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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Reductio ad Baptistum

via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
It came as quite a surprise recently to see that nearly five years ago Philip Jenkins referenced me in a blog post. Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, has written extensively about Christianity worldwide. In an article for The Christian Century in May 2017 he explained that while most major denominations are seeing phenomenal growth in the Global South, such isn't true of the Baptist faith. In response to his article I commented: “it’s possible that Baptist missions have resulted in many ‘non-denominational’ evangelical churches that are doctrinally Baptist but don’t have the name.” Evidently he saw some value in that observation, as in his post that quotes me he went on to consider that perhaps when research is done, not so much weight should be put on denominational names.

What I see going on, in the United States and worldwide, is a tendency towards congregationalism and adult conversion, which are both hallmarks of Baptist practice. It's unheard of for someone in the US or Brazil (two places where I have sufficient experience to speak) to start a nondenominational, evangelical church where infants are christened and/or the congregation is not essentially autonomous. Obviously, to be 'nondenominational' suggests rather strongly that there will be congregational independence. What's interesting to me, however, is how other Christian traditions that were historically governed differently or had other baptismal practices are tending toward a Baptist style.

On the congregationalism front the examples are abundant. Member churches of the new Global Methodist Church will be independent, owning their own property and having the ability to disaffiliate from the denomination if they so choose. Such is not the case with the United Methodist Church, from which this new denomination is emerging, where 'connectionalism' as expressed practically through parish property being held in trust for the denomination is an essential trait of church polity. So far as I know, all of the other expressions of Methodism in the United States have also preserved congregational autonomy.

Another intriguing example is that of the American National Catholic Church. While the organization is very much in style and practice like what could have come from Vatican II, with an accessible liturgy and wide welcome to all, including divorced and lgbtq people, it has a mixed form of government. Each parish governs itself and has the authority to disaffiliate, but at the same time there is an episcopacy. The bishops provide spiritual guidance and are able to ordain deacons, priests and, collectively, other bishops. 

As for baptism, I've found it difficult to supplement my anecdotal experiences with concrete examples. I've already pointed out how rare it is for new groups to practice infant baptism, which is easily observable. I can simply say that I've heard from breakaway Methodist and other groups that while infant baptism is still available, it's very common for people to opt for an infant dedication instead, saving baptism for later.  

Will all the churches eventually become Baptist, even if not in name? I doubt it. Other practices and polities are too strong to be fully replaced. However, I don't expect many new churches to be founded that aren't congregationalist, or that practice infant baptism. The believer's church model fits very well with our life and times in a free society focused on individual choice.