Disregarding distinctives

I’ve never quite got over my amazement when brother Christians cross major doctrinal boundaries in their search for a church home. One example I read of recently was a group of Episcopal nuns (who knew?) who hopped back across the Reformation River to become Roman Catholics. I guess if you want to be a nun you don’t have all that many options. While I understand their frustration with the doctrinal shenanigans of Episcopalians, and I do acknowledge that the river is pretty narrow at Episcopal Town, it’s still startling to imagine either their slight regard for their former doctrinal beliefs or their ignorance of their new ones.

Southern Baptists certainly have their own examples of this syndrome. Crawford Toy, a Southern Seminary Old Testament professor, was fired from his position at Southern in 1879 because he’d adopted a Darwinian hermeneutic of the book of Genesis and a skeptical interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. Professor Toy, by all accounts a brilliant scholar, ended his career at Harvard University, and as a Unitarian. Surely he could not have taught at Southern without at least claiming some allegiance to the doctrinal beliefs of Southern Baptists. Losing his job at Southern would understandably move him from our denomination. How could it move him to a church that denies the deity of Christ unless his doctrinal beliefs were never compatible with Southern Baptists?

We’ve all seen more contemporary examples in the aftermath of Southern Baptists’ 20th-century reformation. Several who claimed, while employed by Southern Baptists, to be centrist in our denomination ended up being right at home in the most liberal denominations of our day. It is hard to understand how they can lead a church or ministry within the Southern Baptist Convention at one point, and cheerfully affirm a shockingly different doctrinal view only a short time later. Can we say, with 1 John 2:19, that they were never “of us” denominationally?

On a smaller scale, most of us have acquaintances who leave our churches to join pedobaptist churches or those that teach that a redeemed person can become apostate. Sometimes they come back to Southern Baptists unaware that they’d ever crossed a doctrinal line.

Of course there is a difference between those who carefully consider the decision they’re making before changing denominations and those who are unaware that they are making a significant change. For one thing, the careful thinkers are actually converting and are unlikely to return to their former beliefs.

Truly, I’m not upset with people who change denominations or religions. It is often a good thing, a clarifying thing, when people visibly identify with others who share their faith and practice. At other times it is a revelation of just how loosely some of our church members are connected to the rest of us. The fact that we have all seen this happen should lead us to consider how we assimilate members.

First, we must own our own identity. I am not terribly worried about churches that call themselves “Community Church” or “Happy Church” or whatever. But if Happy Church (it’s a real church; I’ve been there) is also a Southern Baptist church, how is that conveyed to members? I’ve been a member of one church that slowly backed out of being called “Baptist.” In that church, our Sunday School class was full of fine and mature believers who had no idea that our church was Southern Baptist. Our Baptist identity was invisible in the budget, never mentioned from the pulpit, and no part of our missionary efforts. Denominational identity can also be neglected in nearly the same way by First Baptist Church of Anywhere, and I’ve seen that happen. People know that FBCA is “Baptist” but often have no slight idea of what that means. Regardless of name, church leadership must identify with and explain their church’s affiliations if that identity is to be of any use.

Second, we must make disciples of our members. An evangelistic church that is not investing heavily in developing mature believers is not a Great Commission church. If we believe that being a Baptist church is actually our best effort to apply biblical teaching to how we do church and missions, it’s worth teaching our people those biblical precepts with as much fervor as we promote attendance, worship, giving, or any other thing. The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life reports that 55 percent of Evangelicals either don’t know (15 percent) or say that Mormons are Christians (40 percent). This may indicate a lack of knowledge about Mormonism, but likely also hints at a poor understanding of what Christians believe.

Within Christianity there is a common thought that denominations divide rather than clarify. Sadly, this is true when denominations o

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