I suppose every post must start somewhere. This one begins in 1673 – the year Benjamin Keach decided to apply Matthew 26:30 tangibly to his church at Horsleydown in London. I suppose I should also mention Keach was Baptist before it was cool; before there was so much Great Commission™ money. This was before the Act of Toleration; a time when Baptists embraced being outsiders to the mainstream.
I know. I’m throwing a few jabs early there. But I’ll save the haymaker for later.
Moving along, in 1673 Keach leads his church to sing a hymn after the Lord’s Supper. By 1690 Isaac Marlow is publicly opposing him in the social media of the day: tracts. They duke it out in the public arena and eventually, the singing Baptists win.
In 1688 Elias Keach, son of Benjamin, is pastoring in the Philadelphia area. It’s not just his influence mind you (I do think it significant enough to mention) but by 1707 the churches in the area have unofficially adopted “the Confession” as their theological foundation.
What is “the Confession”? Well, in 1742 it is officially named the Philadelphia Confession. Why did I start this story with Benjamin Keach? Because the Philadelphia Confession of 1742 is the 1689 London Baptist Confession with two additions: one dealing with the laying on of hands. The other? Singing.
If you’re going to make it to the “point” of today’s post, you need to know, again, that the 1689 London Baptist Confession and the Philadelphia Confession of 1742 are identical, save these two additions.
A Tragic Era
We now fast forward to 1814 – the same year Colonel Jackson took his little trip down to New Orleans. Unrelatedly, the Triennial Baptist Convention (TBC) was formed (it had a longer name) by Luther Rice.
Fast forward again to 1844. In a 7-5 decision, the Board of the Home Missionary Society declined the appointment of a missionary from Georgia because he owned slaves. In response, Alabama Baptists wrote to the Foreign Mission Board asking if they would appoint missionaries who owned slaves. The answer: No.
Some southerners, “did not attempt to defend the evils in the slavery system, but described the institution as an inherited disease to be cured slowly.”* Others tried to justify slavery with the Bible. This was a sad and tragic era in the history of Triennial Baptist churches south of the Mason Dixon line.
Thus, over the issue of missionaries being denied appointment because of slavery, “a total of 293 delegates” representing a “substantial” number of local churches gathered on “May 8, 1845 in Augusta, Georgia” and formed the Southern Baptist Convention.** Thankfully, Southern Baptists today continue to repudiate the reprehensible view some in the early SBC held toward people of color.
Now, what hath London to do with Augusta? Why start this post with Benjamin Keach?
Because, as the faculty blog of SEBTS notes, “In 1845, when the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, every delegate came from a church or association that had adopted the Philadelphia Confession or an abstract of the document.”
Nearly 300 delegates and every single one of them was influenced by Benjamin Keach and the uncool 17th-century Baptists of England. Which, we must also point out that historically the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (written in 1677) had nothing to do with American chattel slavery. I only mention this because you cannot argue historically that the Confession was a pro-slavery document. The error in the early SBC was in spite of the Philadelphia Confession they held to, not because of it.
So, now, we are ready to get to a point!
Sometimes you will hear Southern Baptists today saying, “What we agree on is more than what we disagree on” or, important for this post, “the SBC is a big tent!”
Now, there is some truth in that. We have differences of style or eschatology, or how flashy our bulletins ought to be, or whether we can preach from an iPad. But despite these differences, we can, and should, still partner together for mission.
After all, at its inception, Southern Baptists said their organization was about “directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel.”***
However, the SBC in 1845 didn’t merely unite just for the purpose of “mission” but had a very rich theological underpinning. Yes, the SBC partners for mission. But this partnership began with serious theological parameters. Doctrinal parameters must be maintained, for if the tent is too big, the cooperation fails.
Because, theologically, being a Southern Baptist, at least in the beginning, was about a rich and glorious orthodoxy. A Confession that had a high view of God, a biblical view of the local church and its male leadership, and a robust trust in the sufficiency of Scripture, was held to by our Baptist forefathers.
Again, I am willing to admit this was not always applied correctly, but this is not the Confession’s fault, nor is it the Bible’s. It is the hearts of men that are to blame.
Now, I do not imply that one must hold to the Philadelphia Confession of 1742 in order to be a “true” Southern Baptist. But I do, without reservation, say that we must hold clear conservative doctrinal convictions. So, everyone who calls themselves a Southern (or Great Commission™) Baptist, is not necessarily SBC. You can’t say you’re SBC for the sake of “mission” and yet be removed from certain doctrinal standards, like those defined in the Baptist Faith and Message (2000)
The SBC was never designed to be such a big tent that orthodoxy was in question. But even beyond that- it was never designed to allow for, say, paedobaptism. Nor was the tent built for various views of women pastors, or for any to take or leave the sufficiency of Scripture, etc.
The SBC was always meant to agree on not only the gospel, but even other core issues. To partner for mission without that understanding is to misunderstand why the SBC even exists. Southern Baptists did not join in this large association with Presbyterians or free will Baptists “for the sake of the gospel.” Rather, they came together from a likeminded theological position as articulated by the Philadelphia Confession.
And so, now to the title of the post: The SBC needs a tent revival. Why? Because the tent is too big. We have forgotten the theological foundations of our beginning. That the SBC was never about “mission” separate from deep theological roots. If we partner for the sake of missions apart from doctrinal integrity, eventually we will have very different understandings of what our mission ought to be.
Until we are ready to put some sides up on this big tent, to maybe scowl a little like Benjamin Keach, to be the uncool Baptists who are disdained by the culture, to draw firm and clear doctrinal parameters that cannot merely be winked at but actually adhered to, to preach the sufficiency of the gospel even as we call sinners, sinners, and sin, sin, we will only suffer spiritual loss. We will be a mile wide and an inch deep as they say and the cultural winds will continue to blow us all over the map.
It’s time for a tent revival. The sawdust is not required, but historic Baptist confessional standards are. Let the tent shrink and the SBC grow – at least in its confessional integrity.
What might this look like? Well, for this post, I’ll just mention a Baptist Press article about Adam Greenway’s 2019 message to SWBTS: “Greenway laid out his vision for the seminary’s future, explaining that just as a tent has four pegs, so Southwestern Seminary holds to four points of conviction and commitment — a high view of Scripture, the Baptist Faith and Message, the Great Commission, and cooperation.”
So, how might we have a tent revival in the SBC? Or, more accurately termed, how might we have a reformation? Let’s pick up on one of Greenway’s points and simply say this: We can begin by just actually taking the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) seriously. I, personally, think we ought to believe more than what is in the BFM. But we must not believe less.
Doctrinal fidelity is not easy. In the short run, it will inevitably cost us numbers, popularity, and money. But the Lord will be on our side. And that is enough. In fact, that is gain!
If King Jesus is finished with the organization known as the Southern Baptist Convention, so be it. But may it not be due to our lack of faithfulness to Him.
Let’s grow our standards and shrink our tent.
*This quote taken from A History of the Baptists by Robert G. Torbet, Third Edition, pg. 292-293. I am indebted to Torbet for a lot of the information in this section of the blog.
**This is from The Baptist Story by Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn, and Michael A.G. Haykin, p. 159.
*** Ibid., p. 152.