I learned recently, 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 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 by Kevin McFadden, formerly of Louisiana College. He was one of the three professors at the school whose contracts were “not renewed,” a thinly veiled attempt to fire those who didn’t toe the political line of the administration and trustees of the college.
His firing is unfortunate and demonstrates the continuing cannibalistic nature of fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). McFadden was ostensibly 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 Louisiana College, that politics was the issue more than theology.
McFadden’s argument in his article betrays his position, though. He contends that Calvinism is biblical and in line with historic Baptist principles.
However, to support this position, McFadden does not rely on Scripture to make his point. Rrather, he relies on his theological position being consonant with the Baptist Faith and Message, the SBC’s confession of faith.
He says, “The Baptist Faith and Message comes from a line of Calvinist confessions … 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.”
McFadden and the other professors who were let go are victims of political maneuvering rather than theological boundary-setting. By relying on the Baptist Faith and Message, McFadden is attempting to restore his SBC orthodoxy in the eyes of those who fired him.
In his argument about theology (which is really about politics within the SBC), McFadden 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,” McFadden continues, “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.
As a believer who cannot place a “confession” over the Spirit-revealed truth of Scripture, I have a hard time framing my life of faith in terms of the Baptist Faith and Message, 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,” McFadden continues. “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, pet peeves are the forte of such statements. As McFadden 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 Baptist Faith and Message. Maybe he meant that you couldn’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 Baptist Faith and Message, 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. He recognizes the inherent danger of the fundamentalist position within the SBC and 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 Louisiana College and in our nation. As for me, I’m a Baptist. God have mercy.
Brock Ratcliff is a minister at Madison Chapel in Madison, Miss. He also teaches mathematics and computer science at Clinton Alternative School in Clinton, Miss. A longer version of this column appeared on his blog, Fides Quaerens Intellectum, and is used with permission.