Friday, January 6, 2017

I'm not ashamed, though some might think I should be

Last month the Indonesian Baptist Church asked me to talk with them about our Baptist distinctives.  Over the last twenty-plus years there has been a trend away from identifying oneself as Baptist so I was honored to be given this assignment.  As I prepared I realized once again that I'm not ashamed to be a Baptist and I think I need to say so.

Two things set us apart as Baptists.  While they are not unique or exclusive to Baptists, combined they make us who we are.

Baptists have a strong commitment to the Bible as the Word of God and a worthy guide to matters of faith and life.  In this day of relativism (you have your truth, I have my truth) I believe it is important to have something consistent and universal to build one’s life around.  For me and for Baptists, that is the Bible.

Hand in hand with our belief in the Bible is a strong commitment to freedom.  Coming out of the state churches of England and Europe, Baptists came to America in search of freedom.  The hunger for freedom influences much of our doctrine and practice.  For example, Baptists don’t have creeds. We have confessions, like the Baptist Faith and Message, which are summaries of what most Baptists believe the Bible teaches.

In summarizing what Baptists believe the Baptist Faith and Message provides structure with flexibility much like the human body.  It declares what most Baptists believe while allowing for different interpretations of less critical aspects of the doctrine.  For example, we believe Jesus is coming again but the particulars of how and when that will happen are open for interpretation.  I love that about Baptists.

The Baptist commitment to freedom underscores our belief in soul competency and personal accountability before God, which means we are not born into the church.  We believe people must experience a personal conversion before they are a child of God.  

Our commitment to freedom extends even to the way churches operate.  We believe in the autonomy of the local church.  Each congregation governs and guides itself.  There is no ecclesiastical hierarchy telling local churches what to do.  That's why some churches have elders and others have deacons; some have choirs and others have praise dancers.  I love the freedom we enjoy as Baptists.

Perhaps Baptists greatest contribution to the religious community world-wide is our commitment to religious freedom for all, even those with whom we may disagree.  In the early days of our country Baptists were instrumental in framing the way church and state relate.  The freedoms outlined in the first amendment to our constitution were heavily influenced and shaped by Baptists.  Even today Baptists around the world fight for religious freedom for all.

Over the last twenty-plus years there has been a trend away from identifying oneself as Baptist. If you read through the list of nearly 600 congregations that are part of UBA you’ll find that a great many no longer have Baptist in the name.  Why would they do that?  Simple.  They believed being identified as Baptist had become a barrier to reaching their community.  (Research by Lifeway has since proven this not to be the case.)

I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian leader choosing to go against the grain on many things.  This may be another instance of my contrarian way of looking at things (which means I know in advance that many will not agree with me), but maybe it's time to rethink our attitude toward being Baptist.

Baptists are not perfect.  No denomination is.  If we are only proud of things that are perfect we'd have nothing to be proud of at all.  Even with our flaws there is a lot that we can celebrate:  our stand for religious freedom, the hospitals and orphanages we've established, the charity and benevolence work we do at home and around the world, the schools we founded, our disaster relief efforts.  That list could go on for some time.

No, Baptists aren't perfect but that need not lead us to hide who we are.  Like any product on the market, let's lead with our strengths and work on our weaknesses, but for goodness sake let's not be ashamed of who we are.  I'll say it -- I'm a Baptist and proud of it.  I hope you will be, too.

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