Baptist Movement. Reflections on Flexible Distinctions. Part I


Andrew Fuller

Andrew Fuller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the late 1700s in England, Baptist churches were generally “Particular.” “Particular” meant Calvinist… focusing great import on the doctrine of divine sovereignty, and minimizing or even denying human freedom of will. There were “General” (Freewill) Baptists since the beginning of the Baptist Movement in the early 1600s but during the late 1700s they had basically disappeared, only to reappear in the next century.

A man named William Carey, 1761-1834, a simple preacher/pastor in London, became convinced of the need to share the Gospel of Christ with the heathen. Heathen in this case is simply the generic term for non-Christians (neither Christian by faith or Christian by culture). He was influenced by Andrew Fuller who wrote “The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation in 1781. That pamphlet did not argue against the doctrines of Particular Baptists fundamentally, but rather the implications of those doctrines. That is, if God chooses whom to save from the beginning of time, completely outside of human activity, then mission work is unnecessary… perhaps even an attempt to play God. Carey took on the same argument in his work, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.” The term “use Means” in this long title is critical. The term means to utilize human effort to join God in his mission to reach all people with the Gospel of Christ. The argument, again, was not so much to fundamentally attack the actual doctrines of the Particular Baptists, but to challenge the implications. Carey argued that Christ commanded all Christians to share the Gospel and one should not use one’s doctrinal stance to negate such a commandment.

This was a pivotal point in Baptist mission history. Baptists adjusted themselves, altered their stance, while still holding on to certain key distinctions. Two centuries later, with a few bumps in the road in between, Baptists as a group have remained firmly committed to Missions. There have been other changes, of course. One is no longer required to be “Particular” or Calvinist to be a Baptist. I am not a Calvinist. I have friends who tell me that if I truly understood Calvinism I would be one. But their attempts to explain it only confirm to me that it is a good interpretation of filtered Scripture… but not all Scripture. That is not the point. The Baptist movement has distinctives that separate itself from other groups… and yet within those distinctives there has always been a need for flexibility to ensure the ability to adapt to changing situations and locations. Therefore, I would like to look at some of the Baptist distinctives with special emphasis on the issues of flexibility for cultural adaptation in the next two or three posts.

I would again like to add the note that although I am a Baptist, I think of myself as a Christian first, Missionary second, and Baptist third. As Christians, we are part of a family that transcends denominational differences. This “transcending” must be to a unity acknowledged and practiced or it is just theoretical or even non-existent. So my focus on Baptist distinctives is primarily for the reflection of Baptists, although all are welcome to read. It is not intended to seek to pull other Christians into the Baptist fold. I find it offensive when other Christian groups try to lure me to other affiliations and I would not seek to act in a way I find offensive.

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