Are Baptists Protestants? I pondered this question as I attended the recent assembly of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe in the beautiful city of Florence in Italy.
The European Baptist Federation is not a full member of CPCE because of our position on baptism. We have an Agreement of Mutual Co-operation that is working well and enabling the EBF to participate in a “Protestant voice” on European issues
But in any case I am not sure that Baptists should sit too comfortably with classic “magisterial” Protestantism. It was these churches that allied themselves with political rulers and imposed conformity on the nation states of Europe, brutally suppressing groups like the Anabaptists who are in some way our spiritual fore-parents.
That of course is now past history, and it was good that three years ago the Lutheran World Federation issued a Statement of Regret to the Mennonites about the treatment of Anabaptists in the early years of the Reformation.
But we remember, too, that in most countries where Baptists began in the 19th century they were put under great pressure by state Protestant churches. Baptists stood for “a free church in a free state,” one which grants religious freedom for all. Believers’ baptism is in fact a logical outcome of a church that stands for the essential separation from the state to be a church of believers.
At the same time, however, we Baptists are in some sense children of the Reformation, whose 500th anniversary we will celebrate in 2017. We are also at least step-children of the Anabaptists, the radical “left wing” of the Reformation whose history was suppressed for so long. And one important stream of early Baptist life was influenced to some extent by the theology of John Calvin.
In recent years many Baptists are learning to appreciate their Anabaptist heritage and its relevance for today: especially the commitments to radical discipleship, peace-making, community ethics, a communal reading of Scripture, freedom of religion for all and the essential separation of church and state.
Perhaps contemporary Europe needs a witness to these values as the churches find themselves in a more “missionary” context. As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is celebrated in 2017 we might hope that something of the legacy of the Anabaptists will also be included. It will be interesting to see if this in fact happens.
At the end of it all, having enjoyed being in the company of Europe’s Protestant leaders for some days, the answer to the question of whether Baptists are Protestants seems to me be “Yes and no” or “Yes, but.”