There is a story in Edwin Mitchell’s 1946 Encyclopedia of American Politics that a man named Colonel Samuel Hill of Guilford, Connecticut, would repeatedly run for political office in the early 1800's -- but always without success. Soon, the popular phrase “to run like Sam Hill," or "what in the Sam Hill are you doing?" entered into the American lexicon. I don't know if the story is apocryphal or not, but I when I feel a tad frustrated I find myself thinking, 'What in the Sam Hill is going on?'
I have been astounded at claims of a few in the comment sections of this blog that certain Southern Baptists are not true Baptists, possibly even not Christian. Some have even alleged that any attempt to dialogue and fellowship with other Baptists is impossible because we don't even believe the same gospel. One commentor said that she could not attend any convocation of Baptists, regardless of the stated purpose, because that assembly would attempt to define "what it means to be a Baptist."
In spite of the fact that the only people I see attempting to narrowly define what it means to be a 'genuine' Baptist are a handful of people within the Southern Baptist Convention in cooperation with Independent Baptist leaders who have recently become Baptist because 'the SBC has became more like us, than we like them," (Dr. Falwell's own words), I believe it is when groups begin to attempt to 'define' more narrowly what a 'genuine' Baptist is that we all get into trouble. The definition of what it means to be Baptist should be simple, broad and Biblical. It should encompass New Testament Christianity and nothing more, nothing less.
The very essence of being Baptist is that you cannot be defined nor limited in a more narrow fashion than the Scripture -- for the Spirit of truth is our guide and the Word of truth is our boundary.
My friend Dr. Tom Nettles has given perhaps the best definition of what it means to be Baptist of anyone I have read. You may find it in his classic "By His Grace and For His Glory."
Tom says a Baptist is . . .
Orthodox -- This means we believe in the Trinity as revealed in Scripture and articulated in the writings and councils of the church fathers. This separates Baptists from the cults and other world religions who renounce Christ as the second person of the Trinity and the Savior of mankind in the sense that 'God saves sinners.'
Evangelical -- This means we believe a sinner is made right with God by God's grace. We realize personally that grace through our faith in Jesus Christ's person and work. 'Evangelicalism' focuses our attention on the 'good news.' God is the author and creator of the news; evangelists are the proclaimers of it; converts are believers in it. This 'evangelicalism' separates us from the Roman Catholics of the Middle Ages. Though there may be many modern Roman Catholics who are evangelical, this would be in spite of their church's 'offical' doctrine. The Evangelical/Catholics Together effort of the last decade may very well be a reflection that many in Catholocism are returning to their historic (2nd, 3rd, and 4th century) 'evangelical' roots and abandoning the dark and brooding Roman Catholic heresies of the Middle Ages, but I do not know enough about this to offer an opinion. I do believe we should always be open to any entity or person who moves toward evangelicalism, regardless of their previous history. However, until you are evangelical you could not be considered a true Baptist.
Separatistic -- This third and final word that describes Baptists means we believe in the separation of church and state. We do not baptize infants and bestow upon them a 'Christian' name and citizenship at baptism. We hold to a 'believers' church -- one separated from the world and 'the government' via faith in Christ. The Baptist church is historically a regenerate church. This separates us from the German Lutherans, the English Anglicans, the Scottish Presbyterians and any other church/state evangelical denominations who have taken center stage throughout history. We call these folks from other denominations 'brothers and sisters in Christ,' but we would not call them Baptists.
THAT to me is the best short definition of what it means to be a Baptist. I believe we should vigorously challenge anyone who tries to narrow the definition any further. In fact, I believe we should blush if we question either the genuiness of the Christianity or the Baptist convictions of anyone who affirms the above - regardless of political, social, cultural and philosophical differences between us.
In His Grace,