20/20 Episode on Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) Churches. What should we take from it?

Those who are in IFB churches should be thankful that apparently either Elizabeth Vargas or her producers have very limited rhetorical abilities. I know what they were trying to prove, and they even alluded to it several times in the episode. But I found the episode’s narrative quite unconvincing. But I was not raised on MTV or Twitter. I am sure many found it emotionally compelling, but I have to imagine that people with critical thinking skills found little worthy of praise. For the most part it was sensationalism-which only hurts the victims in the end because sensation goes away but persuasion remains.

One example: the show’s claim that a male hierarchical authority structure fosters abuse and its cover up. Really? That is why there is abuse in IFB churches? That is the distinguishing characteristic? If that is the case we will certainly have episodes coming soon on a certain organization headquartered in Rome then. I believe reports of abuse in that group have been far more widespread and attempts at cover-up have been far more devious. And I am sure that there will be upcoming episodes on a certain organization centered in Mecca and the numerous rumors of child abuse, forced marriages, temporary marriages… All of the abuses mentioned are heinous and reprehensible, but they do not occur because of male-dominated authority structures. They occur because of the wickedness of the human heart.

Another problem with the report was Vargas’ seeming inability to grasp the concept of an “Independent” Baptist church. Pastor Brain Fuller attempted to speak to this issue on at least one occasion, but I am not sure Vargas ever really understood what he was trying to communicate. This is going to be a groundbreaking assertion, so brace yourself for it: but an “Independent” Baptist church means it is independent! One of the churches highlighted was First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana. Also featured in the episode were numerous sermon clips from undisclosed churches. (Something quite irresponsible by the way. “Here is something someone said somewhere, trust us.”) In any event, I grew up in an independent Baptist church and went to college and seminary at two of the institutions referenced in the episode and at none of those three places did I ever associate or was I encouraged to associate with FBC Hammond or was I ever taught the kind of deplorable things pronounced in the anonymous sermon clips. The fact of the matter is that anyone can call himself an Independent Fundamental Baptist. When anyone can claim to be one, it is a mistake to assert that everyone believes like that one. Let ABC or 20/20 assert that all imams preach hatred and suicide bombings since some of them do. Would ABC or 20/20 do such a thing? But we are to believe that just because 20/20 can find outlandish sermons from a few, or even some, Independent Baptists that all believe and preach the same thing? Nonsense.

Yet this does point out a problem with far reaching implications. There is really no effective way for Independent Baptist Churches to definitively separate themselves from association with other Independent Baptist Churches. When you give yourself the same label as a pervert, a whacko, or a heretic gives himself- what else are people to think? A tremendous theological problem with such churches is their separatist ecclesiology.

The Independent Fundamental Baptist Church is a purity movement. As a purity movement it is not new, or unique. In the 3rd century, Cyprian faced the purity movement of the Novatianists. At the turn of the 5th century Augustine dealt with the purity movement of the Donatists. Cyprian and Augustine were clear that the ideals of purity and spiritual unity could not be used as excuses to break physical communion with the established, visible church. Scripturally this is perhaps seen nowhere more clearly than in Revelation 2 and 3. In addressing several churches with serious moral and doctrinal perversions, the Lord Jesus also addresses the faithful remnant in those churches. Jesus never tells them to leave to start a new church, but to remain and stay faithful.

In their pursuit for fidelity and purity, Independent Baptist Churches have actually cut themselves off from the mechanism that fosters and protects fidelity and purity: communion with other churches. A member of ABC Baptist church can run roughshod over innocent victims secure in the knowledge that he can always move on to XYZ Baptist church. A pastor can preach or do pretty much anything he wants secure in the knowledge that it is “his” church and no one else can tell him how to run it.

“One, holy, catholic, and apostolic” is a package deal. If there is not substantial communion and fellowship with other churches, there is no protection for holiness.

I have no idea what the fallout of 20/20’s report will be. But I do know this: Christ promised to build one church. Not a conglomeration of Independent churches. Perhaps this will be used to awaken eyes that there is something more important that “independence” for the sake of purity: fellowship for the sake of accountability.

As long as Trinity Baptist in Concord, NH; First Baptist in Hammond, IN; Marquette Manor in Downers Grove, IL; Colonial Hills in Indianapolis, IN; are all “independent” churches, they will continue to be collectively evaluated by their dirtiest scoundrel.

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10 thoughts on “20/20 Episode on Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) Churches. What should we take from it?

  1. They may be “independent” in church government and structure but they are far from standing alone. Anybody who has been in the movement know that the “camps” of though with power bases in schools, associations, and personalities enforce a sort of thought-conformity even while professing that each church makes its own decisions.

    The philosophy that comes out of most of those schools and groups is very authoritarian and low trust with many pastors who are accountable ultimately to nobody but themselves. Given this common background and leadership style, if you find corruption in one church it’s more than likely that you’ll find similar tales and woes in others of the same stripe.

    Certainly a BJU grad like Brian Fuller knows this. Chuck Phelps knows it better than most as he serves as the vice-chair of the FBFI. The lack of a central governing body provides IFB churches the defense that each case is an ‘unrelated and unusual incident’ but the reality is that the churches do in fact share common traits that make them liable to the same abuses. Given that the “we’re all independent” argument is no defense at all.

  2. Darrell,

    You are right. The “Independent” label is a sham in more ways than one. They have their organized Associations and Fellowships and their “un-organized” but even more powerful networks, camps, etc. All of which conveniently disappear when one of the members gets in a fix.

  3. I was raised in a Christian home. I attended church and sunday school every Sunday for 18 years. I even attended a Christian school for two years during Junior High. I have seen the evil in “god” people! This 20/20 episod is just another reason to REJECT the “god” theory. How many people DIE each year?…how many are ABUSED each year?… in the name of “god”? “God” is responsible for THOUSANDS of deaths in the bible; Satan is responsible for 7… and which one is evil?

  4. Andy,

    How did you recognize the evil in “god” people? I mean what criteria led you to determine that a person was evil or had evil in them?

    God is responsible for the salvation of billions of people. Satan is responsible for none.

  5. You radical religious people are CRAZY!!! Brainwashing and abusing your children, humiliating women, YOU ARE A CULT!!! THERE IS NO GOD IN CULTS!!!

  6. Wow Allison! Thanks for sharing. I always feel better after I throw up, hope it works for you too!

    In what ways do you think I am radical? What have I said to give you that impression?

    In what ways do I belong to cult? Which cult is might that be?

    “There is no God in cults!!!” Okay, what does that mean? That I’m in a cult? That I’m an atheist?

    If you would like to engage in rational discussion I would be happy to oblige. Otherwise I will probably just delete your comment and this one. Just let me know.

  7. Ok, so I don’t know where you stand on the IFB “issue,” you may call it. But, I am for the IFB churches. I attend the Marion Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, Iowa. And our Pastor, Larry Brown, our Assistant Pastor, Joseph Brown, and our Spanish Pastor, Hector Rodriguez, are all held responsible for their actions, not only to our church, but to many churches around the area, and yes by other churches, I do mean IFB churches, so we do have a “community” of churches in our area, and one of them just happens to be the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana. I said all of this because you mentioned the accountability of the churches. (And I couldn’t tell whether or not you were meaning the church itself or the Pastor when you were talking about it, but I know my church and all of the others in our “community” are held accountable for their actions.)

    I am just wondering, you had mentioned that you HAD attended an IFB church and, I’m guessing, two colleges? Do you still attend an IFB church, and what is your general opinion on the video?

  8. Demi,

    Thanks for the questions.

    As to where I stand on the IFB issue– I assume you mean the abuse detailed in the 20/20 episode. Is that right? Such abuse is obviously horrendous and those guilty of it should be punished to the greatest extent the law will allow. But I do not think that such abuse is particularly endemic to IFB churches. It is probably more common that we would like to think, but I do not think the level of it is anything approaching the ongoing exposure of abuse by clergy of the church of Rome.

    I do not attend an IFB church any longer. I am the pastor of an independent Christian church in Banquo, Indiana.

    By the video, I assume you mean the 20/20 episode. I found it incoherent and ineffective. Detailing 3 cases of abuse and playing bits and pieces of sermons from un-cited sources is supposed to convince me of what? That abuse is rampant in IFB churches? It was hack journalism.

    As for accountability, I suppose the leadership of the church was more my focus. But the entire church should not be excluded. So how does accountability work in your community? When a pastor is guilty of moral or doctrinal failure, what do other churches do? What if a pastor has fallen into such a state and he refuses to leave the ministry and his church does not require him to?

    I am not against the IFB church because there is no such thing. There are many IFB churches. Some of them I would gladly associate with, and some of them I would have nothing to do with. That was sort of the gist of my original post. Since anyone can call themselves IFB, all of them are in some way besmirched-deservedly or not- when one of them sins. The only thing one can do is say, “We don’t have anything to do with that ministry, never have and never will.” Those “inside” get the distinction, but I don’t think those outside do.

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