On Main Street in Lexington, Kentucky, there stands in front of the County clerk’s office an historical marker. The plaque marks the spot of the main Street Christian Church, established in 181142, and the text recounts the sixteen-day debate in 1843 between Alexander Campbell and Nathan Rice. The moderator was the honorable senator from Kentucky, Henry Clay. This debate was one of the more famous episodes in that double decade of turbulence among Christian people in what was then the West, as they sought to discern the truth about the New Testament and about the way baptist people read and interpret the Scriptures.
Campbell came to America from Scotland with his father, Thomas. They settled in western Pennsylvania and affiliated with one of the churches of the old Redstone Baptist Association. The Campbell vision was of a unified Christian movement, centered on Christian love and the Bible. The movement they launched was known then and now as the Restoration Movement. However, instead of uniting the already diverse Christian churches into one, the Campbells succeeded only in further splintering the Christian movement. Their followers, known for years informally as Campbellites, are now known by such names as Church of Christ, Christian Church, and Disciples of Christ.
The historical significance of the Campbellite controversy was the debate it aroused as to the essential characteristics of the baptist movement. One chief issue was missions. The first baptist missionary convention had been held in 1814 (The Triennial Convention), and promoters like John Mason Peck and Luther Rice traveled across the frontier (which included Kentucky) to promote the cause of home and world missions.
The baptist missionaries ran into opposition from Campbell and his followers, especially John Taylor and Daniel Parker. These men led what became known as the “anti-mission movement.” They contended that neither the New Testament nor baptist tradition gave support to this vision of world evangelization.
Quite the opposite is the truth. I find in baptist theology and practice three elements that challenge baptists of all generations to take seriously the responsibility to be faithful to the world in the preaching of the Gospel.
First, baptist people read the New Testament as if it is speaking directly to us. Acts chapter 16 records Paul’s vision of the Macedonia call. We travel with Paul through Asia; we feel his frustration when his plans to go north are blocked; we are with him in Troas when he meets the unnamed person; and (I say this with caution) we are in his bedroom when the vision comes. His call is our call. His reaction is our reaction. Paul and his companions “got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10).
Because there is embedded in the New Testament a missionary vision, there is embedded in the mind and heart of every true baptist a similar missionary vision. Jesus spoke to us when he said: “Go, make disciples of every nation, baptizing them…and teaching them…and I will be with you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Norm and Martha Lytle were baptist missionaries in Israel when my wife, Jan, and I lived there in 1973 and 1974. They befriended us in every way and often hosted us in their beautiful home on the Mount of Olives overlooking the old city of Jerusalem. Later Norm and Martha went to Russia. They served as coordinators of Southern Baptist mission work in the republics of the old Soviet Union. It is a modern-day Macedonia. Christians all over the west see a vision of a Russian person saying, “Come over into Russia and help us.”
Second, we practice the priesthood of all Christians. This universal priesthood commissions each of us to speak to God on behalf of people (through prayer) and to speak to people on behalf of God (as evangelists). In other words, when our priesthood is reduced to the privilege of direct communication with God or the freedom to read the Bible for ourselves, it is a half calling. The full calling involves the ministry of the good news of Jesus Christ.
First Peter 2:9 reads like this: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into Hebrew Bible, Exodus 19:6. This very clearly says that a chief purpose of our priesthood is the privilege to declare for all to hear what God has done for us in Christ.
It is this missionary priesthood that blurs the distinction between clergy and laity. It is not so much that we de-emphasize the ordination of a pastor as it is that we emphasize the ordination of the people. Your baptism is your ordination to Christian ministry. All of us, a royal priesthood, are called upon to share he good news of Jesus Christ.
It was some women whom John Bunyan overheard as they gossiped the gospel in a doorway in Bedford, England. He was converted from outright wickedness through religious reform to genuine Christ-centered repentance, as he later described in his book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Bunyan became an influential baptist leader and a world-renowned writer. His life and ministry were the result of people, pew people, taking seriously their priesthood. This is the foundation of baptist faithfulness to the people of the world.
There is a third reason, and the conversion of John Bunyan illustrates it in a wonderful way. Baptist people are those people who, first of all, can testify to an evangelical experience of grace, or conversion. From the very beginning, our meetings have often been simply testimonials, in which one by one people stand to testify to their experience of the risen Lord. People who can testify are believers and are therefore candidates for believer’s baptism.
Because we have had this experience with Christ, we are sure others can and will. Therefore, we invite people to hear the gospel, believe the gospel, and live the gospel. The evangelical invitation is thus a constituent part of what it means to be baptist. We hold dear, not so much the baptism of believers (even though that has given us a name and a public image), but rather the conversion event and the experience of believers.
One day years ago while visiting the parents of my wife, I picked up the conversion testimony of Charles Colson. It is a book entitled Born Again. It held me spellbound; and I was not surprised to discover later that Colson had been baptized and had affiliated with a baptist church. His personal experience of transforming grace is right at the center of what it means to be baptist.
True baptists are therefore missionary and evangelistic people. Not all baptists have agreed with this. On another occasion when a guest in the home of my wife’s parents, I once again picked up a book to read. It was the history of Cade’s Cove. The early settlers of that beautiful valley in eastern Tennessee included my wife’s ancestors. The settlers formed a baptist church. But the debate over missions crept into the cove and into the church. The baptist people divided, so the book recounts; and there emerged out of this debate a missionary baptist church and a primitive baptist church. While the primitive baptists, those who repudiated mission activity, held onto the baptist name, the discarded the true baptist vision.
True baptists understand and echo the convictions of the Apostle Paul when he wrote: “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome” (Romans 1:14-15). Thus Paul was both free in the world and faithful to the world. Like baptists today, he was free of constraint, control, and intimidation by either ecclesiastical or civil authorities. But he was faithful to the people of the world, faithful to his missionary and evangelistic calling “to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:10).
Throughout this twentieth century, baptists have played a prominent role in the vitality of the Christian mission. Through wars and rumors of war, through poverty, pain, and persecution unparalleled in world history, through tyranny, torture, and times of great distress, baptists have been strengthened by their heritage of liberty in Christ; they have remained centered in their faithfulness to the mission of Christ.
Who know the coming century? Who knows what opportunities, what oppressions? Who know what revolutions, what persecutions? Who knows the rise and fall of nations, the up and down of fortunes, the ebb and flow of life itself. Who knows but God only!
Christian living in the twenty-first century, as in the two millennia gone before, will find its sustaining power in the beautiful, bountiful presence of the Risen Lord. Baptist Christians, then as before, will bear witness to Christ and thus serve to sustain the global mission of Christ by clinging to those twin gifts bestowed upon us. Let us treasure as from God above the gift of freedom; let us treasure as from the Lord of Heaven the gift of faithfulness; and in this way work and witness yet another century in the fullness of the Spirit of life.