Third Baptist Church of Owensboro, Kentucky, has a Berean Sunday School class. Likewise, the landscape of Kentucky is dotted with Berean Baptist Churches. This name, so dear to baptists, comes from a story in the 17th chapter of Acts. It illustrates a principle that is at the heart of the baptist way of being Christians. Baptists are free in the Word of God.
The story relates how Paul and Silas entered Berea, a town in northern Greece. They went to the Jewish synagogue to teach about Jesus. This is how Luke describes the reaction of the Berean people.”Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians,s for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
The Jewish synagogue was, and is, a gathering place for the study of scripture. The worship pattern of the first century synagogues included these features: reading of Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), in Hebrew; translation of Hebrew into the vernacular (Greek or Aramaic, in the time of Paul); interpretation of the reading; discussion of the interpretation. According to one Jewish writer, the interpretation(or sermon) was to be given an “an elder (that is, a member of the Sanhedrin), a sage, or by any distinguished person.” Paul was easily a “distinguished person” if not a sage, having studied with Gamaliel in Jerusalem. Jewish synagogues throughout the Mediterranean would always welcomed these itinerant rabbis like Paul. This focus on the reading of Scripture and this openness to such visiting dignitaries provided just the environment needed for the implementation of Paul’s missionary and church planting strategy.
When the people heard Paul teach, they examined the Scriptures every day to see if what he said was true. In other words, the lay people read the scriptures, discussed the matters, and debated the truth and wisdom of Paul’s teaching. The people had both the freedom and the responsibility to hear with respect and evaluate with care what the apostle said. Later, John the apostle would encourage his readers to exercise discernment in such matters: “Dear friends, do not believer every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). It is this Berean spirit that has been a part of baptist life from the very beginning.
This freedom in the Word takes three forms, First, it is freedom to read the Bible. It is hard to believe that the Roman Catholic Church had put the Bible on the Index, that list of books which the laity were prohibited to read. It stayed on that Index until Vatican Council II (1963-1965). Since then, there have been several first rate translations of the Bible for Catholic laity, and there has been a groundswell of interest in the Bible throughout the Catholic church.
From the very beginning of the baptist movement in the sixteenth century, priority has been given to each individual to own a Bible and to read a Bible. We are reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy: “You know how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 3:15).
Third Baptist Church in Owensboro gives Bibles to people: to infants at their dedication, to youth at graduation, to adults at their baptism, to deacons at their ordination. Baptist people are also active in such Bible distribution ministries as the Gideons and the various Bible societies.
I still have the Bible Third Baptist Church presented to me when I was installed as its pastor. I have in my hand tonight a little book that is about two inches square. It is the children’s Bible given in 1944 to Nancy Russell by the Nursery department of this church. Her father, a faithful member of our church, loaned it to me for this service tonight. Today, Nancy is an active leader in the Walnut Street Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky. Baptists believe that it is more important to have Bibles in the hands of the people than in the pews of the sanctuary.
Second, it is the freedom to interpret the Bible. Baptist people have avoided any appearance of telling people what they must believe and how they must interpret the Bible. “Read for yourself,” we say. “Make up your own mind.” Let every person search the scriptures and pray for guidance of God’s Spirit in discerning the meaning. This has been a hallmark of baptist life.
Walter Shurden, in his excellent book, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms, documents this tradition from the very earliest days of Southern Baptist life. IN 1846, W. B. Johnson, the founder and first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, published a book on Baptist Distinctives. He listed five specific convictions that characterize baptists: (1) the sovereignty of God in salvation,;(2) the supreme authority of the scriptures; (3) the right of each individual to judge for herself in her views of truth as taught in the scriptures; (4) democratic church government; and (5) believer’s baptism.
Dale Moody, the late Baptist theologian of world renown often quoted a baptist document that recounted how baptists gathered for a service only to find themselves without an educated minister. These lay people proceeded to open the Bible and read it, “each throwing his light as far as it would go.” This is the baptist spirit.
A word should be said about Baptist confessions of faith. Baptists have never used such doctrinal statements to declare how an individual baptist must interpret the Bible; they are documents to show how some group of baptists have understood the Bible. The preamble to the 1925 “Baptist Faith and Message” states “that the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.”
Third, it is the freedom to teach the Bible. This applies to every person, including those who stand in the pulpit and those who stand behind classroom lecterns. It applies to the pastor of the church as well as the teacher in the classroom. Third Baptist Church has at least 36 Bible classes that meet every Sunday morning. There are 35 lay people who prepare a lesson, who study the Bible, who gather their class, who teach the Word of God. There is one pastor who convenes the Pastor’s Bible Class. All are free to teach the Bible as led by the Holy Spirit. This is not a license to teach heresy and promote immorality, but it is a liberty to share one’s own interpretation of the Word of God.
This freedom to teach the Bible is at the heart of the current controversy among Southern Baptists. The fundamental issue is the proper balance between freedom and authority. Many feel threatened by this baptist tradition of freedom in reading the Bible. They think there has been too much freedom-style Christianity and that this freedom-style faith has brought Southern Baptists to the point of moral chaos, theological indifference, and spiritual lethargy. This description of Southern Baptist lief has legitimized a call for new expressions of authority. “What is needed,” they say, “are more authoritative creeds, more authoritative trustees, more authoritative pastors, more authoritative guidelines for confessing and live the Christian faith.”
Such people wish to be baptist popes. One former president of the Southern Baptist Convention voiced his disgust at what some college and seminary teachers were saying in the classroom with these incredible words: “If we tell our teachers to teach that pickles have souls, then we expect them to teach that pickles have souls.”
No, Mr. President, you are wrong! Your reckless speech betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a baptist-style Christian. You have actually invoked the substance and spirit of Catholic-style Christianity when you seek to control what baptists say and write. You have actually adopted the Protestant-style Christianity when you give doctrine great priority than freedom in matters of the faith. Baptists are free in the Word of God . This freedom in the Word of God has shaped baptists as a people committed to reading and studying the Bible. It is at the center of our congregational worship and is the focal point of our personal spirituality.
I was called upon to preach the funeral message of Marjorie Clark. I did not know this long-time church member. I asked the family for her Bible,, which they gladly handed to me. I could tell a great deal about Marjorie by inspecting her Bible. It was worn out, held together by tape. There is nothing more reassuring than a well-worn Bible. In this Bible were many printed items, clues to her spiritual life. There was a copy of the church covenant, a Bible-reading plan, a list of her Sunday School class members, a guide to important Bible verses, and a signed commitment card on which she confessed her faith in the saving power of the Lord Jesus Christ. The condition of her Bible and the materials contained therein were a powerful testimony to the freedom that she had to read the Bible, interpret the Bible, and teach the Bible. It is a telling clue to what it means to be baptist.
May God bless every church with many more believers like Marjorie Clark. May God bring a blessing to the church of Jesus Christ through the baptist commitment to freedom in the Word.