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‘It’s a perfect Baptist Catch-22’

Terry Mattingly writes this week [1]about two different Georgia Baptist colleges going two different ways. One is requiring its faculty and staff to formally affirm traditional Christian teaching on sexuality (including opposition to homosexuality); another is offering domestic partner benefits to its homosexual employees. Excerpt from the column:

The complication for many Baptist academics, stressed Benne, is that they place such a strong emphasis on “soul freedom” and the “priesthood of every believer” that they often struggle to find ways to separate themselves from the “lukewarm people in their midst who are not committed to the their school’s vision.”

It’s a perfect Baptist Catch-22.

“How do you defend specific doctrines and convictions,” he said, “without daring to list these specifics, which means you have committed the sin of having a creed?”


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13 Comments To "‘It’s a perfect Baptist Catch-22’"

#1 Comment By Charles Cosimano On November 10, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

Baptists,as people, can be said to recognize no authority in religion other than themselves and their Bible. When they get institutional, this causes some problems for the institution, but not very much for the individual believer.

#2 Comment By sdb On November 10, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

Historically this was not the case. Early baptists adhered to the London Confession (and their American counterparts the Philadelphia confession). The proliferation of revivalism and restorationist movements in the nineteenth century had an unfortunate effect on modern baptists and their rejection creeds and confessions. The radical individualism that arose from these movements has affected more than just baptists unfortunately… While one may identify as a confessionally conservative protestant, mainline liberal, Catholic, or Orthodox in practice most congregants are essentially baptist on the issue of church authority.

#3 Comment By Jim J On November 10, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

As the column also states: “In some ways, these Baptist conflicts resemble those among educators in other pews. For example, many American Catholic colleges and universities have become highly secularized, while their leaders insist that they remain rooted in “Catholic” values or some specific educational tradition, such as the legacy of the Jesuits. Meanwhile, a few other Catholic schools publicly stress their loyalty to the Vatican.”

This isn’t really a Baptist issue is it?

#4 Comment By Rod Dreher On November 10, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

No, it’s been happening for years to colleges and universities that are affiliated with churches and religious traditions. What’s so interesting about this from a Baptist point of view is how Baptists deal with it given their anti-creedal theological position. If you’re a Catholic college or university, it’s clear what you have to believe to be a “good Catholic” — or at least a Catholic in good standing. But how do you decide that from the Baptist point of view of “soul freedom”? That’s the key here.

#5 Comment By Jim J On November 10, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

I see. I think I was thrown off by the fact that homosexuality and benefits for partners regardless of sexual orientation was the dividing line between the two schools. As a good Southern Baptist “sola Scriptura” boy, the approach taken towards homosexual behavior and benefits appears somewhat clear-cut and has, in fact, been specifically defended.

I would think that in all cases “soul freedom” would fall under the overarching authority of Scripture and would eliminate a lot of that tension. Perhaps I’m still not fully understanding the catch-22?

#6 Comment By Stef On November 10, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

How is this any different than the mid-19th century Baptist split over slavery?

#7 Comment By Rod Dreher On November 10, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

Not sure what you mean. The Catch-22 is that a church founded on anti-creedal principles, and on the “soul freedom” of individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves, is going to have a tough time telling other Baptists that they aren’t at liberty to re-interpret Scripture to be pro-gay. I think that’s the point.

#8 Comment By JLF On November 10, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

Let me help you out here, Rod. Your problem is as much grammatical as it is creedal. You speak of “a church” founded on the responsibility (liberty) of the individual to interpret scriptures for himself. No Baptist can impose his interpretation of scripture on another, though like-minded Baptists can work together in congregations that share a given interpretation on the issue of homosexuality, for example. (Baptists believe “the church” refers the body of all believers, not to members of a specific congregation or denomination.) Because of the historic Baptist insistence on the role of the individual and his relationship to God, there can be no authoritative “Baptist” position on homosexuality or a host of other controversial issues. This frustrates many who would like to excommunicate (some Baptists call it “removing fellowship from”) the heretics, but at least it lets me remain a Baptist.

#9 Comment By Hugh On November 10, 2011 @ 4:49 pm


Can there be an authoritative “Baptist” position on anything, including “the responsibility (liberty) of the individual to interpret scriptures for himself.”

#10 Comment By Red Phillips On November 10, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

I’m a Baptist, although with some differences from most Baptists, and I am very familiar with the conservative vs. liberal conflict within the Southern Baptist Convention, especially here in Georgia. I think “soul freedom” is a potentially problematic doctrine, and I think there is something to be said for creeds, but historically soul freedom was not intended to allow a theological free-for-all. Historically, Baptists have generally (there are always outliers) not been allowed to disbelieve essential doctrines. Every Baptist church I have ever been affiliated with (I’m no longer SBC) has had a very specific statement of faith or covenant that you had to affirm in order to join. You can’t join your typical Baptist Church on the Corner and disbelieve the Trinity, the Virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, etc. unless the church is not doing its due diligence in vetting new members or the new member is fibbing.

It is the liberal churches who have misused soul freedom as their club against the conservative churches or the Convention telling them what they “have to believe.” Soul freedom is best understood in its historic context and as much by what it was intended to reject as what it was to affirm. Soul freedom means that there is no earthly institutional authority that dictates right doctrine or Scripture interpretation. The Bible is interpreted by the reader. This doesn’t mean every interpretation is valid. There is a right interpretation. It is the interpretation God intended. Just that there is no earthly authority to appeal to. Viewed historically it is clear that this was intended as a rejection of Catholicism and the idea of the Magisterium. (Funny how Protestants do that.) Also tied up in it is the idea of separation of church and state. Baptists at the time were a minority not only fighting for freedom from the Catholic Church but also Reformed, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc. Per Baptist doctrine you can’t be compelled to be a believer or be a believer based on infant baptism etc.

So whenever you here “soul freedom” thrown around, be weary. It is likely being used by a liberal Baptist to justify their rejection of historic Christian teaching or by someone outside the community who doesn’t understand or caricatures the doctrine. Seldom will a conservative Baptist appeal to soul freedom.

#11 Comment By Red Phillips On November 10, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

Oops … here should be hear above.

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 10, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

I don’t share Red’s creed, but he is correct on the relationship of individual religious freedom and the requirements to join a church. What most branches of the Protestant Reformation reject is the claim by any human hierarchy to be God’s representative on earth. Where two or more are gathered together, they have to agree on what it is that makes them a fellowship, a church, a denomination. Individuals who disagree are free to leave. God will judge as God sees fit.

A conservative recap of the congregational form of government is that Jesus is Lord of the church, and a consensus of believers who have joined the church via a public confession of faith best reflects the work of the Holy Spirit upon each and every individual member. It is not about voting to change the nature of God.

Baptists were, up until the early 1800s, generally hostile to slavery as a sin. That was only natural, since there was substantial participation by people of African descent in the Great Awakening. As some Baptists acquired more wealth, while some wealthy men found reason to become Baptists, those who owned slaves sought and found Biblical arguments that slavery was not a sin, but a divine institution ordained of God. Those people formed the Southern Baptist Convention. Others remained in the General Baptist Convention.

Both claimed the authority of God. In his own good time, God cleared up that question, in a rather bloody fashion, perhaps because our own choices left him no other option.

#13 Comment By JLF On November 10, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

Red Phillips is correct. But nothing he says creates a creed that all Baptists accept. The Triniity and substitutionary atonement are among the doctrines virtually all Baptists accept. Gay members? Not so many, I suspect. but some nevertheless.