For a podcast discussion of this article, see here.
For some time, I’ve been intrigued by the attitude towards Baptists in the CHM. Some seem to think that being “Baptist” is the opposite of being “Holiness.” The irony is that, in many ways, the contemporary CHM is more similar to the Baptist tradition than historic Methodism.
“Baptist” Does Not Mean “Calvinist”
Some of the confusion is rooted in a misconception that “Baptist” means “Calvinist.” While some Baptists are Calvinists (they are usually called Reformed or Particular Baptists), many others identify as Arminian or even Wesleyan (they are sometimes called General Baptists).
With over 14 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Baptist denomination in the world. In 2012, LifeWay Research found that “nearly equal numbers of pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention consider their churches as Calvinist/Reformed as do Arminian/Wesleyan, although more than 60 percent are concerned about the effect of Calvinism on the denomination.” Only 16% of SBC pastors agreed with the statement “I am a five-point Calvinist,” and only 8% agreed strongly.
While some Baptists are Calvinists, many others identify as Arminian or even Wesleyan.
Calvinism has seen a resurgence within the Baptist tradition largely due to the influence of John Piper, the most prominent and influential Baptist preacher of our day. Piper is not a Calvinist because he is a Baptist, but he happens to be both. If you believed all of the rhetoric that I have heard in the Holiness movement, you would think that a Calvinistic Baptist like Piper does not care about holiness and is soft on sin. While I disagree with Piper on numerous points, this is an unfair characterization. Here are a few of many forceful statements from his resources at Desiring God:
- “There is a practical holiness without which we will not see the Lord. Many live as if this were not so. There are professing Christians who live such unholy lives that they will hear Jesus’s dreadful words, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matthew 7:23).”
- “The holiness of God is the standard of your holiness. … in all our behavior the holiness of God becomes the dominating, all-shaping reality of life.”
- “Vast portions of the Christian church today in America seek assurance by making holiness of life unnecessary. If holiness of life is not necessary to get to heaven, then an unholy person can have assurance that he will get there. … There is a glorious assurance in the Christian life! But it is not found by denying the demand for holiness.”
- “If we died to sin by being united with Jesus in his death, we can’t stay married to sin. … Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”
It’s simply inaccurate to say “Baptists are Calvinists,” and it’s near-slanderous to say that Baptists don’t believe in sanctification or don’t take sin seriously. Sure, there are some Baptists who use “sinning in word, thought, and deed” as a crutch to excuse unholy behavior. But I have a Reformed Baptist friend who would say that Holiness people use entire sanctification to do the same (e.g., “I’m entirely sanctified, so that attitude/action couldn’t have been sin—it was just a mistake or infirmity”). Even if we believe that Baptists are weak on holiness, we should critique them with the charitable and catholic spirit that was so important to John Wesley (read Sermon 39 – Catholic Spirit).
Many Baptists (including Calvinistic Baptists) are passionate about holiness.
The first step to engaging in a more Christlike way with our Baptist brothers is to actually understand what it means to be Baptist.
Baptists, like every other Christian tradition, are a mixed bag. So what unites them? What are the distinctives that are shared by Baptists?
We can start with the obvious: being a “Baptist” has something to do with baptism. The name of a Christian tradition is a good indicator of what sets that tradition apart. Methodists were named for using a structured method to pursue holiness—that is, they were defined by a strong emphasis on sanctification. Pentecostals are named for their particular view of the Spirit’s work at Pentecost. Episcopalians are named for their particular view of church government—that the church should be governed by bishops (episkopos in Greek), i.e., the episcopacy. Presbyterians are named for a different view of church government—that the church should be governed by representative assemblies of elders (presbuteros in Greek), i.e., the presbytery.
While we tend to talk about Christian traditions as though they are mutually exclusive, many overlap. Methodism and Episcopalianism, for example, have historically overlapped. The first Methodist church in America, led by Francis Asbury, was called the Methodist Episcopal Church because they were Methodistic in their view of salvation but Episcopalian in their practice of church government, following the Anglican Church (Methodism started as a renewal movement within Anglicanism, and Wesley was a lifelong Anglican priest).
But let’s get back to Baptists. Baptists are set apart by their belief that baptism is only for conscious believers (i.e., they reject infant baptism). Most Baptists also believe that baptism is only to be practiced by immersion (i.e., they reject baptism by pouring or sprinkling). It’s easy to overlook just how distinctive this really is. It departs from almost the entire Christian tradition which has been united in baptizing infants and affirming pouring or sprinkling as valid modes of baptism (the obvious corollary of infant baptism). Augustine wrote, “this is the firm tradition of the universal Church, in respect of the baptism of infants” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 4.23.31).
Baptists are set apart by their belief that baptism is only for conscious believers.
The Baptist understanding of baptism is connected to a strong emphasis on personal repentance/conversion and personal responsibility before God, which underlies another Baptist distinctive: congregational church government. Among other things, this means that congregations are autonomous and thus elect their own pastors. Finally, Baptists have been known for a strong emphasis on religious liberty.
Baptist vs. Holiness vs. Methodist
Quite contrary to the prevailing notion that being Baptist is the opposite of being Holiness, there are many ways in which the contemporary CHM overlaps with the Baptist tradition more than it does with historic Methodism. While in seminary, my friend Paul Ryan attended a “Holiness Baptist Church.” Most Holiness churches with which I’m familiar could easily be called “Holiness Baptist” churches.
First, most in the CHM, like Baptists, only baptize believers (credobaptism). This is a major departure from classic Methodism, which was dogmatic about infant baptism (paedobaptism). John Wesley was uncompromising on the subject. William Burt Pope warned that parents will answer to God for failing to baptize their children. Adam Clarke thought it “grossly heathenish and barbarous” to withhold baptism from infants. Richard Watson was equally forceful on the matter. Historic Methodism has insisted that infants be baptized since they are the subjects of the universal redemption provided by Christ.
Infant baptism was not viewed as one isolated issue that could be settled by an exegetical debate, but rather as the necessary implication of Methodist theology. Thomas Summers gives Scriptural proofs of infant baptism, recites the testimony of antiquity (e.g., Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Jerome), and explains the Protestant use of patristic testimony, then makes the key point that infants are the subjects of baptism because they are the subjects of redeeming grace:
[Infants] are not baptized because their parents are believers in Christ. Their right to the ordinance is of a higher investiture. They claim by a nobler entail. Dying in infancy, they enter heaven, not on the ground of their Christian descent—the piety of their parents—but because of their personal connection with the Second Adam, by whose righteousness the free gift is come upon them unto justification of life. Upon the very same basis are they admitted to membership in the kingdom of grace and to baptism, as the rite of initiation into the Church of God. If there be any for whom Christ did not die; any for whom he did not purchase the sanctifying grace of the Holy Ghost; any whom he designed and decreed never to save: such are obviously ineligible to baptism, which is the exponent of those great benefits that flow from the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. But if he tasted death for every man; if the free gift has come upon all who are involved in the condemnation of the pristine offense: there can be no reason to justify the exclusion of any from the sign and seal of the divine mercy, except such as exclude themselves by their obstinate impenitency, and infants are not of that number.
Second, most in the CHM, like most Baptists, only baptize by full immersion. Some are suspicious of sprinkling and pouring. Again, this is a significant departure from historic Methodism, which consistently defended sprinkling and pouring (it’s hard to dunk babies).
There are many ways in which the contemporary CHM overlaps with the Baptist tradition more than it does with historic Methodism.
Third, many in the CHM have congregationalist instincts. Admittedly, this is harder to pin down, since the CHM has a hodgepodge of ecclesial practices. But consider this: due to the widespread membership crisis, many churches do not have enough members to vote on their pastors. These churches have still felt compelled to find creative ways for their congregations to vote. The appointment of a pastor by an ecclesial authority (e.g., conference leadership) outside the local church is not seen as sufficient. This is not the case in Presbyterian or Episcopalian (and thus early Methodist) churches. It is a uniquely Congregationalist problem.
One further point on ecclesiology. Most in the CHM, like most Baptists, have a low view of the sacraments. Michael Bird once commented (tongue-in-cheek) that the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper is so impoverished that it could qualify for theological food stamps, and the same could be said of my Holiness friends. Many hold to a memorialist view of the Eucharist (i.e., that the bread and wine are merely symbols to memorialize Christ’s death). This too is a serious departure from historic Methodism, which held firmly to a high and basically Reformed view of the sacraments.
Finally, the CHM, like Baptists, are ardent defenders of religious liberty. For a better understanding of this and the other Baptist distinctives mentioned above, I recommend the discussion between Matthew Emerson and Luke Stamps from the Center for Baptist Renewal.
Being “Baptist” is not the opposite of being “Holiness”; quite the contrary, the CHM holds to nearly every Baptist distinctive. In many ways, the Holiness movement is more Baptist than Methodist.
Most of the rhetoric that I hear against Baptists is unloving and untruthful, if not slanderous. If you don’t understand another Christian tradition, please take the time to listen to their best representatives before you comment or engage. Then, do so charitably and intelligently. Much deeper than our differences on secondary and tertiary matters is our shared confession that Jesus is Lord and our shared membership in the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
The widespread confusion about our own tradition and its relationship to other traditions calls for serious introspection. We need to take a long, hard look at our beliefs and practices. It’s not apparent to me that most Holiness people or pastors understand historic Methodism, how far we’ve departed from it, why this is the case, and what the consequences have been. I hope to see us retrieve the best of our tradition going forward, even as we submit to Scripture as our final authority for faith and practice.