The conference, Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism, began Tuesday at Union University with two sessions which lay important frameworks for the sessions which are scheduled to follow. Dr. David Dockery, president of Union University, has put together an excellent program that matches well-qualified speakers with important topics. The two sessions on Tuesday night featured presentations by Dr. Ed Stetzer and Dr. James Patterson. Stetzer addressed the topic of “Denominationalism: Is There a Future?” and Patterson provided a survey of four hundred years of Baptist history. Both of these topics are obviously foundational. First, as Stetzer himself joked, if he answered “no” to his topics question, then we could all just go home and skip the rest of the conference. Patterson’s address provided a helpful summary of the history of Baptists that will allow the conference attendees to better assess where we are now as more specific topics are addressed throughout the remainder of the conference.
Ed Stetzer answered “Yes” to the question in his session’s title regarding whether or not denominationalism has a future. The conference continues. Stetzer says that denominations have a future because they are inevitable if churches are going to cooperate together to fulfill the Great Commission. This is the only kind of future that he believes denominations should have. A future in which churches are cooperating together increasing to accomplish God’s mission in this world, the salvation of lost men and women. Denominations can become problematic if they become more self-focused than focused on the mission. This is a tendency of denominations as they grow with more staff and more ministries. We can become more interested in self-preservation than in the proclamation of the gospel to the lost. In order for denominations to be effective in the future, Stetzer believes that they must have a confessional basis that provides doctrinal uniformity in beliefs (as in the BFM), while at the same time allowing for methodological diversity in worship styles, etc. Some denominations pride themselves on their doctrinal diversity, while maintaining a methodological uniformity through a strict liturgy. Southern Baptists must do the opposite to survive in the future.
James Patterson provided a helpful (and humorous) summary of 400 years of Baptist history in about an hour. He began with a Baptist history rap which he does for his students. You must get the audio for this. Patterson began by acknowledging the importance of Nicene Theology and Chalcedonian Christology for Baptists. He also noted the contributions of the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation and the Magisterial Reformers. The rest of the presentation was organized by the four centuries of Baptist life (beginning of course with the 17th century). Patterson noted key developments and challenges in each century. Patterson concludes with the following admonition: In light of our messy past, we need humility in celebrating our heritage, as well as a recognition that we too will ultimately be judged.