Tag Archives: Baptistic Culture

The Atomization and Individualization of the American Baptist Culture

I know this is not the most friendly of titles. But there it is. The inspiration for the title came while re-reading a book edited in the 80’s by my theological mentor, James B. Jordan. The book is controversially entitled The Failure of the American Baptist Culture. a Though the title seems to put all baptists into one camp, the reality is that much of the evangelical landscape has changed in three decades. Today you will find baptist leaders declaring the glories of community life and the dangers of an isolated Christian experience. On the other hand, some modern Presbyterians have embraced this atomization in the Church. Some take this approach out of fear of sounding like post-modern clerics. So, they mistreat the corporate realities of the covenant and borrow baptistic vocabulary to do so, while claiming that they aren’t doing so.

Another way Presbyterians continue to pour gas into the individualist’s fire is by refusing to give communion to the least of these. Yes, I know that much–though not all–of the Reformation fell into this same trap and so I am the first to admit that my beloved tradition did not fully reform in every respect. Paedocommunion is not only a wonderful ecclesiastical response to the individualism that plagues the modern church, but it also affirms the covenantal promises of God to a thousand generations. It re-orients us to the unity that is inherent in the baptismal tradition of our forefathers.

In the book’s introduction Jordan wrote:

The failure of most of the Reformers to advocate paedocommunion, the development of the rite of confirmation, the rise of scholasticism, and later on the development of individualistic revivalism and anti-liturgism, all evince the strong nominalistic drift in all Christian thought in recent centuries.

What churches need to ask then is, “What practices force us to look beyond ourselves?,” or positively framed, “What ecclesiastical practices can help us restore this covenantal call issued by our Hebrew forefathers?”

The answer seems simple to me. But there are still several road-blocks to overcome in this process. Presbyterians have for far too long embraced the presupposition of our baptist brothers. Moving away from these presuppositions is the first step to avoiding the pitfalls of the individualized baptist culture. At the same time, I hasten to add that baptist theology today, especially in more reformational contexts, have become ripe for the type of language and practices I am advocating. While it is true they will never practice paedocommunion or paedobaptism, they are already using familiar corporate language that rings joyfully in any Calvinists’ ears.

The bottom line is we need to re-think these nominalist tendencies that may find a home in both circles. We need to see them and cut them out immediately. The individual cannot exist apart from a community. As Bonhoeffer observed in his classic Life Together, 

We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity.

In this one-anothering, we find that isolationism is detrimental to the Christian experience. A wholistic Christian faith does not atomize, but incorporates. And in this incorporation, community finds its ultimate agenda fulfilled, the glorification of the kingdom culture.

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