Audio Recording of the Preface and Introduction
He answered, “I have lost all interest in baptist things.” So spoke a prominent theologian who had been a Southern Baptist. I had expressed interest in a particular aspect of baptist theology. “I am more interested, ” he continued, “in the broader issues of evangelical theology. I think that is the real need of today.” He is not alone in his conviction. A similar stance was taken by a man who recently served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Soon after his election, he said, “I could very easily be a Presbyterian.”
There is a certain legitimacy to the thinking of these two men. They sense the need to de-emphasize those things that are distinctly baptist and give priority to those things that we share in common with other Christians and with other evangelicals. I recently noted an advertisement in a Baptist periodical calling for applications and recommendations for faculty positions at the Southern Baptist Theological. After stating academic credentials, the notice stated applications must adhere to a theological position that is
conservative evangelical. There was no reference no Baptists.”
The writing of baptist theologians gives evidence of the same perspective. During the last fifteen years, there has been a host of systematic theology books written by persons affiliated with the baptist tradition. It is quite interesting that most of these give little attention to the baptist tradition,. opting instead for standard and rather predictable presentations of what can also be called “conservative evangelical” theology. this demonstrates the powerful tendency for baptist theologians to de-emphasize those things that are distinctive of the baptist tradition.
This book is a protest against this situation, at both the congregational and the theological level. I am not so sure this abdication of baptist principles is in the best interest of baptist church life or that it offers a better strategy for addressing the myriad challenges to Christian faith and living today. I wish to make a case that our best contribution to the Christian movement is by being baptist.
It is no progress to reduce all Christian living, believing and confessing to some generic brand of religion. Rather, we enrich the Christian church when we articulate our faith as we see it through the prism of baptist life. We follow God’s purpose for us when we live our faith as we understand it through the traditions of baptists. Do we not believe that God is keeping with God’s sovereign will has raised up the people called baptists for a specific purpose? Can not this purpose be stated as two-fold? for the glory of God and for the good of the world. In other words, does not God wish to bless the entire Christian community through the unique insights, traditions, and convictions of baptists?
The church of Jesus Christ is like an orchestra. Each church and denomination plays its part. Catholics exemplify order, continuity, and loyalty. Presbyterians teach us about the sovereignty of God and the centrality of Scripture. Methodists brought to us new emphasis on revivals and spiritual disciplines. Pentecostals reintroduced healing to the modern church and embody what it means for the church to be a counter-culture to the prevailing secularism of our day.
Baptists can learn from others. While in Jerusalem in May of 1994, we worshiped at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City. I was impressed chiefly by one thing. Through three readings of Scripture, several prayers, and the recitation of a confession of faith, the entire gospel was fully declared. Baptists would do well to learn from the Lutherans to declare our faith in more public and explicit ways. This is one of the strengths of protestant worship.
Baptists also make their contribution to this Christian symphony. We play our instrument and add our distinctive sound. What would an orchestra be if all people played the same instrument? Even when playing the same note and tune, it is the variety of instruments that give the concert its rich and compelling texture. We welcome the sound of the French horn, viola, oboe, and timpani. Baptists are a small part of the great Christian orchestra, but the sound and quality of our part is of real importance.
Furthermore, music lovers delight in the presence of the sub themes and minor movements when listening to the great compositions. They add drama and suspense, depth and beauty. Such is the contribution of baptists. We are, in many ways, a dissenting people. We emphasize things (like believer’s baptism by immersion and the separation of church and state) that are not embraced by the majority of Christians. We play our minor melodies confident that, in God’s providence, we contribute to the beauty and power of the whole.
I affirm our baptist identity, not because we are perfect, or because we have all the answers, or even because we are designated to carry the major theme. Rather, we have our convictions, our heritage, our understanding of the gospel which we believe is from God. Can we not believe that God will bless all Christian people,and indeed, the entire world because of the way baptist people believe and behave the gospel?
This way of understanding the baptist vision frees us from a narrow, sectarian pride that rejects all who differs as heretics, as living in disobedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul likened the Church to a body with many parts.
“The body is a unity, though it is made up of man parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.So it is with Christ….Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:12,27).
This insight applies not only to individuals who have different gifts, but also to congregations and traditions. No none Christian group can affirm, embody, and implement all of the wide and wonderful ttuth of God’s Word. Each lives out the gospel in accordance with its God-given vision of Christian existence This is not to say there is no error or misconstrual of God’s ways and words–surely, baptists, catholics, and protestants alike fall short of perfection in things theological, ethical, and spiritual. The preface to “TheConfession of Faith of those Churches which are commonly (though falsely) called Anabaptist,” now known as the London Confession of 1644, expresses this awareness of possible error and ignorance when it confesses that “we believe the Lord will daily cause truth more to appear to the hearts of his saints.”
With this attitude toward the proper place of the baptist vision in the life of the Christian church, we can sound clearly the dual notes of baptist life and work, freedom, and faithfulness. A good Scripture summary of these things is found in Galatians chapter five, verses one and thirteen: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery….You, my people, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”
What are the focal points of these verses? Freedom and faithfulness. These are precisely the two loci of Baptist theology and spirituality. We can consider first freedom and then faithfulness.
BAPTIST MEANS FREEDOM
Baptists love of freedom at both the personal and corporate level is set over against the catholic vision of order. During the summer of 1994,the Roan Catholic pope issues his encyclical entitled, “On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone.” The baptist way presents a sharp dissent from three elements of this papal decree. First, this encyclical is one person making decisions for other people. Second, it sets limits on what God can do in the life of another person. Third, it calls for all further discussion and dissension to cease. It is hard to image an illustration more firmly turned against the baptist understanding of freedom in the things of the spirit.
Against this sort of authoritarian understanding of spiritual things, baptists sound their note of freedom Baptists are free be fore God, with no priest or preacher, pastor or pope to dictate to us how to come into the Lord’s presence or what to say in the name of God. Baptist are free in the Word of God, unbounded by creeds, confessions of faith, or decisions of any council of men or women. Baptist are free in the church, with each person energized by the gift-giving Spirit. Baptists are free int he world, organizing and mobilizing for ministry and evangelism without the constraints of secular and ecclesial power.
BAPTISTS MEANS FAITHFULNESS
But freedom is not all there is to being a baptist kind of Christian. Baptist means faithfulness. Thus our text declares in no uncertain terms: “Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.” Freedom without direction and discipline is chaos. The hymn “American the Beautiful” implores God to “confirm thy soul in self control, they liberty in law.”
A little history helps us understand the baptist way of faithfulness. The baptist movement arose from the medieval confusion called Christendom. Throughout Christianized Europe, babies were baptized and considered church members without regard to their actual living or confessing as followers of Christ. It was the pattern of nominal Christianity; that is, Christian in name only. Against this distortion of biblical religion, baptists contended for a certain kind of faithfulness in Christian discipleship. We insisted on a person, intelligent, voluntary commitment to the life and teaching of Jesus prior to the public rite of initiation, baptism. This, of course, did not assure that all baptized people would continue in their Christian pilgrimage, but it did clarify the priority which baptists placed in intentional discipleship.
In our day, nominal Christianity is again a major problem. There are many churches like Third Baptist Church of Owensboro, where I served as pastor, with hundreds of members who never attend worship, rarely open the Bible, and ignore basic responsibility to witness and support missions and ministries around the world.It is church membership without participation, profession without practice, baptism with out discipleship, lip service without life service. Like Christian identity bestowed by infant baptism, this pattern of church life contradicts the baptist insight into the nature of salvation.
Baptist means faithfulness. It is faithfulness to the call of God in Jesus through a life of discipleship. It is faithfulness to the Word of God–reading, learning, believing, obeying, hiding it in our hearts that we might not sin against God. It is faithfulness to the church through a covenant relationship. It is faithfulness to the world, ministering and evangelizing in the name of Jesus Christ.
It is the purpose and intent of God for baptist people, free and faithful, to sound out these notes. We do our part in the life and work of the worldwide church of Jesus Christ when we bear witness to the way Jesus Christ is known and experienced in and through a church of baptist people. Not everybody is called to be a baptist; but baptists are called to be baptists. By being faithful to our calling we help the church of Jesus Christ reach her full potential in the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
So I conclude that it is a mistake for baptist people to jettison baptist ideals and convictions, to tone down our own unique heritage in Christ, in an effort to merge all Christians toward some common, generic version of Christian faith. Some who have abandoned the baptist vision seem proud that they have relived themselves of the idiosyncrasies of some peculiar, even embarrassing minority, in an effort to embrace what they consider the broad, clear principles of the Christian mainstream. But I dissent.
Perhaps a word picture from the famous Oxford don C. S. Lewis will help bring balance to this tension between the generic and the particular. Lewis is the Anglican scholar who popularized the concert of “mere Christianity.” In the preface to his book by that title he likens the Church to a great cathedral. It has a central hall into which people come. For Lewis, this represents the common elements of the Christian religion. It is “mere Christianity”–what I earlier called “generic religion.” Lewis felt it was his calling to help people enter this great hall. But he also said that connected to this great hall are side rooms. It is here that people eat and sleep, speak and are spoken to. In these side rooms we find nourishment and friendship and partnership in the things of God. Do not stay long int he great hall, he urged. Find one of the side rooms and enter into the fellowship of Christian people.
One of those side rooms is the baptist hall. There, baptist folk worship, minister, think, and confess like baptist people. It is a good room, a healthy room, a friendly room open to new people I invite you to enter the great hall of Jesus. But I also invite you to enter this warm, friendly, gracious room of baptists. It will do you good, if you enter under the leading of the spirit of God. And it will do good to the entire household of faith if we maintain the life and work that has been a feature of this room for more than four centuries.