Justin Cox is a first-year student at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, a Cooperative Baptist Leadership Scholar, and minister to students at First Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C.
Not bad for a guy who’s only been Baptist for just over a nanosecond.
“It was a slow progression and it was very hard for me to say I was a Baptist because I wasn’t comfortable with it,” Cox said.
But that began to change last summer when Cox was introduced to the writings of Baptist author, activist and minister Will Campbell.
He could hardly believe he was reading about a Baptist.
Cox, 36, said he was electrified by Campbell’s references to himself as a “bootleg Baptist” and by his stand for civil rights.
Others have since begun to inspire and shape his new Baptist identity. They include Roger Williams, John Smyth and others.
So, what’s it like to be a new Baptist, and to forge a new religious identity, in an age when so many are abandoning theirs? Cox addressed that and other questions for Baptist News Global.
You said you previously knew little of Baptist denominational identity. Why?
I did not grow up Baptist. I had some great aunts … who would carry me to church at times and would go to Baptist vacation Bible school. My family didn’t attend church. … When we returned to church, when I was in high school, it was at a Methodist church. My idea of Baptist was Southern Baptist. That’s all that I knew about Baptists.
How did you make your next approach to the faith?
I was just exploring around, doing a bit of soul searching. I just had this idea that Baptists are all about hell fire and brimstone, and that doesn’t fit my mold. I saw them either as very angry, or as Billy Graham Baptists — having a faith too perfect to attain.
But it wasn’t until I moved back to Greensboro, N.C., that I met my future wife and we were going to a Methodist church. Then I found Campbell [University]. Before then I didn’t know anything about moderate Baptists. I saw that the professors didn’t fit the typical mold. I saw that there is a lot of freedom in the Baptist world and that I fit into that.
What in Will Campbell’s writings gave you a feeling of true connection with Baptist identity?
At the core there is a distinct nature about Baptists where they question things. Baptists have an underdog mentality at times. …
Campbell lived out the conversations I had in my head all the time. That’s the appeal of being a Baptist to me. It’s never easy. It’s a faith that deals with people. I think that was a big clicking moment for me.
In an age when people are distancing themselves from denominational identity, you are seeking cultivate it. Why?
It’s weird. I remember talking to a Methodist minister when I was first starting at Campbell and I said I don’t get the idea of denominational ties. His answer was ‘when I go stand before people, there is a group of people that have my back.’ For me, as I have embraced this idea of being a Baptist, it’s a standing-on-the-shoulder-of-giants kind of thing. There are people who have put the work in and sacrificed, and Baptists are ready for new voices to come along and add to a new narrative.
How much do you know or care about the troubles the divisions that tore Baptists apart a few years back?
I know it’s part of the history. I think it would be different if I grew up in the Baptist faith. Some of my classmates are 25 years old and they grew up in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. They don’t know anything else. I don’t get caught up in it.
So, what kind of Baptist are you?
CBF has been very eye opening to me. … It allows me flexibility. But when I hear the word moderate, I go back and forth with that. It can mean you won’t pick a side — that you are in the middle of the road. But what I have seen in the CBF is that moderates can take stances on something. I can feel conservative on somethings and liberal about something else. But being Baptist gives me the choice to change my mind tomorrow. I am going to coin the phrase “black sheep Baptist” for myself.