Texas may offer best hope for preserving distinctive Baptist ‘recipe’

DALLAS—Texas Baptists represent the nation’s best hope for maintaining the distinctive blend of beliefs and practices that have characterized Baptists historically, a pastor from the Rio Grande Valley told the Texas Baptists Committed annual convocation.

In the convocation’s keynote sermon, Ellis Orozco, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in McAllen, quoted Bill Pinson’s assertion that a unique mix of beliefs and practices—rather than any single doctrine—makes Baptists distinctive.

Pinson, executive director emeritus of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, has used the analogy of a recipe to explain that individual ingredients—or beliefs—may not be unique to Baptists, but when combined, they set Baptists apart and give them their distinctive flavor.

And at a time when “the larger Baptist witness in America” has followed other approaches, Texas Baptists have the potential to preserve the original recipe, Orozco noted.

Best hope for a Baptist witness

Orozco pointed to paradoxes—an increasingly globalized society and an increasingly polarized nation, a rapidly changing social dynamic and the need to cling to unchanging principles—to illustrate how Texas Baptists are strategically positioned “to be our best—and perhaps only—hope for a distinctively Baptist witness.”

“Our conservative biblicism combined with our love for religious freedom, our penchant for autonomous thought and practice combined with our passion for cooperation, our disdain for hierarchical governance combined with our respect for accountability through congregational leadership, our theological center of grace and grace alone combined with our innate suspicion of anything that smacks of legalism or creedalism—all combine to make us especially adept for the challenge of the next century,” he said.

Unlike denominational groups that have pulled away and isolated themselves, Texas Baptists still have the ability to tap into the trend toward “self-organizing collaborative communities,” Orozco observed.

Although “the larger Baptist voice in America has sold out to one political perspective for 30 pieces of silver,” Texas Baptists have maintained their commitment to the separation of church and state, he noted.

“The church cannot serve a socio-political ideology and Christ at the same time,” he said.

Retaining a prophetic voice

Because Texas Baptists have not become yoked to one political group, they have retained their prophetic voice and the ability to speak truth to political power.

“Both the left and the right seem to be fighting for a place at the center of political power. And any Christianity operating from that position will be a controlling, legalistic and spiritually oppressive force, unable to distinguish the voices of political allies from God’s voice,” Orozco said.

“That is the very kind of institution that will wither under the weight of globalization. It is, therefore, imperative that we remain distinctively Baptist, because we have the right recipe to be a prophetic voice, speaking from the margins, in a shrinking and dynamically changing world.”

In particular, Orozco urged Texas Baptists to use the prophetic office they have retained to speak on behalf of the poor, marginalized and oppressed.

“We must preserve a distinctively Baptist witness in Texas and the world because the poor are depending on it,” he said. “The poor are depending on our witness in the face of the strongholds of systemic evil in our state and nation.”

Helping Baptists stay Baptist

A series of panel discussions throughout the convocation focused on how to help churches teach Baptist principles and call distinctively Baptist pastors, help pastors grow genuinely Baptist churches and help students learn historic Baptist beliefs.

In what some church observers call a “post-denominational age,” Doug Weaver, professor in the religion department at Baylor University, emphasized the importance of communicating the best principles that have shaped the Baptist tradition and formed the Baptist identity.

“We have a shared tradition in common with all Christians, and we should glory in that,” he said. “But we also have a distinctive tradition.”

Tommy Brisco, dean of the Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology, dealt with that same theme in the context of Baptist universities and seminaries. Baptists constitute “one stream that flows into a great Christian stream,” and they should not neglect teaching the distinctive Baptist contributions to Christianity, he said.

Many undergraduate ministerial students identify themselves as Baptist “but have no idea what that means,” Brisco noted. And in many cases, seminary students similarly lack a firm grounding in Baptist principles.

David Garland, dean of Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, agreed.

“It’s essential that we teach Baptist identity, because they’re not getting it in their churches,” said Garland, who was named Baylor University’s interim president the day after the convocation.

Bruce Corley, president of the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute, asserted the greatest threat to distinctive Baptist principles is aging leadership.

“We’re an old preachers’ denomination,” he said. Pastors under age 35 “are not choosing to go to seminary”—any seminary, Corley said.

Helping pastors stay strong

In a panel discussion about helping churches call pastors who are committed to distinctive Baptist principles, Texas Baptists Committed Executive Director David Currie warned search committee members not to be deceived.

“Some of the candidates you interview will look you in the eye and lie to you” when asked about where they stand on the controversy that gripped the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and 1990s and continues to shape the convention today, Currie said.

Neutrality is not an option, he insisted. Any minister who claims to have no position on the issues that divided Southern Baptists “does not have the leadership ability to be your pastor,” he said.

Pastors committed to Baptist principles do their churches a disservice by failing to articulate those commitments in the pulpit, he added.

“Pastors, leave an educated laity who won’t think of calling a fundamentalist pastor,” Currie advised. “Don’t let your legacy be destroyed because you’re afraid of a little controversy.”

Baptist pastors need the support of their peers—ministers who not only share their values, but also face many of the same challenges, members of one panel stressed.

“It used to be that the name ‘Baptist’ was enough of a network in itself,” said Chad Chaddick, who recently moved from Borger to become pastor of Northeast Baptist Church in San Antonio. But denominational division and generational issues have undercut trust, he said.

“I’m a poster child for the need for a peer-group network,” Chaddick said.

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