Baptists and Cultural Engagement (Part 1): Introduction

June 16, 2014

A quarter-century ago, historian David Bebbington developed an influential model for defining evangelical Christians in his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain(1989). According to Bebbington, evangelicals are Protestants who affirm:

  1. Biblicism — a commitment to the inspiration, truthfulness, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture
  2. Conversionism — the conviction that the experience of personal regeneration marks the beginning of one’s Christian life
  3. Crucicentrism — the belief that the heart of the gospel is the salvation won for us through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his victorious resurrection from the dead
  4. Activism — the duty of all Christians to engage in faith-based service to others, with particular emphasis on personal evangelism among non-believers and acts of mercy to those in need

Most scholars have accepted the “Bebbington Quadrilateral” as a helpful baseline description of evangelical Christianity. Even those who quibble with Bebbington do so more in terms of nuance or emphasis, but offer few objections to the paradigm itself.

Based upon Bebbington’s Quadrilateral, there is little doubt among most observers that Baptists are a particular type of evangelical. This does not mean Baptists are genericallyevangelical. Baptists emphasize a number of key ecclesiological distinctives that most other evangelicals do not—or at least do not with the same degree of intentionality. These “Baptist distinctives” include regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, congregational church government, local church autonomy, and liberty of conscience. Nevertheless, Baptists are a variation on a wider theme that has come to dominate Protestant Christianity since the 1700s (with earlier roots in several Reformation and post-Reformation movements). Like all evangelicals, Baptists are spiritual activists.

For Baptists and other evangelicals, Christian activism is framed around a mandate, a commission and two commandments. The mandate is the “Cultural Mandate” of Genesis 1:26–28. This mandate is intended for all people, but because of sin, it is only rightly pursued by those who have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth,and the creatures that crawlon the earth.” So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawlson the earth” (Gen. 1:26–28, HCSB).

The commission is the “Great Commission,” which is most famously spelled out in Matthew 28:18–20. The Great Commission is given specifically to the church.

Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples ofall nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember,I am with you always,to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20, HCSB).

The two commandments are the “Great Commandment” and the second greatest commandment, found in Matthew 22:34–40. These two commandments are really summaries of all God’s commands. As such, they are intended for all people, but are intentionally lived out by those who are followers of Jesus Christ.

When the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test Him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matt. 22:34–40, HCSB).

Taken together, the Cultural Mandate, the Great Commission, and the two greatest commandments tell us several things. Human beings were created to reflect God and flourish. Because of sin, the image of God is marred and human flourishing falls far short of God’s desire. Believers are called to make disciples of non-believers. Believers also are  called to promote the sort of flourishing intended for all people. These actions—our activism—are motivated by our love for God and love for others.

The desire to promote human flourishing on account of our love for God and love for others is at the heart of all Christian cultural engagement. Like other evangelicals, Baptists have emphasized the importance of cultural engagement since their inception in the early seventeenth century. Of course, the term “cultural engagement” has not always been used; it is of mid-twentieth-century vintage. Nevertheless, Baptists have almost always championed particular types of public activism that arise from their religious convictions. In fact, some forms of Christian cultural engagement could rightly be considered defining facets of Baptist identity.

This is the first of a series of short essays on Baptists and cultural engagement. Each essay will focus upon a different cultural issue that Baptists have addressed in intentional ways. The essays will build upon the story of an individual who is a famous case study in how Baptists have addressed the issue under consideration. Over the past four centuries, some of the key issues that Baptists have engaged include religious liberty, human rights, poverty, racial justice, and the sanctity of human life. These are by no means the only such issues about which Baptists have cared—far from it. Baptists also have engaged matters of war and peace, education, slavery, alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, human sex trafficking, and questions of gender and marriage, among others. But in the case of each of the five key issues referenced above, one or more Baptists stand out for making particularly influential contributions to they way many Christians outside the Baptist tradition also have engaged those matters.

The first essay will look at religious liberty, using Thomas Helwys as its case study. It will become clear that Helwys is simply the fountainhead of a longstanding Baptist commitment to full religious liberty for all people. The second essay will focus upon human rights, with William Carey as the main character. Though best known for his role as a pioneer missionary, Carey was also a tireless champion for human rights who helped influence public policy changes in India. The third essay will focus upon poverty, with the controversial Social Gospel advocate Walter Rauschenbusch serving as the point of departure. While most Baptists have disagreed with Rauschenbusch’s theology, Baptists almost always have shared his commitment to serving the poor—even when the Baptists themselves were among the poor!

The fourth essay will be dedicated to racial justice; not surprisingly, the case study will be the Baptist pastor and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. We will see that King may be the most famous Baptist to champion this cause, but he was neither the first nor the last. The final essay will examine the sanctity of human life, with Jerry Falwell at the center of the story. Falwell was one of the earliest and most influential leaders of the larger pro-life movement dedicated to defending the rights of the youngest of God’s image bearers. That movement continues to include millions of other Baptists.

As the series unfolds, it is worth remembering that Baptists are a diverse tradition, so there is a wide variety of ways that Baptists have engaged each of these cultural concerns. For that reason, the individual case studies are not meant to be prescriptive—the individuals would disagree among themselves on how to engage some of these very issues. The case studies simply serve as descriptive windows through which we can view the causes Baptists have prioritized and how Baptists have engaged them. Hopefully, each of the essays will generate more prescriptive conversations about the best ways for contemporary Baptists to engage these issues and others for the glory of God and the sake of human flourishing.

Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn is provost and dean of the University Faculty at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina. His latest book is Historical Theology for the Church (B&H Academic, 2021), co-edited with Jason G. Duesing. He serves as a Research Fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24