Controversy erupted online Friday when a guest on the CrossPolitic podcast asserted that it is the fault of Baptist individualism that transgenderism has risen in our culture. The discussion begins at around 10:45 in the following video, and it continues further in the “Backstage” portion.
In the discussion, guest Jason Farley asserts that the Church today cannot help solve the problems of transhumanism because “we caused them.” Baptist theology, in particular, Farley argues, “says to their kids, ‘You get to choose your identity once you hit a particular age of accountability’ . . . rather than telling them, ‘Let me tell you who you are.'” So modern Evangelicalism, which is largely Baptistic, caused the individualism that has led to the issues surrounding transhumanism today.
Now, as Jared Longshore notes, linking individualism with the modern transhumanist issues is essentially the argument Carl Trueman makes in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Indeed, extreme individualism is at the root of many of the problems rising quickly in our culture today. Longshore was right that modern evangelicals have turned the church and worship into “platforms upon which we express ourselves.” Anyone who has ever read anything I’ve written on worship knows that I believe individual expressivism is exactly the problem that ails modern evangelical churches (see for example, my article on why you shouldn’t sing Hillsong, Bethel, Jesus Culture, Elevation, etc.). In my opinion, this is the best thing about CREC churches—they get the covenant-renewal, formative power of robust, reverent, rich congregational worship. As discussed in this very podcast, they get the problem of men without chests.
But did an inherent Baptist individualism cause the individualism of modern American culture, as Farley asserts?
The two key assumptions of his thesis are “Baptist individualism” and “cause.” I’m not going to address all the disagreements I have with statements made in the podcast, but I would like to examine each of these two assumptions in Farley’s claim.
Let me say at the start that I have many dear paedobaptist friends, including some in the CREC. I share much in common with them, including a repudiation of the rampant individualism of modern evangelicalism. I disagree with them (significantly!) on matters of baptism and (with the CREC) postmillennialism, both of which are at the heart of the particular thesis set forth in the CrossPolitic episode. But I just want to stress my appreciation for my paedobaptist brothers in many matters on which we agree. Consider this a friendly response.
I also think the Twitter pileup over this was a bit overblown if you listen to the whole thing and don’t just pull sound bites out of context. In particular, David Shannon tried to offer push back (though he clearly knew Farley was going to make this point), and Longshore provided a more mediating position than Farley, asserting that modern evangelicalism is individualistic (it is!) without necessarily arguing causation. That said, Farley does grossly misrepresent Baptist theology, and as I’ll discuss in the second point below, I think it’s actually their postmillennial presuppositions that give rise to the whole “Baptists caused transgenderism” assertion in the first place.
Are Baptists Inherently Individualistic?
Claiming that Baptist theology is inherently individualistic is not a new thing. It is a common charge by paedobaptists. For example, James Daane argued in 1952,
The largest part of the American church has been invaded by the spirit of individualism. . . . This unbiblical individualism has led to a denial of infant baptism, to the belief that a child cannot be a member of the church by birth, but only by individual choice.1James Daane, The Back to God Hour Family Altar, March 1952.
Now, it it certainly true that many modern Baptists have a very individualistic view of baptism, worship, and the Church. I’ll get back to that in a moment. But the question under consideration at this point is whether believer baptism is inherently individualistic, as Farley and other paedobaptists assert. In other words, is teaching that baptism must be reserved only for those who have expressly professed faith inherently individualistic?
Baptists have always insisted that baptism be granted only upon a personal profession of faith because every clear New Testament example of baptism occurs for those who first confess faith, and the New Testament’s teaching on baptism always intrinsically connects baptism with faith (Gal 3:26–27, Rom 6:1–11, 1 Pet 3:21, Col 2:11–12). In other words, at its heart, Baptist teaching on baptism is never predicated upon an individualistic understanding of the nature of Christian piety or the Church. Rather, it is based upon how the New Testament inherently links baptism and faith. I’m not going to offer a full-blown defense of believer baptism here, because that’s not my purpose; I just want to stress the fact that Baptist theology of baptism is not rooted in individualism, but in the New Testament connection between baptism and faith.
But ironically, recognizing this link between baptism and faith is not unique to Baptists. For example, the First Helvetic Confession asserts, “We therefore by being baptized do confess our faith.” Likewise, the Anglican Catechism asks, “What is required of persons to be baptized” and answers, “Repentance, whereby they forsake sin, and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that sacrament.” Even Martin Luther said of baptism, “without faith there is no sacrament.”
In other words, defining baptism as a public profession of faith is hardly unique to Baptists, while how that profession occurs is, of course, vastly different for credobaptists than it is for paedobaptists. So Farley’s citing this point was a bit silly. All Protestant traditions affirm that at least one purpose of baptism is profession of faith.
Furthermore, certainly Arminian Baptists deny the ultimate choice of God in who will come to him in faith, but this is not true of Reformed Baptists, including our seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Particular Baptist forefathers. We may reserve baptism until an individual chooses to profess faith because that’s the New Testament pattern and what the sign symbolizes, but we affirm that such a profession has resulted only because of the sovereign choice of God. It is a caricature (one even Longshore commits) to say that all Baptists believe salvation to be simply an individual choice. Find me one responsible Baptist theologian who argues in favor of believer baptism because “identity in Christ is your choice.”
But even more to the point, alongside considering baptism to be a visible profession of faith, Baptists have also historically affirmed the covenantal nature of both baptism as that which joins a believer into the covenant community, and corporate worship broadly as that which renews believers in their covenantal relationship with God and with the Church. The CrossPolitic crew seemed to assume that paedobaptists have a corner on recognizing the covenantal nature of the Church, while all Baptists consider baptism as only individual profession. But this is hardly the case in historic Baptist theology. As Timothy George notes, Baptist theology of baptism involves both personal confession and corporate identity:
Baptism in the New Testament invariably implies a radical personal commitment involving a decisive no to one’s former way of life and an equally emphatic yes to Jesus Christ. Historically, however, the doctrine of believer’s baptism has also implied a gathered church, a community of intentional disciples marked off from the world by their commitment to Christ and to one another. Baptism is the liturgical enactment of the priesthood of all believers, not the priesthood of “the believer,” a lonely, isolated seeker of truth, but rather of a band of faithful believers united in a common confession as a local, visible congregatio sanctorum (“gathering of saints”).2Timothy George, Galatians, 30.
In other words, just because Baptists do not baptize a child unless that child professes faith does not make it individualistic; rather, Baptists have historically recognized and practiced the important corporate nature of what happens in baptism. Water baptism joins an individual to the visible church just as Spirit baptism joined them to the invisible church. The issue is the difference between the covenantal nature of Old Testament Israel (heredity) and the covenantal nature of the New Testament Church (faith). In the Old Covenant, there was a difference between the covenant community and the believing community. With the New Covenant, there is no distinction. The covenant community is the believing community. Membership in the Old Covenant was visible, external, and involuntary. Membership in the New Covenant is voluntary. The “Flock” is composed of those who follow the Shepherd (John 10:16). Again, my purpose is not to offer a full-blown defense of credobaptism, but rather to clarify that the Reformed Baptist theology of baptism is covenantal in nature.
Now again, it is certainly true that a large majority of American Baptists today tend to ignore the corporate essence of believer baptism and the covenant-renewal purpose of corporate worship, instead viewing both baptism and corporate worship as individualistic expression. If in answer to the question David gave him— “Is the modern Church prepared to answer the problems of transhumanism?”—Farley had answered, “No, because the modern American church is as deeply individualistic as the rest of American culture,” I would have applauded and agreed wholeheartedly. But as is clear from Baptist theology and history, this is not the fault of Baptist theology. Rather, it is the fault of (a) the Enlightenment and (b) Arminian Revivalism.
The Enlightenment shifted western civilization from a focus on transcendent ideas and communal structures to individual self expression, leading to the Romanticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Trueman masterfully demonstrates these much older roots of individualism in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. “The seeds of today’s moral anarchy,” Trueman argues, “where personal emotional preferences are constantly confused with moral absolutes, is thus to be found in the nineteenth century.”3Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 195. The individualism that gave rise to transhumanism was conceived in the Enlightenment and birthed in Darwinism.
In the evangelical world, this same period corresponds to the rise of Arminian Revivalism. As a result, religious life became more personal and individualistic, free to all and less dependent upon any sovereign act of God. This shift is evident in the stark contrast between the First Great Awakening of the eighteenth century—led by strong Calvinists such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield—and the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, whose primary figure was Charles G. Finney, an outspoken Arminian who believed that conversion was not a supernatural work of a sovereign God, but an individual decision by anyone who decided to choose God. American revivalism formed the dominant evangelicalism we know today.
In other words, Baptists became individualistic in America, not because Baptist theology is inherently individualistic, but because the surrounding individualistic culture influenced Baptists. Winthrop S. Hudson makes this point:
To the extent that Baptists were to develop an apologetic for their church life during the early decades of the twentieth century, it was to be on the basis of this highly individualistic principle. It has become increasingly apparent that this principle was derived from the general cultural and religious climate of the nineteenth century rather than from any serious study of the Bible.4Winthrop S. Hudson, Baptist Concepts of the Church, 215–16.
So to the point of this essay, which came first, Baptist individualism or the culture’s individualism? And if the latter, then could not that same cultural individualism that shaped twentieth-century (Baptistic) evangelicalism also be the cause of the modern transhumanism problems?
No, Baptist individualism did not cause the individualism of modern American culture. Both modern evangelicalism and the broader culture became individualistic as a result of the Enlightenment, Arminian Revivalism, Postmodernism, and frankly the inherent individualism of the depraved heart.
By the way, just as a side note: If we want to play the “cause” game, we should note that many Roman Catholics blame the Protestant Reformation on the decay of western civilization and the rise of individualism. And further, should we likewise use Farley’s logic and blame gender confusion on paedobaptists, those who tell children to identify as something that they don’t truly believe in their hearts?
But we won’t use his logic. I’ve always told my students to never write a paper with a thesis that argues X caused Y. Such arguments are almost always fallacious, or at very least virtually impossible to prove.
Is Cultural Decay Our Fault?
The more fundamental problem with Farley’s thesis is not the claim that Baptists are inherently individualists. Rather, it is the claim that the Church caused the cultural decay.
You see, I don’t think it is actually Farley’s paedobaptism that led him to make the assertion that Baptist individualism caused transgenderism; it was actually his postmillennialism. Implicit in the assumption that it is the fault of the church that culture has reached this point is the assumption that it is the responsibility of the church to change, redeem, and transform culture for Christ. Though certainly not unique to postmillennialism (some Amillennialists like Russell Moore teach this, too), it is certainly inherent within postmillennial theology. As Longshore states in the Backstage portion, “It’s going to take a recovery of Christendom if we’re going to have this crazy train stop.” These men have a much grander conception of the Church’s role in the broader culture than the New Testament ever asserts.
Though not unique to Baptists, Baptists have historically resisted this kind of mixing ecclesiology, soteriology, and eschatology into a mandate that argues the Church has a responsibility to transform culture. Only the Second Adam will accomplish the dominion mandate originally abdicated by the First Adam. The Church has not been given that role. The Church has been called to make disciples, not to extend Christ’s dominion over all the earth. Christ’s dominion extends presently over his Church; only after he comes again will his dominion extend to all creation. I get that this is simply a theological disagreement, and again, my point is not to offer a full biblical defense of this point; I simply want to point out that the CrossPolitic fellas are assuming a postmillennial agenda in their indictment of Baptist theology in the cultural decay.
Now don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that Christians have no relationship to the culture around them—we do. We ought to actively encourage morality in our society for our own good and the good of our neighbors. Nor does this deny that Christians can have positive influence in society—we can. The more committed Christians there are in a society, the more likely that society will be impacted with biblical values.
However, it is neither the responsibility of the Church to transform culture, nor is it the fault of the Church when culture devolves. Only Christ will exercise his redemptive rule over all creation, and he will do that when he comes again in glory.
The Church’s responsibility is to be the Church, to worship faithfully, to preach the gospel, to make disciples (of outsiders and of our children!), and to live our Christian faith in the vocations to which God has called us. We ought to reject rampant individualism, we ought to advocate for biblical morality in the society, we ought to evangelize and rear godly children, and we grieve when the culture devolves; if there is any fault by the Church, it is our failure to faithfully preach the gospel and disciple believers (including our children).
But to lay the fault of cultural decay at the feet of the Church is to place a weight of responsibility upon the Church that only Christ can ultimately carry.