How in the world is it that Al Sharpton, Jerry Falwell Jr., B.B. King and Texas politician Kinky Freidman all – currently or in the past – claim the name Baptist? I’m not sure many of us who identify as Baptist, however loosely, actually know what the word means. We give lip service to many theological and ecclesiological impulses in Baptist life – the priesthood of all believers, the autonomy of the local church, personal faith experience (soul competency) and religious liberty, to name the big ones.
These core convictions, not denominational networks, seminaries or publishing houses, are the reason I claim the name Baptist. The longer I’m in ministry, the more I realize that in many ways these values are aspirational. Truth be told, we have a long way to go in embodying our stated beliefs.
“I’m not sure many of us who identify as Baptist actually know what the word means.”
In some circles, the priesthood of all believers is celebrated, as long as it doesn’t entail certain people actually performing priestly duties or claiming pastoral authority. Autonomy of the local church is hailed, and difference is celebrated, as long as difference doesn’t make us too uncomfortable or call us to reevaluate our own theology. Personal faith experience and soul competency is heralded by fundamentalist and progressive pastors alike, until someone’s faith experience is different from our own, at which point we question the authenticity of their faith experience. Many Baptists would also throw true religious liberty under the bus to claim cultural privilege for themselves.
Large swaths of Baptists refuse to work with each other, serve with each other, eat with each other, worship with each other or talk with each other. In the peer circles I often find myself in, a common remark is that “we often have more in common with the Methodists and Episcopalians than we do with the Baptists in our town.” The reality is we may not have more in common with other denominational groups; we may simply find them more tolerable than our own.
In a local Baptist association, there is a wonderful ministry to Hispanic families, including undocumented workers and migrant farmers. For many years, the association has helped fund the work of a married couple who pastor two different churches, serving Spanish-speaking families in the region. Each year, churches in the association partner in a school supply drive and in giving families rides to local free health clinics and for appointments with immigration offices.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed the distain some local Baptists churches have for this ministry. Whenever it’s mentioned in the associational meeting, representatives from several churches visibly huff, roll their eyes and shake their heads. It seems that for many, nativism and nationalism trump ministering to the least of these. Unfortunately, our cultural identity often comes before our identity as Christ’s body, and even before seeing others as made in God’s image.
Are politics and personal preference really more important than unity in the Body of Christ? Many people would rather choose to ignore difference and pretend it doesn’t exist. Some differences are difficult to bridge. In certain circumstances I feel we pastors have given up on even trying to bridge these gaps. It’s easier to cut ties and walk away than it is to shepherd the flock and commit to difficult and delicate conversations.
“We have no idea what congregational discernment means.”
We have no idea what congregational discernment means. We come to worship on Sunday or to a business meeting ready to debate rather than to listen together for the Spirit’s leading. And we scratch our heads and wonder why people stop coming.
Not only do we shy away from our historic principles and convictions, we often would trade them for something far cheaper. Instead of congregationalism and the messiness of following the Spirit’s leading, we would rather have quick fixes and strong personalities lead the way with great certainty. Just get everybody to fall in line, soldier on and let the collateral damage be what may.
Perhaps the truth is, we Baptists, after a 400-plus year history, don’t feel comfortable in our own skin. Perhaps the cultural privilege of the 20th century has warped our thinking and our practices. Still, I am hopeful that the tide is turning. Could it be that leaning into our core identity, rather than resisting it, is the key to a healthy future?
Some Baptist Christians and churches are ready to ditch “brand name” Christianity for Christian evangelical mono-culture, ready to run a congregation of called and baptized believer-priests as a corporation and ready to forget that we ever were these people called Baptists.
I’m not there just yet. Something in me is still holding out hope for a new day.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two parts. Part 2: Core Baptist convictions can offer a deep well of wisdom for today’s cultural challenges