In this episode of Signposts, I reflect on what being a Baptist has meant for my Christian life, and why I am still one today.
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Below is an edited transcript of the audio.
In this episode I am responding to a listener who asked me the question why I am still a Baptist—specifically, is there a set of reasons why I would be committed to the Baptist expression in the church and the Baptist tradition within the church
That’s a good question. The reason it is a good question is I was somebody who was reared in a Baptist church but in a largely Roman Catholic community. My family had two distinct sides: one side of the family was evangelical and the other side of the family was Roman Catholic, so I grew up with a deep appreciation of Roman Catholics—my mother’s side of the family was Catholic and really an important part of my life and of my development, as were the people in my community who were my Catholic friends and neighbors.
In late adolescence and the early years of college I really tried to figure out where I was in terms of my identity within the church, and so I saw a lot of really ugly things that went on within Baptist churches and so there was a time were I was, as I think many people do, searching for the place where I could get beyond all of that. So I spent some time really looking into Presbyterianism and Catholicism and Methodism and Lutheranism and various other Christian denominations and one of the things I very quickly discovered was that there is no romantic way out from human depravity. All of the churches and all of the communions are made up of people who are sinners and all are going to have tensions and problems and ridiculous things that go on.
As a matter of fact, when one looks at the New Testament one of the great blessings is the revelation that church life has always been filled with these sorts of divisions and struggles, right back to the Church at Corinth, the churches in Galatia and Thessalonica and elsewhere—there is consistent rebuke that is coming to churches for the immorality or divisiveness or fighting or apathy. All of those things are present there and they are present in every single communion.
So I work with people of all different traditions, people who are other evangelical protestants in other denominations, Presbyterians and Lutherans and Bible church people and what have you, and I work with in kind of a circle beyond that with other protestants along with roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. One of the things I find is when we are honest with one another, we all have problems, every one of us have problems in terms of our church traditions, that’s what it means to live in a fallen world. But I spent some time investigating all of those things and I ended up a convictional Baptist and not because I was assuming those things. I came back to what I believe are biblical convictions about the church. So here’s what I believe and why I still am in the Baptist tradition, and that is in no way a castigation of people who are in other traditions and other communions. I think one of the reasons why God has allowed the church to have these different voices within different denominations is precisely because of the way that those emphases remind the rest of the body of Christ about certain essential points.
Richard Mouw has a book coming out where he talks about different denominational traditions almost as monastic orders within the Roman Catholic church. What these monastic orders would do is each of them would have a particular area of emphasis that would carry that forward for the rest of the church and the same tends to be true within our denominational life. So, Lutherans as Mouw put it, have taken a monastic vow to remind the rest of the church that justification is through faith alone and not by the works of the law. Pentecostals have taken a monastic vow, in his view, to remind the rest of the church that the Holy Spirit is active and we should seek the power and the gifts of the spirit. The Presbyterian tradition has taken a monastic vow to remind the rest of the church of a rich and deep theological tradition, and the Baptist tradition has taken a monastic vow to really emphasis the necessity of personal regeneration and then how that plays out into a believers church.
And so that’s where I have ended up; I believe that this is what the Bible teaches for a number of reasons. One of them is that I believe the Bible teaches that there is no church that cannot lose its lamp stand. In the early chapters of Revelation Jesus is speaking to the churches and he is warning about the loss of that lamp stand, the loss of the presence of Jesus. So, I believe that the church will always exist and the church will always advance and the gates of Hell cannot prevail against it but no particular church is guaranteed survival, so I think that means a constant renewing of what it means to be biblical. So I’m a Baptist ultimately because of implications of the gospel itself that we, John 3, come into the kingdom of God not nation by nation or family by family, tribe by tribe, we come into the kingdom of God person by person; unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God—that’s essential to my understanding of what it means to be a Baptist, the necessity of personal repentance and faith, the necessity of the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit upon the person.
Now, there are all sorts of other evangelical Christian communions who believe that, but I’m a Baptist because of the way that I think that is applied to other doctrines, so, for instance, the nature of the church, what does it mean to be baptized into the body of Christ? I do think that there is a connection, just as other denominations will make a connection between baptism and circumcision, I think there is a connection there, but the connection is not a baptism that comes upon everyone who is born into a Christian family. I think instead the connection is everyone who is born into the people of God and how are we born into the people of God? It is not John chapter 1, by the will of the flesh, but by the power of the spirit. We are born into the people of God as those who experience the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and so we mark out the boundaries of the church on the basis of who are the people who constitute those living stones, as Peter calls it, the ones who build up a temple of the Holy Spirit made of those whose hearts have been washed with the regenerating power of the spirit of God. I think that that definition of the church is biblical, it fits with the pattern of the early church and it also is based on that understanding of the gospel.
I think beyond that about the way that the church is supposed to be run, so the New Testament talks about Ephesians chapter one, for instance, Jesus as ruling over his church, He is put as head over all things over his church which is his body, the fullness of the one who is all in all, fulfills all things. That is a picture of the church, which is why we have in the New Testament letters that are sometimes delivered to leaders within the church, Timothy or Titus, for instance; sometimes letters that are written to individuals who are lay people as it were within the church, Philemon for instance is one of those. But then we have many letters that are written to entire congregations, to the church at Rome, to the church at Ephesus, to the church at Corinth, to the churches of the dispersion, and in those letters the directives that are being given are not only to the elders or the pastors or the leaders, although sometimes there is a specific word for them, but to the entire body of Christ.
So when it comes to church discipline, for instance, maintaining the boundaries of the church in 1 Corinthians 5 or the decision making that goes on in settling issues within the church in 1 Corinthians 6, that is given to the entire congregation. That’s one of the reasons why I’m a Congregationalist. Now, in that, I have to tell you I’m somebody who wanted not to be a Congregationalist because I’ve seen congregationalism go really awry and it is really easy to go awry because when one has a congregation where there is suspicion between the people and the leaders or in a congregation where there is a congregational government that is patterned after American government–highly bureaucratized and easily swayed with popular movements–you end up with a defective form of congregationalism. But I think the way that we avoid that is not by circumventional congregationalism, but by seeing the congregation as the ultimate authority under the lordship of Jesus Christ and the leadership of the Holy Spirit and also seeing the necessity of the teaching office and a leadership within the congregation that does not devolve into every decision being made by the congregation. A congregation need not make every decision in order to govern the church in the same way that as parents my wife and I have ultimate accountability for what goes on in our home, but we don’t make every decision for our children. We don’t make every decision about the things that take place in our household, but we are ultimately accountable. If you come into my house and I say to you, well, I can’t believe that my child is over there smoking weed and drinking Jack Daniels, well, ultimately I have accountability for that; a congregation has ultimate accountability for what takes place within a congregation, even if the congregation doesn’t make all of those decisions on a routine basis, it can—the congregation can ultimately.
And then I’m a Baptist because of the way I see the relationship between the church and the world. The sharp distinction that the apostle Paul makes between the outside world and the accountability on the inside in the congregation of believers who are held accountable for their belief and for their discipleship and for the way in which the outside world has not been governed by the church–I think that the Baptist principle of religious freedom that the gospel advances through spirit-empower persuasion, not through government coercion, not through cultural pressure is an important corollary of the gospel of Jesus Christ and those separate realms between the church and the world, between the church and the state. If the state attempts to do the work of the church, the state turns into something that at best the state has no competence to do, at worst, the state is becoming anti-Christ and the church when it attempts to govern the world through the state, through the power of coercion, the church becomes at best a group of people who are incompetent to do this because we have not been gifted to govern the world now as kings. As Paul says to the church at Corinth, you ask as though you’ve already become kings and you should have told me so that I could come and reign with you, he says sarcastically. And at worst, the church turns the gospel of Jesus Christ in that scenario into a political power move that is more Satanic than it is Christian.
So I think that Baptist emphasis is good and right. Now, I know that my listeners are of all sorts of denominational traditions and we can learn from one another even where we disagree and I think this is one of those things where our distinctiveness in our various communions and our various traditions isn’t something that we ought to boil away as kind of least common denominator, even though we agree, you know evangelical Christians of all sort of communions, we can come together and say we agree on the gospel of Jesus Christ, we agree on what it means to be a Christian, but let’s not evaporate those distinctions because we need them. We need them not only to make decisions about how to order our churches, be we also need them in order to sharpen one another. We really need the Lutherans to continue to stand up and say, let’s distinguish between the law and gospel, and we need the Presbyterians to continually stand up and say, yes, yes, but let’s not forget about the third use of the law, and we need the Anglicans to consistently stand up and say let’s remember the importance of worship and order, and I think we need the Baptists to continually stand up and say let’s remember how we come into the kingdom of God and that’s through the personal regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and through the witness of a church that is made up of believers.
Now, none of those traditions have ever lived up to their ideals and as a Baptist, I will tell you we often don’t live up to our ideals. The idea of a believer’s church has often been eclipsed in places where Baptists are the majority in a culture, that’s one of the reasons why we see the kind of cultural nominal Christianity that we have had for so long in the Bible Belt is because there has been a cultural pressure, not a state enforced pressure, but a cultural pressure to conform to a Baptist subculture, so if you are twelve years old and you haven’t been baptized, there is a sense of “What’s going on with your parents?” instead of highlighting what it means individual by individual to experience personal faith and repentance and for the church to be made up only of professing believers. That’s an emphasis I think we not only need to hold on to within the Baptist tradition, I think it is something our brothers and sisters in other traditions need us to emphasize, even when they don’t completely agree with us.