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Guest Post: “Who Are Southern Baptists? Toward an Intergenerational Identity” by David S. Dockery

From 2005 until now, Southern Baptists have wrestled with changes brought about by a new generation. This generation could be characterized as moving toward recovery or the reenvisioning of the denomination. Certainly there have been ongoing controversies over the last decade: Landmarkism, the doctrine of Scripture, the meaning of the gospel, rural versus urban, styles of worship and ministry an educated ministry versus the role of the bivocational pastor. Models and heroes were starting to develop for a generation of pastors, models who seemingly for the first time were people from outside the Southern Baptist Convention. For so many people the heroes had been Richard Furman, George Truett, W A. Criswell, R. G. Lee, and Herschel Hobbs. Now the heroes were John McArthur, James Boice, Tim Keller, Chuck Swindoll, John Piper, and others from the broader evangelical world. Changes brought about by these different approaches cannot be underestimated.


As the SBC moved into the 2lst century, the millennials simultaneously began to move into leadership roles in the churches. Southern Baptists are now a multiethnic denomination with 10,000 congregations whose membership is primarily African-American, Hispanic-American, or Asian-American. The diversity of our nation has begun to be reflected in Southern Baptist life. American evangelicals across the country began to ask questions about their future and turned to Southern Baptists for help even as Southern Baptists had turned in their direction some twenty years earlier. Now Southern Baptists are not as parochial, as regional, as isolated, or as segregated as they had been in the previous generation. Questions began to be raised regarding the understanding of what denominations do, not only among Southern Baptists but also among denominations across the American spectrum. As denominations in this country began to decline, a shift toward new and more diverse networks began to develop. A true generational shift was taking place.

Southern Baptists in the South until 1950 were primarily located there because of the territorial agreements they had with American Baptists. But as those agreements began to dissipate, things began to change. Baptists were primarily, and still remain, agents of the gospel and advocates for the regenerate church to the South, to the country, and to the world, with evangelism and missions prioritizing their work from the beginning.


We now find ourselves faced with new questions with a new generation moving toward maturity. With each generation, even with the significant changes through the years from 1845—2015, there has been significant continuity. At least twelve things remain that this generation must understand and wrestle with as they begin to participate more broadly in Southern Baptist life in the days to come.

1. Convention Model: Southern Baptists are and have been a people committed to a convention model of ministry. The SBC has explored the societal model along the way and has asked similar questions over and over again. Each time the SBC has come back to say that the convention model is the best way to fund and organize the work of the Southern Baptist Convention.

2. Controversies: Southern Baptists have been characterized by controversy and conflict along the way, from the beginning with the Northern Baptists in 1845, with Landmarkism in the nineteenth century, with rural versus urban approaches to ministry (which is really what best characterized the primary differences among the Sandy Creek and Charleston Associations), with the evolution issues of 1925, the organization of the Executive Committee, and the accompanying questions about centralization of work and decision making, with universalism and ecumenism—how will Southern Baptists participate with broader denominations—with the interpretation of higher critical issues with the Broadman Commentary, with Calvinism, with the implications of regenerate church membership, and with ongoing ministry and worship style questions. Controversy has characterized Southern Baptist history.

3. Cooperation: At the same time, cooperation has characterized who Southern Baptists are, both in the collection and distribution of finances and in the approach to implementing the work. Churches, associations, state conventions, and national conventions have found ways to cooperate together to advance the gospel and to extend the kingdom of God.

4. Colleges and Seminaries: Education has been both important and controversial. Colleges preceded seminaries in SBC life. Early Baptist colleges included Georgetown, Mercer, ‘Wake Forest, Furman, and Mississippi College, with Furman being an important school to help launch Southern Seminary in the same way that Baylor was significant for the launching of Southwestern. The educational piece has been vital to the work of Southern Baptists and must be continued.

5. Commission People: Southern Baptists are a commissioned people, a Great Commission people. From day one the focus was on domestic and foreign missions in order to extend the gospel across the region, across the country, and around the world.

6. Confessional: Southern Baptists are a confessional people. While the SBC did not have a public confessional statement until 1925, in 1845 when Southern Baptists came together as a people, they had been shaped by the 1677 Second London Confession, the 1678 Orthodox Creed, the 1833 New Hampshire Confession, the Philadelphia Association Confession, and the important role of the 1858/1859 Abstract of Principles and its influence on Southern Baptists during the convention’s early decades. Southern Baptists are a confessional people, particularly related to the Bible, to the gospel, to regenerate church membership, and to believer’s baptism by immersion.

7. Congregationalists: Southern Baptists are congregationalists. Southern Baptists believe in autonomous churches, autonomous entities, and regenerate church membership. There have been some differences from the beginning regarding single bishops or single pastors versus plural elders; nevertheless, there has been an agreement regarding the autonomy of local churches, the necessity of regenerate church membership, and congregational polity as identifiable matters that have shaped Southern Baptist life and ministry.

8. Communion: Communion has always been important for understanding Southern Baptists. The Lord’s Supper is noted over and over again in the book, Baptist Why and Why Not, published at the beginning of the twentieth century. Baptists clearly are people who affirm the importance of Communion, unlike the Quakers. They are people who have rejected transubstantiation and consubstantiation. “While there has been some variation over the spiritual presence of Christ as opposed to the memorial understanding of the ordinance or whether Communion is to be practiced in an open or closed manner, this ordinance has been significant for defining Southern Baptists.

9. Calvinism: Southern Baptists are not Calvinists; Southern Baptists are Calvinists but never consistent Calvinists. Consistency in this sense refers to the adoption of John Calvin’s understanding of the Old Testament law and infant baptism in particular. Southern Baptists have never been consistent Arminians in totally rejecting Calvinism. A modified form of Calvinism has always characterized Southern Baptist soteriology. Even those who affirm the so-called five points of Calvinism are not truly consistent Calvinists. More agreement has been found related to the providence of God rather than the particulars related to God’s sovereignty. Calvinism has influenced Southern Baptists whether or not they understand it, particularly regarding the doctrines of the perseverance of the saints and eternal security. Thus, the general understanding of the sinfulness of sin and eternal security have been shaped by Calvinistic doctrines. So while Southern Baptists are not consistent Calvinists and not consistent Arminians, they are modified Calvinists at least in some way Southern Baptists can neither run away from nor misunderstand the influence of Calvinism throughout their history.

10. Chiliasts or Millennialists: Southern Baptists are not millennialists, never having affirmed premillennialism, amillennialism, or postmillennialism as an essential doctrine in Southern Baptist life. Today Southern Baptists are primarily premillennialists. During the twentieth century the SBC was influenced by megachurch pastors who adopted dispensational pretribulation, premillennialism following the influence of W. A. Criswell. Also the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible among laypeople and Baptist pastors cannot be underestimated for movements toward premillennialism. Yet, historically, Southern Baptists have been more amillennial than anything. Postmillennialism was most popular in the nineteenth century, amillennialism predominantly in the middle of the twentieth century, and premillennialism characterizes most Southern Baptists today. Contemporary Southern Baptists involved in theological education are probably more historic premillennialist. A look at the New American Commentary interpretation of Matthew 24—25 in Mark 13 and 1 Thessalonians 4—5 shows that both follow historic premillennial interpretation. The volumes on Daniel and Revelation, however, follow a pretribulation model. So even the New American Commentary writers lack consistency regarding millennialism. Southern Baptists characteristically are not Chiliasts.

11. Culture: Southern Baptists have never adopted a Roman Catholic understanding of the church above culture, nor have they often confused church and state matters. Baptists have always understood the differences between church and state. Neither, even in the most moderate or liberal forms, has the Southern Baptist Convention moved to adopting a position of the culture speaking as a voice to the church, as that articulated by Harvey Cox in 1965 in his well-known work, The Secular City. Southern Baptists have dealt with culture primarily in two different ways: either as a church separate from culture or as the church engaging culture. At times the convention has been more one than the other. Influenced largely over the past thirty years by Carl F. H. Henry, Francis Schaefer, and Chuck Colson, Southern Baptists have adopted a model of engaging culture. But as the culture has changed, that call for God’s people to be “aliens and strangers” separate from the culture has become something to which many are now prepared to hear afresh. If one looks at the three Baptist Faith and Message statements (1925, 1963,2000) one can follow the differences in how Southern Baptists have addressed the issues of culture in the final items in each of those confessional statements.

12. Compassion: Southern Baptists are a compassionate people. The work of relief agencies over the last twenty years has raised that commitment to a level for the whole world to see the compassion of Southern Baptists, but all along the benevolence aspect of Southern Baptist ministries and ministry to the poor, the least, and the forgotten, has been exemplary for those who were paying attention.

These twelve markers point to a shared consensus of identity. At the least, they clarify the limits to the options among Southern Baptists as they have been expanded and affirmed for generations to come. These twelve areas have remained rather constant through the years and cannot be ignored without raising questions about the heart of Southern Baptist identity.


*This article is an excerpt from The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, and Recommitment. Edited by Jason K. Allen (B&H Academics). The culmination of a landmark symposium on the campus of Midwestern Seminary, this book features contributions from President Allen, Frank Page, Ronnie Floyd, Thom Rainer, Albert Mohler, Paige Patterson, David Platt, Danny Akin, Justin Taylor, Collin Hansen, and more on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Available to purchase online at and B&H Publishing and in LifeWay Christian Stores.

topicsSBCSouthern Baptist Convention

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