You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

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We should deal with Westboro Baptist Church question right up front.

Was the late Pastor Fred “God Is Your Enemy“ Phelps, Sr., a Baptist?

Certainly. He was a Baptist because his small, independent flock called itself “Baptist “ and he was its leader. So there.

Next question: Is former President Bill Clinton a Baptist? The odds are 100-1 that the answer remains “yes,” since Clinton has been a member of many Southern Baptist churches during his lifetime. In 2018, Clinton made a Charlotte pilgrimage to view the casket of the late Rev. Billy Graham, paying homage to the Southern Baptist evangelist who was one of his heroes — as a Bible Belt boy and as a politico with a complex private life.

So who gets to decide who is a Baptist and who is not? To adapt a saying by the great William F. Buckley, is there a way to definitively prove that Mao Zedong wasn’t a Baptist?

Here’s the newsworthy, but related, question right now: Who gets to say who is a “Southern Baptist”? That’s the topic that dominated this week’s “Crossroads” podcast conversation — click here to tune that in — in the wake of the national Southern Baptist Convention meetings last week. That gathering in Birmingham, Ala., made lots of headlines because of the complicated, often emotional discussions of how to fight sexual abuse in SBC congregations.

Since SBC churches are autonomous, leaders of the national convention — lacking the legal ties associated with the word “denomination” — can’t order folks at the local level to take specific actions, including on issues linked to the ordination, hiring and firing of ministers.

So how can the SBC get local pastors and church leaders to crack down on sexual abuse? That was the topic of a post I wrote called, “Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches.” Apparently, leaders at the national level have decided to adopt tactics that have been used at the “associational” (local or regional) level or in state conventions — “breaking fellowship” with congregations that cross controversial doctrinal lines. In the past, progressive Baptists protested when some associations and states used this tactic to deal with the ordination of women and, more recently, various LGBTQ ministry issues.

Now this strategy will be used with churches that fail to meet certain standards linked to preventing sexual abuse, caring for victims and handling future accusations. Thus, I wrote:

It appears that Southern Baptist leaders have decided … they do have the authority to kick churches out of the convention if they have been shown to violate SBC teachings and procedures on this. In other words: The local, autonomous churches can no longer say they are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. They are totally, totally independent Baptist churches (and there are thousands of churches like that all across America).

So why hasn’t the national SBC crowd done that before? Good question.

So what happens if the SBC kicks a church out? That means it is no longer a “Southern Baptist” church. Does this really matter, in a “post-denominational age” in which some SBC congregations have taken the words “Southern Baptist” off the signs all over their megachurch campuses?

At that point, an ex-SBC church is simply a stand-alone “Baptist” church, like thousands of others (hello Westboro), primarily on the far theological and cultural right. There are dozens of other “Baptist” groups out there, of various sizes .

Do reporters know the difference? For that matter, do many journalists understand the various ties that bind Southern Baptists at the state, regional and local levels? It appears that many do not.

But here’s another question: Does the PUBLIC understand that “Baptist” is a label that can be attached to Protestants with radically different doctrines, histories and approaches to faith?

We have a case unfolding right now here in East Tennessee that is an SBC leader’s nightmare, in terms of the potential for the public to understand that “Baptists” come in all theological shapes and sizes. Click here and then here for Knoxville News-Sentinel pieces that cover the first chapters of this drama.

What’s the fuss about? Check out this headline: “Knox County DA 'looking into' detective's church sermon calling for execution of LGBTQ people.” As you would expect, all kinds of believers — doctrinal conservatives and liberals — have freaked out over this story.

As it turns out, Detective Grayson Fritts is also the Rev. Grayson Fritts and, you guessed it, he leads a “Baptist” congregation. Here’s the top of a recent update (note: written by one of my former students):

The Knox County Sheriff's Office detective who came under fire … after the News Sentinel reported on his recent hate-filled sermon did not back off Wednesday on his stance that the government should arrest and execute members of the LGBTQ community.

Detective Grayson Fritts, pastor of All Scripture Baptist Church, scrapped his original sermon Wednesday afternoon and spoke about his view of persecution. He said he is not alone in his beliefs, but said he’s the only one willing to take a stand for it.

“I’m not an anomaly. I am a Baptist preacher that is just preaching the Bible and if it offends society, then it’s going to offend society, but if all these other pastors would grow a spine … and would stand up just like I’m standing up. …”

He said other pastors, specifically Baptist pastors, don’t speak like he does because they’re afraid they will offend and will lose churchgoers and the offerings that come with them.

OK, then there is this:

His church, off North Cherry Street in East Knoxville, is not associated with the Knox County Association of Baptists or the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical denomination.

You guessed it: Fritts leads an “independent” Baptist church — sort of.

Wait?!? You mean there are “networks” of “independent” Baptist congregations? Yes, there are. Legions of them. Thus, in another follow-up story, there is this background material:

Located near downtown Knoxville, the church describes itself on its website as independent and fundamental. Independent Baptists are congregations not beholden to an association or convention. And Baptists span the theological spectrum, but at a minimum that typically means they believe in baptism for people who can profess the Christian faith and not infant baptisms. …

Fritts' church is affiliated with The New Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement and is listed along with 29 others on the movement's website, which explicitly states that it is not a denomination. 

Oh my. Say the name of that group several times, slowly, and let it all sink in — New. Independent. Fundamental. Baptist. Movement.

Does this group have a website? It would appear so.

As your GetReligionistas say all the time to people tiptoeing into the minefield that is the religion-news beat: Let’s be careful out there.

#SERIOUSLY

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