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.