It was an October Sunday a few years back, when churchgoers in Roanoke, VA arrived to Virginia Heights Baptist Church. As they had for over a century, the members attended Sunday School, worship, then lunch and a church meeting, and then a few hours later, those who had pulled into Virginia Heights Baptist Church that morning pulled out of the parking lot of Heights Community Church that afternoon.
This was not magic, or trickery of any kind, but a consequence of a well thought out, long-discussed congregational decision. That Sunday, the members had voted to change the name of their church, dropping the denominational reference.
Their pastor said that for years the name “Baptist” had confused potential visitors and new attendees unfamiliar with their church, who either stopped short of attending or showed up to find it was not the “Baptist” they expected. Baptist was more of a blockade than anything else. The pastor said, “If having a denominational name on the sign was going to deter people from visiting, or feeling like they could not be a part, then we wanted to remove that barrier.”
Well, the sign out front here says “First Baptist Church.” Our church signs have said as much for over 125 years. What does that communicate? What are we saying?
We’re in the midst of 4 weeks of sermons on Baptist Identity – “Why Baptist?” or “How to tell your friends you’re Baptist?” We can recognize the range of associations that come with our church name and we want to lift from our history those distinctives of which we can be proud. We want to stop mumbling our middle name, but to claim “Baptist” and our particular expression of it, with clarity and understanding/
At the core of what it means to be Baptist, is freedom. Martin Marty – the preeminent American Religious Historian of the latter 20th century – used the term “Baptistification” to describe the historic essence of Baptists at their best, and for Marty this meant the voluntary approach to faith, church, religion. It’s Freedom of the Soul – our theme from last week – that bedrock commitment of the freedom of the individual in relationship to God. Faith must be uncoerced, free from imposition or interference by any external authority.
The Baptist pastor Carlyle Marney once described this difference saying that a rabbi begins, “Thus saith the Lord”… a priest begins, “As the Church has always said…” a Baptist begins “Brothers and sisters, it seems to Me…”
This freedom means there are all kinds of ways to be Baptist. It means a lack of control and authority. So it’s unsettling for many and comforting for others, especially when it comes to our subject today: Baptists and the Bible.
James 1 says there is a blessing for those who look into the “law of liberty.” The “law of liberty.” The law of freedom. This is how Baptists have understood the Bible – as a free and freeing text. The individual freedom we celebrate as Baptists extends to how we approach God’s revelation to us in Scripture. Baptists believe the individual believer and the individual community are free to interpret the Bible, and furthermore that they can be trusted to interpret the Bible.
This is the reason for the centrality of the Bible in Baptist life – study, preaching, teaching, personal faith. If you grew up in a Baptist church, chances are you have collected Bibles along the way.
I think of the Bible my grandparents gave me on the occasion of my baptism, the cover embossed with my name in fancy gold lettering; or the Bible my parents gave me when I went to college, the same Bible my grandparents had given my father with my name written just below his; or the Bible given to my children on occasions like their dedications or Bible presentations at key moments.
One of my most recent – and most valued – Bibles was passed along a couple of years ago. Many of you have heard me speak of James Dunn – friend and mentor and giant among Baptists, Dr. Dunn was a longtime lobbyist for religious liberty and expert on church-state affairs, and a rare combination of grit, charisma, and unabashed prophetic edge. He taught me his axiom that Baptists have but one creed: “Ain’t nobody gonna tell me what to believe but Jesus…”
A couple weeks after his funeral in 2015, the phone rang with a call from our mutual friend, Dr. Bill Leonard, who said he’d been going through Dr. Dunn’s things, thinking of who should have what. “I found his ordination Bible,” he told me. “And I want you to have it.” Tattered at the binding, falling apart, marked with the date of September 1955 and bearing the signatures of a few dozen Texas Baptist preachers, I held it was gently as I knew how. I felt like I was ordained all over again. And now the Bible sits high on a shelf. I don’t even touch it, it’s so fragile. It’s up high with pottery and other breakable things, afraid I might damage it;or if I put my hands on it I might ruin something, or it might crumble somehow.
That’s similar to how the Church has revered the Bible throughout history – untouchable, way up high where it can be preserved, or where only some people can reach it – an entrenched elite dispensing the wisdom from the top down.
500 years ago this month, Martin Luther initiated a reform of this thinking. “Sola Scriptura,” he and other Reformers proclaimed, daring to set personal interpretation of the meaning of Scripture above the reading of the established Church.
The Church maintained that Latin be the only acceptable translation of the Bible – going so far as to formally reiterate this as a counter to the Reformation in the Council of Trent. It was as if to say that only those trained could be trusted.
But it was the radical claim of Luther and those that followed that the Bible should be accessible, distributed in the vernacular of the people, so that all could interpret and understand for themselves.
Baptists are Second Generation Protestants, which means that we formed nearly 100 years after Luther’s claims. We weren’t so much reforming the Church, as intensifying some of the commitments of the Reformers. Baptists did not react against Catholicism, but against an incomplete Protestantism, which was itself trending toward binding creeds and authorities that Baptists resisted, insisting on the right of all people to think for themselves no matter what the results might be.
It’s not the Baptists valued the Bible more than others, but they have valued it differently. More than the interpretation of the church and more than the insights of the clergy, Baptists have maintained the commitment to freedom of the individual to interpret for themselves.
Baptist historian, Walter Shurden, has suggested four prepositions as ways of understanding this freedom we bring to our interpretation of Scripture: of, from, under and for. Baptists are committed to freedom of interpretation, free from any binding creeds, under the lordship of Christ, for the purpose of – in the language of James – “doing the Word of God.”
Early Baptists believed that their distinct convictions came from the Bible. Early confessions echoed Biblical language. Yet this does not mean that Baptists past or present have agreed on all interpretations. One of the most distinguishing traits of Baptists is that biblical interpretation is informed by freedom of the individual – the ability of the church or individual to interpret Scripture. That’s why we pass out all those Bibles to those who grow up in our midst, because no one can ultimately interpret the Bible for you: not your teacher, not your preacher, not your parent, not any authority. You have to, as James says, “look into the perfect law.” It is continuing action. You have to persevere in it. No one can do it for you.
Freedom of interpretation. And from any external authority or creed.
When you join this church, you say the words straight from the Bible: “Jesus is Lord.” James calls the Word of God “perfect.” There are no supplementary additions. No external words. No other binding sources of authority. Jesus didn’t say, “Repeat after me.” He said simply, “Follow me.”
This contention has divided Baptists from others – Anglicans, Congregationalists. Early Baptists resisted the claim that any established church and its official pronouncements embodied a true interpretation of the Bible. They valued individuality. So many felt the interpretation of “amateurs” lacking training and supervision should not be placed alongside the careful interpretation of “experts.” But Baptists could recognize in this a bent toward creedalism and control that occurs as the once prophetic spirit of reform becomes more ordered.
The emphasis on freedom is always threatening. The freedom of the individual to interpret the Bible is threatening for those who want control.
My friend, Rev. Molly Brummet Wudel, joined us in our Wednesday evening class supplementing these sermons, to tell us why she is Baptist. Molly is pastor of Emmaus Way Church in Durham – a creative church that she describes as “a little weird,” given its differences in structure, organization, and practice from most conventional churches. For instance, preaching at Emmaus Way occurs as a dialogue, not a monologue. The 60 or so gathered, including a number of children, sit in the round, and engage the text as a sermon is preached. The preacher periodically pauses for questions, or as people spontaneously interject. Molly even prepares with multiple trajectories, depending on what the gathered community offers, because the dialogue can change the sermon.
Now don’t get too many ideas! I told Molly my idea of a sermon talkback is a handshake and a “good sermon” on the way out the door! But what an expression of trust in the individual freedom we have in interpretation. Molly said the first time she preached this way she got in her car and actually cried. She had an emotional release because of the lack of control, because it was so vulnerable, so risky. This emphasis on freedom is threatening for any of us who want control.
But we are all ordained to understand God’s revelation – to take the Bible down from the shelf and engage it with the particular perspective and insights that only we can bring.
This doesn’t mean we have no standard or norm in our interpretation. We interpret the Bible, as we live all aspects of our faith, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ – the one who in James’ terms, blesses our reading and our doing of the word.
“The ultimate source of Christian authority is Jesus Christ the Lord.” Baptists claimed in 1964. Said another way, “Ain’t nobody gonna tell me what to believe but Jesus.” So the Bible is not the final authority. Jesus is. The Bible is not Lord. Jesus is Lord.
The author of Hebrews says as much when they write, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” This means reading the Bible as Baptists have over the years: under the lordship of Jesus Christ with Christ’s teaching and person and work in the world being the touchstone by which we interpret.
Amidst the many ways of being Baptist, this is perhaps one of the key clauses that differentiates us from other Baptists in the South. Our church, among others, saw in the Southern Baptist Convention a growing trend toward uniformity and authoritative interpretation of Scripture, and in response said it is the role of each individual to understand God’s revelation through Jesus Christ, not through the written word alone, but through the living Word made flesh.
One definitive expression of this came in the divide among Baptists over the role of women in the church and in the home, as amidst a fundamentalist shift in the 1980s and 90s, Southern Baptists began to formally dispense an interpretation of a traditional view of the role of women. Women couldn’t be ordained as ministers. They were to follow the admonitions written by Paul and others to remain silent and holding no authority over men. “The Bible says it, that settles it” one commentator said when pressed on this, “And if you don’t like it,” he continued, “you can take it up with God!”
Which some of us did, didn’t we? It was that kind of thinking that led this church, for one, to separate from the Southern Baptist Convention. You see, we had taken the Bible off the shelf, and started reading for ourselves. Sure anyone can see that Paul told Timothy not to let the women teach. But then we started giving and hearing testimony and evidence of God at work transforming lives and bringing people to Christ through women who preach. We heard about the early church where your sons and daughters prophecy and proclaim. We remembered that we dedicate babies and commit to help them grow to whatever God would call them to be, and we baptize girls and fill their heads with the notion that God can work through their very lives and voices and bodies the same as any of their male peers. So we decided, effectively, that what was written in one portion of Scripture was not consistent with the Lordship of Jesus, or the interpretation of our souls, or the practices of our community. This is freedom of interpretation, free from any external authority, under the Lordship of Jesus, and it frees us to be what James urges: doers of the word, who in our bodies, in our words, reflect the living Word of Jesus Christ.
Our community, our friends, our wider world need to know this – need people committed to bringing the Bible down from the shelf, and entrusting its witness into the hands of each and every person, created by God, with the capacity to understand it for themselves. It might just be the most compelling contribution Baptists have made: the daring claim that people can be trusted to interpret Scripture, to understand the Christ revealed their, free from any external authority, under the Lordship of Jesus, for the purpose of becoming doers of what they understand in Scripture.
Baptists have proclaimed this. They have risked this. Some have put themselves on the line for this.I was reading this week words from one of our former pastors of First Baptist Greensboro, Dr. Randall Lolley. Dr. Lolley was an Assistant Pastor here in the late 50s, before becoming pastor of First Baptist of Winston-Salem, and then President of Southeastern Seminary where after an excellent 13 year tenure, in 1987, he found himself fighting for his professional life. A growing number of theological conservatives in that convention, including some of his own trustees, were applying increasing pressure on the seminary to interpret the scriptures in the way they saw fit, threatened by the openness that said all individuals are free.
In his last address before resigning in protest as seminary president, Dr. Lolley noted that historically Baptists have made Jesus the norm for interpreting scripture. Then he added this, “We do all our work at Southeastern Seminary under the Lordship of Christ. This is why we can afford to let our consciences be free. Our interpretations are not subject finally to the opinions of any other person living or dead. Jesus alone is the norm around which our interpretations must coalesce. He is the Lord of the message and Lord of the messenger.”
If you’re upstairs on the third floor and walk by Randall’s portrait, notice he’s holding a Bible under his right arm. It’s a fitting depiction, because he did not resign his presidency because his opponents were mean, or abusive, or unfair. He resigned because of a fundamental difference in his understanding of the Bible, and who was free to interpret it. It’s a conviction that led him here as pastor from 1990-96. And it’s in us, too. Any time we gather, any time we pull a Bible off the shelf, any time we sit in a circle and seek the revelation of God for this place and time, any time our children pour over the latest Bible they’ve been given by their church, that same conviction is there.
So I say we keep our name for at least another week. When you leave today, the sign will still say Baptist. Amidst the range of reactions that provokes, I hope it fills you with some power and pride. I hope it reminds you of freedom. It’s not something we stand for in spite of the fact we’re Baptist. But precisely because of it.