So What Is a Baptist Church Anyway?
Have you ever stood in line for something without really knowing what the line was for? You just saw a bunch of people standing in line and figured it was the right place to be? Maybe you were at a theme park somewhere and thought the line was for a particular ride, but you weren’t totally sure. Did you ever get to the front of the line only to discover that you really meant to be somewhere else? Before Christmas Lisa and I went to the Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant Christmas concert at the Richmond Coliseum. We arrived, saw a line, and promptly jumped in it. As it turns out it was the will call line and we already had our tickets. Fortunately, a nice staff member came out and sent everybody over to the correct line before we had waited very long.
How about this one: Have you ever joined in a cause or a movement without really understanding all its details? On occasion in life we find ourselves in a place or connected with a group thinking to ourselves: “Well, the people or place is nice enough…but I don’t really know much about them other than that.”
Do you know where this kind of thing probably happens more than just about anywhere else in our culture? Church. Think about it. If you join a cooking club or a knitting club or a dance club or a service club you pretty much know what you’re getting into. You’re going to cook or knit or dance or serve. Even joining a Bible study tells you that you’re probably going to be studying the Bible. But with a church? Well, you know you’re probably going to go to worship services or small groups or serve somehow. But much beyond that…things can get a bit murkier.
Now, at Central we try to be pretty clear in terms of who we are as a community. We are a place where people matter and are empowered to engage their world for Christ. We’re committed to the idea that every single person here matters regardless of how big or small, rich or poor, extroverted or introverted, young or…seasoned they are—even if we don’t always express it as artfully as we possibly could. What’s more, because we believe so strongly in the value of every person, we are going to do everything we can to equip and empower them to become fully who God designed them to be in order that they might have the impact on their world that they were designed to have. But, for most folks, if you were to take the “Baptist” part of our name and switch it out with something like “Presbyterian” or “Lutheran” they really wouldn’t know the difference. So…why does it matter?
Used to be, what denomination you were a part of mattered a great deal. If someone was a Methodist, they were a proud Methodist. If an Episcopalian, a stalwart one. If a Baptist, a staunch one. The Presbyterians may have been the “frozen chosen,” but at least they were chosen. Used to, jokes like that made sense to most people. That was the day of denominationalism. The group with whom you identified said something about you that most folks understood, and you had chosen it intentionally. Today…not so much.
Today, most folks connect with a church because they connect with its community. I suspect that’s the case for quite a few of the folks in this room. Whether you were invited specifically or not, somehow you heard about Central Baptist, you visited a couple of times, found that you really connected with the community, and have stuck around. (By the way, that’s something we work really hard to make sure happens.) But the fact that we are Central Baptist Church didn’t really factor into your decision-making process. Indeed, in the U.S. over the last several years the fastest growing church denomination has been the non-denominational church.
So then, does it still matter whether we call ourselves a Baptist church versus something else? Why not call ourselves Methodists or Presbyterians or Anglicans or Lutherans or Episcopalians or Pentecostals or Brethren or Mennonites or Assembly of God or Cowboys or Seventh-Day Adventists or something else even more colorful than that? My copy of Handbook of Denominations in the United States lists about 245 and I can think of some it doesn’t include. Does it really matter and why choose one over another?
Well, I don’t have time this morning to give you anything resembling a full-fledged answer to that question. My short answer is that I think it does matter, but not in the way or for the reasons that it did in the past. The truth is, some denominations formed because a group of folks disagreed with a couple of small points of theology or practice with another denomination and so left to form their own group. Some formed for more significant reasons. But at a broad level, a denominational title likely tells you something about what the church believes whether you know what it is or not. That leads us finally to what I really want to talk about with you this morning. What exactly does it mean that we’re a Baptist church? What makes us different from Trinity or Poole Christian both of which are right up the road and are filled with great people? Why is that a label we consistently claim for ourselves beyond the fact that it’s what we’ve always been called?
This morning isn’t exactly going to be a typical sermon like I might preach, but as I thought about what to talk about with you on this particular morning it dawned on me that with all the folks who have connected here in the last couple of years there may be a few who don’t really know what it means that they are part of a Baptist church. As a matter of fact, there may be some folks who’ve been around here for more than a couple of years…maybe a lot more…who nonetheless still aren’t totally sure for themselves. For the rest of our time together this morning I want to see if I can’t shed a bit of light on this whole thing.
There are perhaps a lot of different ways we could define what it means to be a Baptist church. Thom Rainer the President and CEO of Lifeway did a Twitter poll a few weeks ago asking what is the first word that comes to peoples’ minds when they hear the word “Baptist.” The number one answer was legalism. There was also traditional, outdated, boring, fundamentalism, and potluck. In any event, I think there are two things that stand out the most. One you can probably guess; one you probably can’t. Let’s start with that one.
The first thing that sets Baptist churches apart from all the rest is our firm-bordering-on-radical commitment to the autonomy of the local church. What does that mean? It means that each church is its own boss. Nobody can tell one church what they can or can’t believe. Nobody but that church owns its building. Nobody but that church has any say-so in terms of who they hire or who they ordain or who they fire and so on. They aren’t accountable to anybody else but themselves and God.
Now where would we get an idea like this? From another theological concept that, while true of Baptists, is also held by other Protestant denominations and so doesn’t count as one of our chief distinctives. This other idea is the priesthood of all believers. In the Old Testament, the various rituals of the religion were handled by a priest. The average person could not get to God. Then came Jesus. The writer of Hebrews spends a lot of time making the point that Jesus is our ultimate high priest. Because of His work, we don’t need anyone else to get to God. We can go to Him no matter who we are or what we’ve done, and Jesus—God the Son—will mediate on our behalf.
The apostle Peter later commenting on this wrote that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” From this verse and the work of the writer of Hebrews this doctrine developed. Again, the basic idea is that you don’t need anybody to mediate between you and God. Not me, not your Sunday school teacher, not your parents, not your grandparents, nobody. You can get to God all by yourself through Jesus. As Baptists, we simply took this idea and applied it to the whole church. If one believer doesn’t need anybody but Jesus to get to God, then a whole group of Jesus followers don’t either.
So then, what does this look like in practice? Well…it kind of results in a wild, wild west sort of situation. Because there is no one group that has ultimate say so in terms of what a Baptist church needs to believe or how it needs to operate, other than a couple of basic points that we’re talking about this morning, you can’t make many assumptions about what to expect when you walk in the doors of a Baptist church. We are all over the map in terms of theology, practice, church polity, cultural engagement, and so on. We range from Bob Jones University conservative to Calvary Baptist Church in Washington D.C. that recently hired a married, lesbian couple to be their co-pastors, and everything in between. In the past, I’ve dialogued with a Baptist pastor out of Tennessee who rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and denies the full divinity of Christ. The infamous “God hates fags” group out of Topeka, Kansas calls themselves the Westboro Baptist Church. There’s really just no telling until you go in and see for yourself what a Baptist church is going to be like.
Now, on the one hand, this does lead to quite a bit of uncertainty when it comes to knowing what to expect when you go to a Baptist church. But, on the other hand, if you resonate with the basic Baptist identity, you can find a church for you pretty much no matter what you believe. Another positive here is that you will never hear about a Baptist church getting into a disagreement with whatever regional or national body of Baptist churches with whom they are networked and losing their building because of it as has happened recently to several Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. If a Baptist church isn’t happy with their leadership, they don’t have to wait for some higher up church council to figure out what to do about it. They can fix the problem themselves. Of course, they don’t have anyone else to blame for the problem either. On the other side of this, though, if they are happy with their leadership, they don’t have to worry much about losing it unless God Himself moves him elsewhere in which case you kind of need to accept the change because it came from the Boss.
Okay, but what about the SBC, BGAV, SBCV, PBA, CBF, ABC, NBC, and the rest of the alphabet soup of Baptist conventions and associations and fellowships and whatever else they might call themselves? (And if you don’t know what any of those mean…don’t worry about it.) Yes, it’s true there are larger networks of churches with whom some Baptist churches choose to associate. That’s a good thing. No one church can save the world alone. We can accomplish together far more than we can individually. That’s true whether you’re talking about individual believers or individual churches. As for us, we are part of the Petersburg Baptist Association (a local Baptist association), the Baptist General Association of Virginia (a state-wide association), and the Southern Baptist Convention (this one you probably know and is a national group).
So, aren’t these like the higher ups in the Methodist or Presbyterian churches? No, and for a simple reason: These are all voluntary associations. No church has to be a part of these. Now, ideally, they offer some benefits to their members as part of their membership, but a church can get along fine without these. A church is free to join if the community feels its beliefs and values are in line with the larger group and its stated mission, and it is free to leave if the community feels that’s no longer the case. Sometimes the larger group and the specific community don’t agree on whether or not the values and beliefs have changed, but while that can get messy on occasion, it doesn’t happen very often or without a great deal of careful consideration.
So that’s the first thing. As Baptists, we are fairly radically committed to this ideal of the autonomy of the local church. The practice has its warts and potential drawbacks to be sure, but on the whole, I think it’s a pretty good thing and for several reasons. To name just a few: there are Baptist churches for all kinds of different people in all kinds of different places of life; churches are freed to pursue their God-given mission without anybody getting in the way; and when churches do coordinate together the entirely voluntary nature of the cooperation tends to result in a stronger focus on missions and the advancement of the kingdom of God. Just as an example, although the SBC finds itself in the news a lot for sticking its nose unhelpfully into non-mission related issues, we still sponsor some 10,000 missionaries in various capacities around the world and our disaster relief ministry is the third largest in the world. No other denominationally-affiliated group can even touch this. In other words, local church autonomy makes a difference.
Well, I told you before that there were two things that mark out Baptist churches as Baptist churches, one you knew and one you didn’t. If church autonomy was the one you didn’t, does anybody want to take a guess at the other one? Baptism, by which I mean believer’s baptism by full immersion. The second thing that marks Baptist churches out as different from all the rest is our insistence on the importance and even necessity for at least full church membership on every Christian having the opportunity to be baptized by being fully immersed in some kind of pool of water as a public declaration of their willful commitment to follow Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. This is kind of a big deal for us.
But why? Why is this such a big deal? Two reasons. One is Scriptural. At the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus got baptized. What’s more, as you read through the book of Acts, nearly every single person who made a confession of faith was baptized. There’s even more than that. In Matthew 28, at the very end of the book—meaning Matthew intended for this to stick with us when we finished reading—Jesus said this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” In other words, Jesus told us to baptize the disciples we make.
Okay, but every church baptizes new believers. They just do it in different ways. What’s the big deal? Why make such a big stink about a certain form of baptism? Well, there’s a story for that. Our English word “baptize” comes from a Greek word “baptidzo.” See the resemblance? Guess what baptidzo means. To baptize. Just kidding. It means to immerse or submerge in water. That’s just what the word means. Furthermore, every single person we see baptized in the Scriptures is submersed in water. That’s just how the church did it for a long time.
Eventually, though, somebody asked the question: If baptism is so critical, is it more than just a symbol? What if baptism actually conveys a special gift of grace from God instead of merely symbolizing it? If this is the case, can this gift be conveyed simply in the act of baptism and without the conscience participation of the subject? As this line of thinking develop someone who was concerned about what happens to children who die before they have the chance to make professions of faith came up with the idea of baptizing babies as a kind of seal until they could get it for themselves. Now, of course, you can’t submerge an infant in water, so they had to adapt the method to sprinkling or pouring a little bit of water over their heads. Most were then baptized again as adults. But after a while folks began to think: why bother? They’ve already been baptized once. Why do it again? So the practice continued. After Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century and things began to get a lot more complicated and political, having your infant baptized became something necessary for inclusion into the rest of society. It was almost like having a Social Security Card. Most folks never used it, but everybody had to have one.
Things went on like this for a while until some radicals decided that it would be a good thing for people to have their own Bibles in a language they could actually read. Prior to this all the Bibles were in Latin which was spoken and read by about as many people as it is today. Initially the church leadership was wildly against this idea, but over time (and after a lot of spilled blood) the practice caught on. Then some scholarly English translators decided that since the Scriptures were originally written in Greek and Hebrew, using a Latin version as the basis for a new translation would leave folks with a translation of a translation which, like the game of telephone, meant something of the message was likely to be lost. This went pretty smoothly…until they came to the Greek word baptidzo. When they looked up the meaning of the word they discovered, like I said, that it means to immerse or submerge in water. This created a major problem. If they had translated Matthew 28:19 as, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, submerging them in water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” they were going to leave pretty much the whole of the Christian population of the world thinking that they had not in fact followed Jesus’ instructions after having been told their entire life that they had. This would have led to an existential crisis of belief and conscience that would have brought Europe to its knees. So they didn’t translate it. They transliterated it—that’s when you take a word from one language and simply pronounce it using the grammar rules of a second language. Baptidzo became baptize and everything was okay.
It was okay until a couple of protestants named John Smyth and Thomas Helwys were doing their own study of the original languages of the Bible, discovered the real meaning of the word baptidzo, understood this to mean exactly what the translators had been afraid everybody would have understood it to mean, and soon thereafter baptized each other. They were the very first two Baptists. Far from being something celebrated as an act of great faithfulness and piety, though, this was seen by the secular and religious authorities of their day as a shot across the bow of the church. And, because the church and the state were so closely linked it was a shot across the bow of the state as well. By performing this new old kind of baptism, they were essentially declaring that the baptism given to every single infant in the whole of Christendom hadn’t actually accomplished what it was declared to have accomplished. In other words, they were saying the church was wrong. Well, the church of the Middle Ages responded about like you would expect the church of the Middle Ages to respond. And for many, many years, becoming a Baptist was a potential death sentence (often carried out by either burning us at the stake or giving us an extra long baptism). We were persecuted everywhere we went as rabble rousers, heretics, and scoundrels committed to upsetting an otherwise peaceful, happy society. This persecution followed us even into the New World where even into the presidencies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson being a Baptist in some places was functionally illegal. We wanted to leave people’s babies in danger of burning in the fires of Hell if they perished early as many did in an age with a high infant mortality rate. But eventually things cooled off—thanks in large part to our First Amendment, which is why Baptists have traditionally been pretty big stalwarts on religious liberty—and this peculiar people who were so radically committed to Christ, the Scriptures, and the Great Commission began to grow and spread to the point that we are the largest protestant denomination in the world. All because a couple of guys 400 years ago read the Scriptures and decided to actually put into practice what they said.
That’s why baptism—and you know what I mean when I say that now—is such a big deal for us. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people gave their lives so we could do what Jesus did; so we could do what Jesus told us to do. That’s pretty significant. In practicing believer’s baptism by full immersion we are connecting ourselves back to the earliest practices of the church in a way that most other faith traditions today do not. That’s why when you decide that you’re ready to say, “Yes, I’m a Baptist and I want to be fully a part of this Baptist church,” we are going to give you the opportunity to experience this powerful symbol of our spiritual participation in the death and resurrection of our Lord in order to do that. Now, this doesn’t mean that we’re disparaging any other faith traditions and their practices. We have great respect for our brothers and sisters of various other faith traditions for their commitment to the advancement of the kingdom of our God. But, it does mean that, yes, we don’t think they have this part of their practice right. Making that kind of judgment isn’t terribly popular today. It’s not very tolerant. But it’s true, and I want to be honest with you about what it means that we are a Baptist church. Now, if you became a follower of Jesus in one of these other non-baptistic traditions, we do not at all doubt your claim or the meaningfulness of that experience. But given what we—I think correctly—understand baptism to be, you weren’t baptized. Your tradition may have called that baptism, but when you look at what the word actually means and how it was practiced in the New Testament, you didn’t have the opportunity to experience that. We want to fix that because the idea of an un-baptized follower of Jesus just doesn’t make sense to us. It wouldn’t have made sense to the first church either.
So why does all of this matter? Why take a whole morning to focus on this? For two reasons. First, this all matters because I want you to know what kind of a group in which you are participating. I want you to have both confidence and pride in the rich faith tradition of which you are a part. And, if you’re still considering just how much you want to be a part of this community of faith, I want you to understand more of who we are, what we value, and why we value it. We are a Baptist church and we’re proud of the tradition of which we are a part. In spite of the reputation we sometimes garner for ourselves, a Baptist is a good thing to be. We have a rich tradition of being faithful to Christ, to the Scriptures, and to the Great Commission. Our commitment to local church autonomy and believer’s baptism by full immersion are parts of that. They’re big parts to be sure, but they are parts, not the whole. We can talk about our rich tradition of faithfulness to Christ and religious liberty among other great things another time. A Baptist is a good thing to be.
Second, this all matters because I want you to be as full a participant in this rich tradition as you can be. This means that if you haven’t yet been baptized and you are a follower of Jesus, I’m calling you to fix that. If you have made a profession of faith, even only between yourself and God, my challenge and encouragement to you is to make it public and official by getting baptized. I want to encourage you to take the plunge and take part fully in the faith tradition of our community here. A Baptist is a good thing to be, and I think our community here is a pretty good reflection of the best of what a Baptist church looks like. Methodists and Disciples of Christ and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopals and all the rest are great. They are advancing the kingdom of God from out of their own traditions. But a Baptist is a good thing to be. If you don’t yet count yourself one, I hope you’ll consider it. If you do, be proud of that. It’s a good thing to be.