System of Doctrine
Pastors that are seminary trained know that reading the Bible and trying to form doctrine apart from a systematic approach is ill-advised. Most denominations have some sort of system that helps them understand Scripture. This system gives order to their many doctrinal convictions and helps insure that they are consistent from one doctrine to another. The PCA follows a system of doctrine commonly called Covenant Theology. This system understands God to be revealing himself to us in relationship, and particularly through relationship that involves promise and fulfillment to a specific people chosen by God. The test for any system is to ask if it accords with scripture. And what we mean by that is essentially: Does my system help me understand Scripture consistently? Does my system contradict Scripture in any way? Does my system make sense of the difficult passages without doing injury to any other passage of Scripture or to my system? This is a crucial point. Having such a system protects us from doctrinal error (especially when coupled with an understanding and appreciation for historical theology and a confession to which all subscribe). It also binds us together. We are one in Christ, to be sure. But this manifests itself in our common faith.
In contrast, the SBC most commonly has no system. There are options available to them. They could claim New Covenant Theology, or Dispensationalism. And some of them do choose one of these. But most of them simply don’t have a system. Because of this my experience has been that they don’t teach much theology and often when they do it is inconsistent. They teach original sin, but in their Baptist Faith and Message (both 1963 and 2000) they implicitly deny it. They teach an age of accountability when in fact the Bible offers no support for such a doctrine. Their language is often incautious (is that the right word?). For example, I have often heard in Baptist churches that “people are dying and going to hell because you won’t tell them about Jesus.” I’ve been told over and over “I don’t believe in election…” (and this from a pastor once) when of course election is biblical. Even the Arminians only sought to redefine it, not deny it. When someone does seek to ask hard theological questions I have on many occasions heard the teacher (be they pastor, lay person, or evangelist) make a joke and shake it off as pointless to think too hard about such things. This being my consistent experience, after spending more than 20 years in Baptist churches and being a member in good standing in quite a few, I could not help but begin to despair that things would improve.
As a result of our reading of Scripture and our covenantal system, Presbyterians understand that God is not doing his great work of redemption with regard to individuals alone, but by means of a covenant community called the church. This church was started immediately after the fall and is made up of all those who have believed throughout history. In the Old Testament it was primarily ethnic Israel, although gentiles were not entirely excluded. God revealed even then that it would involve all the world. In the New Testament the gospel exploded onto the gentile scene, changing the ethnic makeup of the church. We all, believers throughout history, belong to this one people of God and are the recipients of his promises to that people. Because we understand that the church is that people, and take seriously the language of body and bride applied to the church, we have a high view of the church and its connectedness. This means that we practice church discipline. It means we have a high view of the sacraments as means of grace given to us by God for our good. It means that we believe in a plurality of elders in leadership, and the submission of believers to one another under the leadership of the elders God has given them (both as a church and as a Presbytery and as an Assembly) and finally to Christ as the head of the church.
In contrast, the Baptist church has taken not a biblical model for its self-understanding, but a political one. The Baptist church is congregational. This means the congregation (theoretically) has all the authority. This is based upon a democratic model of government and reinforces the sense of “right to rule” in each member. It fosters an environment in which “that pastor isn’t going to tell me what to do” and “I was here before that pastor came and I’ll be here after he leaves” (a veiled threat to have a pastor removed). Any Baptist pastor can be removed by a meeting of the congregation and a simple vote without even having the pastor present. There may be a few exceptions to this, but they are isolated. This system leads to power plays and struggles among “deacons” (I’ve never understood the basis for deacons ruling the church). The most effective point against this church government is that few churches adhere to it in actual practice. Most baptist churches are either Episcopalian (the pastor is the absolute monarch of his church) or Presbyterian (the deacons or board of trustees act as a defacto session, ruling the church as a body). Few Baptist churches actually let their people rule, and when they do, it is often a disaster. Ultimately it is the indebtedness of their form of government to democracy that I believe fails to serve them well. Christ’s kingdom is not a democracy, therefore it is not appropriate to run it as such.
Next: Part Two, B: The doctrines of grace, the doctrine of worship, and infant baptism.