Baptist Movement: Reflections on Flexible Distinctions. Part III

From "Baptizing in the Jordan" by Si...
From “Baptizing in the Jordan” by Silas X. Floyd (1869-1923) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

<This is a continuation on Baptist distinctives and their value in flexibility for missions, and some missional risks regarding each of these. NOTE: Not really focusing on the correctness or falsity of these distinctives.>

Individual Soul Liberty of the Believer. Some add “Responsibility” or Individual Soul Liberty and Responsbility of the Believer. The individual is responsible to God alone. As such, the individual must make an allegiance choice… with God or against God. However, Baptists would say that Christians are not required to owe allegiance to pope, denomination, or anyone else. You may notice a high focus on individualism and autonomy in the Baptist distinctives. Some have made the argument that Baptists (along with some other groups like Anabaptists and Quakers) are not Protestants at all, since the Protestant movement focused on the state churches… the right for a government and its people to not be tied to the Roman Catholic Church. However, the high level of overlap between the various movements suggest to me that the Baptists and others form a distinct branch in the overall Protestant movement.

Flexibility. If allegiance is to God alone, then it is not to a culture, a structure, a “state church” or anything else. In theory, at least, lessens the cultural baggage involved in the enculturization of faith to new locations.

Risk. Again, a high level of individualism may put one at odds with cultures where group or clan mentality dominates individual mentality. Since church is a community structure, emphasizing the individual to such a large extent may lessen the value of church as a community. The same may be of other social structures.

 

Saved Church Membership. Or some would say, Saved, Baptized Church Membership. In the Baptist church, people are not born into the church. At some point in a person’s life, they choose to follow God (conversion). Then in obedience to the ordinance of Baptism, they declare their faith before God and man. At that point they can seek membership in a Baptist church, or in some cases are automatically recognized as members of that local church.

Flexibility. This particular distinctive probably is not all that inherently flexible. It is often an issue since believer’s baptism tends to put Baptists at odds both with non-Christian groups and with those that practice infant baptism (baptism based on the faith of the parents rather than the faith of the one being baptized). The issue of whether one needs to be rebaptized has been a challenge (whether baptism was done as an infant, whether it was done by a method other than immersion, or whether it was done from a different faith tradition). However, since salvation is not dependent on membership or on baptism, there is room for flexibility in places where religious freedom is heavily limited.

Risk. The saved church membership As noted before, this distinctive can be divisive when it comes to interacting with other Christian groups. However, one concern I have is that it risks placing families in a questionable status. Consider a family where the mother is a (saved baptized) member of a local Baptist church, where the husband is not and the children are too young. What is the status of the other members of this family with regard to the church. Legally, the mother is a member of the church and the others are not. But should these others be non-members in the same way as the other 7 billion people are not members of that local church? One way around it is to describe something called “the church family” that encompasses members, close family members of the church members, attendees, and “friends”. However, there is no real consistency in this. And Baptist churches still have some problem dealing with how to recognize things such as births. Churches don’t want to make a religious ceremony seem too meaningful at risk of suggesting that it is sacramental or appearing too much like infant baptism. But most cultures recognize the importance of imparting religious significance to major life events. Despite the potential flexibility within the Baptist Movement, its general rejection of most religious symbols is a challenge in many cultures.

 

Two Offices of the Local Church– Pastor and Deacon. Baptist churches tend to see that there are two offices in the local church that are “God-ordained” or commanded by the Bible. These are Pastor– provides spiritual leadership within the local church, and Deacon– providing ministerial leadership in the church. This is based on a fairly reasonable interpretation of the Bible, especially the Pastoral Epistles. This is not to say that Baptist Churches don’t have other offices, they do. These include Sunday-School Superintendant, Missions Director, Treasurer, Church Secretary, and more. However, these are offices determined by the local church to be useful for church functioning, but are seen as different from pastora and deacons, which are seen as designated by God.

Flexibility. With only two formally required offices, there is room for a lot of flexibility. Some are even more flexible, not having formal deacons, or even formal pastors. Because of concepts such as “priesthood of the believer,” “individual soul liberty,” and “soul sufficiency” offices in the church tend to be set up more for practicality than necessity. As such, church structure can, in theory, change considerably, depending on the local needs.

Risks. Baptists may not be highly historical, however, they still have problems of becoming unyielding at certain points. Some feel that having pastors means that one cannot have a board of elders… even where such a board would be culturally appropriate. Some feel that there should only be one pastor per church, even where this doesn’t make that much sense. Many believe that the Bible constrains who can be pastor or deacon based on gender. Whether this is true or not, it is a challenge. Many churches have ministry leaders and a board of deacons as separate entities. It leaves the question of what the purpose of the deacons in the church actually is. Perhaps the ecclesiology and the culture of the local church should be considered more carefully for effectiveness.

 

Separation of Church and State. As noted before, Baptists have had to work to exercise their right to worship God as they please without interference by civil authorities. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 provided freedom of religion for different governments, but not for individual people. Baptists sought freedom from the state regarding their faith practices and sought in response to limit their role in dictating the faith practices of other people via government.

Flexibility. Generally, this is pretty flexible since the trend in recent decades/centuries is the removal of eccliastical control of government. Baptist churches can be in friendly or hostile environments because of their tendency not to interfere with local politics.

Risks. With the demise of state churches, this distinctive has become a bit murky. Does the separation of church and state emphasize protection of church from the state, or protection of state from the church? Some Baptists find dabbling in politics and law to be valuable, even important. While none would require people to become Baptists, some have sought to set laws to make people act like Baptists. The high level of separation has been a problem at times as well. Some view a high dualism between faith and politics to the point that one is not really supposed to affect the other. The problem is that this is not realistic, and probably not desirable. The church should still have a prophetic role in government, and should have a voice in social justice. In some countries, where registration of churches is a requirement, separation has seen itself with operation outside of the bonds of law. Whether that is desirable or problematic depends on one’s view of government.

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There are other distinctives and more that can be said. But this seems like a fine time to stop The fact that Baptists do not link themselves tightly to a specific church hierarchy (Roman Catholicism or Greek Orthodox for example), nor tie themselves narrowly to a specific Bible interpretation (Calvinism or Pentecostalism) for example, provides a lot of flexibility. Still that flexibility has caused schisms, and ignorance of doctrine and history. Missionally, the flexibility has often been a help, but the same flexibility that  created a massive number of Baptist missionaries and mission organizations has also produced anti-mission movements and hyper-Calvinistic Baptists.

I would argue that Baptists should embrace their distinctives but also understand their history, value their flexibilities, and honestly face their risks.

Strudel Missions?

This is a true story, but intentionally vague on details.

Years ago, the church convention my wife and I are members of had a partnership with the Austrian Baptists. Many people respond negatively to the term “partnership” in missions because the partnership is often in word only. In practice, it can be simply unidirectional help. The one with the Austrian Baptists should have been that way as well. Why?applestrudel

-They were only 18 churches back then (they have grown since then).

-They are culturally divided. Half of the congregations are German, half are Romany.

-Their total membership as a group is less than many a single church in our convention.

-They were not even recognized by their own country.

On the other hand, our convention has over 1500 congregations. You can see how “partnership” could really become dependency.

Well, one day, the partnership coordinator of our convention received a message from the Austrian Baptists that they wanted to send a Strudel-making Team to us to help out our local ministries. The coordinator did not know how to respond. What would he do with a strudel-making team?

But, of course, one doesn’t want to say “NO”. That is part of being partners. They take us seriously and we take them seriously and seek to grow together.

So a few weeks later, the coordinator was having a meeting with various local ministriesministries. In an almost off-hand manner he says, “Oh yeah, the Austrian Baptists want to send a… ummm…. ‘strudel making team’ to us. So if you have any way to use them… let me know.” He wasn’t sure if anyone would have any use for a strudel making team. But to his surprise he got many quick responses.

One said, “Oh, sign me up for them! We can definitely use them at our student union.” Another one said, “Hey, they would be great for our coffeehouse outreach.” Soon the team from Austria had too many places to go. They came and had a successful ministry, and then came back the following year to finish what they could not do the first year.

What can one say to this?

-Everyone has something to offer, and everyone has something to learn. We need to simply be open to recognizing what we have and don’t have.

-The big can help the small and the small can help the big. It is not size… it is willingness to use what God has given you.