This piece was prompted by a course at Wake Forest School of Divinity entitled Baptist Identity Past, Present, Future: Is There One? It is my final class with Dr. Bill Leonard. His influence has been substantial in my understanding of my own baptist identity.
To try and pinpoint baptist(1) distinctions down is a herculean task. The old saying comes to mind, “if you have 2 baptist in a room you’ll end up with three different opinions.” The freedom I have seen within the baptist faith tradition one such that is not so identifiable as other mainline Protestant denominations. Where Methodist, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians have their hierarchical systems consisting of bishops and so forth, baptists pushed ahead in their congregational understanding of church polity, some even referring to their ecclesiology as “sacramentalism” in nature. In this sense baptist churches, as I see it, must operate under a canopy of freedom in all they do.
I don’t believe you can get far in talking baptist identity without mentioning the Four Fragile Freedoms (there’s that word again). While these notions have been present in some form on another for much longer than I’m about to give them credit for, it was the writings of Walter Shurden where I begin to see these freedoms traced back to baptist roots over the centuries. I don’t want to spend too much time unpacking Bible, Soul, Church, and Religious freedom since much has been said and written concerning them. Since this is a reflection piece, I wish to simply point out and recognize their importance as some of my own understanding of what they represent will be fleshed out in the following writings.
Now to the task; what are five sources of baptist-ness? The first should be obvious as I have already named it. Freedom. Larry Gregg, who I served alongside at FBC-Statesville told me that you spelled baptist by spelling Freedom. James Dunn claimed, “the identifying mark of the breed called Baptist is that dogged determination to be free.”(2) Now freedom can get you in trouble, especially when you exercise that freedom in contrary actions towards others who claim to be cut from the same cloth, but that’s the dangerous beauty of it. Since claiming my own baptist faith I usually have to follow my statement of being baptist by saying, “I’m not that kind of baptist.” Freedom leaves room for interpretation on both an individual and collective scale and because there is freedom, baptist are required to give an explanation of their lens of faith as no two baptist, or baptist churches, will ever give the same exact answer on a proposed stance. This has resulted in baptist producing an eschatological buffet.
A second marker or trait I suggest would be of dissension. To be baptist means to be on the margins or against the status quo. By this definition, a baptist person of faith would need to be engaged in “anti-establishment” practices goaded on by their social consciousness. This discernment has lent itself to baptist in their belief of separation of church and state matters. There is a tradition of this line of thinking, be it John Smyth, Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr and others who pushed back against ideologies and institutions of power and oppression. In this sense, baptist are on the forefront when it comes to cultural schisms and non-conformity as they display a knack for being all too willing to dispute popular perceptions.
Third, the understanding that everyone is called to participate in the Beloved Community, or the idea of the priesthood of all believers. To borrow from the Carlyle Marney, baptist really must be “priest to each other.” While a congregation does have the leadership of both clergy and laypersons, baptist operations and responsibilities of community within the local church is to be shared by all. To me, this is a very orthodox way of leadership as I think of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church (another dissenting group) known as the primus inter pares. This same concept is to be in practice within baptist churches where while the preacher/pastor/minister offers leadership he/she/they are in a covenant relationship as an equal participant with the rest of the congregation of God’s kin-dom. From this understanding branches the belief that all persons have direct access to God.
The fourth trait deals with emerging identity. This emergence is fluid in the sense that it has the capability to move both forward in developing and backward in reclaiming baptist praxis. This marker has resulted in baptist identifying as non-creedal people, but instead people of a confessioning faith. If creeds were intended to capture the impression of the Christian faith at one time or another in history, baptists have offered the challenge that a creed cannot be imposed on a different group of Christians during another time in history. Lackadaisical theology is not allowed, meaning baptist must form and fashion what it means to be who they are as a people in the time they are in. “Every generation must refocus, deepen, expand, interpret, and understand any creedal or confessional statement. I do not believe such statements can be finalized for future generations” and “as Baptist we affirm that no theological statement is ever final or complete.”(3)
Lastly, I would add the elements of transformative conversion. From their Protestant dissension, baptist had to produce alternative additions to accompany sacramental acts like communion and baptisms. Thus, conversion became a personal affair that needed to be vocalized experience of profession. Phrases such as a “change of the heart” became common when discussing conversion and responding to God’s call on one’s life. Confirmation was replaced with dramatic conversion stories and resulted in congregations instituting watch-care programs over potential members offering affirming support at best and pious punishment at its worst. While baptist have often been known for their approach to the ordinance of full immersion baptism, baptists are able to practice others forms deemed fit such as affusion or “pouring” and are diverse in their approach to the Lord’s Supper. Transformative conversion deals more with response. James McClendon offers that conversion “must be a travel account, a journey — one with a beginning, continuance, and an end” and that this journey “must have an individual and corporate dimension.”(4)
1) Thanks to brother James McClendon for suggesting baptist be spelled with a lowercase “b”
2) Deweese, Charles W., and James M. Dunn. Defining Baptist Convictions. Franklin, TN: (Providence House Publishers, 1996), 71
3) Tuck, William Powell. Our Baptist Tradition. Macon, GA: (Smyth & Helwys Pub. 2005), 17 & 19
4) Furr, Gary, Curtis W. Freeman, and James Wm McClendon, Jr. Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision. Macon, GA: (Smith & Helwys Pub. 1994), 26