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