This week approximately 30,000 Baptists are in Atlanta for the 21st Annual Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship (FGBCF) Conference. Founded in 1994 to give black Baptists “the right to choose” charismatic gifts, ordained women clergy, and episcopal leadership innovations, the FGBCF is a growing fellowship of 2,500 churches who seek to maintain a broadly Baptist identity while also augmenting traditional views on the Holy Spirit and ministry. Many of the pastors who now belong to Full Gospel are also aligned with the National Baptist Convention USA, from which Bishop Paul Morton emerged two decades ago to found this movement. Though controversial from its inception, FGBCF seems to continue to make an impact in the black church world, both nationally and globally. And with the ascension of Bishop Joseph W. Walker III to the international presiding bishop role, there has been much chatter about Full Gospel’s exponential outreach to younger Baptists in the years to come.
As a mainstay on the ecclesial landscape, FGBCF has produced both condemnation and celebration. Traditionalist Baptists do not consider Full Gospel Baptists as Baptists at all, averring that the movement is erroneous both doctrinally and polity wise. The major consternation the Traditionalists have is around the appropriation of episcopal government, since historically Baptists of all kinds have repudiated monarchial bishops as being non-biblical. Many others have also objected to the embrace of charismatic gifts, maintaining a cessationist pneumatology. To these Traditionalists, FGBCF is a bastardized Church of God in Christ, and not Baptist in the least.
Others, and I’ll call them Generous Baptists, celebrate FGBCF even if they are unwilling to formally join it. These Generous Baptists tend to see Baptist life and witness as more historically varied and complex than what the Traditionalists would allow. They may have concerns about Baptist bishops, but don’t see much harm in the trend because most FGBCF churches still maintain local autonomy, an essential doctrine for classical Baptists. Also Generous Baptists see the cessationist argument as deeply flawed and are either cautiously continualists (believing all spiritual gifts are for the Church today but must be used in the strictest obedience to Pauline restrictions) or full-blown charismatics.
Admittedly (and without apology) I am in the latter group. Though I have some criticisms of Full Gospel, I do think the movement has helped some Baptists interrogate the dimensions and depths of historical and contemporary Baptist life. There is a growing number of saints who embrace the neologism “Bapticostal” to self-identify for this very reason. To be sure, Baptist pastor HB Charles is right when he argues that at some point there are points of departure for Baptists and Pentecostals on a number of finer doctrinal differences. For instance, most Baptists will never embrace speaking in tongues as a necessary sign of salvation, or that all truly saved and Spirit-filled saints must speak in tongues. But those distinctions aside, I believe that contemporary, younger Baptists are wrestling with received traditions about spiritual gifts in general. This is not true for all younger Baptists; many are actually embracing conservative Reformed traditions, which actually brings about another controversy. In some sense, the term Bapticostal is employed by many simply because we have too often defined Baptist doctrine in ways that excludes certain elements of pneumatology recognizable in Pentecostals circles. This need not be the term to define Baptists who are also open to the Holy Spirit’s full array of gifts. John Piper is a Reformed Baptist who embraces the charismata, and I seriously doubt he would ever say that he is a Baptiscostal. But from where I sit, the Generous Baptist paradigm is becoming more influential, whether by the Bapticostal name or by another.
I have taught a number of times in the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi and have discovered that a host of Missionary Baptists here are secretly continualists or charismatics. This could be due to FBGCF or the saturation of religious broadcasting and Gospel music with neo-Pentecostal sensibilities. In many cases, however, I have heard from Missionary Baptists whose plain reading of the Bible led them to embrace all spiritual gifts as a doctrinal option, or they have witnessed or experienced these gifts themselves. They share this in private conversations, not wanting to be shunned by the Traditionalists among them.
For those of us who believe in the perpetuity of spiritual gifts, then, FGBCF has opened up a much needed conversation among Baptist parishioners. In a recent radio interview, I asked a young preacher why he embraces the term Bapticostal as a moniker. He said that there are things that he loves and learned from both Baptists and Pentecostals and refuses to make a false choice. I, too, have the same testimony. Growing up Baptist, and experiencing God in a powerful away in the Pentecostal world, I’ve come to appreciate both streams in my life, and do not feel any hesitation of owning up to that. And though I am not a member of the FGBCF, I believe that their emergence has positively impacted the way many Baptists understand themselves in the 21st century. One can only speculate what impact it will have 20 years from now.
With or without FGBCF, there are many Baptists today who are much more open to the surprising movements of the Holy Spirit and seek to glorify Jesus and share His Gospel in all the Spirit’s fullness. May it be so.