The year was 1920, and nearly 15,000 people gathered to hear George W. Truett deliver a Sunday afternoon sermon on the steps of the nation’s capital. In a message spanning a range of topics, Truett articulated a number of Baptist convictions and why they mattered in his view. In a section on religious liberty, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, stated: “On behalf of our Baptist people I am compelled to say that forgetfulness of the principles that I have just enumerated, in our judgment, explains many of the religious ills that now afflict the world.”
I wonder if the same could be said of Baptists in America today. Would many of the “religious ills” faced by our current society and the world be alleviated or cured if Baptists would simply remember and be faithful to their foundational beliefs and principles?
“Truth be told, we have a long way to go in embodying our stated beliefs.”
Earlier this year Bulgaria’s parliament was set to pass regressive laws that would have greatly restricted religious freedom, making being Baptist (or any denomination other than Russian Orthodox) illegal and punishable by fines and jail time. Baptists from around the world raised their voices on behalf of religious liberty. Elijah Brown, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, led a letter-writing campaign that flooded parliament’s members with notes, cards and correspondence from Baptists worldwide, pleading with Bulgaria’s political leaders not to pass the proposed law.
For a few weeks, global Baptists stopped arguing about partisan politics, biblical interpretation and who can and cannot be ordained to unite around core principles like religious liberty, local church autonomy and soul competency (that every individual is responsible for their own relationship with God – not the state or parents or priest). Thankfully, Bulgarian parliamentarians heard the pleas of Baptists (and others, I’m sure) from around the world, and the proposed legislation failed.
When we lean into what makes us uniquely Baptist and allow other things to take a back seat, Baptist Christians truly can make a difference in the world. While many Christians bemoan the culture as it is evolving, I see countless opportunities for mission and ministry. Could it be that in our ever-changing culture, true Baptist principles may find a natural fit?
We live in a world that increasingly values diversity and individuality. Doesn’t the strong Baptist impulse of local church autonomy celebrate diversity within the body of Christ? Regrettably, we have a difficult time truly celebrating difference. We tolerate different building styles, different worship expressions and different ministry strategies, but we have a difficult time embracing different Biblical hermeneutics, different views on who God may call to ministry and different opinions on temporal politics.
In failing to embrace these differences, however difficult, we are admitting that, even though we’ll see each other in heaven, we refuse to break bread with each other in the here and now. Or, perhaps worse, we are functioning as if those who are different from us may not even know God’s saving grace. Fundamentalist and progressive Pharisees come in all varieties.
Our culture yearns for authentic community and real experiences, where social facades give way to deep and abiding relationships. Can Baptists embrace the principle of soul competency and truly trust that each person is responsible for relating to God? Too often our churches and denominational networks put belief (and even uniformity of belief) before belonging.
“When we lean into what makes us uniquely Baptist and allow other things to take a back seat, Baptist Christians truly can make a difference in the world.”
Perhaps embracing soul competency in the 21st century means to embrace again the once – and perhaps still – radical idea that the denomination, church and local association will not answer to God for any individual. Do we really trust that people can relate to God on their own without us policing their convictions? Do we really believe that God will relate to people apart from the denomination or local church (or, increasingly these days, even politicians)?
Today’s culture has a strong egalitarian impulse. It’s part of the reason solidarity movements like #BLM, #MeToo and others have taken center stage in recent years. America’s emerging culture increasingly believes in fairness, in everybody being valued and heard, and in challenging the structures of privilege that hold society captive. Isn’t the priesthood of the believer a bit like that? The idea that all people are ministers, each blessed by God with distinctive and valuable gifts, and that God can use or speak through anyone is unsettling for many Baptists.
Through the years, I discovered that some of the people who have ministered to me the most profoundly have been those I used to consider “unqualified” for ministry. I came to believe that God qualifies the called rather than calling the qualified.
My great hope for Baptists is that we will actually be Baptist. Our historic convictions are not a liability in today’s environment. To the contrary, they offer a deep well of wisdom and strength.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two parts. Part one: Core Baptist Convictions: After 400 years are many of us uncomfortable in our own skin?