Last autumn in an article on the possibility of a Mormon president in the 2012 election, Harold Bloom, thundering out of Zion (see Housman for context), judges the Southern Baptist Convention to be as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam or Mormonism. In the midst of his slew of idiosyncratic declarations of the genealogy and content of American religions Bloom also makes the passing comment that the Southern Baptist Convention is “anti-intellectual and semi-literate.” No response to Bloom’s snobbery is required (his first claim is historically contentious, to say the least, and I have no interest is forming a historical apologetics contra Bloom’s religious historiography), rather, I quote him to evidence one account of a non-Baptist view of Southern Baptists. Bloom postures himself within what John Howard Yoder would call the “maturation” perspective of Southern Baptists. This typology, which is common to mainstream ecumenical Protestantism as well as the American pluralist establishment, sees the SBC, like Catholicism, as a substantial sectarian religious group. The SBC holds power in numbers and cultural self-confidence which permits it to operate independent of, and without recourse to, other churches or political bodies in America. Yoder notes that from this viewing place it is hoped that as theologians and pastors become more refined, and as the laity becomes less naive (or perhaps, for Bloom, more literate), the Southern Baptist identity will naturally wither and their “sect” will become more akin to a “denomination” and soften its boundaries; that is, SBC will acculturate to the “mainstream.”
Such a view, Yoder says, must be rejected not because it is unlikely to happen but because it is condescending and unecumenical, and further it betrays itself to an uncalled-for confidence in the American pluralist establishment.
Another vista, though not the only other, to view the Southern Baptist reality from — and the one Yoder assumes — is the believer’s church stance and it’s attendant Radical Reformation ecclesiology. This stance forces a much more delicate approach that appears more sympathetic that the enlightened view of a Harold Bloom, however, it brings with it a chastening view of history that challenges the unfaithful aspects of the Southern Baptist reality.
The content of the challenge from Yoder’s perspective within the believer’s church comes down to avoiding the abiding temptation of establishment. The central problem, not just for Southern Baptists but for all communions and churches, is the Constantinian temptation. Nevertheless, Southern Baptists have succumbed to Constantinianism. Yoder qualifies this: the SBC is not Constantinian in the strict sense of having a structural bridge between it and the State, but rather in its mood and tone. The result of its fall into establishmentarianism is that it has developed provincialisms that alienate distinctive Christian markers of identity.
The first provincialism is the development of what Yoder describes as a “theologically illegitimate neo-sacramentalism.” This happened when Southern Baptists began to focus on the issue of the mode of Baptism rather than the baptized person’s accountability. Southern Baptists’ allowance for lower ages in baptism has subsequently dissolved the ability to distinguish between their form of baptism and infant baptism. The original issue behind rejecting infant baptism was that the person being baptized had reached an age where he or she could be accountable to the “standards and discipline of the Christian community and to costly obedience to Christ as Lord.” Southern Baptists have lost this meaning and focused instead on tertiary issues such as the mode of baptism.
Secondly, they have adopted a view of conversion that meshes with the individualism of American secular anthropology to the neglect of the corporate character of the community of faith according to the Bible. This adoption has led to an emphasis and concern with the psychological mechanisms of conversion and the life of faith over against attention to visible expressions of faith. Yoder rightly points out that in the New Testament conversion is profoundly personal, but not individual, and certainly not concerned with the happenings taking place in each personality.
The third provincialism, is the ecclesiological move from asserting the priority of the local congregation to holding to its exclusivity. Southern Baptists, Yoder says, have adopted an uncritical schematization that has led to this move. The exclusivity of the local church isolates the local congregation, taking away boards or conventions to aid in decision-making processes. This position fosters an unecumenical (anti-ecumenical?) disposition that does little work positively towards Christian unity.
The fourth provincialism is the SBC silence towards social ethics. Yoder indicts the SBC for hiding behind the dualism of church and state or personal piety and cultural practice. The problem is that the only link between the church as a social organism and social ethics is by means of the individual heart of the believer. Social ethics are seemingly non-existent and there is no presence of a peoplehood of the church living in society with radical non-conformed demands. Further, Yoder reprimands this distortion as an essentially Lutheran paradigm for social ethics, and not a view from the believer’s church.
The fifth provincialism Yoder labels as a more pernicious one. Here he points out the acceptance of the nationalism of the modern culture within the SBC. This cause Southern Baptists to see the “separation of Church and State” as an internal division of labor within a perceived Christendom. Biblically and in Radical Reformation origins and ecclesiology, the “separation” was from not only the State but also the cultural nationalism. It entailed looking beyond, and a readiness to pass judgment upon, one’s own nation and race. Once this vision is lost theologically, Yoder says, “the loose structures of the Free Churches make it especially easy to fall prey to this kind of apostasy.”
The sixth provincialism is what Yoder calls the “quasi-creedalism” adopted during the Fundamentalist controversy. Modernity forced upon Southern Baptists a mental rigidity and doctrinal traditionalism disloyal to the convictions of the Free Church. The unquestionable creeds adopted in the twentieth century — the five fundamentals, antievolution, millennialism — “had all the drawbacks of the historic creeds and none of their nobility.” This “quasi-creedalism” has evolved in such a way that it functions now as a sort of tribute that must be paid to ensure citizenship.
These provincialisms all stem from Constantinianism, for Yoder. Rather than seek remedy in assimilating to the mainstream and appeasing the American pluralist establishment, Yoder argues to let Baptists be Baptist. What he means is:
(1) Let them renew their commitment to their Radical Reformation ecclesiology and heritage.
(2) Let them pioneer in renewing the meaning of this heritage in the face of the establishment temptation — which will include reflecting on the above-listed provincialisms.
(3) Let them enter into interchurch conversations with all their distinctive convictions as far as their convictions will permit allowing them to reprimand sister communions who have allowed their witnesses to be dulled.
(4) Let them be open to other traditions in such a way that can be distinguished from accommodations to “mainstream” Protestantism.
For Yoder, movement in this direction allows for great ecumenical possibilities that can reach far beyond Southern Baptists themselves. Not only can Southern Baptists then receive their Free Church heritage more faithfully but they can witness to the wider Christian world their particular theological convictions. In nuce and against the pomposity of Harold Bloom, Yoder’s perspective offers a challenge to Southern Baptists from someone standing by their side to live more fully and faithfully as the church that resists the Constantinian temptation while maintaining its distinct identity seperate from the quarantined neo-liberal American pluralism.
– Quotes from Yoder’s article “A Non-Baptist View of Southern Baptists”