I became part of the Baptist church when I was seven. Mum and dad had experienced a revitalisation in their faith and were looking for a church that would nurture their newfound spiritual interest. They had never been to a Baptist church but made their way to Caringbah Baptist one Sunday morning. Despite the humiliation of my brother and I getting into a fist fight during morning tea, mum and dad loved it. A packed building, heartfelt worship, and a swarm of people welcoming them was just the sort of church they were after. We stayed. I grew up at Caringbah Baps, had my faith cultivated there, was sponsored by the church to theological college and spent 4.5 years as Caringbah Baps’ youth pastor.
During those years the Baptist movement in Australia had a reputation for legalistic morality, doctrinal rigidity, and sensationalist views of the end of the world. Yet as ugly as those things could be, somewhere along the way I became more and more enamoured of the valuing of freedom that was the founding genius of the Baptist movement. Bouts of legalism, fundamentalism, and ecclesiastical abuse of power, have at times seen churches that declare themselves Baptist all but abandon the principles of freedom upon which their movement was founded. But it is this value that continues to echo in my heart and makes me a Baptist by conviction.
At the heart of a Baptist approach to life is a conviction that faith, beliefs and values can only ever be freely embraced. They cannot and should not be imposed. I and no-one else is ultimately responsible to God for what I believe and how I live. It follows that while I should listen carefully to what others have to say and to their interpretations of Scripture and Christ, at the end of the day I must live by what my conscience tells me to be true. To ask me to do otherwise would be ask me to surrender my lived faithfulness to Christ. And so, Baptist churches may have statements of faith and values, but they are not used as a means to bind conscience or demand conformity. We expect that members will embrace some and reject or question others.
Similarly, Baptists have a conviction that every individual church should seek the mind and the will of Christ free from the dictates of the State or of denominational religious authorities. Members of the congregation should listen to each other, search the Scriptures together, and take into account the wisdom of the wider church, but once they come to a decision, they should surrender it to no-one. Our associations of churches may have statements of faith and values, but they are not used as a means to bind conscience or demand conformity. We expect that members will embrace some and reject or question others. To ask them to do otherwise is to ask them to surrender their lived faithfulness to Christ.
The glue that binds Baptists together is not uniformity of belief, values or practises. We have confidence that the Spirit of Christ, the Scriptures, and the open heart of the believer are sufficient to ensure we remain headed in the right direction. The glue that binds us is a shared faith in Christ and a commitment to love, support, and care for each other on the incredible journey of faith.
This at least is what I understand it means to be Baptist. It’s not something peculiar to churches that have the word “Baptist’ in their title (indeed, many are not Baptist in the sense I have outlined here) but is a way of approaching faith and life that can be held by any individual or any church. It is why I am happy to be “Baptist to my bootstraps”.
Well said, Scott. We need to hear this perspective expressed clearly and often. But it can be hard to balance personal/congregational freedom with the limitations to freedom that associationalism demands. The older I get, the less good I see in that part of the Baptist movement with which I’m most familiar.
Thanks Rod. I agree that finding balance can be difficult. I just wish we’d err on the side of liberty.
Thanks Scott, Important public words – especially since we are in days, it seems to me, when the state unwittingly shapes our polity by wanting all denominations to have a ‘go to’ voice which they want to be authoritative. Baptists qua Baptist should want to keep that voice representative. The state-shaping tendency is towards a top-down authority structure, and that leads to a few surprises in the local Baptist church when it suddenly discovers its view on an issue either via the newspaper or through a report and rubberstamp vote at an assembly rather than through the deliberations and discussion… Read more »
Thanks Ian. Interesting observation on how the state shapes our polity. I’ll need to give that further reflection.
I appreciate reading this. I have not appreciated this about the baptists in the way you’ve expressed this. I wish I could say the same of the pentecostal denomination… unfortunately, many of us subscribe to Group Think and leave our opinions to be formed by our ‘superiors’ … in the end, it’s very common to want a pope/high priest/bishop… saves us the trouble of thinking and asking God for ourselves. Damning, I know, but unfortunately, too true.
It’s a particularly western/ individualist mindset, isn’t it?
Hi Sally, Thanks for commenting. The Baptist movement emerged during the period in western history in which the freedoms of the individual over against the State were being championed. So yes, the Baptist emphasis is a product of the rise of individualism in the West. I don’t think this taints the concept for although there are many flaws in western society and in individualism, I would also contend that the assertion of the dignity and value of individual human beings and their freedoms was a necessary and biblical corrective to the systemic abuse of power that was endemic to medieval… Read more »
Thanks Scott – I agree that “The glue that binds us is a shared faith in Christ..” – to add or suggest anything else is surely motivated by fear more than love…
What a marvellous proclamation this is, Scott. So clear, concise and encouraging to me, a Baptist from the age of 18.
Scott, I think your experience at Caringbah was not typical of churches at least in my youth.
I moved to the Baptist Church 15 years ago as a denominational refugee. So I’m ignorant of this history (not disputing it). My Baptist assembly is apparently free to decide the shape it takes. Let’s say it decides to place itself under the apostolic authority of Bill Johnson and be led via prophetic revelations from Bethel Redding. (Or maybe its own anointed pastor) Now it is no longer meets the test of “what I understand it means to be Baptist” above- but it only did what your definition made it free to do, so it still can be Baptist as… Read more »
As Baptists, we affirm the principle of liberty of conscience. At the same time, we acknowledge that we should not use our freedom as justification for sin. (Gal 5:13) In our association, we have codes of conduct for leaders. Even if people disagree on what Scripture says on particular issues, I don’t think it is ‘legalism’ to prescribe what is acceptable and unacceptable conduct for leaders. That’s just setting some agreed boundaries and provides a framework for mutual accountability. As much as we argue for the separation of church and state, the scrutiny of a Royal Commission has highlighted that… Read more »
Hi Lisa, I agree with and support Ministers as a professional body adopting a code of conduct that defines expectations around treating people with integrity and fulfilling their responsibilities.
Thanks Scott. It’s good not to be apologetic about our denomination. I am a died in the wool Baptist with a charismatic bent. It seems to work well.
Thanks Scott. You provide a light that always shines into that intersection of faith and action. This Baptist thanks you for it.