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.”
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
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,”
- 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.”