What Kind of Baptist?


When people ask me what I do I tell them I’m a pastor, and when they ask what kind of pastor I tell them Baptist.

“What kind of Baptist?” they ask.

“Just Baptist,” I answer.

And that’s when the conversation gets interesting.

“Not Southern Baptist?” they ask.  “No.”  “Not American Baptist?”  “No.”  “Not Cooperative Baptist?”  “No.”  “Not Alliance of Baptists?”  “No.”  “Not National Baptist?”  “No.”  “Not Primitive Baptist?”  “No.”  And when they run out of all the options they can think of they ask, “What are you then?”

“Baptist,” I say.  “Just Baptist.”

I sometimes tell newcomers to Baptist life that there is “a Christian way to be human and a Baptist way to be Christian.”*  That’s what I’m talking about: the Baptist way of being Christian.  It goes back four hundred years to that time when a group of Christians left the Church of England to start a church grounded in the New Testament scriptures and committed to the principle of freedom.  They felt that believers should be free to make up their own minds about Jesus, and free to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.  They felt that the local church should be free to determine its own mission and ministry, and that it should be free from any control by the state.  Those four freedoms are essential to the Baptist way of being Christian. 

Our grounding in the New Testament scriptures has led to an emphasis on missions and evangelism through the years.  Baptists really are an apostolic people (from the Greek word for “sent”), meaning they understand themselves to be sent by Jesus to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20).  That commitment led Baptists in this country to organize for effectiveness, and in 1814 the Triennial Baptist Convention was formed (so named because it met once every three years).  The purpose was to elicit, combine, and direct funds for the support of the Baptist missionary enterprise, mostly overseas.  In 1845 the Triennial Baptist Convention split into two parts—the Northern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention—primarily over the issue of slavery. 

When I became a Baptist in 1981 I did it by joining a church that was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.  If you had asked me then what kind of Baptist I was I probably would have said Southern Baptist, and I would have said it with pride.  The Southern Baptist Convention was the largest Protestant denomination in the world, sending thousands of missionaries into dozens of countries, including this one.  But by the time I went to my first annual meeting in 1987 the Convention was embroiled in conflict.  People were talking about the “Battle for the Bible,” and at that meeting affirmed an earlier resolution stating that women could not serve as pastors in Southern Baptist Churches because the first woman, Eve, had committed the first sin. 

That’s when I first began to reconsider my relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention.  I hadn’t been in seminary very long but even I knew that while Eve ate the forbidden fruit Adam also ate it, and apparently he didn’t even need to be talked into it.  Excluding women from pastoral leadership simply because Eve was the first to sin didn’t seem like a good enough reason even if it was in the Bible, and I began to suspect that there were other reasons behind this resolution, reasons that had more to do with the question of “Who will control the world’s largest Protestant denomination?” than with the question of “How can we faithfully live out the teachings of Scripture?”

By the time I graduated from seminary in 1991 that first question had been answered.  The Southern Baptist Convention was controlled by those who called themselves “conservatives” and whom others called “fundamentalists.”  Baptist agencies and institutions had been taken over; Baptist journalists and seminary presidents had been fired; local congregations had been divided by conflict.  There may have been those who were celebrating the victory but all I could see was the ravages of war. 

So when I came to Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina I came determined to leave denominational conflict behind, focusing my energies instead on loving and serving the Lord and that little congregation.  It wasn’t hard; those people were easy to love.  And it was during that time, when people asked me what kind of Baptist I was, that I began to say, “A Wingate Baptist,” meaning the kind of Baptist I found in that wonderful church: Christians who were committed to the historic Baptist principle of freedom and to the New Testament emphasis on missions and evangelism.  It’s hard not to love people like that.

I’ve been at Richmond’s First Baptist Church long enough now to feel that way about this place and these people, too, and maybe next time someone asks me what kind of Baptist I am I’ll say that: “I’m a First Baptist Richmond kind of Baptist.”  Those who know the church will have some idea of what I mean, and those who don’t know the church may just be curious enough…

…to come and find out for themselves.**


A related article on former president Jimmy Carter’s decision to leave the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 can be found HERE

*I attribute this quote to Dr. Randall Lolley, former president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.

**Interestingly, Richmond’s First Baptist Church was founded in 1780, sixty-five years before the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention.  I’m guessing that I’m  not the first pastor of this church to identify himself as “just Baptist.”

11 thoughts on “What Kind of Baptist?

  1. Well, I always wonder what a church group means by the word “freedom” or “free.” My son started attending a church because of his girlfriend. It had the word “free” in the title. He thought that was pretty good, and had the expectation that would make working with this church and pastor for their wedding very easy. WRONG. The had a lot of rules and requirements. Son was pretty upset that the premarital counseling focused on what was the right interpretation of the Bible, for example. He also thought that they seemed to focus on materialism. Now he is really turned off about church.

    Labels and affiliations do make a difference. Labels can be misleading. Labels and affiliations can easily turn into we/they demarcations, with the they being on a lower rung.

  2. Patricia Eck, my best friend is is a Catholic nun, not just a nun but the chairperson of the Board of directors of Bon Secours Health System. She has a lot of responsibilities over her sholders. But when we are at Towley IV farm(family owned) on the weekends that I am away for the summer, Melissa and Pat ride horses toguether. Pat and I work around the house, in the garden, feeding the animals, going to the little town up in the mountains, to get suplies for the farm etc. One of my favorite conversations with her is about the role of women in the church. Why can’t women be ordained, especially as there is a shortage of priests. It is nearly impossible for me to accept that women can’t be ordained. In a world like ours, where men and women do so many of the same things. In two weeks when we are going back to the mountains, this question still remains with no answer and I just wonder for how long….

  3. Pastor Somerville, I found your page by accident, but as someone raised *very* Catholic in the north I went ahead and read your post all the way through because I’m just curious about theology and its many manifestations. I majored in philosophy. Your essay was very illuminating.

    Texas is the reason I now understand the term “Bible belt.” Here in the heart of Southern Baptist Convention land, your essay has shed a lot of light on the Baptist religion for me.

    I thought I understood the Baptist religion — until I moved to Texas. Very different here, from what’s practiced up north. I’m not too hung up on denominations now, as an adult, but must say the Southern Baptist variety strikes me as very extreme. The focus on materialism and wealth building seems so counter to what Jesus taught in the Gospel.

    Anyway, thanks for the analysis. My blog: http://zeroentropy.wordpress.com. Margaret

  4. I am not sure what kind of baptist I am either. I think just baptist seems to fit me too.

    However, it seems being the pastor of a baptist church you have to pick. This is the part that I have trouble with.

    What kind of church am I going to help my people become?

    What do they need from outside our local church that requires me to connect them with a particular baptist group over another?

    If you have any thoughts on this, please share.

    I am finding that I/ my church really don’t fit the mold of any of the Baptist groups.

    We are just happy to be a faithful community of faith, charting our own path, seeing where the adventure of church in Reston takes us.

  5. These are good questions, Elizabeth.

    I have served as pastor of four Baptist churches now and each of them was established before the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention. I can almost picture the business meeting at which someone said, “There’s this new organization called the Southern Baptist Convention that sends missionaries to the ends of the earth. Let’s sign up!” And they did. They saw the SBC as a way of fulfilling the Great Commission. Somewhere along the way we got denominational loyalty confused with our loyalty to Christ. We forgot that it was his mission we were trying to fulfill and ended up fighting over control of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    I think the right question to ask is: who will help us fulfill the mission of Christ? Baptist churches are free to determine their own mission and ministry, and if you decide your mission is to help provide clean drinking water to the people of Malawi, then you find someone who is doing that successfully and join in. Or you start a ministry to skateboarders in Northern Virginia and invite others to join you. What you’re looking for is a way to fulfill the mission of Christ. Beware of any earthly organization that claims to be the way. We already know The Way, and his name is Jesus.

  6. Jim…I read your blog regularly and appreciate all of your postings. I am curious about your pastorate in Washington D.C. at a church that is dually aligned with both SBC and ABC. What was your impression of life as an American Baptist? I was a life long Southern Baptist until 1995 when I moved to the midwest to serve in a ministry position in an ABC Church. I have found that American Baptists are not as label conscious as Southern Baptists. Although this denomination has had its share of controversy in recent years, I have appreciated our diversity and a long heritage of the affirmation of women in ministry. Do think there will ever be a merger of The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship with American Baptists to form a new “Baptist” denomination? You always have such insightful words of wisdom I am interested in knowing your thoughts regarding your Baptist kin to the north.

  7. Thanks for your kind words, Steve.

    First Baptist, DC, was aligned with both the SBC and the ABC, supported the missions of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and housed the offices of the Alliance of Baptists. As a member of the DC Baptist Convention, it also partnered with the Progressive National Baptist Convention. When it came to being Baptist, we covered every base.

    Most of our involvement was on the local level, with the DC Baptist Convention, which was technically a “state” convention, but roughly the size of a local association—about 100 churches. I loved going to those meetings and looking out over the congregation, which was a beautiful mixture of black and white faces that looked (to me) a lot like the Kingdom of God.

  8. For several years after I graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1987 I referred to myself as a “recovering Baptist.” My four years at Southern, including a class that incorporated attendance at the 1983 SBC convention, had left me unsure that I wanted to be a Baptist of any kind. (One of the fundamentalist leaders at that convention had told my friend to her face that she could not possibly have been called to ministry, despite her assurances that she had received a clear and convincing call.) Letting go of my identity as a Southern Baptist was not without grief, as a member of the cradle roll, the daughter of a seminary-educated mother, and the granddaughter of a Southern Seminary-educated, Southern Baptist preacher.

    But after taking a few months’ break from church involvement and then visiting many churches of a variety of denominations, I decided to redefine myself using Bill Leonard’s term: I would be a “small-b baptist.” I felt that the Baptist way of being Christian worked the best for me, so I would just have to ignore the rest of the baggage that comes with being a Big-B Baptist (and sometimes attempt to explain it to others). That’s been working for me for the past 18 years or so – maybe not coincidentally the same number of years I’ve been at FBC Richmond.

  9. As the daughter of a Louisville Southern Baptist Seminary educated minister, I really didn’t question “Baptist” identity until all the fighting over fundamentalism started — then I had real trouble reconciling the “holy wars” with my father’s life and teaching. He left the pastorate after 13 years and worked in race relations the rest of his ministry until retirement, first with the Va Council of Churches, then with the National Council, and eventually as a professor in the Virginia Union Divinity School. Your four Baptist principles are those that are really meaningful to me, and since I came to FBC under Ted Adams tutelage, I have always respected the First Baptist Richmond way of being Baptist as the most practical and loving for my personal taste. Attempting to bring heaven to earth here in Richmond is quite a large enough challenge for me! I’m happy to share God’s love with any who listen (or observe my attempt to live His love in my relationships with others). That’s as much as I can manage on a daily basis. I love the opportunities of “mission trips” as our church has evolved them, but I respect the right of choice which God gave each of us. Those who profess to have a lock on”The one way” to God always worry me a bit —I thought He showed us that in sending His Son.

  10. [Howdy, Rev. Dr. Jim – just a personal note before getting started with my comment, I don’t know if you will want to publish this on your blog, I just share it out of interest]

    With the above comments in mind, out of curiosity, I have studied other denominations at times. In recent months, while studying the Roman Catholic denomination(not intending to convert, just studying them), I encountered, on a discussion site, an older lady (in her ’60s) named Becky. Becky is a retired school administrator whose father was a long time Southern Baptist Pastor and her entire family is Baptist. She was heavily involved with various Baptist Church activities all her life. Interestingly, and perhaps perplexingly, after the death of her Baptist husband, Becky decided to become a Roman Catholic. She now feels that while Baptists are Christians, basically, they have “gone off on the wrong path”, so to speak, and that the Roman Catholic Church is, so she feels, the “one true church”. She spends a lot of time encouraging others to become Roman Catholics. I probably should try to get her to explain to me exactly how this radical change came about in her beliefs, however, it did startle me to learn about her, to find that she had made such a great change after previously having been a devoted Baptist.

  11. I am a Traditional Southern Baptist who believes in one point Calvinism, i.e., I believe in the eternal security of the believer. Otherwise, I consider myself to be an Arminian. Even though I have an MAR from Liberty University School of Divinity, I would say that I am a nonmillennialist similar to Dr. Ray Summers of Baylor University. I accept the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963 and 2000. I am against the Ultra-Calvinism of so-called Reformed Baptists

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