that Baptist distinctives are important precisely because they grow out of Christian essentials.

For the sake of the spiritual health and maturity of our convention of churches, pray that the latter vision prevails.