Are Southern Baptists “Evangelicals”?

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This week Ed Stetzer proposed that the Southern Baptist Convention explore the benefits of aligning with National Association of Evangelicals and report back for further discussion at the denomination’s 2017 annual meeting. To outside observers, the question of whether the SBC should affiliate with “evangelicals” would seem peculiar. If Southern Baptists aren’t evangelicals, who are?

As my co-blogger Justin Taylor and TGC editorial director Collin Hansen point out in their chapter on “The SBC and the Broader Evangelical Community,” in Jason Allen’s excellent volume The SBC and the 21st Century, not that long ago there was broad consensus among Southern Baptists that they were not evangelicals.

Sometimes this was because of the theological liberalism of some SBC leaders in the pre-Conservative Resurgence years. Sometimes this was because of a Landmarkist strain of sectarianism that saw the Baptist tradition as uniquely biblical and faithful. Perhaps most commonly, however, it was because of the “Southern” in Southern Baptist. “Evangelical,” as Foy Valentine once put it, was a “Yankee word.”

Anecdotally, I was shocked to discover this anti-evangelical sentiment in certain circles at Baylor when I arrived here in 2002. There was a concerted attempt to tar then-president Robert Sloan with the term “evangelical.” At least one of his opponents explained that Baylor could not be evangelical, because evangelical is “northern.”

With all due regard for the differences between Baptists and other evangelicals, I would argue that the SBC is certainly an evangelical denomination, and it should pursue ways of cooperating with the broader evangelical community. There are three reasons for this:

1) Historically, Baptists are evangelicals, especially in America. As Barry Hankins and I explain in our book Baptists in America, the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century effectively re-birthed the Baptist movement in the American colonies. Sure, there were pre-existing Baptist churches, but the real engine of Baptist growth in America came out of the Separate Baptist movement, which originated in the revivals in New England (northern!), and then transferred much of its energy to the Sandy Creek Baptist network of North Carolina and the broader South.

Regular Baptists who supported the Great Awakening also got a much-needed boost from the Great Awakening. As the Great Awakening was an interdenominational evangelical movement that affected the northern colonies first, before moving into the South, in both theology and geography the Baptist movement of the eighteenth century supports the “evangelical” interpretation of the SBC’s roots.

2) Southern Baptists are easily evangelicals in the sense laid out by historian David Bebbington’s famous “quadrilateral” of evangelical traits: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. If anything, the SBC is even more biblicist than some other evangelicals, with its historic downplaying of the authoritative place of creeds, and its commitment to inerrancy. The cross is obviously central to SBC preaching and doctrine, and the SBC is historically so conversionist that sometimes that emphasis has obscured other vital topics such as the need for discipleship among converts. Finally, activism lay at the heart of the enormous Baptist growth in the two hundred years since the Great Awakening, and the continuing commitment to church planting and missions today.

3) Pragmatically, the SBC should identify with evangelicals because of the increasingly marginal cultural status of conservative Christians in America. As Taylor and Hansen point out, the SBC and other evangelicals could envision themselves as kingmakers from Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 to George W. Bush’s second term. But Barack Obama’s presidency and the lack of good alternatives in the 2016 election suggests that the era of SBC power-broking is over. As we continue to bear the standard for issues like the right to life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty, we need allies.

I understand that when it comes to an issue like the biblical mode of baptism, we Baptists will have irreconcilable differences with many of our evangelical friends. If the topic was admission to church membership, I would argue that we should hold the line on our traditional Baptist convictions.

But as Christians we should remember that we live within ever-larger concentric circles of identity. For someone like me, Baptist is the small circle at the center of my Christian identity. But from there it goes outward to larger rings of evangelical, Reformed, Protestant, Augustinian, and “Mere Christian” commitment. Being a Baptist hardly cuts us off from those broader historic identifications.

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