During June and July, I attended the meetings of three significant Baptist Fellowships: the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, and the Minnesota Baptist Association. Taken together, these three meetings provide a glimpse into the current state of Baptist fundamentalism. I am presenting one brief report on each organization and meeting.
The General Association of Regular Baptist Churches was organized in 1922 as the Baptist Bible Union. Originally a fellowship of individuals, its first decade was spent fighting liberalism in the conventions, then attempting to revive the ailing Des Moines University. By late 1920 the Baptist Bible Union was in disarray, and from 1930 to 1932 Oliver Van Osdel took the lead in reorganizing it as the GARBC.
After the reorganization, the GARBC quickly took on a unique identity. It repudiated individual membership and became a fellowship of churches. It refused to operate its own institutions, instead approving autonomous Baptist missions and schools. Perhaps most importantly, its ethos was strongly separatistic, and it soon began to require separation from liberalism as a precondition of fellowship.
During the late 1940s the Regular Baptist leadership tried to merge with the Conservative Baptist Movement, but the issue of secondary separation kept them apart. During the 1950s and 1960s the focus of the GARBC moved away from liberalism and toward the emerging New Evangelicalism. The GARBC reacted strongly against the neoevangelicals, especially rejecting Billy Graham’s tactic of extending Christian fellowship to theological liberals and Roman Catholics.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s the Regular Baptist movement was shaken by attacks from fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire. McIntire, the most visible and prominent fundamentalist of his era, accused the GARBC of weakness and of political arm-twisting. These attacks were almost completely false, but they were soon echoed by other fundamentalists.
The Regular Baptist movement has always leaned toward the Calvinistic side and has included some five-point Calvinists. During the mid-1970s the Council of Eighteen moved to put unconditional election into the fellowship’s doctrinal statement. Led by evangelist Robert L. Sumner, many objected to this move. In the long run, the messengers voted to maintain a breadth of fellowship that allows for differences over Calvinism.
Perhaps the most significant conflict began during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Jerry Falwell and Jack Van Impe began to articulate a revisionist version of fundamentalism that repudiated secondary separation. This event exposed a division within Regular Baptist ranks. In addition to secondary separation, other issues included personal standards, the use of more contemporary music on the conference platform, and the (perceived) ineffectiveness of the approval system as it was operating at that time. In time, the messengers rejected the leadership of the most rightward-leaning speakers, opting to maintain the status quo. Many of those leaders broke away to form the Independent Baptist Fellowship of North America.
The unresolved issues continued to fester into the 1990s. When a National Representative elect finally articulated the direction that the more progressive element intended to move the association, the fellowship reacted vigorously. From the mid-1990s onward, the GARBC has steadily reaffirmed its historic conservative and separatistic direction.
Some of those who wanted to see the GARBC move closer to the evangelical mainstream have now left the fellowship. For example, the present permutations of Grand Rapids Baptist College and Western Baptist College no longer identify with the GARBC. The GARBC no longer identifies with Cedarville College. While local and state fellowships still look to these institutions, segments of the old Regular Baptist coalition are moving in different directions.
That difference shows up in the annual meetings. During the 1980s and 1990s the annual conferences were held in convention centers, where they were attended by thousands. More recently, the annual conferences have been held in local churches, on college campuses, or at hotels. This year’s meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, was attended by about 350. Even though St. Petersburg is well off the beaten track for most Regular Baptists, that number represents a mere fraction of the attendance at meetings just twenty years ago.
The selection of music at the conferences has been an issue for years. Contemporary music has tended to dominate the meetings, leaving the gray-haired crowd (who are the majority) looking at each other in perplexity. This year the music turned in a more conservative direction. More than one council member expressed satisfaction privately. The growing consensus seems to be that little is gained by using music that offends a significant segment of the constituency.
The GARBC is at the center of a self-conscious movement. This movement includes state and local associations, mission agencies, colleges, seminaries, and agencies that use eleemosynary work for evangelistic purposes. The GARBC publishes one of the finest magazines in Baptist fundamentalism, The Baptist Bulletin. It also endorses chaplains for appointment under the United States Department of Defense.
The greatest strength of the GARBC is its strong emphasis upon the autonomy of the local church. The association is genuinely under the control of the churches—even the nominating process for the Council of Eighteen is driven by the churches themselves. Yet the autonomy of the churches is also the greatest weakness of the GARBC. As long as a church does not transgress the doctrinal boundaries, it will not be disfellowshipped or even admonished by the association. Sometimes fellowshipping churches may engage in programs or conduct that the majority find objectionable. Historically, the GARBC leadership has vigorously defended the right of any church to be idiosyncratic or even wrong, within the doctrinal parameters of the fellowship.
The theme of the St. Petersburg conference was, “The Essential Gospel.” The preaching was overwhelmingly expository and theological in nature, even though the sermons were topically focused. Speakers who made strong pulpit presentations included National Representative John Greening and Gary Anderson of Baptist Mid Missions. Pastor Rich Van Heukelum’s sermon on propitiation reminded the congregation that God’s wrath requires satisfaction.
At the moment, every segment of American Christianity is facing decline—including fundamentalism. The Regular Baptist movement feels the pressure, and is responding by redoubling its efforts to help churches and pastors. It is returning to the basic idea that fellowship is based upon what is held in common. If this year’s conference is any indication, the strategy for the future will be to strengthen the commonalities rather than to force innovations upon reluctant messengers. That is a good direction.
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.
Daugher of Zion, From the Dust
James Montgomery (1771–1854)
Daughter of Zion, from the dust
Exalt thy fallen head;
Again in thy Redeemer trust;
He calls thee from the dead.
Awake, awake, put on thy strength,
Thy beautiful array;
The day of freedom dawns at length
The Lord’s appointed day.
Rebuild thy walls, thy bounds enlarge,
And send thy heralds forth;
Say to the South, Give up thy charge!
And Keep not back, O North!
They come, they come; thine exiled bands,
Where’er they rest or roam,
Have heard thy voice in distant lands,
And hasten to their home.
Thus, though the universe shall burn,
And God His works destroy,
With songs thy ransomed shall return,
And everlasting joy.