Do you know what it means to be Baptist? What makes Baptists unique and differentiates us from other Protest denominations?
Praise be to God here at Northminster we’re a diverse group of believers when it comes to our church backgrounds, so this will be new information for some of you. But even those of us who grew up Baptist could use a refresher on just what that means so for the next four weeks we’re going to talk about being Baptist - how we define that word, why our kind of Baptist is different from other kinds of Baptist, and why we have certain traditions and ways of living out our faith.
The place to start this exploration is with a bit of history. Baptist roots begin broadly in the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s when Martin Luther and others began to question and eventually move away from the Catholic church. More specifically Baptists in this country find our footing with a group of English Christians gathered in an Amsterdam bakehouse around 1608/1609 having fled the religious constraints of their home country.
Their leader was a man named John Smyth, a former Church of England minister who became convinced of the need for a personal confession of faith followed by believers' baptism rather than the traditional baptism of infants. Gathered with his flock in the bakehouse Smyth first baptized himself and then his congregation.
Unfortunately, Smyth began to question his self-baptism soon afterward and eventually repudiated it as did thirty-one of his members who then petitioned to join a Dutch Mennonite community. But Thomas Helwys, who’d funded the group’s exodus from England, refused to renounce his baptism and along with ten members remaining in the church excommunicated Smyth and his followers.
Helwys’ group returned to England in 1612 and settled near London where they founded the first Baptist church on English soil. Thomas, being outspoken and public in his objections to the Church of England - the official state church - was thrown into jail where he died in 1616. But the faith made its way to the colonies and this country’s first baptismal service was held in Providence, Rhode Island in 1639.
The first Baptist leader in Rhode Island was Roger Williams who, much like John Symth, didn’t remain a Baptist long. When the second Baptist church was formed in Newport, Rhode Island sometime during the 1640s the congregation was led by John Clarke, and for a quarter century afterward Baptists weren’t welcome in other New England colonies. So, despite living in the colonies, it wasn’t until 1665 that another Baptist church was founded in Massachusetts. The pastor there, Thomas Gould wrote what’s likely the first Baptist confession of faith adopted by a local congregation in America.
From there Baptist churches were slowly formed in Connecticut in 1677, Maine in 1681, New Hampshire in 1755, New Jersey in 1688, Virginia in 1714, North Carolina in 1727, and Georgia in 1759.
Here in Louisiana, the first Baptist church came into being while this was still a territory in the 1780s. At that time this area was under Spanish rule and not only were Baptists generally in for an uphill battle, preachers in particular were often in the authority's crosshairs. The first Baptist church established in what would become Louisiana was organized on October 12, 1812, in what’s now Washington Parrish, near the town of Franklin. It was called Half Moon Bluff Baptist Church and it’s still standing today if you’d like to visit.
Of course, Baptist history continues on from here and we’ll explore more of it in the coming weeks including one of the things Baptists do best - splitting into smaller and smaller groups such as the American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, and the Alliance of Baptists just to name a few. If that sounds overwhelming you should know that my Baptist Heritage professor in seminary told us that as of the early 2000s, there were over fifty different Baptist groups in the United States alone.
That means the Baptist world is deep and wide with lots of variations on what people understand Baptist to mean and how the Baptist faith should be practiced. Even scholars and historians don’t agree about what makes a Baptist a Baptist, but the explanation I find the most helpful and easiest to understand comes from historian and scholar Walter B. Shurden and what he calls the “Four Fragile Freedoms.”
Over our history, the marks of Baptist life have been called “distinctive,” “convictions,” “ideals,” and “principles.” All of those words are accurate, but as Shurden says in his introduction the main thing that lies at the heart of being Baptist “is the spirit of freedom. The Baptist passion for freedom is a major reason there is so much diversity in Baptist life.” In much the same way the rules of English grammar are true until they aren’t (as in “i” before “e” except after “c” is ruined by the words conscience and society), hard lines of demarcation aren’t possible to define a Baptist. But “despite this frustrating diversity, Baptists share some common convictions” as long as the lines of consensus aren’t drawn too rigidly.
The first of these Shurden outlines is what he calls “Bible Freedom” which he defines as “the historic Baptist affirmation that the Bible, under the Lordship of Christ, must be central in the life of the individual and church and that Christians, with the best and most scholarly tools of inquiry, are both free and obligated to study and obey the Scripture.” Said another way, Bible Freedom is freedom under, freedom for, freedom from, and freedom of scripture.
Bible freedom under the Lordship of Jesus puts Christ in the proper position of preeminence - being superior - to Scripture. This means that Jesus is the norm through which the Bible is interpreted, not the other way around because Jesus is our Lord, not the biblical text. In fact, “Jesus is Lord” was the earliest and primary confession believers used in the New Testament as we find in Romans 10 and Philippians 2. This is why a text like this morning’s reading from Hebrews is important to keep in mind as it explains Jesus’ role as God’s “heir of all things” and “the radiance of God’s glory…” As Shurden notes, “Scripture points beyond itself to Immanuel, the Christ, God with us.”
With Jesus in his proper place as the center of biblical revelation, we cannot deny that the Bible is a dynamic book. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit reading scripture has the power to change people. And though God doesn’t just speak to us through the written text, as Hebrews 4 tells us, the word of God is “living and active.” That’s why we can return to these same texts over and over again and learn something new each time. That’s why we can all read the same text and glean different things from it.
It’s also why as Baptists Bible freedom includes the freedom for continued obedience to the word of God in scripture because “human understanding of the Bible is never final, or complete, or finished.” Freedom for is the ability to be open to what we find anew in scripture throughout our lives. It is the push to have a living faith rather than a stagnant one.
Freedom from can be traced to the historic Baptist commitment to what Martin Luther called sola scriptura, “scripture alone.” From a Baptist perspective, this meant “no pope, no king, and no bishop could usurp the Lordship of Christ.” Historically this also meant that Baptists used no book other than the biblical text so things such as creeds, confessions, doctrinal statements from large religious bodies, and religious councils could not be held as more important than the Bible.
The way this is often expressed today is in describing Baptists as “non-creedal people” and it’s why this church doesn’t use the Apostles or Nicene Creed many of you grew up with. The reason behind this thinking was twofold. First, that no creed can accurately summarize everything we believe and second, that creeds can become norms for belief to which people can be forced to comply.
Finally, Bible freedom means freedom of that refers to the freedom of interpretation each of us has. This is without doubt the aspect of Bible freedom that’s the most open to abuse as someone with ulterior motives can pass off destructive behavior as their interpretation of scripture. An easy example of this is the way slave owners would use the biblical text to justify keeping black people in bondage, though this behavior wasn’t limited to Baptist slave owners.
And as you might expect, “the absence of any single, final or official interpretation of scripture has created diversity, consternation, and even conflict between Baptists” and with other Christians. Life and faith are much easier when you have clear stances on things. When you know either what to believe on a certain issue or at least where your church stands. But with the Baptist emphasis on each individual’s right to work for their own interpretation of our historic principles, this fragile freedom can be the cause of a rainbow of thoughts, opinions, and feelings about every part of a life of faith.
Hear me clearly this element of Bible freedom doesn’t mean that Baptist churches can’t or shouldn’t take stances on specific social issues or be clear in what we believe about things like hospitality, giving, discipleship, etcetera. We should absolutely work to find our place on these issues and elements of our faith.
No, what this means is there’s no one Baptist response to refugees, no one Baptist response to the LGBTQ+ community, and no one Baptist approach to tithing. Instead, Baptists are a frustratingly beautiful rainbow of believers who, if they know their Baptist history, should be constantly aware of the privilege that comes with a commitment to individual interpretation. As Shurden says,
“The privilege of personal interpretation of the bible is hard work!...Some Baptists want the privilege of personal interpretation of the Bible, but they do not want to go to the trouble to be good interpreters. Too many Baptists let others do their Bible study for them. We must distinguish between the noble privilege of interpreting the Bible for ourselves and the responsibility of working hard at determining what [the biblical] authors intended it to mean.”
So, with all of this information and dates and names I’ve thrown at you what is the Good News this morning? Beyond having you leave here feeling like you’ve sat through a seminary lecture, what should you take with you into the world? My hope is that you take a new or renewed awareness of the beautiful complexity of being a person of faith. Following Christ is a lifelong commitment, and we should expect that commitment to challenge us and change us.
If being a Christian is easy you aren’t doing it right. You aren’t digging into yourself or God deep enough. I hope you appreciate our Baptist ancestors who were so dedicated to their faith and way of living that faith that they often uprooted their whole lives or even sacrificed their lives to practice as they wanted. And I hope you see that while Baptists are dedicated to freedom it’s a freedom that comes within a community, within a family of faith, and following, always following the life, words, and example of Christ.