From their earliest days, Baptists have erected organizations to assist them in coordinating ministries that are beyond the ability of most individual churches. Among these organizations are both church associations and individual fellowships. Over the past month, I have had the opportunity to attend the meetings of three such organizations, two at the national level and one at the state level. Together these three organizations help to provide a glimpse into the current state of Baptist fundamentalism. I propose to devote one essay to each organization.
The first was the annual meeting of the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International, held in Taylors, South Carolina. The FBFI is an individual fellowship, governed by a self-perpetuating board under the presidency of John Vaughn. It claims to have been founded as the Fundamentalist Fellowship of the Northern Baptist Convention in 1920, though the claim is open to dispute. The people who met in Buffalo in 1920 established no organization either that year or for several years following. Still, what is now the FBFI undoubtedly grew out of the 1920 conference.
At one time named the Fundamentalist Fellowship, the FBFI remained in the convention until it was forced out in 1946. It had already renamed itself the Conservative Baptist Fellowship and had organized Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society. It soon followed with a Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society, a Conservative Baptist Association of America, and a Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver. Soon, however, the Conservative Baptist Movement found itself embroiled in controversy over the New Evangelicalism.
Not long after 1960 it became clear that neoevangelicals had control of the Conservative Baptist Movement. The fundamentalists had already started two new seminaries: one in Minneapolis and one in San Francisco. They controlled the Central Regional of the CBA of A. Other agencies were, to a greater or lesser degree, unable to make a clear break with the New Evangelicalism. The worst offenders were the Denver Seminary and the CBFMS. Finally, the Conservative Baptist Fellowship called upon the fundamentalists to organize a new mission, much as they had already organized new seminaries.
The result was the World Conservative Baptist Mission, now known as Baptist World Mission. While the Conservative Baptist Movement was able to tolerate rival seminaries, it was not willing to tolerate a rival mission board. By the mid-1960s the new mission was declared to have no standing in the Conservative Baptist Movement. Its supporters—the fundamentalists from the Conservative Baptist Movement—began packing up to leave the older organizations and to establish a new movement around their mission agency.
The flagship organization of the new movement was going to be a New Testament Association of Independent Baptist Churches, but hardly was the new association organized when its leaders fell out with one another. Some believed that it should function as an association of churches, while others favored a more individual fellowship. In the long run, the fundamentalists who left the Conservative Baptist Movement split among themselves. Those who favored an individual fellowship stayed with the Conservative Baptist Fellowship. They renamed it the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship. Concerned that their opponents might vote them out, they placed the governance of the FBF under a self-perpetuating board.
Having lost the support of many Baptist fundamentalists, the FBF entered an alliance with the interdenominational Bob Jones University. For many years the Joneses were powerful figures on the FBF board. Other prominent names included the Weniger brothers from San Francisco, B. Myron Cedarholm of Maranatha Baptist Bible College, Frank Bumpus of Schaumburg, Illinois, and Ed Nelson of Denver, Colorado. Eventually the organization came under the presidency of Rod Bell from Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Bell left the presidency during the mid-2000s, and John Vaughn was chosen as the new leader of the FBFI. The organization has been rigorously separatistic. Of all Baptist groups, it has probably been the most concerned with what is sometimes called “platform fellowship.” During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the FBFI deliberately took a moderating position on issues like Lordship Salvation and the King James Only controversy, passing resolutions to the effect that these matters would not be made tests of fellowship.
While its dispensationalism is a bit fuzzy, the FBFI is definitely anti-Reformed. A question was raised at this year’s meeting as to what sort of Reformed theology the group opposed. One speaker answered that the group had room for three- or four-point Calvinists, but not for five-pointers or for people who placed regeneration prior to faith in the ordo salutis. No one contradicted this speaker’s dictum—at least not publicly.
The FBFI features some of the best pulpit expositors within contemporary fundamentalism. John Vaughn can deliver superb pulpit exposition, as can preachers like Mike Harding, Mark Minnick, Steve Pettit, and Gordon Dickson. Steve Hankins also delivered a good expository sermon at this year’s meeting. In view of the high quality of pulpit presentation that these men and others can provide, one wonders why the organization would tolerate a moralistic allegory of Scripture such as was delivered by one preacher this year.
Meeting only ten minutes from Bob Jones University, the FBFI was near the heart of its strength. During the evening sessions on Wednesday the auditorium was packed—area churches cancelled their midweek services in support of the event. During the day, however, when only the FBFI members were in attendance, the number was more like a couple of hundred. Of these, fewer than a dozen appeared to be under forty years of age.
If this year’s meeting is any indication, the FBFI is dwindling. In one way, that is not surprising. The younger pastors have been trained to value preaching that directly reflects the text of Scripture. They also tend to lean toward some version of Calvinism. By featuring pulpit allegories and by attacking mainstream Calvinists, the FBFI is more likely to drive young leaders toward conservative evangelicalism than it is to attract them to its own valuable positions. It would do well to cease featuring non-expositional treatments of the Word of God, and it would do well to adopt a more welcoming stance toward mainstream Calvinist fundamentalists.
The FBFI is worth perpetuating. It holds many fine principles and includes many fine leaders. Its publication, Frontline, is one of the two or three best fundamentalist magazines today—and on some months, it is the best. Its voice has recently been strengthened by contributions from the faculty from Maranatha Baptist University.
Speaking of Maranatha, the FBFI will hold its next annual meeting at Watertown, Wisconsin. This meeting will present an ideal opportunity for Midwesterners to visit the FBFI, to enjoy its strengths, to evaluate its weaknesses, and to make an informed decision as to whether membership might be worthwhile. Even those who are outside the usual FBFI orbit would do well to visit the meeting.
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.
Now Let Our Mourning Hearts Revive
Philip Doddridge (1702–1751)
Now let our mourning hearts revive,
And all our tears be dry;
Why should those eyes be drowned in grief
Which view a Savior nigh?
What though the arm of conquering death
Does God’s own house invade?
What though the prophet and the priest
Be numbered with the dead?
Though earthly shepherds dwell in dust,
The agèd and the young,
The watchful eye in darkness closed,
And mute th’instructive tongue.
The eternal Shepherd still survives,
New comfort to impart;
His eye still guides us, and His voice
Still animates our heart.
Lo! I am with you, saith the Lord,
My church shall safe abide;
For I will ne’er forsake My own,
Whose souls in Me confide.
Through every scene of life and death,
This promise is our trust;
And this shall be our children’s song,
When we are cold in dust.