Dr. Nathan Finn on the identity and future of Southern Baptists

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By Michael McEwen

Dr. Nathan Finn is the Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern. Teaching at Southeastern since 2006, Finn enjoys showing students how church history applies to gospel ministry in the 21st century and why our historic Baptist identity is a heritage worth preserving.

When asked what distinguishes Southern Baptists from other denominations, Finn replied, “To be a Southern Baptist means that we are a part of a network of churches that is committed to a handful of shared priorities; some of those priorities include an evangelical picture of salvation, a high view of Scripture, as well as a uniquely Baptist view of the church.”

Additionally, Finn noted, “Being a Southern Baptist means that we are working around certain corporate priorities, particularly the fulfilling of the Great Commission and other ministries that aid in advancing the gospel to all nations.

Finn summarized the components of Southern Baptist life into three spheres: theology, identity and priority. From a theological standpoint, we stand in the Great Tradition of classical Christianity. In terms of identity, we have a view of the church that emphasizes regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism, and congregational freedom. Regarding, priorities, we are committed to spreading the gospel to and planting healthy churches among all peoples.

Particular to the identity of Southern Baptists today, observed Finn, is a flourishing diversity, one that is both racial and methodological in nature. Yet, the DNA of Southern Baptists remains essentially the same.

Finn said, “Overall, Southern Baptists hold to the theological essentials of the Christian faith, yet, today, we also embrace widely different worship and sermon styles, as well as a variety of evangelism and discipleship strategies.

Speaking about the methodological diversity in Southern Baptist churches, Finn replied that diversity is a good thing as long as it situates itself within acceptable theological boundaries.

“As long as we take into consideration,” Finn noted, “historic Christian orthodoxy, our identity as Baptists, and our emphasis on the Great Commission, I think diversity will remain a healthy aspect of Southern Baptist life. There can be great methodological flexibility within our theological, identity, and priority ‘box.’ Not every church has to do exactly the same thing in the same way, so long as Baptists remain faithful to their identity, emphasize theologically rich teaching, and maintain a focus upon the Great Commission.”
Transitioning the interview from the topic of Southern Baptist identity to the future of this identity, Finn stated, “We can expect as Southern Baptists an ongoing emphasis of the Great Commission coupled with ongoing tensions as to how churches can collaborate together in fulfilling the Great Commission. In terms of the near future, a major component of the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention will be the likely election of the Southern Baptist Convention’s first African-American President, Fred Luter.”

In the coming years, the SBC will face several ongoing questions. How can we navigate some of the more controversial theological differences within the Convention? How can we cooperate faithfully despite these differences? How can we more closely tie methodology to theology? How can we develop younger leaders and encourage them to take ownership of the SBC? How can we better reach urban areas, minorities, “Blue” states, and regions outside of the South and Southwest?

To the question of Southeastern’s influence in the future of the SBC, Finn responded, “I hope Southeastern will continue to try and reflect the healthy diversity within the SBC and embody that diversity in our faculty, students, and priorities. I’m praying we stay focused on a Great Commission agenda that both reflects and influences the direction of the local churches we serve.”

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