F&F: The First Great Baptist Leader

Free and faithful baptists found their first great leader in Balthasar Hubmaier of Zurich (although Baptists with a capital B would not appear until the early 1600s). A priest and professor within the Roman Catholic Church, Hubmaier was assigned to the parish of Waldshut where he came under the influence of the famous Reformation leader Ulrich Zwingli.


Reformation, however, was not enough. Hubmaier was soon convicted that what was needed was nothing short of the restoration of the New Testament church. Hubmaier embraced the efforts of the radical reformers, the Anabaptists. “The great Christian revolutions,” wrote H. Richard Niebuhr during the 20th century, come not by discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there.”


So it was with baptists, and so it was Hubmaier. He believed only converted adults should be received for baptism; and those who entered the Christian church must renounce the world and live a life consecrated to God. Hubmaier published these doctrines of the free and faithful congregation in one of the  first volumes of baptist theology, On the Indestructibility of Truth.


The rulers of both church and state were frightened by Hubmaier and his radical ideas of freedom and faithfulness. He was captured, tortured, and forced to recant. Upon escape , he renounced his recantation and took up the pen again in the cause of biblical restorationism. In 1528, Hubmaier was again, detained, extradited to Vienna, tried to a stake in a public square, and set afire. Balthasar Hubmaier thus became the first great martyr in the case of free and faithful baptists.


The followers of Hubmaier were called Swiss Brethren. Like-minded people in other laces in Europe were called Anabapists, Hutterites, and Mennonites. In England, there were known as Nonconformists and Dissenters. They were the ancestors of this great tradition in which we now stand: baptist people, free and faithful baptist people. They believed that faith and holiness could not be coerced; that people were free to confess Christ or reject Christ; that only believers should be received in to the church; that church members convenanted together to live a life pleasing to the Lord; that congregations were free to gather for worship, write their doctrine, call their pastor, and direct their affairs, all without the interference of either secular or sacred authorities; and that only the Holy Scripture held supreme authority for Christian people.


The baptist movement was birthed in the struggle for freedom over against the authority of pope and prince, king, and cardinal, council, and congress.


Free and faithful baptists have always led the struggle for freedom against the forces of control, conformity, and creedalism.  We find our scriptural mandate set forth clearly in that most powerful of all biblical writings, Paul’s letter to the Galatians:  “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery… But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (5:1, 13).


Our Lord Jesus himself is the best example of an individual who embodied these fundamental principles of freedom and faithfulness. It is Christ whom we follow as baptist Christians. Following Christ has led baptists to advocate what has come to be called the free church.


A free church is a congregation of believers, all of whom are encouraged to exercise their spiritual gifts in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is at the heart of what baptists mean by “the priesthood of every believer.” A pivotal text for baptist people has been Acts 2 with its inclusive statement about the Spirit: “I will pour out my spirit on all people” (Act 2:17; cf. Joel 2:29).  It is interesting that several groups of baptist Christians, specifically laypeople, women, missionaries, and Penteostals, find in this text a foundational statement of Christian existence. Formal distinctions are blurred as all find their ministry among God’s people.


A free church is a congregation of believes, each individually empowered to participate in the decisions of the group. This “communal discernment,” as baptist theologian James W. McClendon Jr. calls it, consists of a deliberate seeking of God’s will in such matters as doctrinal statements, scriptural interpretations, officer selection and ordination, organizational life, property decisions, and church discipline. Baptists pioneered the democratic idea of church life. All are equal and each is responsible.


A free church is a congregation that gladly and voluntarily enters into fraternal association with other like-minded baptist people. Cooperation cannot be coerced  or controlled by those either inside or outside the congregation. Church are free before God and within the Christian community. Thus, baptist people have been eager to unite in associations for fellowship and support and in conventions for missionary and benevolent purposes.


For twenty years baptist people in America have carried on a great debate over what it means to be a baptist-style Christian. The defining issue has been the choice between freedom and authority. Those who champion the need for authority contend that the issue is truth versus error. This has always been the contention  of those who wield power in the name of God. This was exactly the rationale of those who lit the match that sent Balthasar Hubmaier home to glory. “We must defend the truth against the infidels,” they cry. Such rhetoric is the emotional fuel of crusades.


In 1979, the “defenders of truth” launched a crusade to “save” the institutions and agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention from theological apostasy and moral bankruptcy. It seems that there was too much freedom, and the time was right for the exercise of authority. James T. Draper, then president of the Southern Baptist Convention, published a book entitled Authority: the Critical issue for Southern Baptists (Revell, 1984).


A history of the resolutions introduced and approved by these who claim to continue the tradition of baptists gives us insight into their character. In 1984, women were denied their freedom and relegated to subservient status in the church. Then in 1988, lay people were put in their place, as the pastor was elevated as the ruler of the people. That same 1988 resolution, in an appalling piece of historical revisionism, reduced the baptist ideal of the priesthood of every believer to secondary status and discounted it as of recent vintage.


Some of you know what it is like to live under the control of authority-minded leaders. For several several months Third Baptist Church had, in its evening worship services, a large contingent of baptist people from a neighboring county. They were members of what was once one of the largest and strongest Baptist churches in the area. But a new spirit entered their pulpit and people, a spirit that treasured not freedom but authority. To find a time and place to be free and faithful baptists, these people had to leave their established church and seek a better place.  For several months they have had congregational worship on Sunday morning. Attendance the first Sunday was almost seventy people. God bless these free and faithful baptists.


One more story will serve to illustrate how this struggle between freedom and authority has emerged as the focal point of debate about the baptist way of being Christian. A few years ago a local paper carried the news of the election of Jim Henry as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. I was quoted as saying it was “the first good news we have had in fifteen years.” Henry was the independent candidate running against the man handpicked by the small “college of baptist cardinals” that had managed our Southern Baptist Convention for more than a decade. Henry’s election was a surprise. It was a victory for those who were tired of the controlling tactics of our new leaders. One of the new-baptist leaders, recently installed as pastor of the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention, tried to explain Henry’s victory with these word: “For fifteen years we needed the assault troops. But now, Henry is leading the occupation forces.”


Occupation forces? What is the meaning of this language? Why use this terminology of war and violence? in 1979, Judge Paul Pressler of Houston launched this crusade with another violent image: “We are going for the jugular.” It is unbelievable that a baptist minister would describe his relation with other baptist people in terms of an army of occupation or (to use Judge Pressler’s rhetoric) a knife to the throat. It is ungodly, it is unacceptable, and it is against the words and spirit of Jesus our Lord. It  is especially out of place among baptists because of our emphasis on the voluntary element in true religion–faith and participation must be uncoerced.


I prefer the words of W. A. Criswell when, early in his ministry at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, he wrote a testimony for the book edited by Joe Odle entitled Why I am a Baptist (Broadman, 1972). Criswell wrote:


“I find myself in an ecclesiastical atmosphere that is not only true to the New Testament but one that also blesses my own heart and spirit. I am free in my work in my pulpit ministry, in the explanation of my convictions. I am completely, absolutely, everlastingly free. There is no bishop there is no hierarchy, there is no machine, there is no over-lording ecclesiastical authority to tell me when, where, what, how, and anything else. I can be myself, truly and really, being a Baptist. I love this. I am dedicate to this. I would have it no other way.”


I have this to say to those who threaten to intimidate free and faithful baptists with such shocking language. When you see soldiers in this army of occupation, tell them that your pastor is a free and faithful baptist. When you see these agents of enforced conformity, tell them you are a member of a free church, an outpost of liberty, and a center of the resistance to this army of occupation. When some general in this occupation force seeks to control your mind, your money, your faith, and your freedom, look them in the eye as a free and faithful baptists and say, in the word of Holy Scripture, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. I will not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).