Acts 15:22-31



“I believe in the church.” Today, on this Reformation Sunday, Christians of various denominations are united around this singular, unifying belief, often stated in the historic confessions of the Christian church this way: “I believe in one holy catholic Church.” Today, even Protestants confess a belief in a church that is “catholic,” or universal. As a Baptist, I can confess that, too. I believe in that Church. I believe in a common mission, unified by a common Lord, Jesus Christ. I believe in one holy, universal, apostolic Church.

But I also believe in a lot of individual churches. Before I say I believe in a unified vision of the Church, I believe in the brick church on Friendly Avenue, with the Magnolias out front, parallel to the University, close to downtown and not far from Friendly Shopping Center. No, I don’t mean the church with all the pumpkins out front or Friendly Avenue Baptist, but First Baptist on Friendly Avenue. The church where all the kids were running on the lawn at yesterday’s Fall Fest. I believe in that church at 1000 West Friendly.

Like I believe in my previous church, in New York City on the corner of 40th and 9th near the Lincoln Tunnel and the Port Authority, just look for the red doors and ring the bell, someone will be there.

And far away from that traffic and pace, I also believe in a church in a small farming community amidst the bluegrass of Kentucky, where I was dedicated into the faith, where my father was a young part-time pastor while in seminary and my mother played the piano, and the people of that church built those young parents a parsonage right next door. I believe in that church.

Like I believe in the church where I was baptized, located near the mall in Seminole, FL, and the church where I grew into Christian faith, in Lakeland, FL, just a few blocks off the lake with the 3 bells out front.

I believe in the church located halfway down the boulevard that is the best running route in Nashville, TN, where I was told by one of the saints, “I think you should be a pastor.”

As I believe in the church that ordained me, which I was told on my first visit was easy to reach if I just took the Lexington exit off Hwy 52 and made a right at the old Golden Corral, which seemed an odd way to give directions to someone who didn’t know there was a new Golden Corral, or any Golden Corral, for that matter. Then again, it was a reminder that the church had been there long before me and would be there after I was gone, even when landmarks familiar to me had changed.

I believe in those churches, because for Baptists, the church is gathered in particular places. And it’s not first universal or overarching, it’s local. It’s on specific corners and at particular cross streets. You need directions to find it. It’s in individual settings, with individual people committed to living out the gospel in a given place and given time.

That’s how it started for Baptists – with a particular church. I don’t know the precise directions or cross streets where it was located, but I do know the setting: Amsterdam in 1609. The Baptist tradition in which we find ourselves today was at first the work of a local church.

Throughout this month we have been remembering the distinctive features we can celebrate about our Baptist identity, so that we can be proactive and bold in knowing where we’ve been and where we’re going, while being able to know “How to tell your friends you’re Baptist.” There are all kinds of ways to be Baptist, and we must claim and live into our way, which at base is founded on a sense of freedom in matters of faith and thought and conscience, as well as the freedom with which we live out our faith in community as “church.”

Baptists were not the first to claim and proclaim this freedom. We have known it through relationship with God, through the freedom of Christ, and through the witness of many who went before us. Especially today, on this Reformation Sunday, we remember the witness of an Augustinian monk, priest and scholar – Martin Luther – who was at his desk, preparing a series of lectures on Paul’s Letter to the Romans when a moment of clarity occurred and he said it was as if the heavens opened for him as he read the words written centuries before but new in his reading, “We are justified by faith.” You don’t have to persuade God to be gracious. God is already gracious. You don’t have to convince God to be loving. God is love. And this love is not to be measured out by a single, centralized Church, which is what Luther began to sense was happening.

The selling of indulgences became the last straw. Indulgences were issued by the Church, promising forgiveness and freedom from Purgatory. A person could buy indulgences for themselves or their dear departed loved ones. Salespeople traveled all over with these, and when one came to Wittenberg, where Luther was a theology professor, he went to his study and wrote out a theological critique. He wrote ninety-five critiques, in fact. And 500 years ago this week he walked down to the castle church doors, nailed these ninety-five theses to the door with an offer to debate them with anyone. For the church could not offer access to God’s grace. It was already offered freely through Jesus Christ.

Baptists were part of a next generation continuing in this spirit of reform. They did not discover this freedom, but they did live into it boldly, intensifying the commitment, and insisting on the freedom of the individual under the lordship of Christ, and no less the freedom of the individual congregation. In 1609 this led to the establishment of the first Baptist congregation, through the leadership of an uncommonly courageous pastor with the most common of names, John Smyth. Smyth and Thomas Helwys, a layperson, led their congregation to migrate from England to Holland in 1607. They wanted to be free from a prescribed order of worship. They wanted to be free from restrictions and regulations, free from governmental interference. They wanted to be free to order their lives and congregations around their own interpretation of the scriptures. Holland was a center of such freedom, so it was there that Smyth and Helwys led around forty Separatists.

After two years in Holland, studying the scriptures brought Smyth to the then dramatic conclusion that baptism should be administered to believers only, for by baptizing infants, the church was effectively conflating citizenship with faith. And so Smyth baptized himself, pouring water over his head. Smyth then baptized Helwys and all in his congregation who wanted believer’s baptism.

This is the traditional origin of the Baptist movement. And notice that it is the story of forty people. It is at first the story of a local church, It demonstrates what we believe today, that each individual church is free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine who they will be and what they will do, and that the primary authority for churches is not found in popes or bishops or presbyteries or conferences or other external authorities, but in each individual congregation of believers who have the freedom and responsibility to respond to the gospel themselves.

Cecil Sherman, a veteran Baptist preacher and leader, once told about a preacher in Texas who called the Baptist building in Dallas. A receptionist answered the phone: “Baptist headquarters!”

Surprised, the pastor replied, “Ma’am, where are you?”

“Why, at the Baptist building in Dallas,” she answered.

The old preacher replied, “Well I’m calling you from my local church, and I have news for you: I’m at Baptist headquarters.”

Because for Baptists the center of authority and governance has always been the local church, with its own freedom and responsibility. Before we believe in a Church universal, we believe in a particular church, and we believe in that first church in Amsterdam.

But there are other churches that have inspired us, well before 1609 – particular places with individual people and concerns first introduced to us in the witness of Scripture. Of the 110 times the word “church” is used in the New Testament, 95 of those times it refers to a local congregation. Sometimes in our churchy parlance you might hear the phrase “The Ancient Church” or “The Early Church” or “The New Testament Church,” but scripturally there’s no real basis for such an organism. Notice, for instance, that Paul doesn’t address any of his letters to “The Early Church.” He’s not writing to general populations. Paul never wrote to all the Christians of the world. He wrote to people he knew. People that knew him. People with whom he had shared laughter and sob stories and gathered around the bread and wine of communion. When we read Paul’s letters, we are in one sense reading other people’s mail. Because Paul never wrote to the Church universal. He wrote to the church in Rome, and the church in Corinth, and the church in Philippi. These were cross streets he’d been to and individual churches with individual people who had committed themselves to living out faith and hope and love.

Places as individual as those we read about in Acts 15, which gives us an early model of a free church meeting. The early followers of Christ had to decide whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised and follow other Jewish regulations. It was a major issue for these early churches, and so the apostles, pastors and missionaries held a major meeting in Jerusalem. They brought a recommendation to the Jerusalem congregation to send a letter to the Gentile churches asking a few things of them: to abstain from eating meat offered to idols, blood and animals that have been strangled rather than slaughtered, and from sexual immorality. Otherwise, they could proceed outside the tradition and parameters of the existing Law. However, before the leaders sent the letter, notice that the entire Jerusalem congregation approved it. The most critical decision early Christians made had to be congregationally approved, so to speak. It wasn’t enough for Paul, Peter, James and Barnabas to say so. The authority came from the congregation. And when the letter was delivered to Antioch it was not delivered to the pastors. Scripture says it was delivered to the entire gathered congregation and that the congregation rejoiced over it.

From texts such as these we claim our congregational, “free church” model. It’s one of three primary ways churches govern themselves today. In one model, the episcopal, the authority is located with an individual, usually a bishop. In a second model, the presbyterian model, authority is vested with a small group, often called elders. But in the congregational model, authority is located with all the members of the church. There’s a basis for all three of these models throughout the New Testament, but we have claimed ours for the essential role of the individual, which we believe is so core to our Christian faith and our Baptist identity.

Baptist pastor and educator, Brad Creed, tells about a significant find he made at one of the churches he pastored. Thumbing through the yellowed pages of a book of minutes from the turn of the twentieth century, he read the following: 5:30 P.M. Thursday, May 16, 1901. Ladies Missionary Society met at the church. Member present: Ida L. Stephens. Sang — “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” and “Come Unto Me and Rest.” Read James second chapter. Meeting adjourned. Signed, Ida L. Stephens.

Ida and all of us like her recognize what it is to be Baptist. The freedom and the responsibility of the individual are central in faith and practice.

That’s why Baptists have insisted that churches must be free to be the people of God in a given place and time, because we hold a foundational conviction that our local community knows more about the needs of our people than some distant hierarchy or structure or centralized office ever could. No one knows how to be First Baptist Church Greensboro better than First Baptist Church Greensboro. And no one can do that work for us.

My friend, Preston Clegg, was reminded of the importance of the local and contextual some years ago. Preston is a pastor in Little Rock, Arkansas, and he was traveling with a few other pastors on a mission pilgrimage to India, where they were charged with teaching pastors in rural areas. Before leaving they asked these pastors of tribal people groups what they would most like to study together. And the pastors said, almost a decade ago, A Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren – a manual for church mission and growth written about an original megachurch in California.

Now, with all respect for Rick Warren, major translation is involved in bringing A Purpose Driven Church into that context. But there they were, in rural India driving for hours as Preston touched up on the chapters he was assigned. Finally, they pulled into a village and the first thing he saw as they bumped down the road was a man on a cart being pulled by a large oxen. This gave Preston pause, because one of the chapters he was assigned to teach was the chapter on parking lots. How to arrange your parking lots for traffic flow so people can get in and out most efficiently.

Preston was reminded of a few things. For one, that much of Western Christianity is more Western than Christian. But even more, that churches are called to a given time and given place, and each church must have the freedom to respond.

So with this freedom of the church, comes great responsibility of the church.

It’s freedom and responsibility of the church over the State, so that our first birth should never become more important than our rebirth in Jesus Christ.

It’s freedom and responsibility of the church over any denomination, association or connection, lest we begin to think of ourselves as mass-produced, and allow imported programs to substitute for the real, lived ministry we are called to do in a particular cross street at a particular time.

It’s freedom and responsibility of the church over any confession or creed, lest we think anyone has the power to sum up the grand freedom and grace of a living God.

It’s freedom and responsibility of the church over any singular person – whether pastor or officer, or any other appointed role. No one has authority over the gathered congregation itself.

The church has this freedom and responsibility under the lordship of one who came to a particular time and place. Our ministry is not only local, but can also be described as “incarnational,” which is to say, it follows in the way of incarnation we see in Jesus. It puts on flesh, following in the way of one who while sweeping in the significance of his life, witness, proclamation and ministry, also came to a particular place. He came to first century Nazareth, born on the backside of a barn. He walked particular streets, and knew and loved individual people. He listened to their sob stories late into the night. He shared bread and wine. And they found as he did that they knew and loved him, too.

Because the ministry of Christ’s church occurs in the local, the particular, the individual. God doesn’t just love all people at all times, but particular people intimately, individually, incarnationally. God doesn’t just love everyone. God loves you.

And so it is the freedom and responsibility of any of us who gather as church to recognize our role to love in just this same way in the place and time to which we are sent.

My parents were in town yesterday, and my pastor father was at the breakfast table teaching our youngest son, Warner, the well-known rhyme: “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.” Which works, unless you’re Baptist. Because the people are not inside the church. The people are the church itself – the incarnation of the grace of God and the life of Christ at a particular place and a particular time. And I believe in church, because I believe in those people.

People like Judy, who in that rural Kentucky Church where I was born held me through many a service as my parents preached, and played and led.

Or Sue, who in my boyhood church stayed late after every service to sit with a restless 3-year-old while I waited for my father to gladhand. She drew motorcycles on the back of offering envelopes while her husband, Herb, amused me with his impression of Donald Duck.

People like Charlie, who sat down front center left in the church of my adolescence, and was absolutely wide-eyed and glued to me when I stood in the pulpit as an older teenager and shared that I felt God was calling me to ministry. His voice boomed out “Amen” and assured me that it could actually be true.

Or Sterling, who at that church off Hwy 52 leaned down from his 6ft 6in height on the occasion of my ordination to bless me, saying in my ear, “Now as you do this, you be sure you and Jenny take care of each other and take care of any little ‘Alans and Jennys’ you might have one day.” As I felt his heavy hands on my shoulders, and I also felt a tear on my neck.

People like Duard, from the church on the boulevard in Nashville, who over breakfast one day told me he thought I needed to be a pastor, and left me driving away from our meeting deep in thought and prayer.

Or Stephen, who at the church in New York came through the red doors and joined on my third Sunday, because he believed in that church and said he wanted to be a part of this next phase of its life, and he became a key friend and partner in ministry over the next four-and-a-half years as we did that work together.

And people like Kelly, who just under 5 years ago called and left a message on my voicemail, saying, “I’m from First Baptist Greensboro. I’m with the Pastor Search Committee. And we have your resume from someone and wondered if you’d be interested in talking about our pastorate.”

Or people like so many countless others. Others who take a right at the old Golden Corral, or walk up the steps and ring the bell at the red doors, or drive past many a church to reach the big brick church on Friendly Avenue, to share stories and life, tears and great laughter, bread and wine while knowing in it all the very presence of the living God in Jesus Christ.

Yes, I believe in the church universal because I first believe in the church particular. Which is to say I believe in church, because I believe in you. And it’s not in spite of the fact you’re Baptist, but maybe especially because of it.