August 17, 2023
“Dad, why are we Baptist?” asked my son Owen recently. He had been playing with some friends in the neighborhood and the topic of church came up. One of his friends went to a Catholic church and the other attended a nondenominational church (Owen didn’t supply that word).
Why are we Baptist? It’s a good question that I am sure Owen is not alone in asking. Some people are quick to say something like, “We don’t need to be Baptist or Catholic or Methodist. We all just need to be followers of Jesus.” And I certainly get that. But I find that a trite statement that’s akin to people saying that they find God in the sunrise. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s nebulous.
I can’t answer for you. But I can give you my answer for why I am Baptist. I am Baptist because I believe in freedom. In Galatians, Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). In context, Paul is writing to Gentile Christians who had begun to believe that in order to truly call themselves justified in the eyes of God, they had to take on many of the Jewish customs, namely circumcision. But Paul is wanting them to grasp the freedom that is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul is not anti-Jewish, but Paul is railing against anyone who holds others to a standard other than the Good News of Jesus.
Baptists have always been about freedom. Anabaptists in Europe during the time of the Protestant Reformation were killed because they refused to accept paedo-baptism (infant baptism) since the Anabaptists fervently believed that following Jesus was a choice for each individual. In the 1600s, Roger Williams, a Baptist, founded the colony of Rhode Island and established it upon the principles of religious freedom for all (the only colony to have such freedom at the time) and Williams advocated for the rights of Native Americans when dealing with the colonial powers. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Baptists, commending them for their beliefs about the need for there to be a “separation between Church and State.” These Baptists did not believe in this separation because they wanted religion out of the public sphere; rather, they held firm on this belief because they wanted churches to have full freedom to worship and lead as they felt God calling them to do so and without any government interference.
Baptists are the people of freedom. In his wonderful little book The Baptist Identity, Baptist historian Walter Shurden distills what it means to be Baptists into, what he calls, four fragile freedoms:
The Bible is foundational to us as individuals and as a congregation. Every Christian has the freedom and right to interpret and apply Scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The wisdom and counsel of the larger congregation should nurture individual believers as they seek to interpret and apply Scripture.
We are each accountable to God individually without the imposition of creed or the control of clergy or government. This personal experience with God is indispensable to the Christian life and necessary for a vital church. This is sometimes described as the “priesthood of all believers.”
Baptist churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine their membership, leadership, doctrine and practice. This is sometimes known as “autonomy of the local church.” Individual churches should work together to achieve goals that one church by itself could not reach.
Everyone should be able to worship (or not) as they feel led without unnecessary interference by the government. Just as religious freedom involves the freedom to practice religion, it also includes the freedom not to practice religion. If you can’t say “no,” your “yes” is meaningless. The separation of church and state affords an important constitutional protection of religious freedom for all.
Our church is currently involved in our conversations about Baptist identity. As you all know, the Southern Baptist Convention has made the decision to pass an amendment by an overwhelming majority that dictates that an SBC church may not have women serving as pastors. I strenuously object to that statement, not only on the grounds of biblical interpretation (though I certainly do) but also because this is a matter of freedom. For a denominational body to dictate to local churches what they can and cannot do is patently un-Baptist.
Some people have come up to me and said, “Is this decision about us taking a step away from being Baptist?” I want to say this very, very clearly: No. In fact, in my opinion, it is us taking a deeper step into our Baptist identity. I have no plans to change the church name or theological identity or to do anything less than to be a Baptist pastor leading a decidedly Baptist church.
“Owen, we are Baptists because we believe in freedom,” is what I said to my son. He nodded, shrugged, and moved on about his day. I have no idea if that sank in, but I pray it did.