Monday, July 17, 2017

Baptist Polity As I See It by James L. Sullivan (Book Review #23 of 2017)

Baptist Polity as I See It by James L. Sullivan
It's a shame that there aren't more reviews of this book. I don't really know of another book like it, although I do hope that someone has penned a more recent version that is a standard textbook at Southern Baptist seminaries like this used to be (one 2007 reviewer remarks he wish he'd had it in seminary, so I guess it's not used much anymore). I've been a Southern Baptist for 30 years, and am currently an ordained deacon. But I did not know half of what was in this book, on the basic history of the Southern Baptist Convention, the basic makeup of the Convention (a mistake I have made for 30 years that this book corrects quickly: the Convention is the annual meeting, not the name of the denomination), its processes, organizational charts, how the state conventions work, how SBs differ from other denominations, how the Cooperative Program was developed, various challenges it faced and overcame up to 1983, etc. He also clarifies many common misconceptions people have.

Sullivan was a pastor, Sunday School Board (now Lifeway) President, Southern Baptist Convention President (1976-1978), State Convention President, and held a host of other positions. This book is both his explanation and a defense of how the denomination operates, arguing that it's the best for various reasons. Sullivan was no liberal, the only criticisms I've seen of him suggest he was naive to how liberal some of the teachers at Southern Baptist seminaries had become. There certainly is no hint in this book of a need for the eventual "Baptist Reformation," which is now a cornerstone of SB seminary historical teaching. The reality is that Southern Baptists have always been in the middle of the Conservative camp, its Convention Presidents almost always Conservative theologically, as Sullivan suggests in his diagram on p. 198. The "Reformation" following Sullivan's publishing simply affirmed and solidified this position. "Southern Baptists might be called conservatives with the little letter c but not conservatives with a capital C...(and) fundamentalists with a small f...Southern Baptists sometimes have a rather disconcerting tendency to interpret doctrines from the limited perspective of their own denomination...a person who is a conservative in the general religious field can sometimes be looked upon as liberal in Southern Baptist life...The point I'm making is that ultraconservatism should be avoided just as studiously as liberalism. Sometimes it is more dangerous to us" (p. 199). The ultraconservatism he warns about are a few specific schism movements in the early 20th century (J. Frank Norris) as well as strong feelings like Landmarkism and the insular mindset of Independent Baptists.

Where I think this book is great is in briefly teaching the history of Baptist faith in America and the emphasis on liberty, both of the believer and of individual churches. I think the more recently popular movements within Southern Baptist life, such as the 9Marks movement, Desiring God, etc. re-root Southern Baptist life in the Gospel, but seem also to divorce it from the Baptist history. Mark Dever, for example, is much more apt to include a Puritan or an Anabaptist in his sermon, but someone critical to making up the 1845-modern era Southern Baptist ranks may never make a cameo. (Like Dever, Sullivan is critical in the book [p. 82] of the unbiblical Deacon Boards that make up many SB churches, as well as "autocratic" pastors that are contrary to the principle of liberty at the heart of Baptist heritage.) Sullivan does not dwell much on the murky and debated beginnings of Baptists but does discuss how the different Baptist groups coming to America "buried their hatchets" and adopted the phrase "unity in diversity" (p. 39). Southern Baptists, traditionally, have emphasized a "unity in diversity." But this is difficult in practice because "there are certain people who find it difficult to cooperate with those who do not hold views identical to their own" (p. 203). But that is what has made the Convention so remarkable, the way debates are moderated on the floor and voted on democratically, it is hard for extreme positions to win out. I don't know if it began with the "Reformation" or not, but it would seem that diversity is less than it might be. There has been somewhat of an ongoing battle between Reformed and more Arminian-leaning teachings that I think Reformed are winning now; and my limited understanding from other evangelical denominations is that a similar trend is happening elsewhere.

Early Southern Baptist churches only met irregularly, maybe once or twice a month depending on the weather or the season. (P. 51 quotes an anecdote that one church objected to having year-round Bible studies because it was "too many meetings.") The hour they met was chosen to be ideal for morning chores and travel time. Hence, the 11am hour became sacred. Sullivan notes traditions such as these that became difficult to break, particularly the sacrosanct 11am hour. Sullivan does not gloss over slavery as the reason for the establishment of a Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. He includes the original 1845 Constitution and speech of explanation by William B. Johnson in the appendix. American Baptists had previously affirmed that slaveholding was a non-essential disagreement. But they abruptly changed their mind and would not allow slaveholders to be funded as missionaries, despite nothing being in the official American Baptist Constitution about it. The offended Southerners broke ranks and formed their own. The 1845 language is an appeal to liberty away from the "pressure of men's hands" that limit what one can and cannot do. But Sullivan repeats throughout the book that Southern Baptist polity allows it to be very flexible and "progressive in methodology," while conservative in theology. Its polity and emphasis on individual and church liberty allows for that dynamic and makes it "the best."  "While Baptists will defend the right of any group to practice the hierarchical system if it wishes, we prefer to go another way, choosing democratic processes magnifying the worth of each individual and the importance of each local congregation" (p. 80).

The guidelines, rules, and laws that the Southern Baptist Convention follow have changed very little, even though methodology has changed (in the 1940s, Sunday School was the hub of North American evanglism, now it is NAMB). Yet Southern Baptists are largely ignorant of those rules and never take part. That is something Sullivan would have liked to see corrected, calling on every member, particularly leaders, to be better-educated on polity. This would correct an ongoing problem of people moving from a State Convention committee to a national committee and not understanding the different rules and purposes. It would also connect SB's back to their history of liberty. "It is only by teaching Southern Baptists thoroughly about the basic principles of Southern Baptist polity that we will be able to avoid the risk of our denomination's moving unconsciously in an ever-increasing way toward centralization, or control in the hands of a few. If that sad day ever occurs, it will not only be disruptive; it will be catastrophic for Baptists" (p. 52).

In all, this book gave me a greater appreciation of Baptist history, liberty, and the Southern Baptist Convention as an institution. Four stars out of five. I see there is a revised 1998 version, I'm reviewing the 1983.

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