The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, and proving it will take some time, but the issue is important. I am not much concerned with what the Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and others do. And maybe it is convenient that they are all gathered into identifiable groups. My main concern is with Baptists since all of them claim to adhere to the Word; however, denominations are not found in the Scripture. So, is there a conflict here?
No honest historian, especially church historian, will declare that the New Testament churches were part of a denominational structure. Each church was totally independent of others although there was much cooperation among them because they believed and practiced the same thing and there was genuine love for each other. As the Roman Empire started to crumble, the independent churches began to look to the Church in Rome for leadership, leadership that eventually became authoritarian.
The Roman Church did not blossom until hundreds of years after the death of Christ. To those who find that shocking, even untrue, I refer them to Edward Gibbon, Will Durant, Kenneth Latourette, and other famous historians. Most of the independent churches looked to Rome for leadership but there were thousands of independent churches all over the Empire and many held to Baptist principles–others were weird and some were heretical–as today.
I would be delighted (not disappointed or discouraged) if every liberal church voluntarily closed their doors permanently tomorrow because error is dangerous and is to be eschewed; however, I would defend those churches if the government tried to close them. As to the few denominations that teach Bible truth, it goes without saying that they are reaching some people for Christ, teaching morality, and opposing the avalanche of evil. However, denominations do not have a biblical mandate for their existence. Would I want Bible-preaching but denominational churches to close their doors? Of course not.
I recently wrote a column about the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI) and was somewhat critical of them–even the “independent” BBFI. I have been loosely associated with the BBFI since 1960 and owe them much. Three of my children, a son-in-law, and a granddaughter were educated at their Springfield, Missouri college. Three of my grown children know the pastor of High Street Baptist who recently took his Independent Baptist Church into the SBC. One of my daughters was a classmate of that pastor. So, I did not rush into this issue without thinking and praying about it. I tried to write the column carefully showing love, sensitivity, and respect for both groups. I expected to be shot at by both sides and my expectation became a reality.
The professed independent BBFI has developed the accouterments of a denomination with their unusual growth, influence, and money. Anytime a “fellowship” has official colleges, mission boards, retirement programs, a publishing house, etc., it slowly morphs into a denomination. One big difference in a fellowship and a denomination is there is no vote required to be part of a fellowship. A church has to legally cut ties with a denomination to be free.
I pointed out that we have close relatives who are SBC members, and some of our oldest friends belong to SBC churches. The first Christians I ever met were an uncle and aunt who were SBC members. Moreover, the SBC has made an incredible impact upon America and the world. The SBC has produced some of the greatest preachers who ever opened a Bible. I would not want to see them close their doors, but I would like for them to disavow, disassociate, and depart from the denominational structure. Of course, that won’t happen on a large scale.
I stirred up a bunch of people beginning with pastors who receive my columns that are published on many Internet sites. As expected, I had mixed reactions from email and social media: “Right on,” “Amen,” “Well said, my friend,” “Excellent,” but others wanted to be removed from my master list. Others thought I had mischaracterized the SBC. It is interesting that no critic spoke to the absence of denominations in the Bible; the impersonal missions program; women preachers; the Reformed Theology; the corruption of their colleges; etc.
One of my readers said that the SBC does not own the corrupt Baptist colleges but then, I didn’t say they did. Although the colleges associated with their six seminaries are SBC connected, the many other SBC colleges are authorized, financed, and run by the various state associations. Whether they are owned by the state SBC or the national SBC, the college corruption is a reflection on all SBC churches. To their credit, many informed SBC leaders have adamantly opposed corrupt colleges for decades. No informed honest person defends the theological corruption that has been going on for decades at Baylor, Mercer, Wake Forest, etc. These schools no longer are connected with the SBC.
The SBC has received national and international praise for their disaster relief ministry, a group of 70,000 volunteers who provide food, water, child care, laundry, rebuilding, and repairs to damaged homes, removing debris, and showing Christian kindness to hurting people–without charge. It is the third largest disaster relief agency in the nation. When I see the yellow-shirted volunteers, often the first to reach a disaster, joyously helping discouraged, distressed, and often destitute people, I am delighted to know my brother-in-law is one of them. This kind of work is something that Independent Baptists can’t do on a large scale because there is no hierarchy or authority to implement a plan. Some would say that that is a weakness of Independent Baptists.
So, the SBC deserves many kudos for their disaster relief program, but if we receive roses for good deeds, then it is reasonable to receive rocks when we do wrong.
Just this week, I heard a fantastic message by a local (Chattanooga) SBC pastor. It was scriptural, interesting, well developed, and maybe overall better than those of many pastors from Independent Baptist Churches. SBC preaching, scholarship, godly living, dedication, ability, and motives are not an issue. The issue is denominationalism with its accruing problems.
My critics will say that the SBC has no authority over individual churches and that is supposed to be right; however, it is not so. While hundreds of SBC churches go their merry way without any contact with the SBC other than giving at least $600 dollars per year to them, each local church must take some responsibility for the actions, aims, and associations of the mother group. Just as the church in Rome was a help and influence to struggling churches around the Empire, it eventually became an authoritative head. In the SBC, there is an influence that borders on authority. We’ve seen that movie before and it didn’t end well.
Realistically, few SBC pastors are going to leave their denomination, so Independent Baptists must love, respect, and honor them even while we believe the Bible pattern is local, independent, autonomous churches.
Let the SBC pastors do their job seeking to honor Christ while Independent Baptists do the same thing. For sure, we do not need to fuss, falsify, or fight. However, while we recognize the good job that most of the SBC pastors are doing, we will not join them in their denominationalism and will maintain our independence as many churches have done historically.