(In Series, “The Church’s Gathered Life”)

By Dale K. Edmondson

- Galatians 5:1, 13-14 -

            Is it possible to sum up our identify as Baptists in one sermon? We’ll see! I’ll try by lifting up four aspects of our heritage, as summarized by the church historian Walter Shurden. He calls each of them a “freedom,” but warns that they’re fragile freedoms and require our continuing commitment. Although I plan to summarize Shurden’s points this morning, I encourage you to read his book, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms.

            I begin with a personal statement–that I’m proud to be a Baptist. I'm proud to stand in the tradition of prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry Emerson Fosdick and workers for peace like Jimmy Carter and Marian Wright Edelmann and scholars like Edgar Goodspeed and Harvey Cox. I’m proud of the spirit of freedom which Baptists have championed since their beginning in 17th Century England. I’m proud of the contribution this relatively small group of people has made to the history of the whole Christian Church and also to the freedom underpinnings of our own nation. My pride, however, doesn’t extend to the threats to personal and religious freedom being perpetrated here and there by people who claim to be Baptists but have forgotten what Baptists are about! I want to reclaim my name and not surrender it!

Bible Freedom

            Let’s begin by affirming Bible Freedom as a cornerstone of life together. My experience as a child in a Baptist Sunday School was probably like that of many Baptist children. When I was promoted from the third to the fourth grade in Sunday School, I was presented with a Bible. Getting that Bible was like a rite of passage: I was becoming old enough to read and understand it for myself. I knew there was something special about this book, and it had an honored place in our home. I was to learn much more about that book over time and about how it could be responsibly interpreted and used. But always, as a Baptist, the Bible has held a unique place in my life,

            I’d like to point to some of the ways Shurden sees Bible freedom expressed in our tradition. It’s a freedom to read and use the scriptures under the Lordship of Christ. (Christ’s teachings and person must be the touchstone by which we interpret it.) Bible freedom is also a freedom for obedience to all new truth make known to us. (The first covenant of Baptists was drafted in 1606 by John Smyth. The covenant describes the community that was forming as “the Lord’s free people” pledged “to walk in all [God's] ways made known, or to be made known unto them . . . whatsoever it should cost them.”) Our Bible Freedom is, further, a freedom from all imposed or required interpretations. (This means that no king or bishop, no creed or doctrinal statement of religious councils may usurp the authority of the Bible.) And, finally, our Bible Freedom is a freedom of individual, yet responsible, interpretation. (Baptists believe that God has never dictated that every person should agree on how this word of God is interpreted. Our freedom leads us to be a diverse people, where differences can express a richness and diversity among us.)

            How to illustrate the principle of Bible Freedom? Alice and I received a letter from a friend who is a lay person who had retired from public school teaching a few years ago. She was continuing her love of teaching by leading a Bible study class. The class was part of an organized program which required its teachers to be instructed each week in what it held to be the “correct” interpretation of the scripture under discussion. Our friend wrote with appreciation about the group of women who were her students and about how they had bonded during the time of her teaching.

            Then she continued: “All of the leadership is very devout–committed to Christ and dear–but also very [rigid] in their approach. No room for error. And the number one sin of all time is homosexuality, which seems to find its way into almost every lesson--including AIDS as God's punishment and justified award. . . .I take exception to this and have had many discussions with our teaching leader and the discussion leaders regarding this subject, but they are adamant and unmovable (but, then, so am I!). It’s funny that they still want me to lead . . . I just focus on the thread of abundant love and grace of God [in] Jesus Christ that flows through the Bible and approach the discussion questions in that way. I do appreciate the discipline of a focused, in-depth Bible study.”

            I don't know a better statement of the Baptist principle of scriptural interpretation than this: “I just focus on the thread of abundant love and grace of God [in] Jesus Christ that flows through the Bible and approach the discussion questions in that way.” Our friend isn’t a Baptist, but I’d like to invite her to address people who use the Baptist name yet seek to impose their “official” interpretation of scripture on others. She could help them recover their roots!

Soul Freedom

            The second of these “fragile freedoms” is “Soul Freedom.” From their beginnings, Baptists have insisted that people must speak for themselves about their response to God. No one else can speak for them. That’s what we call “soul freedom.” We might further define “soul freedom” as the unassailable right and responsibility of every person to deal directly with God, without any creed or clergy or civil government getting in the way. That’s a radical idea. But then, Baptists started as radical people. Soul freedom affirms the sacredness of individual choice.

            Our individualism, however, must always be responsible. We’re inseparably bound up with others as human beings. Our freedom is always “freedom-in-relationship.” Baptists assert that the individual is competent within his or her soul to approach and respond to God directly. That’s why Baptists say what they do about conversion and baptism: Conversion is by conviction: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked Peter. And Peter’s own statement of faith was given freely, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Baptists’ practice of baptism is to baptize those who have made a personal decision to follow Jesus as his disciple. At the same time, many Baptists, such as those in this congregation, honor the baptism of all who have entered Christ’s church in other ways, thus affirming the oneness of the church.

            I conclude this point with a quotation from a book about Baptists published by a Roman Catholic press. The press engaged a Baptist scholar to write the book, so it would be as authentic as possible. It reads, “It is easy for us to yield our integrity and responsibility to some accepted authority: beloved pastor, honored teacher, influential book–even an edition of the Bible–respected parents or dynamic church. These all have their proper role of influence, but the final choice of belief and practice must be made in the secret of the soul’s naked presence before God alone.” Endnote

Church Freedom

            Church Freedom differs from the freedoms we’ve already spoken of. Those freedoms are found and celebrated in some way in most of Christ’s church. We cite them, however, because Baptists historically have given particular stress to them. Church Freedom, in contrast, has to do with our particular understanding of the local congregation and form of governance. Shurden says Church Freedom involves the freedom to “follow voluntarily.” Baptist congregations are to be made up of persons who have intentionally committed themselves to the way of Christ, persons for whom faith has involved personal choice. In becoming part of a Baptist congregation, people share in a double promise: First, to follow Jesus as Lord of their lives, and second, to help each other struggle to follow Jesus as Lord.

            This double promise suggests an answer to the question, “Why become a declared member of a congregation?” It’s to take seriously the second part of that double promise–to help each other in our mutual struggle to follow Jesus as our Lord. It’s to say this: “No longer is my spiritual journey an independent undertaking. I recognize that we need each other along the way.”

            Church Freedom involves the freedom to govern obediently–that is, to govern its own life in a way that it believes is obedient to Jesus Christ. This form of church government is called “congregational.”

            Church Freedom extends also to the freedom to worship creatively and the freedom to minister responsibly. In its worship life, Baptists are free to determine their own liturgy, and free also to draw on the church’s rich tradition of hymns, prayers, music, and guidance of the Christian calendar. In ordaining persons for ministry, Baptists begin with the conviction that each of us is called to be a minister. When we ordain persons, we don’t elevate them to a special order. We, rather, recognize them for their gifts and the evidence of their calling and give them a specific “office” within, or related to, a worshiping congregation.

            I conclude this section with a statement by the Baptist scholar, Robert Handy. He writes, “We continue to emphasize that the local congregation is the basic manifestation of the church. The words of Jesus . . . are much treasured among us: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ We believe Christ is the head of each congregation, and we are convinced all members should participate in governing its affairs. In order to be free to follow the divine leading, the congregation must be self-governing, able to select its own leadership and administer its own affairs. It is recognized as a great gift when the Holy Spirit moves in the midst of a worshiping congregation, or guides the congregation when it carries out Christ’s business.” Endnote

Religious Freedom

            We mustn’t assume that Religious Freedom, the fourth our of Baptist “freedoms,” enjoys overwhelming support in society today. Indeed, religious freedom is under siege in our land by religious people. It’s a freedom I believe that we must fight to preserve. Baptists’ most distinctive contribution to religious and political life has been the separation of church and state, and ironically some who use the name “Baptist” are now among those seeking to weaken it. School prayer amendments, tax-support of faith-based social services, and popular religious approval of displaying the ten commandments in a state court house are examples of this.

            Our family history as Baptists is replete with stories of people who suffered imprisonment, beatings, and death at the hands of the state because their conscience led them to worship and preach in ways that weren’t sanctioned by the political authorities. Several images quickly come to mind–among them the door Alice and I saw which had come for the Bedford, England jail where John Bunyan spent 12 years for preaching without a license and failing to attend services of the Anglican Church.

            Shurden defines the Baptist principle of freedom of religion as “the historic Baptist affirmation of freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion, insisting that Caesar is not Christ and Christ is not Caesar.” Baptists based their conviction on the nature of God who created us as free beings and is a liberating God, on the nature of humanity as sacred, and on faith as authentic only when it is free and uncoerced by the state. Endnote

            Baptists contended in this country for freedom of religion. And in part through their efforts, Jefferson introduced in the Assembly of the Virginia legislature the first religious freedom act, which prepared the way for the first amendment to the US constitution. Jefferson was so convinced of its importance that he asked to have its enactment reflected on his tombstone. Knowing this–as he surely must–how could the Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, then the largest church in the Southern Convention, say in a television interview in 1984, “I believe this notion of the separation of church and state was the figment of some infidel’s imagination”? Endnote

            Listen to what Mark Hatfield, a Baptist, said in the United States Senate during a debate on school prayer. Speaking of a woman who had argued with him for the amendment, saying her child had the right to start each day with prayer, he says he replied, “I do, too, and you ought to start him right at home before he leaves for school. That is where you start the student day with prayer, in the home, and if the child wants to start his day in school with a classroom prayer, that is still his right. The Supreme Court did not rule voluntary prayer out of the school. It only spoke to the question of prescribed prayer, and the Supreme Court was absolutely right. . . . You pray out of your heart.” Endnote

            I want to wind up with three affirmations about what Baptists hold concerning religious freedom. Endnote

1. “Freedom of religion represents a commitment to complete religious liberty and not simply religious toleration.”

2. “Religious liberty is for all, not for a selected few, nor even for an overwhelming majority.”

3. “Religious freedom means separation of church and state and not accommodation of church with state.”

            We’re a free people, and free in our exercise of religion. But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. For the sake of the freedom of those who come after us, for the freedom and health of our nation, for our own conscience’s sake, I urge us to be good Baptists!