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"Being Baptist: Church Freedom" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

Philippians 2:1-11 and Romans 12: 1-8

You may recall that back in 2019 our Methodist siblings held their quadrennial General Conference with believers from all over the world. The big topic for conversation was the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community moving forward. Watching from my office in Pennsylvania I heard the comments both for and against full inclusion. There were proposals, amendments, comments on the amendments, and at one point I’m fairly sure there was an amendment to an amendment. Not understanding the system, I got confused pretty quickly, but the meeting was so chaotic even my Methodist friends who were well-versed in the ins and outs of their system were lost. There was anger, cheers of support, tears, and a deep sense of unease that permeated even through my computer screen. And at the end of the Conference, no decision was made.

Fast-forward to 2023 and to my knowledge all but one UMC church in this area has voted to disaffiliate from the UMC. This is despite the fact that due in part to COVID the UMC still hasn’t made a single change - for better or worse - about their policies concerning LGBTQ+ people. Not a single change.

Now, why am I bringing this up? I’ll be honest it’s partly to criticize what I see as bigoted, cowardly, and un-Christian choices by people who’re standing on the wrong side of history. But it’s also to tell you another story that highlights today’s Baptist distinctive.

After General Conference, I happened to be at a gathering of Methodist women. Rather than talking about the book we were reading, the conversation swirled around the Conference. The women were heartbroken and frustrated and started talking about what it might mean for their church to split from the UMC. How would they go about buying their building? How would the process of hiring a pastor work? Who would they give their missions money to? How would the big decisions get made?

Being the only non-Methodist in the room I couldn’t help but speak up at this point. “If things get to that point, we can help you,” I said. “What do you mean?” the ladies asked. “Well,” I replied, “I’m Baptist and we don’t have a hierarchy or denominational body to answer to. We do all those things ourselves.” At that point, one of the ladies who was the most upset looked at me goggle-eyed and asked, “You mean you own your own building, handle all of your own finances, hire your own pastors, and don’t answer to anyone but yourselves? How do you do all of that?” I replied, “Our Deacons are very tired.”

Walter B. Shurden’s third Fragile Freedom is Church Freedom which he defines as, “the historic Baptist affirmation that local churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine their membership and leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain who they perceive as gifted for ministry, male or female, and to participate it the larger Body of Christ, of whose unity and mission Baptists are proudly a part.”

Breaking that down into smaller pieces the first element of Church Freedom is the freedom to govern obediently. This means that unlike our Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Anglican siblings, every Baptist a church has the “right and responsibility to run its own affairs,” with the caveat that this is done under the Lordship of Christ. Another way you might hear this talked about is as “autonomy of the local church” or as I will often explain it to people, we are an island unto ourselves.

Baptists belong to what’s known within the Protestant umbrella as the “Free Church Tradition” meaning we affirm and put into practice the freedom and responsibility of each individual. We share this tradition with our Amish, Mennonite, and Quaker second cousins along with our polity, or church governance system.

One of three basic systems, ours is called “congregational” because decision-making power rests with the congregation. Episcopal polity - think Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists - places authority in the hands of one person, usually a bishop. And the third system, called Presbyterian, puts authority in the hands of a small group, often church elders called a presbytery.

Of course, none of these systems is perfect. They all have their benefits and shortcomings, and each system is the work of faithful people trying to organize and maintain the church. And if we’re honest about what’s readable in the New Testament, “...[it] compels [us] to say the details of church polity are not spelled out there.”

So, understand, our congregational system isn’t more efficient or more biblical than any other. Instead, it was our ancestors’ effort to “accent the role of the individual within community, allowing the greatest freedom for the greatest number of people to have a say.”

On a practical level the freedom to govern means, as you know, that we decide how someone becomes a member of this congregation, we select our own Coordinating Council members, Commission Chairs, staff members, and pastor. We also determine how, where, and when we’ll spend money, which means that we can take part in any convention or group such as the Alliance of Baptists for as long as we like and leave it when we like. If the mood struck us, we could join Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and/or the American Baptist Churches USA tomorrow. We could even take a stab at joining the Southern Baptist Convention if you as a congregation felt so led, though they made it clear this week they wouldn’t have us as long as I’m your Pastor.

The second element of Church Freedom is the freedom to worship creatively as long as that worship is authentic. This is another area where every Baptist church is different as our ancestors desired to “worship God according to their conscience.” Therefore, they moved away from things such as The Book of Common Prayer so that they might “personalize and revitalize worship.”

Today this means that worship looks, feels, and sounds different in every Baptist church. Our worship at Northminster falls into the “high church” or “liturgical” category, meaning that we follow the church calendar, I use a lectionary to plan worship and for my sermons, we follow a specific order of elements within our services, we bring in the cross and light of Christ into worship every week, all of the ministers robe as does the choir (thanks be to God for air-conditioning), within our service, we have paraments and an organ, and sing hymns from the hymnal.

Formal would be a less “churchy” word for how we worship but be it our style or a more casual approach what matters in Baptist worship is authenticity that involves the entire congregation. That’s why congregational participation is built into our services because it’s a way for us to incorporate and make tangible the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Worship is something we do together, bringing our whole selves before God, to show our love and thanks to our Creator. Worship is something we engage in so that we might grow together.

This morning’s Romans 12 passage is part of the reason our Baptist ancestors felt so strongly about the freedom to worship creatively, because as Paul reminds us, “we all have different gifts.”

Some of us are musical, others read well, or have the ability to make people feel welcome as they come in the door. Still others have a head for details or are good with the technology that’s become vital to our virtual services running smoothly. Still others of you are expressive and engaged with verbal communication and I can look at you and know if a sermon is going well or if I’ve lost you. But no matter where we fall, we all bring something special and important to worship just by being who God created us to be.

The final element of Church Freedom is the freedom to minister responsibly. This means that ministry “is open to all classes of people and specific mission strategies…[because] every believer is on equal footing with every other believer in the local Baptist church.” So, someone without a seminary education has just as much right to pastor a church as someone with multiple theological degrees.

A woman has just as much right to be a pastor or a deacon or a Sunday School teacher or a small group leader - or any dang role she feels called to - as a man. Someone from the LGBTQ+ community has just as much right to be a pastor or a deacon or a Sunday School teacher or a small group leader - or any dang role they feel called to - as straight or cis-gendered people. Because if we really believe as Baptists that “all Christians are priests before God…[that means] all Christians have the freedom and responsibility to minister in the name of Christ.”

Church Freedom isn’t an excuse for selfishness or exclusion despite what others in the Baptist world might believe. Rather, as with all the elements of being Baptist we’ve talked about before, this freedom should make Baptist churches more open, more inclusive, and more willing to respect the abilities of anyone and everyone who sincerely joins the body of believers.

Faith isn’t ours to possess here at Northminster or within the larger Baptist world. We don’t have a corner on being a Christian, we simply have a specific approach that works for us. An approach that we continue to examine and update as we grow and change as a congregation.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident Deitrich Bonhoeffer who, though a German Lutheran, was inspired by the American churches he visited while spending time in this country. After his death - he was hanged for being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler - one of Bonhoeffer’s close friends Eberhard Bethge was asked what Bonhoeffer would have to say about the church. Bethge answered, “At the end, Bonhoeffer saw in his experience...that the church, with its dominating statue in the Western world, must now step down below.”

In this morning’s Philippians reading, we’re told that Christ emptied himself and took on the form of a slave. What this means is that if we’re to be like Christ we must consider what it means to become a servant. What it means to “step down below.”

My friends, the Good News this morning is that our Baptist ancestors gave us a church system that allows us to design our own servant ministry. To tailor our worship not just to what we like but to what makes us think, feel, and grow. That reminds us that being a person of faith is a communal effort.

Though as a church we might be an island unto ourselves in some respects, we are at our best and most faithful when we work together with others outside these walls. This model gives us the grace and flexibility to financially support organizations we believe in. To send our kids to an inclusive church camp. To support refugees, people coming out of prison, and even animals at the Humane Society. This model allows us to take stands on issues we find worthwhile and to advocate for those issues that touch our hearts such as the upcoming NELA Pride event.

We have the freedom to design our own system, but more importantly, as Christ’s hands and feet we are “responsible for doing so.” And what an honor such responsibility is. May we carry it thoughtfully, deliberately, passionately, and with the light of Christ’s love leading the way.

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