This summer I was able to attend the annual meetings of three Baptist fellowships. One of those was the annual conference of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. The conference was held Monday through Friday, June 29-July 3, in Omaha, Nebraska.
Of the three groups whose meetings I visited, this was the one with which I have the most history. My parents were converted through the ministry of a GARBC congregation. From the time I was a very small child I was reared in GARBC churches. Both the college and the seminary that I attended were GARBC-approved institutions. Three of my first four pastoral ministries were in Regular Baptist churches. I was a participant in some of the struggles that the GARBC experienced during the late 1980s while trying to clarify its identity.
Some people are nonplussed by the name “Regular Baptist.” The name probably does require some explanation. It was first applied to this branch of Baptist fundamentalism by T. T. Shields of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto, Canada. The name has a double significance. First, it harks back to a time when Baptists who subscribed to the Philadelphia Confession were designated as Regular Baptists. Second, it sets up a contrast with theological modernists or liberals who invaded the Baptist conventions (Northern, Southern, and Canadian) during the final quarter of the 19th Century. Because they denied fundamentals of the gospel, these liberals were seen as “irregular.” In contrast, Baptists who affirmed the fundamentals and practiced New Testament church order saw themselves as “regular.”
The General Association of Regular Baptist Churches has been ministering under that name since 1932, though its parent organization, the Baptist Bible Union, was organized in 1922-23. The GARBC comprised the most separatistic Baptists, those who insisted upon separation from the liberalism of the Northern Baptist Convention. Furthermore, unlike the Fundamentalist Fellowship or the Baptist Bible Union, the GARBC was meant to be a fellowship of churches. It is an association, and its leaders have been fond of pointing out that a church cannot join an association—churches can only fellowship with associations. While the GARBC is a fellowship of churches, it has always been careful to avoid the trappings of a convention. It does not operate its own agencies. It has no schools, missions, orphanages, or other institutions (though it does operate its own press). Historically, it has been easier for churches to leave the fellowship of the GARBC than it is for them to get in.
The center of gravity for the GARBC is a geographical band that stretches from Iowa, across Illinois and lower Wisconsin, into Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, then on into Pennsylvania and New York. It has few churches in the South or West (though it has had fairly strong representation along the West Coast). With this geographical distribution, conferences that are held in the Midwest tend to be the best attended.
Omaha—the site of this year’s conference—is just on the edge of the GARBC’s main area of influence. Consequently, attendance appeared to be considerably larger than last year’s meeting in Florida. The meeting was relatively easy for Iowa Regular Baptists to attend, though a bit harder for those further east.
Since the GARBC has few institutional trappings, the main purposes of its annual meetings are fellowship and preaching. This year was no exception. Probably the most important feature of the conference is the conversation that takes place in hallways and over tables. For an organization as large as the GARBC, its people seem to know each other surprisingly well. To all appearances, they genuinely want to encourage each other—even though some of them have significant differences.
Regular Baptists have experienced a couple of areas of disagreement since the 1990s. One has been over where to draw the lines on ecclesiastical fellowship and separation. The other has been over the use of contemporary idioms in worship services (especially the services of the annual conference). During recent years the association has clarified its stand on ecclesiastical separation, sometimes at the cost of losing churches from its fellowship. It has also drawn back from some of the more obvious manifestations of contemporary worship, though it has not entirely abandoned them. For example, most of this year’s music consisted of traditional hymnody, but not all of it was done in traditional ways.
The preaching at this year’s conference was a delight. The evening speaker was Tim Jordan, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Pastor Jordan’s appearance on the platform was significant for more than one reason. The church he pastors is not a fellowshipping congregation of the GARBC, so his presence was a signal that the GARBC is prepared to reach into a fundamentalism that is broader than its own constituency (in this respect, Tim Jordan joins a succession of non-GARBC preachers including Daniel Davey and Dave Doran). His presence is also a sign of the GARBC’s commitment to biblical exposition. Whatever else anyone may say about Pastor Jordan, he is a clear expositor of the Word of God. He brought a series of messages from Peter’s first epistle that clarified the text and applied it with force.
The morning speaker was Paul Hartog of Faith Baptist Bible College and Seminary in Ankeny, Iowa. Dr. Hartog is both a pastor and a professor. In my opinion he possesses the best mind in fundamentalism and one of the best in the evangelical world. He is quite capable of holding his own in any academic setting. His presentations dealt with the topic of union with Christ as the hinge for sanctification. They were immensely practical, with a wealth of illustrative material drawn from Dr. Hartog’s pastoral experience.
Also worth noting was a workshop by Doug Brown, also of Faith Baptist Bible College and Seminary. Dr. Brown is an excellent New Testament scholar, but his workshop was more theological in nature. He spoke on theological viruses infecting evangelicalism. I hope that his workshop was recorded and will be made available. It is well worth listening to.
The association also passed several resolutions during its business meetings. Among these were resolutions on “Same-Sex Marriage,” on “Our Connection to Christ,” and on “Discipleship.” The text of these resolutions can be found on the GARBC’s web site.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
How Great the Wisdom
Benjamin Beddome (1717–1795)
How great the wisdom, power and grace,
Which in redemption shine!
The heavenly host with joy confess
The work is all divine.
Before His feet they cast their crowns,
Those crowns which Jesus gave,
And, with ten thousand tongues,
Proclaim His power to save.
They tell the triumphs of His cross,
The sufferings which He bore;
How low He stooped, how high He rose,
And rose to stoop no more.
With them let us our voices raise,
And still the song renew;
Salvation well deserves the praise
Of men, and angels, too.