I have been and still find myself struggling with concern for the label Baptist. There is an uneasiness evoked in my spirit each time I observe a new church approved by our Kentucky Baptist Convention for admission that chooses not to use the label. I've thought a lot about this issue and I've tried to understand the motivation for such a choice. And I've heard the pros of leaving the name out and going generic. I get it, even if I don't buy it.
What I've decided is not to judge the motivation. However, I am making some observations about the consequences. Here is what I'm seeing, although I will freely concede that I'm speaking in generalities, not absolutes.
When a church chooses not to use the label that has historically identified itself within a certain tradition, then a harmful ambiguity is introduced. The pastor becomes predisposed to a "don't tell" policy in regards to Baptist identity. If he is asked a direct question about the church's identity, then the information is surrendered, but it's not an identity voluntarily disclosed on the front end.
Another observation is that once the name is not employed by a new church, then certain historic Southern Baptist distinctives become less important, particularly congregationalism and cooperation. Again, not all do this, but I've observed enough that do to be concerned.
Additionally, it seems that these non-Baptist, Baptist pastors are utilizing non-Baptist models and resources, further widening the gap between what the church is technically supposed to be and what it actually is in its practice.
So, in summary, these secret Baptist churches tend to adopt and utilize methods and models outside Southern Baptist life, move away from a historic Baptist congregationalism, and de-emphasize or eliminate traditional means of cooperation, such as giving to the Cooperative Program, participation in the local association and leveraging state and national resources for ministry and mission. Again, this is not an absolute claim, just an observation of a pervasive trend.
My contention is that that label Baptist is significant historically, theologically, and practically. Therefore, I have a hunch that we have been and are undermining our cooperative work, confusing our identity and compromising biblical commitments every time we financially support and admit a new church that strategically chooses to hide its identity. Of course, right now I'm speaking primarily of the potential consequences. It will take some time for my hypothesis to be proved or disproved.
For the past several years I've watched our Kentucky Baptist Convention admit new churches into the fellowship of Kentucky Southern Baptists. Each year at least half (sometimes more) do not bear the label Baptist. Even if just half of those churches go on to be healthy churches, where does that put the denomination 50 years from now if we continue on such a path? Does the term Baptist completely loose its significance? Do non-labeled Baptist congregations increasingly get confused about their cloudy heritage? When the founding pastor (who is a Baptist) moves on, what kind of pastor will the church look for next? I believe there are many such important questions that we are not critically thinking about as we launch so many new churches with Baptist support without Baptist identities.
Let me give a short caveat here:
I was proud to be a Kentucky Baptist this week as we held our annual meeting in Paducah. We had some difficult decisions to make, but I believe we collectively made the right decisions. One of the most vexing issues facing Kentucky Baptists was the growing concerns about the direction of Sunrise Children's Services. I am not making little of the hard choice that ultimately will have to be made in regards to that ministry, but I can't help suspect that the beginning of that ministry's waywardness was when Kentucky Baptists thought it was beneficial and harmless to drop the label Baptist from the ministry (Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children) and opt for a completely secular name that could mean anything and potentially stand for nothing.
I think we ought not overlook that small beginning step toward the mess that we found ourselves in this week. I'm not suggesting with certainty that there is a direct causal relationship, but my instincts tell me that when the whole story is told with enough hindsight that it will be one of those "factors" that historians identify when attempting to give explanation to movements or trends.
God's kingdom and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are neither historically or uniquely Baptist. I am not saying that Baptist is "the way, the truth and the life" in an ultimate truth kind of way. However, as a Baptist I believe that the label stands for important doctrinal and practical commitments that are more than merely good ideas at best. These commitments are driven by an overall commitment to be faithful to the Word of God. If there has been one driving characteristics among Baptists from the beginning, as second generation children of the Reformation, is has been a commitment to sola scriptura for belief and practice, even when that meant going against the culture and even risking persecution. There are those in the modern era who call themselves Baptist who do compromise God's Word. We call them liberals. I'm not talking about them.
The churches that make up the Kentucky Baptist Convention overwhelmingly hold to a high view of Scripture. And that means something. Tuesday in Paducah we saw that commitment shine.
Now back to my main thought in this post. Even as we stand strong on Scripture, I believe we may be undermining our own efforts at advancing the Gospel in church planting. It would seem to me that new churches receiving support from Baptist churches ought to be Baptist themselves. I would think that the pastors would be committed to Baptist distinctives (i.e. The Baptist Faith and Message) and work to improve the reputation of the label rather than hide it in shame. I would hope that our leadership on the national and state levels would think more on the possible long-term consequences of running away from the label Baptist. And church planters, I wish those of you who are or are contemplating hiding your identity would consider the question of integrity that hangs over such a decision.
Baptists are called Baptists for specific reasons. I believe those are good reasons historically and biblically. A denominational label is more than merely a name. That name represents your distinctiveness and commitments that are important. I think it's time to stop this trend of being ashamed of the name and start making it a better name.