For Baptist Fundamentalists, “dual affiliation” is a phrase that has been, historically, charged with tension. The term was significant in the events that led to the birth of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), as well as the beginnings of the Minnesota Baptist Association (MBA) and the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International (FBFI). Over the years, these organizations have rarely intersected with one another in any formal manner, and for many a sense of suspicion has lingered.
Recently, the matter of dual-affiliation was raised in a new context when First Baptist Church in Marshall, Minnesota (where I serve as pastor) sought and obtained fellowship in GARBC associations while retaining its established fellowship in the MBA.
The resulting gathering
Prompted largely by the Marshall congregation’s actions, over 100 Baptists from Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin gathered September 19 at Fourth Baptist Church (Plymouth, MN) for a panel discussion. The event was billed as “The Future of Baptist Fundamentalism: A Thoughtful Conversation Between Baptist Brothers.”
Panelists included John Greening (GARBC National Representative), Kevin Bauder (Central Seminary Research Professor and RBP author), and Mike Sproul (chaplain, pastor of Tri-City Baptist Church in Chandler, AZ, and FBFI Executive Board member). They were joined by me (as panel organizer), host pastor Matt Morrell (Fourth Baptist Church), Chris Anderson (pastor of Killian Hill Baptist Church in Lilburn, GA), and moderator Brent Belford (of Central Seminary and Fourth Baptist).
Rarely had such a diverse group of Baptist Fundamentalists been assembled. The group included numerous MBA pastors along with leaders from Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary, Iowa Association of Regular Baptist Churches, Minnesota Association of Regular Baptist Churches, Wisconsin Fellowship of Baptist Churches, and New Testament Association of Independent Baptist Churches. There was a sense of energy and anticipation in the room.
In his opening remarks, Kevin Bauder described the current state of Fundamentalism as well as historically discernible categories within it, distinguishing between the non-denominational, Presbyterian, and Baptist categories as well as the Northern and Southern streams within the Baptist category.
John Greening assessed the current state of the GARBC, acknowledging that the number of fellowshipping churches has declined somewhat recently, mostly due to older churches losing vitality and closing their doors. Greening also lamented “embarrassing” historical anecdotes (as described in Bauder and Delnay’s One in Hope & Doctrine, for example) when core principles became side-tracked at the expense of organizational issues. Greening likened Fundamentalism to the man in the parable who buried his talent, warning that,
we may reach the day when we stand before the authority figure and He says, “Tell me, what you did with the investment” and we reply that “I thought you wanted me to protect it all the time.” Obviously, we need to guard truth, but we also have to champion it! We have to leverage the collective “brain trust”—our commitment to the ideas of Fundamentalism—and turn them into something in the context of religious debates. So, we’re speaking to issues, we’re making points, we’re writing books, we’re putting up posts and blogs.
Mike Sproul spoke to the current state of the FBFI. He recounted his memories as a member at Tri-City Baptist (where he now pastors) under his predecessor, Dr. James Singleton. Singleton’s ministry included personal departures from the SBC, GARBC, and BBFI. Sproul summed up the history as “come out, come out, wherever you are!”
Comparing the organizational differences between an association like the GARBC and a pastor’s fellowship like the FBFI, Sproul explained that the platforms of FBF meetings are not the collective voice of the organization. Each speaker is responsible for his own words. He acknowledged that sometimes the political machinations can center on whether you favor a particular personality style or not.
On the “warts” in his corner of Fundamentalism, Sproul observed: “We get to critique people, and not be responsible for anyone else within our own orbit!” He added that young men can sometimes cast a cynical look at the context they were raised in because they see what is “behind the curtain” there, while only seeing the greener grass on the other side of the fence when looking at the conservative evangelicals. Recent problems in those camps (e.g., Mark Driscoll, C. J. Mahaney) remind us that warts exist outside of Fundamentalism, too.
Chris Anderson spoke as a currently unaffiliated pastor. Early in his ministry he viewed separation mostly “alphabetically,” with organizations such as the Ohio Bible Fellowship or the FBFI representing the ideal, organizations such as GARBC and IFCA as “compromised,” and anyone associated with the SBC as “beyond the pale.” During his church planting work in Ohio, Anderson started blogging and interacting with a wider sphere of people (including me, whom he met through SharperIron) and eventually developed a more nuanced view of partnerships based on biblical fidelity. Anderson confessed that in his current ministry he is beginning to see the downside of independence, and the lack of leverage that a church can have when it has no influence in a national organization.
The music issue
When Belford directed the attention of the panel to the topic of music, Greening observed that a diversity of worship styles is tolerated in the GARBC, a tolerance that can become a tension when the congregations convene in meetings. However, as the congregations function together, they have learned not to “push the edge of the envelope,” choosing selections that will be acceptable to the group as whole. Greening concluded that substantive music, true and consistent with Scripture, is a collective priority of the Association.
Sproul explained that the churches represented in the FBFI have a limited range of music styles, using worship that is “hymnal-based.” In clarifying the range of diversity within his fellowship, Sproul described a resolution presented to the FBFI board rejecting music such as that produced by Sovereign Grace Ministries or Keith and Kristyn Getty. The resolution did not ultimately receive the support of the board. While rejection of the performance style employed by these artists would be a point of unity within the fellowship, many see the benefit of incorporating a few of these songs accompanied by more traditional instrumentation.
Bauder observed that the spectrum of music in the two associations in Minnesota was virtually identical. He added that music, apart from lyrics, is a language capable of conveying meaning and that a church’s position and practice in this area can be just as important as their position on the Virgin Birth. At the same time, Bauder noted, not every departure from strict truth constitutes an apostasy. Even with the definite convictions he holds personally, there must be allowance for different conclusions, or even perceived “disobedience” in a limited sense.
Anderson, whose ministry includes authoring hymns through churchworksmedia.com, added that “fundamentalists have placed too much weight on the music issue.” Anderson spoke of a pastors’ conference he attended where the speaker mishandled the Scriptures to such an extent that Anderson felt compelled to leave. Later, Anderson expressed his concerns to the host pastor. The host pastor conceded Anderson’s point, but ultimately defended the speaker by saying that “he took a good stand” in regards to music and separation. Anderson observed:
For some fundamentalists…we allow people to deny the necessity of repentance, we can allow people to be borderline heretical on their bibliology, but if they don’t have music we agree with, that is worth fighting over…. I think, as we triage where we can differ and where we can give each other some space, there has to be a border somewhere. But…what is really more vital? A stout expositional ministry and doctrinal integrity, or the fact that somebody is to my left musically?
Relating to the SBC
Belford asked the panel to consider a final matter: the relationship of Fundamental Baptists to brethren in the Southern Baptist Convention. Matt Morrell, pastor at Fourth Baptist, admitted that he struggled with application in this area. He related how a few years ago, the staff at Fourth Baptist and faculty of Central Seminary had lunch with SBC pastor Mark Dever and some of his 9 Marks staff and interns. The meeting provided many causes for rejoicing in commonly held beliefs and principles, but the meeting also drew attention to some of the substantial differences between the groups. Morrell felt more persuaded than ever of his separatist, Fundamentalist convictions. Greening supported Morell’s observation, noting the theological principles of a dispensational hermeneutic will lead to very different methodologies and goals for the church than a Reformed system will.
On the other hand, Greening affirmed the conservative direction of many SBC congregations, noting that a significant percentage of those churches use RBP materials. Sproul related that common points, from affirmation of the gospel to principles of personal holiness, led him to think of evangelicals as people he could be drawn to for a measure of Christian fellowship in the setting of military chaplaincy. At the same time, he was quick to assert that significant disagreements on issues like ecumenical evangelism set hard limits on how far those relationships could extend.
Bauder observed that while substantial differences remain between separatists and the SBC, it is inaccurate to accuse the SBC of being “liberal.” The leadership of the Convention is clearly in the hands of conservative individuals. One unusual matter Bauder pointed to is the current state of Cedarville University. Under its current SBC influence, the institution has actually taken a more conservative direction than the latter days in which it was a Regular Baptist agency.
John Greening reminded everyone of the urgency of matters with which we are confronted today, emphasizing the authority of Scripture, gospel definition, eschatology, and hermeneutics as areas of increasing importance. He cautioned,
[W]e must not allow ourselves to just chase rabbit trails or talk about issues that are not as vitally important while the world is on its way to Hell. We need to be out there addressing things, the whole moral and ethical arena, which is increasingly becoming a battlefield that requires our voice speaking up, which will probably result in persecution and suffering because of our commitment to biblical authority.
He added that we must learn to communicate truth in a manner that is gracious and “extends the mercy of God to people.”
Bauder encouraged members of the panel to consider convening a Fundamental Baptist Congress. Before closing in prayer, I challenged those present to continue such conversations in their local contexts, and to pursue the investment of associating with one another, especially across organizational lines established over the decades. As those assembled departed, I couldn’t help but sense a feeling of hopefulness and promise for the future—as if I was leaving with more friends than I’d arrived with.
(Related: Can Fundamental Baptists Find Greater Unity? and, at GARBC.org, A Thoughtful Conversation Between Baptist Brothers)