October 19, 2017

Independence Is Not Isolation: Baptist Networks, Past and Present

Greg Linscott

This article first appeared in the Baptist Bulletin Magazine, a publication of the General Association of Regular Baptists. We republish it here as a matter of interest to our readers and by permission of the author and original publisher.

Baptist fundamentalism was in decay and decline. Conservatives were fracturing away from one another, unable to arrive at any organizational unity. Educational institutions were splintering and struggling to stay open. Disputes over ministry methods and doctrinal issues obstructed fellowship. The pressure to conform to the approach of seemingly successful leaders in broader evangelicalism was strong.

Such was the landscape of fundamentalism in the early 1960s. Yet these “Fightin’ Fundamentalists,” somehow agreeing to be agreeable, gathered at Temple Baptist Church of Detroit in 1963. From that first meeting to the last one held in 1978, these gatherings proved so successful that they eventually had to leave the confines of church buildings and be housed in a large arena like Cobo Center, home to the NBA’s Detroit Pistons.

The list of participants seems almost impossible to conceive today. The 1963 meetings were co-chaired by Paul Jackson, representing the GARBC; G. Beauchamp Vick of the Baptist Bible Fellowship; and Lehman Strauss of the Conservative Baptist Fellowship. Bryce Augsburger and R. V. Clearwaters represented another strain of Conservative Baptists. Individuals linked with the Association of Regular Baptist Churches (Canada), the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada, the World Baptist Fellowship, and the Southern Baptist Premillennial Fellowship were included in those early days. Each of these groups had its own unique set of issues and idiosyncrasies. Still, the foundational distinctives, the “great idea” they held in common provided a collective sense that they were fellow pilgrims walking the same road.

White-haired figures who had fought the battles against theological liberalism of the 1920s, such as Robert T. Ketcham and H. C. Slade, used their influence to support the gatherings. They were joined by rising leaders such as Ernest Pickering, Warren Wiersbe, Peter Masters, and John Balyo — men who were leading the charge against a new assortment of issues confronting churches.

The fundamentalism of today bears many similarities to what existed half a century ago. Institutions and agencies have closed their doors. The “worship wars,” disputes over Calvinism/Arminianism, and the King James Only controversy have in many cases not obstructed but obliterated relationships that were at one time cordial or even close. Evangelicalism still has its progressive influences, but increasingly the appeal of Fundamentalists is drawn to the movement’s prominent conservative voices.

As leaders confront the challenges of the present, the benefits of a shared testimony and collective gathering around gospel fundamentals, hermeneutic principles, and Baptist church distinctives are as needed today as they have ever been. Our fundamentalist heritage informs us that we gain strength and encouragement when we gather together — not because all of the issues that define our local churches, associations, and fellowships are petty and unimportant. As Baptists, we stand on the Scriptural position of local church autonomy. We are independent Baptists. As Baptist fundamentalists, however, we must also remember that independence left unchecked quickly degrades into isolation. How can events of the recent past shape our perspective moving forward?

Networking

For over 200 years, Baptists in the United States have seen a need for some level of organized interaction at a national level. From Luther Rice’s efforts to organize Baptists for the funding of missionary endeavors in 1814, to the various associations and fellowships that connect like-minded Baptists across our country to this day, autonomous congregations have understood the value that networking with others who share their doctrine and guiding principles brings. Shared resources, mutual encouragement and support, service to one another, and the influence a collective voice can have are among the reasons churches such as ours continue to invest in associations such as the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.

While few reading this publication would question the value of an association of churches, many would also testify to the benefits derived from congregations and leaders whose connections may not always be the same as our own. From drawing on the resources of educational institutions, publishers, and mission agencies to establishing local fellowship with a pastor across town, many Regular Baptists have long profited from the efforts of like-minded “unaffiliated” Baptist brothers.

In recent days, opportunities for such fellowship have been somewhat localized and individualized for Baptist fundamentalists. Cooperating in a local ministry such as a camp or Bible institute, informal gatherings of pastors for prayer and fellowship, stumbling upon a resource by word of mouth — the net result of these factors is that those who otherwise hold much in common often remain unfamiliar with one another.

The relative disconnect between Baptist fundamentalists that exists today has not always been the case. Descriptions of the departures and divisions of Baptist fundamentalists from both the Northern and Southern Conventions have been well-documented. The accounts of those early days leave us with an appreciation for the stands taken to uphold the truth of the Word of God and the sufficiency of the gospel.

Nonetheless, those who stood in defense of truth did not always find it easy to stand alongside one another. Some groups believed the best response to error was to separate on principle. Others used the strategy to preserve a measure of influence by remaining in the convention structure while simultaneously affiliating with fundamentalist brethren in another association or fellowship. Decades after these congregations and organizations had been distinct from the conventions, remnants of those conflicts and controversies continued to impede official relationships between congregations that often held to similar foundational principles.

A Collective Testimony for the Gospel of Christ

These similarities were not lost on the leadership of various groups. Several representatives had discussed the prospect of a formal international Baptist organization, and in 1958, several parties began to discuss the specifics of such an arrangement. But as representatives from major groups interacted, it became clear that significant obstacles impeded the path to any kind of large-scale consolidation.

However, a united rally of Baptist fundamentalists for preaching the Word of God was a concept received with universal affirmation. A gathering of representatives in 1962, meeting in the GARBC office, concluded that such a meeting would encourage closer interaction among unaffiliated congregations as well as those associated with groups such as the Conservative Baptist Association, the Baptist Bible Fellowship, the Southwide Baptist Fellowship, the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches of Canada, and the GARBC. The improved relationships would display a more visible collective testimony for the gospel of Christ than each of the representative groups were capable of individually.

Through nearly two decades, several Congresses gathered. From the initial Fundamental Baptist Congress of North America meeting at Temple Baptist in Detroit, the meetings would continue on a biannual frequency, convening in places such as Grand Rapids and London. A variety of notable individuals were included on the platforms and in the organizing committees, such as John Rawlings, John R. Rice, Tom Malone, Lee Roberson, Monroe Parker, Bob Jones Jr., David Gibbs, Bryce Augsburger, G. Archer Wenigar, A. V. Henderson, and R. V. Clearwaters. GARBC participants over the years included men like David Otis Fuller, J. Don Jennings, W. Wilbert Welch, Bernard Bancroft, Paul Tassell, and Charles Wagner.

Separation Principles

By the 1980s, momentum for the FBCNA had significantly declined. Even before the “worship wars” had begun to escalate in earnest, tolerance for varieties in ministry methods created distinct tension. Lines were being drawn over issues related to doctrine, such as the King James Only controversy. Some, prompted by books such as Jack Van Impe’s Heart Disease in Christ’s Body, questioned the application of separation principles. Loyalties to schools, organizations, or prominent individuals resulted in groups that had once enjoyed a sense of camaraderie and kinship growing increasingly distant and even hostile toward one another. There had always been some variety in emphasis on soteriology, but disputes over Calvinism grew more offensive. Internal disputes in various associations and fellowships further complicated the prospects of a congenial, broader fellowship across the lines. Allegations of scandalous personal failure among high-profile leaders such as Jack Hyles further contributed to a spirit of conflict and suspicion for both individuals and the methods they loudly championed.

Jerry Falwell of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, led an effort to continue the spirit of the Congresses with Baptist Fundamentalism ’84, a large-scale gathering held in Washington, D.C. Though Falwell’s efforts were successful in gaining national attention, even including a prepared address from President Ronald Reagan, the courting of participants from the Southern Baptist Convention caused a significant amount of controversy within the ranks of Baptist separatists, and the efforts were not universally embraced.

Awareness

More recently, some commendable small-scale attempts to gather like-minded Baptists have occurred. In the upper Midwest, the Men for Christ Rally has been an annual venue connecting several streams of Baptists in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa. Conferences sponsored by colleges and seminaries have succeeded in uniting constituencies on a micro level. Some churches have found success at bringing diverse groups together to address a topic like Christian counseling. As commendable as these are, none have really served to fill the void left by the FBCNA, nor have they dispelled the reputation for inherent contentiousness that seems to stain both the public perception of Baptists and personal presumptions of one another.

Today’s leaders have increasingly identified the need for unity among Baptist fundamentalists. Though many of the same obstacles to unity that were present in the 1980s remain (and have been joined by new challenges), there is also a sense in which leaders are seeing the need to distinguish more clearly between “in-house” debates and those that compromise the gospel or our distinctive Baptist principles.

Informal conversations in the early 2000s on Internet venues contributed to an awareness of like-mindedness among a generation of Baptists that had been relatively unaware of the others’ existence. Personal blogs and larger scale forum sites like SharperIron.org, though seeming at times to be fuel for endless controversy, helped to demonstrate that shared aims and emphases were not exclusive to a particular association or fellowship, or only “really” defended by the truly independent and unaffiliated. Conversations began to lead to companionship and occasional cooperation. While differences were recognized, what became increasingly apparent were the shared beliefs held in principle together — the “great idea” of fundamentalism that linked these various groups.

Relationship for Collective Unity

As this interest grows more apparent, efforts have been made to provide venues to explore the possibilities and benefits of “cross-pollination.” A conversation on the future of fundamentalism, reported on in the September 2014 Baptist Bulletin, attracted a great deal of interest with a relatively sparse budget to publicize the effort. Dr. Michael Sproul of Tri-City Baptist Church in Chandler, Arizona, a panelist in that conversation, shortly after announced a national conference scheduled for March 2016 (gospelproclaimed16.org), involving several leaders from across the spectrum of Baptist fundamentalism.

Informed by the model of the FBCNA, several leaders have organized a gathering called the Midwest Congress of Baptist Fundamentalists. As we consider the efforts of the leaders of the past, we gain a new appreciation for their willingness to invest in the unity of the faith. However, we also learn from the eventual deterioration of the Congresses that there must be substance and stability at the core of the commonality: “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3). We recognize the varied approaches in ministry methods and finer points of doctrine that exist between us, and in one sense, do not consider those differences to be irrelevant when informing the extent to which we may profitably collaborate.

Kevin Bauder has observed, “Ecclesiastical separation from apostates must be complete and total, but separation between brethren is not an all-or-nothing proposition.” Recognizing the truth of that statement, representatives from the Minnesota Baptist Association, Wisconsin Fellowship of Baptist Churches, Independent Fundamental Baptist Fellowship of Michigan, Baptist Bible Fellowship International, Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International, the GARBC, and Regular Baptist state associations in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Missouri have organized together, “agreeing to be agreeable” for the benefit of mutual encouragement and a magnified testimony. Together, we are convening this Congress in October, gathering around not only the core fundamentals and distinctive Baptist principles, but common threads that have united our churches across organizational ties — our dispensational hermeneutic and a commitment to expositional preaching of the Word of God.

This Congress does not intend to lead anyone to the conclusion that the differences between us are somehow less significant. Rather, while affirming the common principles we share, we would also recognize the value of discussing these differences — not for identifying our opposition, but to influence one another as brethren toward greater spiritual effectiveness and conformity to Christ, whether or not we all arrive at precisely the same conclusions on each issue.

The Scriptures tell us that as we see the return of Christ drawing closer, congregations should give even greater attention and urgency to their gatherings for mutual edification and exhortation (Heb. 10:25). While the context applies to the local church, by extension one certainly can see the benefit of encouragement and exhortation available to today’s church leaders. When we invest in relationships that will serve to further a sense of collective unity around the truth of God’s Word and the primacy of Christ and His gospel, we are furthering His agenda and not our own.


Greg Linscott (MMin, Summit University) is pastor of First Baptist Church, Marshall, Minnesota, and chairman of the Midwest Congress of Baptist Fundamentalists (BaptistCongress.org).


Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

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