Thursday, September 07, 2006

"American Baptists Then and Now: Stumbling into Disorder" by Dr. Robert Meye

During the past few months, a succession of statements have been floating around in the blogosphere, underlining or appealing to "soul freedom" and "local church authonomy." Long-time American Baptist New Testament scholar, Dr. Robert P. Meye, wondered about the background of these words. So, Dr. Meye turned to several well known American Baptist historians to satisfy his curiosity. The following represents an unedited copy of his remarks, used by the permission of Dr. Meye.

Almost a half century ago, the distinguished American Baptist historian, Winthrop S. Hudson (Colgate Rochester Divinity School) offered an essay (especially) to the American Baptist community, “Stumbling into Disorder.” It was published in the first volume of the American Baptist historical journal Foundations in 1958. That essay, and others authored by Hudson, was republished by the American Baptist based Judson Press in 1979 in the volume, Baptists in Transition: Individualism and Christian Responsibility. The essays, singly, and collectively, were a red alert warning to American Baptists that the individualism reflected in the twinned “shibboleths” of “soul competency” and “local church autonomy” are disintegrating factors in American Baptist life.

It is a mystery that the wisdom of this volume, authored by a distinguished American Baptist historian, and introduced and endorsed by a second distinguished American Baptist historian, Robert Handy (Union Theological Seminary), and published by the American Baptist Judson Press, has had no impact on recent discussions about the way in which the American Baptist Churches/USA might or might not respond to churches and associations which are out of order in their blessing of homosexual practice in the churches, which practice has been disavowed by denominational resolution. In his essays Hudson shows that the pattern of appeal to soul freedom and local church autonomy does not match the historic Baptist DNA. Indeed, both Hudson and Handy, provide a clear look at the way in which Baptist thought has been subject to a philosophy of individualism, inimical to substantive biblical, theological, ecclesial, and a historically Baptist pattern of thought. Ultimately, Hudson suggests, this developing Baptist pattern of thought is not even subject to “rational considerations”.

The brief summary provided above is intended to recall American Baptists, on all sides, to take a new look at their own history. Not that American Baptist history is everything; before American Baptists there was the Lord of the Church, there was the revelation in Scripture, and there was the Church universal, of which the American Baptist churches are a part. Nonetheless, as long as all sides in the current debate appeal to the Baptist heritage (as well as the Bible, and Jesus), then all sides should keep themselves aware of what that heritage really is.

At this point, I want to provide a very brief sketch of some critical considerations in thinking about what it means to be an American Baptist. Hudson's book, and a volume co-authored with Norman H. Maring, A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1991), provide fuller details from within a specifically American Baptist context. Otherwise, there is a library of literature on the subject (see Maring/Hudson, Appendix 4).

I list here a series of observations, which can easily be verified in the works of Hudson or Maring, as well as other Baptist historians.

--Baptists have always considered themselves to be a part of the larger Church, and even when breaking ties with a parent church, were quick to demonstrate their kinship in the Christian faith with that church.

--In breaking with a parent church or body, Baptists made their own like affirmation of the rule of Christ and the authority of Scripture standing over all that they believed and practiced.

-- At the same time that they were severing themselves (or being severed from) from one body, they formed themselves into a new body (of believers), albeit with different polity and practice. Like the established churches, the new Baptist body produced articles of faith, catechisms, confessions, and covenants-and hymnals.

--A critical part of the concern that brought the Baptist movement into being was the understanding that true belief must be from the heart (thus, believer's baptism) and thus cannot be coerced. Belief and practice must not be coerced at the individual level in the local church, nor upon a local church by a larger church body.

--This Baptist understanding has historically led Baptists to become champions of liberty, in many venues and forms.

--At the same time, it was understood that members of a given Baptist body or association, having joined that body or association on a voluntary basis, had also voluntarily given themselves to living according to the pattern of doctrine and order established by a church or association.

--Baptists understood that individuals and churches needed nurture, admonition and discipline to live in a fullness of obedience to Christ and the Scriptures. Neither individuals nor churches could “go it alone”.

--It was understood that even though you could not force an individual or church to believe or practice in a certain way, the refusal by an individual or church to live according to the doctrine and rule of the body was tantamount to severing one's ties with the body. When necessary, excommunication or dismissal was used.

The Transition . . .

The Baptist movement in America was naturally kindred to the movement of British Baptists in the beginning. But as time went on, the Revolution, Enlightenment inroads into Western thought, and the impact of Jeffersonian individualism-among other factors--made their impact upon American Baptists. Robert Handy, in his introduction to Hudson's Baptists in Transition, details five factors (among others, as he notes!) contributing to the deep inroads of American individualism into the life and thought of Baptist (and other) churches.

The resultant scenario is something like this: When one reads Hudson's review of some of the better known, recent literature on Baptist polity that has shaped the Baptist mind, one has the sense of being introduced to an alien (not historically Baptist) land: The literature is not denominated by established biblical, theological, or ecclesial patterns of thought; rather, in the end, individualism reigns supreme. Until, in the end, explications of polity sound more like a note out of political philosophy than New Testament theology or Christian ecclesiology. One prominent author shaped by a philosophy of individualism (McNutt, Polity and Practice in Baptist Churches; published by the American Baptist Judson Press in 1935, and republished in 1959) himself observed that “as a result of the findings of the psychologists and sociologists, 'clear thinking reveals no such thing as the individual in society, neither can it discover the strictly independent church.' “ Hudson describes this as “curious note of ambiguity” in McNutt.

Again, in Baptists in Transition, Winthrop Hudson issues (pp.50-51) a red alert warning that the seeds of disintegration are contained within the twinned doctrines of soul freedom and local church autonomy-this the judgment of a most eminent American Baptist historian.

Robert Meye

[His Barking Dog counts it a privilege to scrounge around Dr. Meye's garbage out back of his house. More than once I have been treated with a theological or historical gourmet delight for my trouble (the man sat under Barth for heaven's sake!!!). However, never confuse my barking with the master of the house. Reprinting some of his stuff still doesn't make him responsible for my theological mange or polity distemper.]

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