I think I might have been insulted by a good friend recently, but I’m not sure. In a text message between Sharon and my friend Charlie, he described me as “the only Baptist I know.”
If you knew Charlie, you would understand he was being hyperbolic. I’m certainly not the only Baptist he knows. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows more Baptists than Charlie. I get that.
However, the possible insulting part is that he called me a “Baptist.” I’m not sure I want that title, and to be honest, I don’t think anyone who knows me well ever has accused me of being a Baptist. Trust me; I’ve been accused of being a lot of things, many of which are far from being a Baptist. The issue is whether or not I want to be identified by this name.
The best place to begin is to define a Baptist. So, I did what we always do when we want to understand something, I Googled it. Wikipedia begins by defining Baptists as “a major branch of Protestant Christianity.” That’s as far as I could get without objecting. I was raised by a Baptist preacher who insisted Baptists are not Protestants. The reason is that they did not originate during the Protestant revolution of Martin Luther. Instead, real Baptists trace their origin back to the New Testament and John (you guessed it) the Baptist.
I don’t believe “The Trail of Blood” hypothesis that initiated that belief. I’m not sure I ever did. There are other theories about the origin of Baptists, some of which are rooted in historical reality. I’ve even seen the first Baptist church in Providence, R.I. If you’ve ever been to Rhode Island, you can’t miss it. The population of the whole state is fewer than the city where I now live. (Do they get two senators?)
A more accurate definition of Baptists would be to focus on beliefs and practices. There are very few beliefs held by all who consider themselves Baptists. Perhaps the most basic is that a person is saved by faith in Jesus, but even that doctrine is fraught with controversy. Some believe anyone can be saved, and others believe salvation is only available to the chosen. Many teach that the only requirement is to recite a prayer while others insist on a certain lifestyle. Most Baptists believe “once saved always saved,” while others suggest a person can relapse and walk away from the faith.
To be honest, it’s impossible to define Baptists based only on doctrine. Early American Baptists were known for their emphasis on the separation of church and state. If you think that’s still true, you’re not paying attention. Most Baptist churches would fight you if you tried to remove the American flag from their sanctuary. Many Baptists will condemn you to hell if you even consider voting for a Democrat.
“All that has gone out the window with some of the most well-known Baptists.”
At least we can all agree that Baptists preach a lifestyle that demonstrates a commitment to God. Growing up as a Baptist, I frequently heard about the dangers of “mixed bathing.” They weren’t talking, by the way, about taking a shower together but swimming in the same pool with the opposite sex (or some might have meant different races). Baptists, except for a few diehards, gave that up a long time ago. However, it seems that Baptists also have given up marital fidelity, honesty, loving others, kindness, sobriety, generosity and respect.
All that has gone out the window with some of the most well-known Baptists. Falwell Jr. raised the white flag when it comes to sexual purity, greed and alcohol. I haven’t heard a kind word from Jeffress since he met Trump. Southern Baptist leaders have reignited a racism fight that verifies there is a reason they are called “Southern” Baptists. If you follow Baptist leaders today, it seems that you must be a Republican, gun-toting, anti-abortionist who abhors immigrants and Democrats. I am none of those.
I’m not sure what Charlie meant when he said I was the best Baptist he knows, but he knows what I believe and how I live. I don’t even attend a Baptist church any longer.
What does Charlie know about me that would qualify me as a Baptist? I believe:
- Jesus showed us how to live and called us to follow him.
- Following Jesus means caring for the poor and needy, loving others and sharing what I have with others who don’t have.
- Following Jesus does not lend itself to political parties, but it does require supporting policies that contribute to caring for the poor and needy, loving others and sharing wealth.
- The church is people, not a place, a building or an institution. The church gathers whenever two or more of Jesus’ followers are together. In fact, Charlie and I will probably have church in a few days when we meet for lunch at the café down the street.
- I place great value on honesty and integrity. If I think it matters, I will tell you my opinion; otherwise, I tend to mind my own business.
- Although it has nothing to do with being a Baptist, I do think one of the biggest problems in American culture is that not enough people think, Baptists especially.
- God is good, but life is still hard.
Charlie knows all these things about me, yet he still called me a Baptist. In a few days, when we sit down together for a late breakfast, I’ll ask him what he meant. I’m still not sure if it’s an insult.
Terry Austin says from his first day of life he was taught to love the church. He has lived out that passion in various ways as a pastor, church consultant, author and critic. He is currently a full-time writer and book publisher and actively engaged with house churches.
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