No easy predictions for Baptists’ next 400 years
Ken Camp, Associated Baptist Press
January 20, 2010

No easy predictions for Baptists’ next 400 years

No easy predictions for Baptists’ next 400 years
Ken Camp, Associated Baptist Press
January 20, 2010

WACO, Texas — Nobody can predict with certainty what the

next 400 years hold for Baptists — or for any religious denomination, church

historian Martin Marty told a recent gathering at Baylor University.

But Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago

Divinity School and longtime Christian Century columnist, offered general

observations based on history and trends as he spoke on “The Future of a

Denomination: Baptists in the Next 400 Years.” The Jan. 17-18 event was

scheduled as part of the Texas Baptist university’s recognition of the 400th

anniversary of the Baptist movement.

Marty characterized denominations — as distinct from a

single state church — as a “four-century-old Anglo-American invention” and

noted Baptists were “present at the creation.”

While some observers ask if denominations in their present

form are dead or dying, Marty asserted that “structurally, functionally,

something would likely fill its role.”

Baylor photo by Robert Rogers

Martin Marty speaks at Baylor University.

What’s true for denominations in general undoubtedly would

prove true for the Baptist movement, he suggested, but he cautioned against

making confident predictions. He cited as a guiding text a line from a speech

by Abraham Lincoln: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are

tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it.”

“This means cautious projection and the describing of

alternative scenarios for life in the future,” he said. “The latter must relate

to the Baptist visions and embrace of Christian faith, hope and love. Praxis


What, where and how

Marty offered a series of “where-and-whither” questions

followed by “what-and-how” application on a variety of subjects:

  • Identity. Regarding the essence of the distinctive Baptist

    tradition, Marty confessed, “I have not found the essence of Baptisthood.”

However, he suggested, a clue to the historically central feature of the

Baptist movement lies in its name.

“Believers’ baptism by immersion was the most visible mark

of being a Baptist,” he said, pointing to its “branding” nature. But the

commitment to following religious convictions and living those convictions out

with integrity preceded the mode and method of baptism.

Separatists and others “backed

into” their understanding of believers’ baptism, he asserted.

“It was so exceptional, unsettled and branding that it

became central to the story and provided the name,” he said.

Marty observed less attention today given to the meaning of

believers’ baptism among Baptists — particularly as it relates to daily living

and ethics — than in some places and times. He also pointed to a decline in

baptisms, even in congregations where attendance has increased.

  • Community and autonomy. Baptists long ago “took the risk”

    in terms of emphasizing individual decision-making in matters of religion,

    Marty noted. However, he added, historic Baptist convictions about soul liberty

    and soul competency have been balanced by “the integral tie to community in

    voluntary association.”

The challenge for the future lies in the “pick-and-choose”

nature of individualized spirituality that does not find direction from a

religious community, he asserted.

  • Church polity. Observers of church life recognize that

    regardless of a denomination’s official polity — hierarchical, episcopal,

    presbyterian, congregational or whatever — “the local wins out,” Marty

    observed, and “Baptists should be theologically most ready to profit from the


At the same time, individual Christians, churches and

denominations have unprecedented capacity to be involved with other Christians

globally through communication technology, he added. Through the Internet, “distance

has disappeared,” he noted.

  • Church and state. In some circles “long-held Baptist views

    on separation of church and state have appeared to be compromised or obscured —

    or even abandoned,” Marty said.

“The moral crisis, the security crisis, the pluralism crisis

— all have led some to conclude we are so far gone that even Baptists have been

willing to call on the state to help us do our work,” he said.

How Baptists (as well as what Marty called “Baptist-like

traditions”) respond to church-state issues in the future has fateful

consequences for their witness in society, he observed.

  • Peoplehood. Baptists, like other Christians, tend to

    congregate and allow their lives to be shaped to a large degree along lines of

    social class and race, Marty noted. “Some largely white Baptist groups do

    better than others at reaching beyond historical bounds, but all confess that

    they have a long way to go,” he said.

The role of women in the church — particularly in the clergy

— remains a crucial issue with which Baptists likely will grapple in the

future, he noted.

  • Witness and pluralism. Few Baptists waver in devotion to

    the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, Marty said, but they struggle with how that

    faith relates to other world religions. “We can’t settle for a casual

    universalism that says we’re all in different boats headed toward the same

    shore,” he observed.

At the same time, some Baptists want to avoid holding to the

kind of exclusiveness that would cause non-Christians to write them off as

narrow bigots more focused on “denouncing each other than hearing each other,”

he said.

  • Sex. Baptists’ response to issues such as abortion,

    contraception and homosexuality do not relate specifically to Baptist history

    and impulses — except the Baptist tendency to fight, Marty observed.

  • Conflict. “Baptists, as creative dissenters, were born in conflict and

    produce conflict,” he said. But Baptists also possess the capacity to provide “a

    rich and warm home,” he added. “And there are plenty of biblical texts to find

    direction for that.”