It is by a divine providence, I think, that Free Will Baptists have been made stewards of a very pure strand of Christian theology—let me call it “Arminian Baptist.” This strand of Christian theology is nowhere else credibly preserved in North America or
by a viable denominational body. To be sure, Free Will Baptists are well centered
in the mainstream of Christian theology, affirming the major creeds of the
Christian Church, enthusiastically endorsing the Protestant Reformation, and reflecting
the doctrine of the Believers’ Church by replacing Infant Baptism with
Believers’ Baptism. Within this larger context, however, Free Will Baptists
comprise the sole denomination that preserves the Arminian Soteriology of
Arminius (not all so-called Arminianism would be endorsed by Arminius) within a
Baptist framework. An historical survey would demonstrate the unique standing
of Free Will Baptists within this theological strand, but such is not the
purpose of this essay. Rather, assuming that Free Will Baptists have been
granted stewardship of this very pure strand of Christian theology, this essay
asks what responsibilities this stewardship entails for Free Will Baptists, and
suggests ways in which these responsibilities might be met.
Preliminarily, let me stress that this theological strand is worth preserving. In an ecclesiological and missiological environment where doctrinal distinctives are suppressed in favor of unity and cooperation, especially as they are exacerbated by cultural and philosophical relativism, one is tempted to undervalue theological purity and sound biblical interpretation. Yes, Free Will Baptists should be eager to cooperate in various mission endeavors, and should treat other Christians who disagree on denominational distinctives as genuine brothers and sisters in Christ. However, precisely because Free Will Baptists maintain a theological purity based on sound biblical interpretation, they should promote their doctrine, form and nourish their closest theological associations, and persuade other Christians from other denominations to join them.
On a personal note, I began my graduate education with a thorough grounding in Free Will Baptist theology, but without denominational blessing or support network. Thus, I flew from my FWB denominational nest into a world, academic and ecclesiastical, that would challenge my Free Will Baptist theology at the highest levels, and at every opportunity, and with great intensity. After the purifying ovens of my Master’s at Regent (under the heavyweights Fee, Waltke, Packer, and Peterson—Assemblies of God, Presbyterian, and Anglican), and even hotter ovens during my PhD at Cambridge with all its critical elitism, I have emerged with my FWB theology fully intact, enriched, but not compromised, clarified, but not altered. Free Will Baptists have a doctrine that can withstand the utmost scrutiny and is worth preserving.
Privilege and Weakness
It is remarkable that such a potent and pure theology is concentrated in such a narrow band of Christianity. One would think that the elements which comprise Arminian Baptist thought—Baptist associationalism, Congregationalism, Believers’ Church, a Whosoever-will Soteriology, and Continuance in Salvation by faith—all sound doctrines based upon good scriptural exegesis, would coalesce into a very wide swath of the Christian church. Such is not the case. Indeed, one might argue that these doctrinal distinctives are so rarely held that they are at risk of being lost, to be swallowed up by a number of competing denominations that come close to such doctrinal purity, but fail to preserve them in full strength and wholeness.
As it now stands, the FWB denomination is the sole domain of Arminian Baptist thought. Free Will Baptists have about 2500 churches, and about 250,000 members. The denomination is predominately rural, with few churches in the large cities; many states have no FWB church at all. FWB missions reach into less than a dozen of the world’s 200 or so nations. FWBs are seriously disadvantaged in terms of professional ministerial training, having no seminary or graduate school, and with very few of its ministers attaining a basic MDiv qualification or higher degree. Perhaps as few as 50% of FWB ministers have even a Bachelor’s degree, in any academic major. FWBs with a terminal degree are extremely rare; even at the denominational college where Bible is a required major, only two full time professors in the areas of Bible and Theology have terminal degrees. Very, very few Free Will Baptists serve as scholars outside denominational institutions, so that Free Will Baptists have no perceptible impact on American society, let alone, any world-wide impact. A bibliography of articles, books, or reviews written by Free Will Baptist scholars published by academic publishers would hardly fill more than a single sheet of paper. Outside of the Calvinist-Arminian controversy, Free Will Baptist scholars are entirely unknown.
Strengthening Our Grip
If Free Will Baptists are to nurture and expand their stewardship of Arminian Baptist thought, an overarching plan needs to be implemented to produce and train scholars devoted to the cause. My essay here is no such plan, but does contain some limited suggestions, especially in regard to FWB scholarship.
1. A study needs to be implemented to detail the needs and assess the present resources of the denomination, and to articulate a vision for the future.
2. The denominational college needs to be put on a more secure financial footing to rectify weaknesses in faculty and staff.
3. A graduate school or seminary needs to be established.
4. Denominational scholars need to be awarded sabbaticals, including income and expense stipends, to pursue scholarly research and publication.
5. Denominational scholars in the field of biblical studies and religion should attend annual conferences such as Society of Biblical Literature and
of Religion, with
expenses paid. American
6. Denominational scholars should prioritize publication of journal articles in Journal of Biblical Literature and Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, and similar academic journals. This can only be done if the institutions in which they serve allow adequate time to focus on such endeavors.
7. A few students at the denominational college who are especially interested in theology and religion should be encouraged to attend these annual conferences under the mentorship of denominational scholars.
8. In particular, one or two scholarships covering expenses should be awarded to deserving students annually, perhaps qualified by theological papers suitable for publication in the denomination’s Integrity journal.
9. Denominational scholarships should be established to support graduate and post-graduate studies for outstanding students.
The introduction of outstanding students to the biblical studies and religion guilds is extremely important for the future of the denomination. While readers may despair of ever finding the money to support some of these more or less obvious needs in these difficult times, sponsoring young scholars would not require extravagant expense. In particular, how difficult would it be to raise $2500-3000 per year as a special scholarship to pay a substantial amount of the expense to send three outstanding college seniors to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, accompanied by a couple of the denomination’s senior scholars? Even as little as a hundred dollars from each of say, 20 state associations would cover these scholarships. Likewise, even a token one-time scholarship gift of $1000 for a deserving seminary-bound student would do much to strengthen the ties between the student and denomination, and to encourage the student to think of future work within the denomination.
Formulating a vision for the future of Free Will Baptists may prove to be an insurmountable task. However, taking some smaller steps to promote scholarship, and especially to foster the growth of young scholars, is a goal that is achievable, and can be accomplished in just a few short years.