During its 400-year history, the Baptist Church has split repeatedly into factions, usually due to disagreements about theological principles. The most recent fissure occurred within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which split into groups informally referred to as "conservative" and "moderate." Members of the conservative group tend to be emphatic about what they believe. The beliefs of moderate Baptists are not as easily defined. An overview of the history of Baptist beliefs is helpful in understanding them.
Because of the diversity among those who call themselves Baptists, it is difficult to state with certainly what Baptists believe. However, a number of key beliefs have remained relatively consistent throughout Baptist history. According to "Very Brief Introduction to Baptist Theology, Then and Now," an article from The Baptist Observer, these include belief in freedom of conscience, the truthfulness of Scripture, the believer's baptism by immersion, religious liberty, separation of church and state, local church autonomy and the priesthood of all believers.
Moderate Versus Conservative
As explained by Bruce Gourley in "A Very Brief Introduction to Baptist History, Then and Now," the disagreements between conservatives and moderates in the SBC concerned key points of theology. Perhaps the most contentious was the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which moderates believe is a creed that violates the Baptist tradition of freedom of conscience. Among other things, the document insists on "biblical inerrancy," meaning that the Bible is without error. It also prohibits women from being senior pastors and states that wives should submit to the leadership of their husbands. Local church authority is a time-honored Baptist belief; moderate Baptists believed that conservatives were replacing this with control by a church hierarchy. Separation of church and state was a particularly volatile issue, given that the early Baptists endured government persecution for their beliefs; moderate Baptists feared that conservative Baptists were seeking a union of church and state.
In "What is a moderate Baptist?," Barry Howard described traits that he feels are characteristic of moderate Baptists. In his opinion, moderate Baptists acknowledge the inspiration of Scripture but do not believe it is inerrant. They honor historic Baptist principles, including the priesthood of the believer and separation of church and state. According to Howard, moderate Baptists emphasize that conversion is a voluntary and personal decision. They do practice baptism by immersion, but some moderate Baptist churches accept other forms of baptism as valid criteria for church membership. They express their faith in the form of confessional statements, not formal creeds. They generally welcome all persons, including gays and lesbians in some cases, and they tend to be open to women serving in church leadership and ministry. They are willing to participate in ecumenical networks and missional partnerships.
The split in the Southern Baptist Convention took place between 1979 and 2000. Since then, moderate Baptists have continued to wrestle with the many issues involved. The difficulty in defining their beliefs is in part because they are still a work in progress.
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