In light of the brewing controversy in the Episcopal Church, I’ve been thinking a lot about controversy among Southern Baptists. What helped us return to orthodoxy in the past and what will help us preserve it in the future?
Then, I came across some timely words by Dr. Paige Patterson found in his chapter in the excellent book Why I am a Baptist. Speaking of denominational demise going on at that time, he says, “Methodists and the larger group of the Presbyterians in America have found themselves, if not on a slippery slope, then surely on a wild toboggan ride to the bottom of the course. Their ecclesiology does not allow them much of a chance to turn it around.” His words are eerily relevant to what is happening today among Episcopal churches.
If this lack of potential recovery marks other denominations, why might it be different for Baptists? Patterson offers, “All of this is to say that I find in Baptist ecclesiology and polity the possibility for a grassroots referendum. Because Baptists rejected all forms of connectionalism, and Baptist churches, associations, state conventions, and national conventions are independent, autonomous entities, the people in the churches find it possible, though not easy, to rise up and say, ‘We do not approve of the direction that our denomination is going and we want this corrected.'”
In other words, Baptist ecclesiology does not guarantee recovery. However, it provides an opportunity for it. Instead of power centering at the top of a hierarchical structure as in other denominations, power is dispersed at the local church level in the Southern Baptist Convention.
So, in theory, the denomination can save itself from disaster. But, Patterson testifies about how it happened in reality, “The primacy of the local church has been crucial. I knew from studying Baptist history as well as Southern Baptist bylaws that such a referendum was possible. But, in 1979, I did not know for sure whether that was merely a technical matter or whether a referendum was genuinely possible. As it turned out, that which was technically possible resulted in on of the great reformation movements in modern time.”
While it seems that the Episcopalians are passed the point of no return, Patterson’s words should cause us to realize that their problem is not just theology but ecclesiology. It’s not just their view of scripture; it’s their view of the church.
But it should also sober us into the realization that every denomination that drifts from the authority of scripture can crumble. Just because Southern Baptists have recovered once does not guarantee that we would recover again.