It’s not often that you hear Baptists talking about catholicity. We Baptists have more-often-than-not contented ourselves with a dissenting, sectarian existence and a spotty ecclesial memory that does more time-traveling than Marty McFly in Back to the Future—launching from Jesus, John the Baptist, and the apostles straight over 1,500 years of tradition to Smyth and Helwys and then charging onward at breakneck speed into modernity. In all fairness, the more erudite among us Baptists may have also kidnapped Luther and Calvin along the way, though by our tally, that’s still nixing one and a half millennia of Christian thought.
Fortunately, several Baptists have begun to rethink our place within the universal (lower-case “c” catholic) church: that is, both the body of believers across time and the body of believers across the world and denominational lines.
In his latest book, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists, Curtis Freeman writes compellingly of the crucial position and role in which Baptists stand to bless the church catholic. Freeman urges Baptists to see themselves as part of the larger body of believers that includes Roman Catholics, pedo-baptists, and others who might not necessarily esteem the Baptist “distinctives” of local church autonomy, the priesthood of all believers, and religious freedom. Freeman argues that Baptists stand at the edges of catholicism and yet fully within her body. Baptists see the church catholic as it ought to be and, like gadflies, drive the whole body of believers toward that beatific vision.
If it is possible to be a Baptist within a larger, non-Baptist Christian communion without compromising our identity as Baptists, could it also be possible to be a Christian within a larger, non-Christian body without compromising our identity as Christians?
Many would answer with a resounding “no!” if that body happens to be a nation-state. Christianity that gets mixed up with the interests of the nation must necessarily compromise its commitment to the Cross of Christ. And yet this may well be a shortsighted response. Does our “Other” Baptist identity have anything to teach us about how we should understand our national identity?
Here we could take a cue from George Orwell—most certainly not a Baptist—writing during the midst of World War II, when nationalism-run-rampant was threatening to tear the world apart. Orwell writes, “[Nationalism] is the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” Yet he recognizes an alternative form of love and respect for one’s nation. He warns, “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used [somewhat interchangeably] but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved.”
For the American patriot, unlike the American nationalist, there is plenty of room for the critique of America. Yet despite the open eyes with which the patriot sees all of her nation’s flaws and shortcomings, she still is able to celebrate her nation. For she recognizes that her life is contingent upon her ancestors’ lives. To not recognize this—that is, to not be a patriot—would be to deny her very history and tradition, even if her country’s history has many dark moments, as ours does. For as Christians, we know that a thing need not be perfect or even discernibly good in order to be loved. We know this because God loves us in this way. And we see that true love for a thing, divine love, never leaves that thing the same as it was beforehand. Perfect love transforms all that it touches.
Though we are first and foremost citizens of another, heavenly nation, we can pray for the nation that we pilgrims have been placed in. We can love a non-perfect America in this kind of way because it is the nation that we have been given to steward and to transform. In order to protect the integrity of our earthly citizenship, we must first and foremost be Christians. This isn’t at the cost of our earthly citizenship, it actually helps us to be better citizens of the earthly and heavenly cities.
In the same way, then, Baptists must not forsake our own wider church ancestry, even if that church history and tradition have many dark moments. This is the Body we have been placed in and called to love. We can love a non-perfect church in this kind of way because it is the communion that we have been given to steward and to transform.
Baptists are uniquely posed to be faithful, participating dissenters in both the catholic church and in whatever nations we find ourselves sojourning. The general characteristics that make us Baptist—the commitment to a stronger local identity, a more inclusive model of discernment in which everyone has a voice, and the freedom to express our faith through a public witness—are also fruitful for our earthly citizenship. They make us better citizens, seeking to bless our nation as we also call for it to be a more just and merciful order. And they make us better members of the Body of Christ, expressing our common global communion as we also call for it to be more faithful to the One who calls us to be one.