We’re coming up on the last Sunday of the “It’s Time” study at our church, and last Sunday the subject dealt with Baptist heritage. I was asked to speak to one of our senior adult classes and decided to talk about why I am a Baptist rather than deliver a message on the topic. My idea stemmed from a Paul Simon song in the 1970s called “Still Crazy after all these years.” I adapted the title to “Still Baptist after all these years.” This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this title used, and I credit former pastor Roger Lovette for his presentation of the issue.
There are so many dimensions of Baptist life to consider, and for this it is difficult to pinpoint only a few of them. I’m very appreciative of our Baptist freedoms as spelled out by Walter Shurden’s helpful book (Four Fragile Freedoms). This is wonderful primer of what being a Baptist is really all about, and part of that discussion relates to the local church. In thinking of Baptists 400th anniverary, I am especially grateful that Baptist churches have survived and thrived through four centuries of dissension and more importantly our shared faith in Jesus Christ.
Baptists embrace the autonomy of the local church. Which means, that no one outside the church can tell it what to do or how to carry out its mission and ministry. Baptist churches ordain whomever they want to, without outside interference, and observe the ordinances as they see fit. The church carries out its own ministries in its own community and does not need approval from a higher ecclesiastical authority. Of course, parachurch entities can establish their own membership requirements and if a congregation violates those standards then it can be removed from fellowship. It is arguable how significant some of the issues are that cause division among Baptists. Some are considered primary, others secondary. The difficulty is finding common ground on which is which, but let me just say that Baptists respect the automony of the local church. I’ve found this especially true of CBF and ABC congregations.
As the Southern Baptist Convention meets this week, messengers will consider a recommendation to oust 125-year member Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX. There has been a great deal of attention directed at this church for its very public dispute over whether homosexual couples who are attending the church to be allowed to have their pictures taken together and seen in the pictorial directory. The church dealt with the issue by not taking individual family portraits for the directory and this has led some to conclude that the church is not serious in its opposition to this lifestyle. I mention this as an example of how local churches can choose to do what they wish, but this does not necessarily mean that they will be allowed or given approval by the larger ecclesiastical body. I expect the SBC to remove Broadway from fellowship, and both entities will move on with their respective work. You’ll find that affirmed here.
I recall Fisher Humphreys talking about the subject of local church autonomy, and his view was that the actions of the larger Baptist body did not necessarily violate the autonomy of that local church. The church was still free to do what it to in regard to its mission, ministry, ordination practices, and worship. The association, state and national conventions were also free and autonomous in establishing their membership requirements too. This approach is pretty much where I’ve come down, despite the cries of some pastors who feel the autonomy of their churches have been violated because they’ve been kicked out of the Convention. This opposition really is more a reflection on how the larger Baptist body has changed rather than how the individual church is being hindered in going its own direction.
It’s important to be part of a larger Baptist family. Connections are being made between churches more and more based on philosophical and theological grounds and not so much geographical or regional. Distance isn’t the barrier it once was, and Baptist organizations are becoming much more fluid out of necessity to remain relevant to the needs of churches. And that’s where real ministry takes place anyway. The local church in a specific community and social context is the headquarters for building the Kingdom of God. I’m glad to see this emphasis being emphasized and recovered once again.
I was fortunate to attend New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary during a relatively good period of time when I could discuss, write, and learn under the guidance of wonderful professors who valued Baptist heritage and distinctives. Looking back, I can remember fellow students who are no longer in the Baptist tradition and live out their life and ministry in other denominational structures. There are reasons for this, and I make no judgments here except to say that I understand why that is in some cases. Oftentimes it deals with conflict at some level or dispute with a Fundamentalist mindset. Other cases relate to the Baptist minister going through a divorce and finding little or no opportunity in the Baptist world.
The Lord has seen fit to keep me in the Baptist family, not so much the biggest one anymore, but a meaningful and significant one nonetheless. It’s not perfect, but it is the means to impact our world for Christ. So, to the surprise of some and chagrin of many, I say “yes, I’m still in a Baptist church.” And one more thing: Happy 400th Birthday Baptists!