I just finished reading a great book that has been recommended to me by many of my independent Baptist friends. Though, if this book is to be any sort of guide, I should probably be referring to them as Biblical Baptists or Unaffiliated Baptists (UBs). Let me explain.
In The Road Ahead, Paul Chappell attempts what would be impossible for most, to forge together differing groups of independent Baptists for the sake of souls and the name of Christ. He is uniquely positioned for this task because of the huge respect his ministry commands amongst a large group of independents, and many will listen to him who won’t listen to each other. To do it, he addresses two typical individuals.
The first is the (usually younger) Baptist leader who is disillusioned by the failures, inconsistencies, and high-profile nutcases he sees within the tribe, and who is attracted to apparently more biblical ministry models outside.
The second is the (usually older) Baptist leader who wants to defend the legacy of his forefathers, including “great” men’s reputations and personal (or institutional) standards, and who is becoming frustrated, if not hostile, towards others within his tribe who do ministry differently.
Chappell meets these two by admitting humbly the failures that have occurred, while acknowledging happily the convictional strengths that bind all independent Baptists together. In this, I think he succeeds.
I’ll admit I was more ready to read about the failures than the strengths, mainly because I already believe the latter! But does this leader – for some, THE leader – recognize the same problems I see? I suspect many readers will ask this, and I’m happy to say that, yes, Chappell seems to be aware of most, if not all, of the major problems.
These problems leave some of us uneasy about calling ourselves “independent” Baptists. Our communities are aware of some of the problems and may attach negative connotations to the term. Chappell agrees, and so he suggests alternatives like “biblical” or “unaffiliated.” (Henceforth: “UBs”)
That’s refreshing. He sees the problems, renounces them, and isn’t hung up on a label. He addresses the failures openly, including an unbiblical factionalism within the ranks.
However, there are at least two areas the book does not address.
First, while this is a book about unity, Chappell focuses on unity amongst UBs, not unity with others in the larger Body of Christ. He traces the history of UBs’ separation from other denominations over liberal doctrines (Ch. 3, “Remember Our Heritage”), and he denounces the “camp” mentality that threatens to divide UBs over non-essential issues like alma maters, celebrity preachers, and organizational preferences (Ch. 4, “Enjoy Biblical Fellowship”). However, there is little mention of unity with other pastors and churches in other tribes with whom we share the fundamentals of the faith. Chappell says that he would have lunch with a sympathetic non-UB, but why couldn’t a shared meal become a shared ministry when both men love souls and proclaim the Gospel faithfully?
Second, what are the bounds of Christian liberty? Chappell unpacks Romans 14 (Ch. 7, “Be Grace Givers”), encouraging gracious fellowship among UBs with diverse convictions, but there are limits. As I understand this book, there seem to be three areas that fall out of bounds: Calvinism, charismatics, and casual drinking. I’m not defending any of these here, but I know Christians – even Baptists – who believe they can support each of them biblically. I have little doubt that Chappell excludes them out of his admirable passion for soulwinning, Scripture, and holiness, but what place should we assign to brothers and sisters in Christ who hold biblical convictions different from our own? Do they receive the same grace of Christian liberty too?
To be fair, this is not a book about the doctrine of separation or a debate about Calvinism, cessationism, or alcohol. In fact, most of Chappell’s readers already know his position because he’s written on these subjects elsewhere. I only raise these questions here to examine further the consistency of the principles that the author commends to UBs.
As far as UBs are concerned, Chappell unashamedly addresses the book to them, offering a true road ahead. The road he paves is marked with grace, faithfulness, humility, worship, and the all-important balance. All good things. If UBs follow this guide, they will be marked by a greater degree of biblical health than perhaps they might have otherwise.
In my opinion, Chappell achieves his goal with this book, at least for those UBs who look to him for leadership. Other UBs, and even non-UBs, would profit from this book because it addresses biblically so many of the concerns being voiced throughout the Christian community in the United States. If nothing else, non-UBs should learn that there are “Independent” Baptists besides the caricature they imagine, Baptists who love Jesus, love Christians, and love the souls of men. And really, what’s more important than that?