Marginal Baptists? A Brief Response to Russell Moore

Russell Moore has written a strange piece in Christianity Today entitled ‘We Are All Baptists Now—So Let’s Not Fight Like It‘. It’s strange because no one is in favour of fighting for its own sake, so that can’t be Dr Moore’s point. If it were, it wouldn’t be worth writing the piece.

Moore argues that the Baptist conception of ‘voluntary Christianity’ has influenced a spirit of individuality which is now the norm across the whole of American society, and brings with it a perennial pathology of Baptist life: the church split. He writes,

Increasingly, though, American democracy is starting to look more and more like a Baptist congregational business meeting. The theory of “the priesthood of the believer” and every voice counting is giving way to the darker reality of knife fights, splits between factions, and the social Darwinism of the way the meanest and most aggressive people can dictate the terms of debate. Whether those fights are over the color of the carpet in the vestibule or how to end a global pandemic, the so-called elites are in constant fear over populist uprisings and the populist uprisings are often themselves manipulated by those who hope to be elites.

But, the happy news is,

It does not have to be [sic] this way. The fighting of the Baptist movement is a shadow side to something we really would do well to emulate: a people who, at their best, emphasize the necessity of personal conversion, an amazing grace that means pulpwood haulers and homeless veterans have just as much say as business tycoons and senators.

Baptists—whether globally or locally—always tend to be at their worst when in control of some earthly power and always at their best when speaking from the margins. Contrast Prohibition with the Baptist work for religious liberty in the founding era or the Baptist leadership in the civil rights movement… Where witness and testimony—not heresy hunting and power wrangling—are central, there all of us who are evangelical Christians can learn from the best kind of Baptists.

Now, let’s break down the claims being made here so we can think about it clearly:

  1. American democracy reflects Baptist church polity.
  2. American democracy has lots of fighting going on because everyone wants their say
  3. Baptists are better on the margins of power rather than possessing it.
  4. Therefore, evangelicals should abandon “power wrangling” in favour of “witness and testimony”

The argument seems to be that if fighting is caused by everyone wanting their say, evangelicals should reduce the fighting by not having their say.

Is this what it means to be a Baptist – intentionally stepping back from contention in the public square? Non-Baptist evangelicals, with their differing traditions of relating church and state power, will want to critique Dr Moore’s piece from various angles, but perhaps I can contribute to the discussion by asking, as a Baptist: is Dr Moore’s argument one a Baptist is bound to make?

Some (both Baptist and non-Baptist) have argued that it is. Indeed, a group of Presbyterians argued in the early 1980s that the secularisation of the US is a product of ‘The Failure of American Baptist Culture’ precisely because it leads to vacating the public square in the way that Moore’s piece seems to advocate. No doubt, many of the modern, secular USA’s problems can be laid at the door of us Baptists but I would suggest that Dr Moore’s argument is not the inevitable consequence of a credobaptist position.

For one thing, it was certainly not the attitude that the early Baptists took in the seventeenth century. In his masterly account of Baptist origins, Orthodox Radicals: Baptist Identity in the English Revolution (which actually shows that the term ‘baptist’ is anachronistic for the period), Matthew Bingham shows that the Cromwellian Commonwealth did indeed mark a sea-change in disconnecting infant baptism from citizenship in the state. Baptism was no longer the way that you became a citizen but became a matter of purely ecclesial identity. However, in turn, many prominent members of the “Congregational Way”, who had adopted a baptistic understanding of the sacraments, took a prominent role in the regime. They served in the senior ranks of the military and civil service, in parliament, and in the national church system of ‘triers’ and ‘ejectors’ that was briefly established in the 1650s. Whatever one thinks of the interregnum, it was clear that these Baptists, at least, did not believe that their place was in the margins. They were happy to serve and promote a constitutional settlement that was explicitly confessional, Protestant, and Reformed.

Another problem with Dr Moore’s argument is, of course, that if Baptists or evangelicals or whoever become quiet, someone else will speak uninterrupted. If Baptists or evangelicals vacate the centre for the margins’, someone else will occupy it instead. In this world, speech and power are dangerous, perilous but nonetheless absolutely necessary. Dr Moore is right that Baptists at their best believe that “pulpwood haulers and homeless veterans have just as much say as business tycoons and senators’”but the logic of his piece would take their say, and any power that comes with it, away from those haulers and homeless and place it in the hands of…who? Who does Dr Moore think has safer hands in which to place power over the nation’s affairs? For if haulers and homeless cease to speak, for fear of fighting, then it will simply be those that were willing to fight continually whose voice carries the day.

No doubt Baptists, and everyone else, say a lot of stupid stuff. No one with a Twitter account need be in any doubt of that. No doubt Baptists, and everyone else, have misused power when they have attained it. But God has made Baptists, and everyone else, creatures of intellect and will, word and power. It is part of our very nature to speak and to act. The answer to democracy’s ills is not to refuse the burden of power or the responsibility of speech, and thereby abandon them to others, it is to learn to bear them better. To do otherwise is to refuse the privilege and peril of our humanity.

Fighting is damaging, but the victory of lies is worse. Conflict can be corrosive and wearying, but the triumph of evil is worse. And, in each case, the culpability for the fight and conflict ultimately lies with those who argue for lies and advocate for evil. If evangelicals therefore, Baptist or otherwise, wish to play their part in the renewal of the West, we are best not to foreswear fighting and argument but to renew our commitment to truth, goodness and beauty, that is to God Himself. After all, it is into His name that we were baptised.

Graham Shearer is a PhD candidate at Union Theological College in Belfast, where he lives with his wife and children.



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