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”.