How can we deal with differences in diversity in a Scriptural way and not become a collection of Christadelphian “denominations”?
246. That’s the number of separate Baptist denominations. How is it possible for a denomination to have 246 different identities? How long did this take to happen? What led to so many divisions? What can we learn from the Baptist experience that might help our community find a way to unity?
Baptist heritage is that of a persecuted and disinherited sect, a group striving for religious liberty. They were historically deeply committed to the autonomy and authority of the individual congregations. Baptists trace their roots back to just over 400 years ago, beginning with the separatist pastor John Smyth in Amsterdam.
What can we learn from the Baptist experience?
Roger Williams established the first Baptist church in the North American colonies in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1638. Over the years, preachers such as Charles Spurgeon and Jesse Mercer became leaders in Protestant theology. Bro. John Thomas, initially a Baptist, interacted with Charles Spurgeon, who drew thousands to his sermons. Since those days, Baptists make up 15.3% of all Christians in America, second only to the Roman Catholic Church. Baptists aggregate their US membership to be in excess of 4.2 million, with over 43,000 churches. Canada has 97,000 members, with 930 churches.1
William H. Brackney wrote about the challenges faced in North American Baptist churches. He described the strong desire of Baptists to progressively show more concern for doctrinal uniformity and “conventional” authority. Baptists organize into conventions, a collection of like-minded churches that cooperate to meet a common goal, though they still retain local autonomy. James E. Wood, Jr. wrote of a challenge to modern Baptists.
The danger for Baptists is that their changed status, today powerful and privileged, may so separate them, both culturally and socially, from the circumstances of their early history as to alienate them from some of their noblest and most distinguished principles, such as religious liberty and the separation of church and state.2
Christadelphians might be surprised to see the significant alignment of our beliefs to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.3 Since 1689, however, there have been noteworthy departures by the Baptist groups from the overall truths of their initial confession. Baptists today are divided on such issues as eschatology (the events of the Last Days), speaking in tongues, Bible interpretation, participation in the Lord’s Supper, which version of the Bible to use, the role of women in marriage and the church, and even (believe it or not!) the necessity of water immersion baptism. So, when one refers to the Baptists, one must ask, which one?
Importance to Christadelphians
We started this article by expressing some shock at the many denominations in the Baptist faith. How could a group that once embraced such a large portion of truth become so divided over the years? But the actual value of this brief discussion is not about the Baptists. It is about Christadelphians. We are seeing diversity in beliefs on some issues among a portion of our members and a few of our ecclesias. How can we deal with these differences in a Scriptural way and not become a collection of Christadelphian “denominations” similar to the Baptists?
We share several cultural similarities with the Baptists. Christadelphians were founded on a firm belief in the autonomy of individual ecclesias and a rejection of any hierarchy other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Some might feel compelled to seek uniformity of understanding and standardized practices. But this was not a requirement of first-century fellowship or even a goal of the apostles. It was to agree on the “doctrine of Christ,” which we have long ago considered to be the first principles of our faith. Our pioneering brothers and sisters never intended to overlap into a uniformity of interpretation on other matters.
We share several cultural similarities with the Baptists.
Ultimately, our DNA, our “noblest and most distinguished principles,” have been about brothers and sisters resolving differences around an open Bible. We don’t rely on church “luminaries,” committees, or magazines to determine how to apply Scriptural principles. All interpretations must be openly discussed and challenged based on the guidance of the Scriptures alone. Personal “feelings” or human logic are usually opposed to the sound principles of our God.
We don’t avoid discussion and consideration by unilaterally dismissing different views. When we castigate others because they may see things differently, we reflect our secular culture, not that of a discerning spiritual mind. We see this all around us in the media, politics, and other fleshly pursuits, not in men and women of faith.
Christadelphians, like the Baptists, have also embraced the authority of individual ecclesias in decision-making. This aspect, of course, cannot happen in a vacuum. Decisions by ecclesias must be made with the courage to follow the Scriptures and the humility to honor and respect the views of others. This attitude is the basis of the doctrine of the body of Christ. We need each other. We don’t have to see everything the same way or practice our worship identically. However, there can be consequences for promoting outlier decisions, especially ones that polarize positions.
Sometimes, these interpretations can cause great discord and become malignant to the body of Christ. It may be that such positions will retard free and open exchange within the community. Paul’s counsel about eating meat offered to idols was the loving submission of one’s personal liberties for the spiritual well-being of others.
A risk to unity is when non-first principle autonomy leads to unhealthy conflict, envy, and strife. (Jas 3:10-16). This polarization tends to drive “like-minded” people and ecclesias to organize together and avoid others formally or informally. This situation accounts for much of the division in the Baptist congregations. Because some Baptists saw a doctrine or a practice differently, they divided into “conferences” of like-minded churches. That worked temporarily until some like-minded churches found additional issues they disagreed with. That led to further splits. It can become an unending downward spiral.
Here’s what Brackney wrote about Baptist divisions:
As more Baptist congregations sprung up in virtually all sections of the United States, a wide variety of styles and structures emerged to characterize Baptist life and ministry. Some were confident socially in their urban contexts, while others drew careful boundaries around their fellowship. Some kept simple worship styles and lacked music or even regular preaching. Some were isolated either by location or by intention as close-knit families.4
Humans are driven to divide naturally.
The 20th century brought rifts to North American Baptists. To capture different groups of thought, “labels” became prevalent. Terms were applied, such as conservative, premillennialist, fundamentalist, or Landmarkist (the belief that the Baptist denomination traces an unbroken chain going back to the first-century believers). These labels served to cause silos between groups.
Humans are driven to divide naturally. Our default can be to retreat to a comfortable fellowship, where there is trust and unanimity of thought in a smaller circle. We have seen this in Christadelphian ecclesial behavior regarding marriage and divorce, the teachings on atonement, the age of the earth, and even some prophetic interpretations.
Even if we are “formally” in fellowship, there is often an unofficial separation in operation. This modus operandi cannot be the will of our Lord. He and his apostles regularly taught the need to seek unity around the basic truths of the gospel. The gospel is about finding a way to love your brother and sister, even when they may not have the same mindset or practice as you.
Another lesson from the North American Baptists is the heavy influence of luminary men, such as Charles Finney, Benoni Stinson, Andrew Fuller, and Robert Hall, Sr. Added to this was the unique influence on Baptist thought by extraordinarily wealthy members. John D. Rockefeller taught Baptist Sunday School. President Grover Cleveland was a Baptist. Powerful business people like William Montgomery, William Colgate, and William Bucknell conveyed a certain notoriety to Baptists but also brought baggage.
Baptists became connected in the public eye with the business practices of these men. Their disregard for women, blindness to poor working conditions, pay, and child labor tarnished how the public saw Baptists. It led to a “gospel of wealth” that was embraced by some as meaning those who worked hard and faithfully served God should expect material blessings.
We have few examples of such wealth in Christadelphia, though we may put certain speakers in our community on pedestals, a position to which they likely do not aspire. However, there may be another connection for us to consider. These men, who were very visible public figures, were on display as icons of what the Baptist community represented.
Today, with a few keystrokes, we can also send public messages about our community. If we choose to behave in an unChristlike manner online or to immerse ourselves in political debates, we can also tarnish the public view of who we are. In fact, we have never been more visible today as a community. Each of us is responsible for not bringing reproach to our body.
The increased influence of secular scholars came in conjunction with the opening of Baptist universities such as Baylor University, Liberty University, and Wingate University. An issue that might sound familiar to Christadelphians today is what occurred with liberal Baptists, who introduced “higher critical understanding of the Bible.” This movement included such teachings as “the origins of the Pentateuch, the multiple authorship of Isaiah, naturalistic interpretations of the parting of the Red Sea, and Jonah’s whale.” Additionally, some questioned the miracles of Jesus and added the interpretation of doctrine through religious experience.5
Accepting human “scholarship” outside the Bible may sound appealing to some, but it often leads to fruitless pursuits. Christadelphians accept the veracity of Scripture, especially when a doctrine is mentioned multiple times in the Word. For example, if one chooses not to believe in a real fish that swallowed Jonah, we then must conclude that Jesus was also fooled about this, for he refers specifically to Jonah being three days and three nights in the belly of the whale. (Matt 12:40) Inserting “scholarly evidence” into the sound teaching of the Scriptures makes a fundamental assumption that one cannot understand the Scriptures by the Scriptures themselves. A threat we must avoid in our community.
One last learning from our Baptist friends. In North America, African American Baptists represent over 15.7 million congregants. The origins of their separation lie in their beginnings in eighteenth-century slave communities. “Of all Baptist groups, black Baptists are perhaps the most baptismic of all, blending freedom and religious experience.”6
For these early slave converts, forming a new denomination was a way to be a Baptist within a culture much different than their white counterparts. “Black Baptist congregations still sing boisterously, shout, respond to exhortation, and prophesy.”7 Renowned ministers from African-American Baptist churches include names such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, ex-NFL star Reggie White, Adam Clayton Powell, and Al Sharpton.
A Call to Unity for Christadelphians
Is it possible for Christadelphia to be united, even though we originated from far different cultures and perspectives? Can the pages of truth speak equally to us all? None of us would want to entertain the idea of having Christadelphia broken into groups like the Baptists. To avoid that consequence, we must embrace differences in areas outside of the doctrine of Christ. For unity, we must be willing to sacrifice our preferences for music, dress, style of worship, and other non-essential areas. We must all diligently study topics on which we differ to see if our thoughts are indeed first principles or vestigial traditions. To be dogmatic without this intellectual honesty is to become like zealots. If we don’t work on this, we may find further divisions.
Unity is a divine principle as important as what we believe. We are all committed to the wonderful blessing of our common faith. Can we learn from the Baptist experience (and others not noted here) that we must not let different thoughts, different cultures, and different leaders divide us?
We have but one leader, and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. Our culture is a heavenly one, where we place our only enduring citizenship. It is our Lord who walks among the golden candlesticks. We are his ecclesias, and he is shepherding us. He knows our work. If we call on him when we experience disunity, he will show us a path to restoration.
When our Lord returns, may we be one, not 246.
- Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics. Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. Retrieved 2020-10-10.
- Brackney, William H., Baptists in North America: An Historical Perspective. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, 2006.
- The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (with Modern Features), www.1689londonbaptistconfession.com 4-7 Ibid, Brackney