Text: Matthew 5:1-14
The answer is, “somewhere between 74 and 78 in the United States.” The question is, “How many different kinds of Baptist are there in the U.S.?” Here’s a sampling. And by the way, each of these titles represents an association, conference, fellowship, or denomination. Meaning, that under each title there is more than one of these Baptist churches in the United States. Okay, here goes, in no particular order. Central Baptist, Evangelical Free Baptist Church, New Testament Association of Independent Baptist Churches, Alliance of Baptists, Old Regular Baptist, General Association of Baptists, General Association of Regular Baptist, General Six-Principle Baptists, American Baptist Churches, Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, Landmark Baptists, Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, Colored Primitive Baptist, Baptist Peace Fellowship, National Baptist Evangelical Life and Soul Saving Assembly of the USA, Baptist Fundamental Ministries for Jewish Evangelism, Baptist General Conference, Primitive Baptist, Reformed Baptist, Separate Baptist, Roger Williams Fellowship; and my two favorites: Unregistered Baptists, and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists.
Now one can’t end with Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists without some explanation. Here’s what I found on Wikipedia about this group. Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists are part of a larger sub-group of Baptists that is commonly referred to as “anti-mission” Baptists. This sub-group includes the Duck River and Kindred Baptists, Old Regular Baptists, some Regular Baptists and some United Baptists. Only a minuscule minority of Primitive Baptists adhere to the Two-Seed doctrine. The primary centers of Two-Seedism were in Northern Alabama, Arkansas, Eastern Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, and Texas. The Two-Seed theological stance is known in some circles as “hyper-Calvinism,”—only evangelize to those who can be discerned as being members of the elect. This group is a very conservative lot and as one observer noted, “Innovations have never touched these people.” As of 2002, five churches or congregations of this faith and order still existed in Alabama, Indiana, Tennessee, and Texas.
I start with this introduction to emphasize Paul Harrison’s statement that “…those who strive to establish the singularity of the [Baptist] tradition are on a weak foundation.” So, it cannot be my purpose today, as I attempt to talk about our Baptist identity, to say with any specific definition what makes a Baptist a Baptist. What makes a Baptist a Baptist is as varied and diverse as, well, being Baptist. Neither is it my intent to give you a lesson in Baptist history. My purpose with this sermon today is to talk about the power and the potential of being Baptist. In doing so, I want to focus on two questions:
- How important is the name Baptist?
- Why do we remain distinctively Baptist in our identity?
Yesterday I was at a Personnel Committee retreat that was an orientation for new members coming onto the committee. As people introduced themselves they were instructed to say something about their journey to Pullen. At least half of the people around the table who did not grow up Baptist shared how they struggled with the idea of attending a Baptist church, as well as some who grew up Baptist. Having grown up Catholic, Lutheran or Presbyterian, folks would say that no matter how many good things they had heard about Pullen the thought of stepping into a Baptist church was halting. One person confessed that for the first year of being a member of Pullen she couldn’t write “Pullen Memorial Baptist Church” on her check. She would just write “Pullen Memorial” or “Pullen Church.” I was not surprised at all by these responses. People ask me all the time why we still call ourselves Baptist and suggest to me that we would have more visitors if we just called ourselves Pullen Memorial Church.
It is true that for some, the name Baptist conjures up all kinds of negative images and thoughts. In contemporary Baptist life you need to look no further than Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Fred Phelps to have such negative images confirmed. Not to mention the Baptist pastor in Winston-Salem who told his Berean Baptist Church congregation four months ago that God was so angry over marriage equality that God was about to “send something even worse than Ebola.” Just a year earlier this same Baptist pastor had made national headlines when he called for the prosecution of gays. But it’s not just the preachers shaping the image of Baptist in the South. Southern literature has also enhanced the notion that those who call themselves Baptist are nothing more than holy rolling, speaking-in-tongues snake handlers.
Carter Heyward, one of the eleven women who were ordained as the first female priests in the Episcopal Church back in 1974, was in town this weekend for an NAACP training and stayed at my home. As we sat talking Friday evening I asked Carter, “Growing up Episcopalian in Charlotte what did you think of Baptist?” Three words came quickly: Bible-focused, emotive, and conservative. She elaborated a bit to say that Baptist had the reputation of being people who believed in the literal “word of God,” meaning that whatever the Bible said was true. But I couldn’t help but notice as her voice trailed off that she said the word “emotive” again and I wondered what exactly that meant. But before I could ask, she had a question. Knowing that I grew up just an hour west of her she asked me, “Growing up in Shelby what did you think of Episcopalians.” “Episcopalians,” I said. “I had never even heard of Episcopalians until I left Shelby. I didn’t know they existed.”
It is a true that I was well into my teenage years before I knew there was any other kind of Christian other than Baptist. Baptist was synonymous with being a Christian. To my memory, I was never taught in my Baptist church what it meant to be Baptist nor can I remember a 101 class that went over Baptist identity. I was born a Baptist. Raised a Baptist. Baptized a Baptist. I was Christian and that meant I was a Baptist. And I was Baptist and that meant I was a Christian. It wasn’t until I went to a Baptist college that I began to learn about Baptist identity—What makes a Baptist a Baptist? What are the theological and spiritual marks of a Baptist? What are the generic “distinctives,” the peculiar “convictions,” the specific “ideals” that Baptists rally around that make a Baptist a Baptist?
In the September 2, 1983 issue of Christianity Today Martin Marty, a Lutheran church historian and America’s source for almost all things religious, wrote an article entitled, “Baptistification Takes Over.” Walter Shurden in his little book, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms writes of that article:
Marty created this awkward word, “baptistification,” to describe what he called “the most dramatic shift in power style on the Christian scene in our time.” He did not mean that people of other Christian denominations are running in droves to join Baptist churches. Nor did he mean that people are accepting immersion, the Baptist mode of baptism. Marty meant, by the term “baptistification” and the phrase “dramatic shift,” that a new religious mood was afoot in America. Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and others, said the noted church historian, were embracing this new mood. This mood, he said, stresses freedom, choice, and voluntarism in matters of faith. Correctly and significantly, Marty identified these very themes as hallmarks of the Baptist identity…These themes describe the spiritual instinct of historic Baptist life, the stackpole around which Baptist convictions develop. ‘Baptistification’ does not specify a particular Baptist doctrine; it does not speak to a unique Baptist distinctive. Rather it describes the Baptist style of faith. It is a particular posture of faith, a peculiar attitude toward the issues of faith. Baptistification is a spirit that pervades all of the Baptist principles or so-called Baptist distinctives. It is the spirit of FREEDOM.
Shurden goes on to identify four freedoms that represent what it means historically to be Baptist. The four freedoms are: Bible Freedom, Soul Freedom, Church Freedom, and Religious Freedom.
- Bible Freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation that the Bible must be central in the life of the individual and church, and that Christians, with the best and most scholarly tools of inquiry, are both free and obligated to study scripture.
- Soul Freedom is the historic affirmation of the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to deal with God without the imposition of creed, the interference of clergy, or the intervention of civil government.
- Church Freedom is the Baptist affirmation that local churches are free to determine their membership and leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whom they perceive as gifted for ministry, male or female/straight or gay, and to participate in the larger Body of Christ.
- Religious Freedom is 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.
Four fragile freedoms—four powerful freedoms that shape our identity.
I want to return now to the title of this sermon, “the power and potential of being Baptist” and to the questions that I raised earlier: “How important is the name Baptist?” And, “Why do we remain distinctively Baptist in our identity here at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church?”
The power and potential of being Baptist lies in this spirit of freedom that we have inherited from our Baptist ancestors. We are a people free to discern the moving of God’s spirit in our lives as we experience God and one another. We are a people free to express in our worship our understanding of God—in our language, in our singing, in our proclaiming. We are a people free to study scripture and discern its message for us today. As Baptist, we are privileged to live in the spirit of freedom in all matters of faith. With that freedom, though, comes responsibility. The responsibility to seriously study scripture and to discern its meaning for the context in which we live today. The responsibility to live our lives by the principles and mandates of our faith as we understand those principles and mandates. Being Baptist is about both being free and faithful in all matters of faith.
Is the name Baptist important as we seek to be God’s people in the world today? I don’t think so. Most people are not going to come to our church because we are a Baptist church. Some people will even stay away because we have Baptist in our name. But understanding what the name Baptist means gives us a grounding in a spirit of freedom that very few other traditions hold and value. Understanding historically what the name Baptist means gives us a freedom to be us in ways that very few other traditions do, if any. By claiming our Baptist identity, we are a people free to truly be God’s people in the world as we understand that calling.
Why do we remain distinctively Baptist in our identity here at Pullen? Because it is our family name. Could we change it? Of course we could. But why? Could we just drop it and not have a larger identity beyond being Pullen Church? Of course we could. But we would still be Baptist because that’s who we are. We are a people of freedom. We are a people of choice. And we are a people who volunteer our time to serve God and our fellow human beings. Freedom, choice, voluntarism in matters of faith—that is what it means to be Baptist and what it means to be a Pullenite. And I am proud to be both.
The question of identity is an important one. How and who we understand ourselves to be as Baptist deserves our attention. But the far greater question of identity in matters of faith is how we live into this identity. The question is what will we do with this awesome freedom? This humbling choice? How will we live in ways that make us more who we were meant to be as the people of God in the world? And how will we make the most of this moment in time in our world, when the four freedoms of our faith tradition offer the power to hold immense diversity and difference, in fact you could convincingly argue that they hold a roadmap for how to create community without the confines of dogma or the rigidity of church structures. We are Baptist by birthright. But my question to you, Pullen, is how will we be Baptist? How will we be church in ways that live out the mandate to be salt of the earth, the light of the world, peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the meek, those who mourn the suffering of others, the merciful, the blessed people of God.