Why did you leave the Baptist Church? (Part Two, B: Theological Differences)

In the last post I explained that the Baptists don’t really have a system of doctrine that keeps them from holding to contradictory doctrines and leaves them at greater risk of doctrinal error. Their view of the church is the first example of this. In this post we will consider the doctrines of grace, their view of worship, and their doctrine of children. These two posts together sum up the primary doctrinal differences.

The Doctrines of Grace
This is often called Calvinism. It is also often explained using the five points, or TULIP. This is adequate, but is not sufficient, quite frankly. The Doctrines of Grace are really an acknowledgment that God reveals himself in Scripture to be about the business of glorifying himself, and that he is doing so, among other works, primarily through the work of redemption. In this work, God is sovereign. We, the objects of his wrath or mercy, are subject to his will, and as clay on the wheel are in no position to question his will as though he might make a mistake. This in no way calls into question the doctrine of God’s love. For those who are objects of his mercy, no greater love is known than the love of God for his children. This is the uniformly held and confessed conviction of the leadership of the PCA and much of its membership.

These doctrines are warmly embraced in some corners of the SBC. But generally speaking they have been tolerated at best, and rejected for the most part. In fact, debate over these doctrines is the coming storm in the SBC. Leaders such as Ergun Caner at Liberty are calling Calvinism a cancer on the SBC that must be excised. Calvinists in the SBC, even under the best of circumstances, are suspect and typically not welcome. As a Calvinist, it was hard to miss the fact that they didn’t want me. And frankly, having to argue over such basic and fundamental doctrinal truth took its toll on me as well. I began to long for a church that took these doctrines for their own and embraced them as biblical truth without suspicion. The PCA was one such denomination.

What a mess the evangelical church is in over the issue of worship. This should be much grieved by all of us. There are two basic approaches to worship. One is that we should worship according to the means taught in Scripture. The other is that we can worship however we want as long as Scripture doesn’t forbid it.

Presbyterians hold to the first (or at least they have historically). Baptists hold to the second. The result is that a historically rooted Presbyterian worship service has a form and structure that unites it with the church throughout history. There is a call to worship, hymn of praise, confession of faith, preaching and reading of the Word, communion and baptism, confession of sin both corporate and private, hymn of thanksgiving, and benediction among other things.

Baptists have typically abandoned this form of worship in favor of a form of worship developed by itinerant revivalists in the 19th century such as Charles Finney. These revivalists came into town with a big top circus tent, started each service with a hymn sing designed to put the people into an emotionally vulnerable state, then proceeded with a sermon calling them to repentance, which they then accomplished by walking an aisle and praying the sinner’s prayer (a prayer devised by the revivalists, but found nowhere in Scripture). The Baptists embraced this form of worship because they could not compete with it. In this form it is disconnected from historic worship and the church in history generally.

Baptists don’t have to worship this way to be good Baptists. Gunny, my token Baptist pastor friend (haha…you know I love you Gun), follows a form of worship that is much more regulative (connected to historic worship). I hope more pastors will follow his lead on this.

In evaluating each form: its biblical basis, historical basis, intended purpose, and understanding of the church, I found the Presbyterian form (often called the regulative principle) to be more persuasive.

The Doctrine of Children
Because we understand the people of God to be continuous throughout the Scriptures (as also the commands and promises of God to his people), we take seriously the membership of our children in the covenant community. They are members by birth, just as the children born into Israel were in the OT. This doesn’t mean they are regenerated or that they necessarily will be. But they are members of the covenant nonetheless. We assume they are elect until they prove otherwise. We teach them faithfulness to the revealed law of God with the expectation that they will remain faithful throughout their lives.

God has given a sign to his people of their membership in the covenant. In the Old Testament this sign was circumcision. It was given to adults converting to Judaism. But it was given to children born into Judaism. In neither case did it depend upon regeneration. The adults came into the community by confession. The children by birth. The same sign was given to both. God commanded the sign of covenant membership FOREVER. Therefore, because the substance of the sign, that is Christ, came and fulfilled the prophecies concerning the messiah, the sign changed. It’s substance (the thing it represented) did not. It still represents membership in the covenant community. However, instead of circumcision, the sign itself is now baptism. Baptists recognize this implicitly by refusing membership in their churches until one has been baptized. So what is the disagreement? The difference is in our answers to the question: Who is a covenant member? Baptists agree with everything I said above about the Old Testament. But they say that a change occurred with Christ and that the covenant community no longer includes our children. It now only includes those that have been regenerated. So if you want to know which is right, the best course is to study the Scripture and see if the Bible teaches that children are no longer a part of the covenant. If they aren’t, the Baptists are right and the sign should be withheld. If they are, the Presbyterians are right and the sign should be administered. It’s really as simple as that.

In my own study I came to the latter conclusion. I’ll post a separate series explaining the argument in detail in the coming weeks, God willing.

But the doctrine of children is deeper than baptism. I came to believe that the Baptist view of their children’s relationship to God is often confused or inconsistent. I don’t think they give it much thought, really. Their doctrine treats their children as enemies of God, without hope or promise, until they make a confession. This is how gentiles were treated (and actually were according to Paul in Eph 2:11-22!) in the OT. But this is not how the children of Israel were treated. Baptists recognize this in their practical application. They instinctively “dedicate” their children (an act neither commanded nor encouraged in the Scripture) and then raise them up in the faith as though they were set apart from children of unbelievers. Such behavior (while I wholeheartedly encourage and support these loving acts) is not consistent with their doctrine of children.

So to conclude the theological section, let me sum up. My experience in the SBC demonstrated that the lack of a system of doctrine leads to doctrinal…sloppiness (I can’t think of a better word…anyone?). Their view of the church did not resonate with my reading of Scripture. I mourned their rejection of the doctrines of grace. Their worship comes from a place that I believe is foreign to Scripture and the historical worship of the church. Their view of children is confusing at best (though it works out well enough in practice, except for their failure to give their children the sign of membership). These are the primary doctrinal issues that led me away from the SBC and into the PCA.

Addendum: This is a good place to say that I have not and don’t plan on discussing all the other denominational options out there. This series isn’t assuming that the PCA is the only acceptable church and the SBC is the only alternative. I came from one and went to the other. Please keep in mind that this series is autobiographical. I write not because I think my transition is special and noteworthy. Quite the contrary. I am one of hundreds and what is becoming thousands of people making the same transition from the SBC to the PCA. This has been a source of great curiosity to some (in both denominations). My objective in writing is to shed some light on why many of us are doing it.

Next, more on how the study of church history moved me out of one and into the other.


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11 Responses to Why did you leave the Baptist Church? (Part Two, B: Theological Differences)

  1. Thanks!I’m going to let it stew for a few days and then come back to it and rework it. It all came out stream-of-consciousness (evidenced by the poor organization of the thoughts and the incessant rambling). Hopefully by the middle of next week I’ll have something I’m satisfied with.

  2. John Willis says:

    Interesting series. I grew up in a non-Southern Baptist church, now attend an SBC church but totally agree with what you’ve said. EXCEPT, I’m not sure about the baptism part.I’m hoping you do another post strictly on baptism that will maybe explain your belief a little more.My understanding, as I’ve been taught, is that baptism is an outward showing to others that I’ve been saved.I’m hoping you’ll address this in the future.

  3. That’s one vote “for”. Thanks for posting John. Once I get these posts cleaned up (and de-rhetoricized) I’ll try to get to that series on Baptism.

  4. This one heavily revised as well and complete except for any typos I come across.

  5. Aaron says:

    This is a great post. I agree with more of it than I disagree with. I do still hold to believer’s baptism and I think there is a reasonable case to be made for it. But from my point of view I can consider it a bit of a grey area. As you know I read Judson’s book on it awhile back. It lacked discussion on the meaning of Baptism but it was reasonable for what it offered. It includes a defense of pedo-baptism in the end that I could also have great sympathy for. So I can respect where you are coming from. But I remain unconvinced. However I have read people work out hope for children who are credo-baptists. Not that I desire to argue about it. Just that I see your point and have given it some thought. To be honest I really like Piper on this issue. A minority view of course but the truth is not open to a vote. :-) I know I know, I like tradition too.

  6. Piper is very good on this subject as a representative of the Baptist view. Anyone wanting to think through this should read from both sides. It’s simply not sufficient to only read Baptists or only read Presbyterians. I’ll post an argument in a few days (perhaps this weekend) for the Presbyterian view. Those on the fence should then go and read the argument of someone like Piper.

  7. For those interested, I posted a point-by-point refutation of Piper’s argument for “believer’s only baptism” here.

  8. By all means, check out Jay’s interaction with Piper. As I said, I think Piper does a great job of representing Baptists on this issue. However, his usual clarity of thought and force of argument are strangely absent. I read Piper with trepidation when he disagrees with me because I think he is such a great thinker. After reading his defense of credo baptism, though, I was disappointed. It is a wonderful compilation, clearly communicated, of the same old Baptist arguments.

  9. Wesley says:

    Although not one to defend Baptist Theology per se. I thought that traditionally Baptists held to the regulative principle as well. At least in their 1689 confession.

  10. You’re absolutely right, Wesley. However, they abandoned this for the most part long ago. The current form of worship was not arrived at by trying to accommodate the regulative principle. Instead (although I think it was probably with little thought re: regulative vs. normative) they seem to have acted according to the normative principle by default.Your point is a good one though. Not only were they regulative, but the Baptists that descended from the English Puritans were almost exclusively Calvinists. This is very much a part of the argument made by the Founders Movement. Among Baptists, one argument used to try and beat down the Calvinists is that it is a foreign doctrine for Baptists. The Founders rightly point out that it has a richer heritage in the SBC than arminianism does.And this only reinforces an underlying point in most my posts. Baptists could be much better off than they are without becoming Presbyterian. If they would simply live up to their own heritage it would be a significant improvement.The historical problem in large part as I see it for Baptists is complicated. I made a mess of it in my first post and have let much of it go without comment in my second attempt. But it is partly a problem for them because they (and this is a generalization, but I would contend an accurate one) don’t much know or care about their own history. This means they aren’t aware of the good things: Their history as Calvinists and their once being regulative in worship. Nor are many familiar with the bad things: Their indebtedness to men such as Finney and the New Measures of the 2nd Great Awakening, for example.And there are some good things! Aaron touched on their preaching to the poor, but they also have a strong missionary heritage as well. But these things are simply not taught to their people in most cases. Even when the plate gets passed at Christmas for the Lottie Moon offering, they know “Lottie Moon” only as an offering, not as a person with a story.Anyway. Excellent point. Thanks for bringing it up.

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