Sunday’s sermon is the first of four sermons throughout October on “Why Baptist?” or “How to tell your friends you’re Baptist,” acknowledging the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the contribution and witness of Baptists within wider Christian tradition.
Stop me if this has happened to you. You’re at a party, or at a lunch with friends, at the soccer field on Saturday afternoon, the gym Monday morning, or the book club Tuesday night, your workplace on Thursday, or maybe you’re pulling back into the driveway in your Sunday best and you bump into your neighbor grilling wings in his Panthers jersey. At some point in the comings and goings, the cross points and patterns of our lives and relationships, the conversation likely turns to churches and communities of faith. Someone wants to know where you go to church.
You’re proud of your church. You love our impact in the city and in Christian mission around the world. You depend on the support and community you experience here. You celebrate the inspiration and growth our church sparks in your life. But now that all of that has to be boiled down to a name, you brace yourself as you share the three words with as much confidence as you can. And then the reaction comes:
Today we begin 4 weeks of sermons on the theme, “Why Baptist?,” or better said, “How to tell your friends you’re Baptist.” How can we plant our feet, and speak with honesty about who we are and who we’ve been, what we claim, where we went wrong and where we’ve been right, and how we are distinct in our community in our Baptist witness to freedom?
I confess, some days this is easier than others. This week, we’ve been reaching for one another and feeling the collective breathlessness after the tragedy in Las Vegas. With so many lives taken, we’ve been searching for meaning or motive so we can believe it won’t happen again.
And maybe you saw one particular headline amidst this national crisis: “Pat Robertson blames Las Vegas massacre on disrespect of the President,” with the secondary headline continuing, “The TV preacher also blamed protests during the national anthem.”
This was Robertson’s answer to the pervasive question, “Why did this happen?” We’ve seen this before. It’s the routine of Religious newsmakers – or “electric soul-molesters,” as the Baptist, Will Campbell, once described them – to use the corporate attention given to a tragedy to make a personal or political point. And usually, Christians have to answer for it at rec fields, and in driveways, and in the places people ask where you go to church.
I won’t claim my answer is any more authoritative. There’s no definitive answer to “why” that does justice to the suffering of those most closely affected. When encountering human-made disaster and evil, gun violence, murder, I see it as the violent consequence of human sin, that is both individual and systemic. This is not the world as it must be, but the world as we have made it. A loving and powerful God has set before us death and life, and invited us to choose.
As I wonder about the presence of God amidst it all, I often turn in tragedy to some words I shared in a letter with you earlier this week. William Sloane Coffin – who served as pastor of Riverside Church until 1987 – lost his 24-yr-old son, Alexander, in an automobile accident in 1983. 10 days after his son’s death, Bill Coffin preached a sermon – probably his most famous sermon – called “Alex’s Death,” which states the place of God in the midst of human suffering. Someone had explained his son’s death as the will of God, and this was Coffin’s response: “Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with fingers on triggers, fists around knives, hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths… My consolation comes in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
I’ve taken Bill Coffin’s words with me for years, and I will for years to come. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t take Pat Robertson’s across the street. But here’s where these divergent responses connect to our theme today: both of these men have served as ministers in Baptist churches.
There are a lot of ways to be Baptist. There is a great range – a plurality of Baptist traditions. And this is nothing new.
The very first Baptist church was founded in Amsterdam in 1609, over 400 years ago. Baptists were, then, second generation Protestants following in the spirit of the Reformation, which began 500 years ago this month, with Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses sent to the Archbishop on October 31, 1517. Like other Protestant traditions, Baptists are first Christian, holding to some of the classic theological claims of the Christian Church, seen most clearly in the Apostles Creed that we reflect on at times in our worship: God’s existence as three persons, beliefs of the lordship of Jesus Christ, commitment to the authority of Scripture in matters of faith and practice.
But Baptists drew on the protesting, dissenting impulse to break from other traditions, and amplify the freedom of the individual Christian and individual community of faith. So from the beginning, a consequence of this freedom has been plurality. There’s no central founder, no authoritative confession, no pope or hierarchical office or leader, which means, there are all kinds of ways to be Baptist
For instance, that “First Baptist Church of Amsterdam” back in 1609 was founded by Puritan Separatists. They had been influenced by the Dutch theologian and reformer, Joseph Armenius, who believed that all people, generally, were chosen by God to experience salvation through Jesus Christ. They were “General Baptists.” But by the 1630s another group emerged in England, influenced by the reformer John Calvin, believing that Christ died not generally for all, but for the particular elect. They were known as “Particular Baptists.” So in one of the great debates of that era, the earliest Baptists diverged. Baptist historian and friend, Dr. Bill Leonard, has thus pointed out that Baptists are the only Protestant group that can rightly claim to begin at both ends of the theological spectrum. It’s there in our beginning. It’s in our DNA.
So it continues today, in a city like Greensboro deep in what Flannery O’Connor has called “The Christ Haunted South.” There are Baptist churches in most every neighborhood. You drive by a lot of them to come here. And why do you do that? Because we have our differences. Many Baptist churches bear little resemblance to one another, sometimes even conflicting in our interpretations of the Bible, our approaches to worship and preaching, our practices of ordination, our approaches to public theology.
There are all kinds of ways to be Baptist. Maybe that makes it hard to claim our church at a party, but don’t forget where it comes from. Freedom is at the heart of it all. Freedom means our faith is un-coerced, welling up from our own experience of Jesus Christ. We don’t answer to any external authority beyond what we submit to of our own volition. Freedom means our faith is deep, and chosen, and meaningful. But it also means divergence and diversity, plurality, even competition. It means hard work and mutual respect. And it certainly means we will never stop answering this question, “Why Baptist?”
My first vivid memories of that question are from high school. My adolescence was shaped by two vital, but somewhat different, communities.
First, many of you know I’m the son of a Baptist pastor, so church was a stable and consistent part of my life, and by high school, I didn’t even have to be urged to come because my youth group experience was so central to my life. It’s where I learned about my gifts, where I was urged to love my neighbor and look out for others, where I had opportunities for leadership, where I started to sense God was calling me into ministry, where my faith became a central and vocal part of my life and identity.
Alongside of this, and sometimes in seeming tension with it, was the thriving theatre and arts community of my hometown of Lakeland, FL. I had started participating in community theatre as a boy, which led me to audition for and be accepted to the arts high school in our hometown, which meant I took classes in acting, directing, playwriting, and I was always rehearsing for a musical or play. It also meant my friends came from varied backgrounds, as the arts had become a sanctuary for some of them. Some of them were people of different faiths, or no faith at all. Some of them had been wounded by the church, and most of them were confused by “the boy next door type” who was the son of a Baptist pastor. One older student in my first year told me in great detail how his mother had stayed in an abusive relationship at the urging of a Baptist pastor. “You tell me how I’m supposed to believe in God?” he said. And I didn’t know how to deal with that question, so I walked away.
Overseeing this diverse community was the larger than life personality, Mr. Hughes. He had come from New York years ago and become a local legend, directing the community theater and also the theater department of the arts high school. He was a large, imposing and brilliant man of whom we lived in both fear and admiration, with hair flowing to his shoulders, and a beard as full as the chest hair that crept up from the silken shirts he wore. Mr. Hughes had his own church wounds, in part no doubt from growing up in the Baptist-haunted south as a person who was gay. It had led him to become, in his terms, “culturally Jewish” because he valued their traditions and trusted the local Rabbi. But of the Christians he steered clear, and of Baptists in particular, asking me periodically in a friendly but critical tone, “Alan, I don’t understand. Why are you Baptist?”
Today, I could tell him that I’m Baptist because of freedom. And as the foundation of it all, is freedom of the soul, which at our best Baptists have practiced vividly and offered as a gift to Christian tradition, and even to our larger social-political landscape. Freedom of the soul is the belief that faith must come through free choice. No creed, no clergy, no coercion, no authority of government or church or society can force faith on a person.
This term “soul liberty” was made especially popular in the writings of Roger Williams, who while only a Baptist for two months, was shaped by this Baptist ideal. It had arisen, especially, in the writings and witness of one of our earliest Baptists – a man named Thomas Helwys. Helwys was part of a group of Separatists, but he came back to England and became pastor of a small community, before writing a work called “The Mystery of Iniquity” in 1612, which talks about whose responsibility it is when it comes to an individual’s relationship to God. Helwys said, “People’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be the judge between God and people.”
Helwys sent this directly to King James, basically saying, “You have no effect on my future as a Christian… you have no authority… I am free…” Until he wasn’t free. Helwys was jailed, and he died there in 1616. For this belief.
But his witness would continue in the writings of Roger Williams and others, testifying to soul liberty and the absolute necessity of an individual being free and uncoerced in their faith. So vital was the belief that it would eventuate in the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. Maybe we’re so accustomed to it we forget how radical and risky it was. But Baptists knew. They were a part of that.
But Baptists didn’t start it. We can find this freedom throughout the witness of God’s love and relationship with Humanity in Scripture. Every person is created in the image of God, we learn, so every person is therefore competent, and even obligated to make uncoerced commitments of their faith. God has set before us life and death. In the words of the Psalmist that we read earlier, we thirst for God as a deer for water, and we are called to find the satisfaction of relationship with God and put our trust in the one who is our help and our God. As Joshua says to the Israelites, Baptists have said for generations, “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.”
It is as individual and personal as Jesus’ question to Peter in Matthew in our gospel passage. After hearing who all the others had professed him to be, Jesus wants to know Peter’s answer to that core question of our faith, “But who do you say that I am?”
He wants Peter to make up his own mind. Use his own words. His own confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And just a few weeks back, three from our own church waded into the waters of baptism to say the same. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” we asked Noah, Morgan, and Jacob. “Jesus is Lord,” came the reply as they were buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life. Uncoerced, freely chosen, independent faith claimed and called out on their own. Because the God who bypasses all intermediaries and authorities to bring that knowledge to a fisherman like Peter, has brought it to all of us through Jesus Christ. And its enough to build an entire movement that reaches us all these years later.
Of course, lest we take it for granted, we should remember the very next thing Jesus says to Peter: “Get thee behind me, Satan.” No sooner had Peter known the freedom of this faith, than he started to try to manage it, to control it. And we Baptists must remember that this freedom is not something in which we rest, but something we must claim and defend and reiterate in new and compelling ways for new and serious times.
One of the saddest historical facts of the Christian faith is how much we have forgotten this freedom. The early Church faced persecution, but when Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, it became the persecutor. Heretics, blasphemers, pagans and sincere interpreters who differed from the party line were harassed, imprisoned, tortured and executed, and all in the name of God. Prominent Christian leaders – like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin and Oliver Cromwell – all supported the use of coercion in the spread and defense of the Gospel. “Compel them to come in” they quoted from Jesus’ parable of the Great Banquet. So Protestants and Catholics fought wars. Catholics held the Inquisition. “Compel them,” they cried as Protestants banned Catholic worship and as Calvin supported the burning at the stake of a Unitarian. The oppressed became the oppressors.
Protestants even persecuted each other. Luther supported the persecution of our cousins, the Anabaptists, and Anglicans persecuted Separatists, Puritans and Baptists.
Some of our Baptist forebears came as colonists to a new world, proclaiming freedom. But it was only for some. Because as they settled, they killed native peoples and supported chattel slavery, and those preaching freedom became the oppressors again, deaf to the cries that in Christ there is no slave nor free.
God has set before us death and life, and we have chosen death again and again. And so even now, we who proclaim the ideal of freedom, must ask where and how we are tempted to repeat hypocrisy, the entanglement of faith with coercion, the risk of corrupting freedom with oppression, the failure to see the dignity of all who have the freedom to be “raised to walk in newness of life.”
And we have that freedom to choose life. Uncoerced faith, liberty of the spirit, unmolested conscience, voluntarism, self-determination, freedom of the soul. It’s a foundational reason I’m Baptist.
But let me tell you why I think I really am.
It was the mid-1990s and the annual assembly of the Southern Baptist Convention was occurring in the Orlando area, near my hometown of Lakeland. My church, and my pastor father, had separated from the Southern Baptists some years earlier, but still maintained some connections and networks, so they learned that as part of the agenda of the annual meeting in Orlando, the SBC was planning a boycott of the Disney Corporation.
Some of you will remember, this was over Disney’s participation in the PRIDE festival, and open acceptance and affirmation of people who were gay. Southern Baptists, with their particular view and their singular reading of Scripture, were incensed by this and staged a moral majority style attempt to make their voices heard with a large-scale boycott.
And my father spoke out against it. He spoke so compellingly, that the media found him, inviting him to be on news program debating Al Moehler – Southern Seminary President then and now, and the most vocal commentator in Southern Baptist life.
I don’t remember much about the splitscreen, but I vividly recall that Al Moehler said, “Anyone who doesn’t agree with me can take it up with God.”
“Compel them” it was as if he was saying. I remember being proud that I was the son of a Baptist pastor who represented an alternative to that singularity and coercion. At the time I considered it open-mindedness. Now I can recognize it as a commitment to freedom of the soul. Whatever we call it, it made me proud.
And even moreso when I went back to school that fall. Mr. Hughes found a way to pull me aside early in the semester. This larger than life man got down on my level and spoke quietly as he said, “Hey I wanted you to know I saw your father in the news this summer.” And he continued, “He basically restored my faith in the church.” And Mr. Hughes went on to say how he had never met a Baptist like that before.
There are Baptists like that. Our friends need to know it. Our community does, too. Openness, dialogue, grace, the lordship of Jesus who invites us to choose life, the freedom of the individual in relationship to God. These are things we need in this world. And I’ve come to believe that we live them out not in spite of the fact that we’re Baptist, but precisely as a compelling expression of what “Baptist” can mean.
Cothen, Grady C. & James M. Dunn. Soul Freedom: Baptist Battle Cry. Smyth & Helwys, 2000.
Hull, William E. The Meaning of the Baptist Experience. Baptist History & Heritage Society, 2008.
Leonard, Bill J. Baptist Ways: A History. Judson Press, 2003.
________. An Introduction to Baptist Principles. Baptist History & Heritage Society, 2005.
Shurden, Walter B. The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. Smyth & Helwys, 1993.