A Jesus-Shaped Baptist: A Tribute to the Late Michael Spencer

Michael Spencer was a widely-known and beloved blogger who wrote under the name Internet Monk.  Shortly before his death on April 5, 2010, a friend of Michael’s asked if I would contribute an essay, along with some other of Michael’s friends, to a festschrift for Michael that we would self-publish.  I did so, but the project never got off the ground.  As it’s been three years, I thought I would provide my essay here.  It is a late offering to the gloriously eclectic Michael Spencer, who I was honored to call a friend.

“A Jesus-Shaped Baptist?”

When presented with the opportunity to contribute an essay in honor and memory of my friend Michael Spencer, I quickly settled on the phrase, “Jesus-shaped Baptist.”  Michael strove to be faithful to both of these visions (1. Jesus-shaped and 2. Baptist), while privileging the former over the latter at all times.  Yet Michael strove to be passionately faithful to both visions as a matter of conviction and integrity.

An Apology for Jesus-Shaped Denominationalism

The very idea of a Jesus-shaped Baptist raises an interesting question:  is it possible for one to be a convinced denominationalist and radically Christocentric at the same time?  Can one truly be a Jesus-shaped Baptist?  Is the very idea not an oxymoron?  After all, should not a desire to be Jesus-shaped necessarily cause us to abandon all denominational qualifiers?

In truth, the answer is “no.”  I note with interest that Paul’s lamenting of the divisions among the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 1:12 mentions not only a party of Paul, Apollos, and Peter, but also an equally-sectarian party of Jesus.  Apparently, even those who claim to be in the party of Jesus and Jesus alone may be as sectarian as their less-nobly-monikored denominational counterparts.  To be Christocentric in name does not necessarily denote a Jesus-shaped heart, and to hold with conviction to certain denominational distinctions does not necessarily mean a dilution of one’s desire to follow Christ and Christ alone.

We all begin at and live in and come from a certain place, a certain perspective.  One may be a Jesus-shaped _________ (fill-in-the-blank) and be so with integrity so long as that particular vantage point is couched within biblical, Trinitarian orthodoxy and is seeking to interpret the scriptures with integrity and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Michael understood the dialectic and inevitability of being Jesus-shaped within the context of theological and ecclesial distinctives, and his fleshing-out of this approach was simultaneously enlightening and challenging while being, of course, unavoidably idiosyncratic.

In this essay, I would like to attempt to work out what a Jesus-shaped Baptist looks like.  I will do so by considering these five marks of a Jesus-shaped Baptist:  radical Christocentrism, uncompromising orthodoxy, intentional catholicity, unapologetic denominationalism, and convictional irenicism.  As I do so, I will refer the reader in the footnotes to those writings of Michael’s that speak to or illustrate that particular attribute.[1]

Radical Christocentrism

            In the Fall of 2001, Muslim Imam Fisal Hammouda joined Bill Hybels at Willow Creek church for a dialogue about Islam.  The Imam raised eyebrows at Willow Creek and beyond by responding to Hybels’ question about the Muslim view of Jesus with the words, “We believe in Jesus – more than you do, in fact.”[2]

Many believers, however, were no-doubt less shocked by the assertion itself than by the eerie insightfulness and tragic truthfulness of the proposition.  Indeed, many who have a woefully stunted and heterodox Christology (as Islam certainly does) seem to believe more in their falsely construed Jesus than some of God’s own people do in the second person of the Trinity.

When all is said and done, the scandalous disconnect between the orthodox Christology of many in the church and the actual living of our lives anathematizes us more than any other indictment could.  The Jesus-shaped Baptist joins with the great cloud of witnesses in asserting that the living of the Christian life is inextricably interwoven with orthodox Christology.  The latter tragically does not insure the former (especially when the latter is allowed to be mere furniture of the mind), but the former can never be without the latter.

A Jesus-shaped Baptist will always keep those words in that particular order.  He is a Jesus-shaped Baptist.  He resolutely denies having a Baptist-shaped Jesus.  He is not tepid about his Baptist identity, but neither will he allow himself that self-deluding hubris which reshapes Jesus into his own image.  He seeks to embrace the Jesus of the scriptures, the Jesus who, at points, confirms his own understanding of theology and church, and at other points, pushes against his understanding and reminds him that the living Christ transcends all niche efforts at defining who He is.  This is not to suggest that high Christology entails low epistemology.  Rather, it simply means that as Christ increases, we decrease, as does our stubborn insistence that our particular understanding of issues that have been highly disputed among orthodox Christians for large swathes of two-millennia must be the only possible answer.  To put it another way, high Christology humbles the Baptist as well as all other Christians under the glory of the exalted Christ.

A Jesus-shaped Baptist understands that the elevation of distinctives over Christology can lead to that ludicrous but oft-repeated fiasco describe so aptly by William Blake:

The vision of Christ that thou dost see

Is my vision’s greatest enemy:

Thine has a great hook nose like thine,

Mine has a snub nose like to mine. . . .

Both read the Bible day and night,

But thou read’st black where I read white.[3]

Voltaire likewise lampooned the Christian reshaping of Jesus into this or that sectarian mold by proclaiming that God created man in His own image…and man has returned the favor.  The innate and instinctive desire of all denominational Christians to recast Jesus in the mold of their own particular community has more to do with self-justification and pride than with arriving at the truth, and the Jesus-shaped Baptist refuses to play that dead-end game.

A Jesus-shaped Baptist agrees with philosopher and theologian (and Baptist) Dallas Willard when he says, “Our aim is to be pervasively possessed by Jesus through constant companionship with him.”[4]  A Jesus-shaped Baptist wishes to walk through Galilee before he walks through Nashville (in the case of Southern Baptists, anyway), for it is only in the presence of the unfettered and unobscured Lamb of God that we truly live.

Uncompromising Orthodoxy

A Jesus-shaped Baptist holds tenaciously and without compromise to the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).  He stands with Paul and all of the people of God in denouncing all false gospels (Galatians 1:6-9).  He affirms the seven-fold apostolic articulation of “one body…one Spirit…one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Galatians 4:5-6) as the sine qua non of the Christian’s very existence.  A Jesus-shaped Baptist says with that uniquely fascinating earlier Baptist, John Bunyan, that he wishes simply to be called “a Christian.”

Historian Tom Nettles has approvingly pointed to 17th century British Particular Baptist Hercules Collins’ contention that Baptists believe “the essence of Christianity exists outside the parameters of denominational distinctive.”  Nettles goes on to argue that “the inerrancy of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ in one person, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, the necessity of regeneration, God’s invincible purpose of holiness for his people, the certainty of Christ’s physical return, and the eternal destinies of heaven and hell constitutes a more central Christian commitment than the denominational peculiarities of any group that confesses these same truths….Before one may be a Baptist, he must first be a Christian.”[5] [italics mine]

This must be so!  A Jesus-shaped Baptist clings to a Jesus-centered orthodoxy with an vice-like grip.  He celebrates the great verities of the faith with all those who have and who are and who will call on the name of Christ.

Intentional Catholicity

            What is more, the Jesus-shaped Baptist holds to a healthy and intentional catholicity.[6]  Michael Spencer knew well the importance of catholicity and our friendship was grounded in it.  Our own relationship began when I submitted to Michael a series of posts I had entitled “Towards a Baptist Paleo-Orthodoxy.”  They were the first-fruit efforts of a young Baptist minister who had recently encountered the writings of Thomas Oden and his paleo-orthodoxy programme and was trying to move out of the suffocating confines of Baptist fundamentalist tribalism and into the fresh air of the Church triumphant throughout time.

Michael, too, shared in this yearning.  He had a deep appreciation for Baptist catholicity and wrote frequently towards that end.  He believed it was not only possible but necessary that Baptists stand within the great 5th century Vincentian ideal of “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”  In 2007, Michael approvingly quoted the following statement from The World Council of Churches:  “Each church is the church catholic and not simply a part of it. Each church is the church catholic, but not the whole of it. Each church fulfills its catholicity when it is in communion with the other churches.”[7]  For Michael, and for many of us, Baptists are unapologetically members of the church catholic.

In the eighth chapter of his early 2nd century Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius of Antioch asserted that “wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”  To be sure, Roman Catholics would object to the Baptist appeal to this definition without its concomitant link to espicopacy (a link that is clear enough in Ignatius, it seems to me), but I daresay that Ignatius was saying more than even he knew when he rightly and thus defined “catholic.”

Many Baptists have applied the term “catholic” to themselves.  Steven R. Harmon begins his seminal Towards Baptist Catholicity with quotations from the 1678 Baptist “Orthodox Creed” to the effect that “the visible church of Christ on earth is made up of several distinct congregations which make up that one catholick church, or mystical body of Christ” and from the 1905 pronouncement of Judge Willis (then President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain) to the first Baptist World Congress in London that, “We believe, and our fathers have believed, in the Holy Catholic Church…The catholicity of the Church of Christ is not…a doctrine of Rome:  it is an essential consequence resulting from the principles on which Christ’s Church is founded.”[8]

Indeed, there is a growing number of Baptists who see catholicity not only as a possible option for Baptists, but as a necessary and even definitional reality inherent in the very experience of being Baptist.  This does not mean a naïve return to the various and often-embarrassing theories of succession that have been propagated by some Baptists.  It simply means that Baptists are an organic and authentic expression of the Body of Christ as it has existed throughout time and, as an authentic expression, it takes its place in the body catholic.

Baptist catholicity, then, as I see it, refers to the validity of Baptists’ triune baptism, offer of the Lord’s Supper, preaching of the Word of God, and exaltation of Christ Jesus in the gathered people of God and, through it, to the world.  Baptist catholicity refers, then, to the Baptist right to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” with integrity alongside those who assert the same even as they embrace a different understanding of ecclesial distinctives.

Baptist catholicity has an inward prophetic voice insofar as it challenges and pushes against Baptist tribalism, elitism, and factionalism.  What is more, Baptist catholicity may call the Baptist to modify or nuance some traditional Baptist stances in light of a re-reading of Holy Scripture and in consideration of solid arguments arising from within the Church throughout time.[9]  Outwardly, it prophetically calls other Christians to consider the biblical truth of believer’s baptism as well as other aspects of Baptist identity that may serve as a prophetic corrective to error in the greater body.

Unapologetic Denominationalism

            But the Jesus-shaped Baptist is, indeed, a Baptist.  He feels no compulsion towards a jettisoning of his distinctive identity in favor of a nebulous and largely undefined spirituality that would, indeed, remove the occasional awkwardness of his stance but would do so at the cost of his own conscience.[10]

To be a Baptist means that he holds to certain ideals:  regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, congregational polity, and the priesthood of the believer (to name but a few).  He does not do so because he was born believing such things but because it is a matter of his own convictions and reading of Holy Scripture.  His conscience is captive to the Word of God.

To take but one example, the Jesus-shaped Baptist declares with the Church triumphant throughout the ages the central proclamation of “Iesus Kurios!”, but he does indeed believe that this expression of the heart must be known and grasped by the individual Christian before the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord is proclaimed in baptism.[11]  His baptism is not an anticipation of this most crucial cry.  It is an affirmation of it in his own life.

He finds this view in the pages of the New Testament and he finds it in the early history of the church.[12]  He is fully cognizant of the ecumenical speed bump that his Baptist convictions present, but he nonetheless reaches out to believers of all denominations in the name of the risen Christ while asserting this understanding of divine truth.

Convictional Irenicism

Some years back I was a student in a seminar with Dr. Timothy George, Dean of the Beeson Divinity School.  Dr. George was commenting on his own Baptist convictions and the place they held in his desire to be a Christian first of all.  I’ll never forget how he summed it up:  “I’m a Baptist, I’m just not angry about it.”  In many ways I think that nicely sums up the convictions of my friend Michael Spencer as well.[13]

The Jesus-shaped Baptist is not an angry or bitter elitist.  He holds to his convictions and argues them from the Scriptures, but he does so with humility and irenicism.  He askews the kind of pompous myopia that seems to characterize too many denominational apologists of all stripes.  He is not bashful about being a Baptist, but neither is he belligerently so.

The Jesus-shaped Baptist yearns for the future unity of the Church, but also for increasing visible unity here and now.  His is not an ecumenism of compromise, but he does yearn and strive towards the culmination of the Lord’s prayer that His disciples would all be one (John 17:20-23).

The Jesus-shaped Baptist seeks to show the grace, mercy, kindness, and meekness of the Lord in His dealings with people.  He seeks to model the temperament of Jesus in his dealings with Christians and non-Christians alike.

Michael Spencer exhibited the attributes of a Jesus-shaped Baptist in ways that were memorable, challenging, and encouraging.  He was, of course, an imperfect man.  Even so, he will forever stand in my mind as an example of Christlikeness to which I can only hope to attain.  May his tribe increase among that wonderfully odd little corner of the Church who call themselves “the Baptists,” and may it likewise increase in the Body of Christ at large.


[1] These citations will be largely from The Internet Monk website and will be noted by title so as to avoid the unsightly clutter of multiple url addresses.  Furthermore, the use of the male pronoun throughout is purely for brevity’s sake.  The author recognizes that many of the greatest Jesus-shaped Baptists have been women!

[2] Christianity Today, December 3, 2001, p.15.

[3] Quoted in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 18.

[4] Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), 16.

[5] Tom J. Nettles and Russell D. Moore, eds., Why I Am A Baptist (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 12.

[6] IM: “A Generous Catholicity.” “The Liturgical Gangstas” series of questions and answers. “Stop Me Before I Turn Into A.W. Pink.” “Is Your Church One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic?”

[7] IM: “Quote.”

[8] Steven R. Harmon, Towards Baptist Catholicity. Studies in Baptist History and Thought. Vol.27. (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2006), p.1.

[9] “Dr. Timothy George on the Baptist View of the Lord’s Supper.” “Russ Moore on the Lord’s Supper.” “Problems With Baptists and the Lord’s Supper.” “David Chanski on the Baptist View of the Lord’s Supper.” “A Lord’s Supper Book for the Rest of Us.” “Laugh or Else: The Reasons Baptist Give for Not Celebrating The Lord’s Supper More Often.”

[10] IM: “A List of Factors Affecting Current Events in the SBC.” “A Special Challenge to Southern Baptists.” “My Thoughts on Today’s Southern Baptist Convention Meeting.” “Baptists – The New Methodists?” “Are Southern Baptists Getting It?  Maybe.”

[11] IM:  See the “The Baptist Way” series. “Rebaptism: Where To From Here?” “Rebaptism: How Did We Get Here?”

[12] Indeed, he finds in some of the most recent and fascinating partristic research further reasons to hold to his position.  Cf. Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 2009.

[13] IM: “My Theology Can Beat Up Your Theology.”


One thought on “A Jesus-Shaped Baptist: A Tribute to the Late Michael Spencer

  1. Thank you for this post. My view of Baptist roots has grown over time and I am glad you wrote this as it caused some moments of serious reflection backwards and forwards as we all grow in Christ. A healthy growth journey in Christ will include most of what you covered and as sanctification progresses our views tend to embrace far more than we could even see or know at the beginning as a new convert. So, thank you again for this effort and I hope we all grow in grace and understanding of the central themes of a Pilgrim’s progress on the way home. Life in this world shapes and molds us in many ways but God has the last word in all and for all.

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