Monday, June 22, 2009

Why I'm a Baptist

I write this to remind myself... because I'm not happy with the directions the tradition has taken nor with the choices that have been made by my own denomination - The American Baptist Churches, USA.

Walter Shurden in his book The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms, says there are four distinctive commitments that define what it means to be a Baptist.

1. Freedom of the Bible - the idea that scripture speaks for itself and the individual believer is obligated to study it using the best possible tools. There is no "official" interpretation of the Bible. Nobody can definitely say, "this is what the Bible means" and therefore there are no creeds or doctrinal checklists.

2. Soul Freedom - Each individual is both able and required to work out his or her own faith and relationship to God with no interference by clergy, church, hierarchies, or state. Nobody can tell you what your relationship to God is supposed to look like. That is between you and God.

3. Freedom of the Church - It is the responsibility of each congregation to work out the shape of its faith and its ministry in its context. No outside body can tell a church what they must believe or how they must do ministry.

4. Freedom of Religion - The state has no power to impose religious tests on anyone or shape religion in any way. The idea of separation of church and state in the US came primarily from the Baptists and the Quakers.

Obviously, Shurden says more about these distinctives than I have shared in 4 short paragraphs but you get the picture and can sense the radicalness inherent in these four commitments. They leave the door open to incredible diversity from TULIP fundamentalists on the right to unitarianism on the left and everything in between. Indeed, the Baptist tradition in the US includes the whole of that diversity. It is that wild and wide tradition that caught my imagination and continues to insire me. It is that crazy mix that seems to me to be the most viable shape for Christianity to take in this post-modern world. It is also a tradition that is frightening to many and seems to me to be being abandoned by almost all Baptist groups.

Let me give one simple example. In the ABCUSA, they are talking about a "common table," i.e. when representatives gather, each of the participating bodies agrees not to send a representative that another body would exclude. Left out are GLBT folk because some of the more conservative folk in ABC will not sit at table with them. How can we claim to be Baptists and then tell a church or group of churches that they cannot send an entire class of people as representatives to our gatherings? What about the first three freedoms? It was in that rough and tumble mix of differing ideas and interpretations that I most clearly heard the voice of the Spirit. And now we move to the lowest common denominator?

I am still a Baptist. I want to remain a Baptist and I dream of a day when some Baptist body stands up and clearly says, "THIS IS WHO WE ARE!" I fear it will never come and the tradition will morph into something it is not, and then disappear completely.


Chad said...

How could a group as you describe it ever say "This is who we are" when there don't seem to be any defining parameters.

roy said...

Chad, there clearly are defining parameters. That is what the 4 fragile freedoms are...

Chad said...

If being Baptist is based on these four freedoms alone, is it not possible for a Buddhist to be Baptist or a Muslim to be Baptist?

roy said...

good question Chad... technically, yes, but in reality, probably not. I think one would be hard pressed to read the New Testament with any seriousness and come out a Muslim or a Buddhist.

Dave Miller said...

But Roy, they could be culturally Muslim or Buddhist couldn't they?

In much the same way, there are Baptists who maintain their Catholic roots for cultural, rather than religious reasons.

I am hoping to see you this weekend in Pasadena.

We'll be in the Mission Faire with a small under funded booth. Make sure to stop by.