A Long Witness

Pastor Doug Stratton –   July 30, 2017

Hebrews 12:1-3    

       Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

CCI: At the heart of our family is a long tradition of faith that God will lead the way.

Intro: Last week we looked at the core values of Hatboro Baptist Church, the call to love God, to do justice and care for the outcast and to practice mercy. Today, I want us to look at the heart of the family of which we are a part.

Have you ever wondered why the family of Baptists are so very diverse? How can a group like Westboro Baptist (in Topeka, KS) with all their hatred and vitriolic protests share a family name with, Martin Luther King, Jr, Billy Graham or Jimmy Carter? How can some Baptists prevent women from serving as pastors or deacons and others welcome the gifts not just of women, but of those who are LGBTQ in all areas of ministry? How can some Baptist congregations present themselves as pacifists, and others support the military as a tool of righteousness?  Recently, Rev. Dr. Amy Butler wrote a series of articles on Baptist faith and history, some of what I share this morning is reflective of her great work.

A few years ago an informal Twitter survey about words that come to mind when you hear the name “Baptist” resulted in responses like: legalism, controlling fights, fried chicken, women who can’t wear pants, Disney boycott, fundamentalism, conservative, bickering, narrow-minded, crazy people, complete irrelevancy, uptight, stuffy holy rollers, lost the next generation, too limited, closed minded, self-righteous, antiquated, my grandmother, (and are you ready for this?) men in suspenders.

Given this list of associations, it is fair to ask why anyone would want to be part of this family? In fact, many of my colleagues have separated themselves from the family for this very reason. But I remain a Baptist, Why? It is because of what is at the core of the idea of being Baptist.

I often refer to denominational ties as our spititual immediate family. Certainly all who claim the name of Christ are one family, but when you look at a family tree, we realize that there are many branches with different characteristics. So this family of Baptists is our immediate family.

Many times I have been asked, “What do Baptists believe about …..?” And my response is always the same, “Which Baptist are you talking about?” That may sound like I am being wishy-washy, but there really is no other answer. We are part of a long line of faithful followers of Christ who have often been persecuted for their unique and at times unpopular beliefs.

Let me explain. The history of Baptists, while debated by some, goes back to a period about 80 years after Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation. It started in England with a group that felt the Church of England did not go far enough in removing Roman Catholic practices. These people were the Puritans and they sought to further reform the church.  However, within the Puritans there was a group known as the separatists who wanted to separate from the national church – and remember, at this time the church and state were the same. So, the decision to separate did not go over well with King James, yes, the same King James who commissioned the translation, and he began hunting down the separatists.  A small group of about 40 people left England and fled to Amsterdam where they were relatively safe. In Amsterdam, through contact with Mennonites, these Separatists under the leadership of John Smythe and Thomas Helwys became convinced that baptism must be the decision of each individual, and so they were all baptized (cause their infant baptism obviously did not count). John Smythe even baptizing himself.

The movement that was started by these 40 grew, in fact a small group of them returned to England and planted other churches. While there Thomas Helwys was arrested for his revolutionary thoughts about religious liberty. Helwys died in prison.

But the division that occurred between Smythe and Helwys became one of the most important distinctions for Baptists. The first two groups of Baptists came together over a matter of conscience. And from that day on Baptists have gathered around shared convictions. At the same time we are open to the work of God’s Spirit, in and through whomever and whatever God chooses. The space between coming together over shared convictions and being open to God doing other things can be a very messy space. This is why there is such diversity in our family. Some have even suggested that one of the distinctives of Baptist identity is Messiness!

       But really, there are several distinctives that not only make it possible for us to be a diverse body, but mean it can be no other way.

  • Soul Liberty (non-coercive faith)

Soul Liberty is the God-given freedom and ability of persons to know and respond to God’s will. It is not merely a human characteristic, but a gift from God. In creation, God gave to persons the freedom to make choices. And therefore, it is the responsibility of each person to choose whether they will follow God or not. God does not coerce faith, and neither can people. The idea that Christianity can be imposed upon a person by threat of force is never a Baptist idea.

The reason Thomas Helwys was arrested is that he wrote an essay called, Short Treatise on the Mystery of Iniquity, in it Helwys said, “You can make a man kneel at an altar, but you cannot touch his heart.” Basically, Baptists are all about voluntary church—no coercion, no telling you what you have to believe, no forcing faith on anyone.  Period. This does not mean we do not share our faith, we do and we must. But we cannot coerce people into belief. Out of this foundational conviction came the adherence to the priesthood of the believer (everybody has the right and responsibility to tend to their relationship with God); the importance of Scripture (everybody should read it and find its meaning); and belief as the conscious act of an adult (you have to know what you’re doing to come into faith).  So, as you can see, the noncoercion of belief is a big one for Baptists (hard to believe with what you see on the news these days, isn’t it?).

The second essential mark of Baptists is the importance of the scriptures interpreted through the life, work and witness of Jesus. As Baptists we do not adhere to any creeds (remember the messiness that comes from letting the Spirit guide each believer?). Most Baptist churches do not incorporate the Apostles Creed in our worship. However, our creed is the New Testament. The Bible is taken seriously by Baptists but soul liberty means we do not all interpret it the same way.

That is why it is essential that we all spend time reading and studying the Bible. God reveals the truth through the Word as believers wrestle with it together.  And so we study the scripture and seek to apply the truths we discover. And where we disagree, we seek to view the scriptures through the lens of Jesus Christ who is the unchanging center of our faith.

The third essential in Baptist life, is the Autonomy of the Local Church. Just as faith cannot be coerced, so local congregations do not answer to anyone but Jesus Christ. We do not have a national or global body of leaders who declare what we are to believe and determine what our worship will look like. That is why if you go into any two Baptist churches, anywhere in America, you will experience 2 different services. Sometimes they will be close, and other times they will be very different. In some Baptist Churches the clergy wear robes and process down the aisle while the Congregation sings Holy, Holy, Holy. Other Baptists have very informal worship and even handle snakes as part of their worship.

Our system is great because we are free to respond to God as God calls in our lives. But that also means our system is, can you guess? MESSY because there is no hierarchy to step in and take control when crazy gets out of control.

The Autonomy of the Local church means that churches can freely associate with one another based on shared goals or convictions, but they are not controlled by their associations.

The fourth distinct characteristic is in the area of church membership. Unlike many Christian bodies, Baptists church membership is reserved for those who have made a personal profession of faith. We call it Regenerate church Membership. That is why we practice Believer’s Baptism, the decision to follow Jesus is a decision that each person must make for themselves. Having grown up all my life in a Baptist Church, this is completely natural to me, but in many groups you are a member of a church because you were born into a family who was a member, or even because of the parish or neighborhood where you live.

Because each member of a Baptist Church chooses to belong, we also strive to give each person a voice. Baptists are known to be democratic, sometimes they are democratic to an extreme. The first church I served had monthly church business meetings where each decision that was made was open for review. I actually was at a meeting where a person from the congregation successfully asked for 3 bids for a case of toilet paper the trustees were buying!?! Even the reality of regenerate church membership can be MESSY!

The fifth distinctive is religious liberty. Because we reject coercion, we also refuse to be coercive and seek religious freedom even for those who are different from us. Baptists were born in a climate of oppression; their theological convictions were forged in the furnace of extreme hardship and persecution.  Baptists, in their purest and most admirable expression, hold religious liberty as a nonnegotiable conviction.  Baptists have been outspoken defenders of religious liberty, far beyond even their own ranks.  Early American Baptists like Roger Williams, John Clarke, Isaac Backus, John Leland strongly argued against any expression of a religious state, against everything from compulsory church attendance, to a tax to support religion, to discrimination against non-Christian religions. Religious liberty is rooted in that first distinctive, soul liberty. So when Baptists start legislating their moral imperatives for the rest of a society, they cease being Baptist.

These are the primary distinctive traits or our spiritual family. But when you add noncoercion to democratic governance, you can, in theory, do you want—so see how hard it is to answer the question, “What do Baptists believe?”? It is Messy! Because Baptists are noncreedal—they don’t adhere to prescribed statements of faith or coerce agreement—Baptists are perpetually reinventing themselves in different variations.  That is why there are so many Baptists!

Amy Butler reminds us that there are over 200 identified different kinds of Baptists in America.  We vary from Rick Warren’s huge Saddleback Church in California to little country churches in the middle of nowhere.  And Baptists all over the world echo that variety.  You can find Baptist churches that handle snakes, use incense in worship, identify themselves as Appalachian Fundamentalist Universalist Baptists.  We’ve got Baptists who ordain women as a matter of course and those for whom women in any form of leadership is an anathema.  We claim churches like Hell Hole Swamp Baptist Church in South Carolina and Harmony Baptist Church in East Texas—just a half mile away from Harmony Baptist Church #2.

But here’s the thing “about what it means to be Baptist: when you cast the net wide and leave the borders open, the variety that results is vast and (yes, messy).  In and among that variety is much that troubles.  And in and among that variety we can also see so clearly the transforming and beautiful work of the Spirit of God.”

I have been asked why I am a part of this messy family, and I guess it comes down to Jesus. Baptists are the original WWJD folks—while we don’t have creeds and there are very few absolutes in our patterns of belief, at our best we measure everything against the life and message of Jesus Christ.  That doesn’t mean we all agree, but it does mean, for me, that at the core of this faith I practice—however you want to denominationally label it—I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Being a Baptist gives me the freedom to interpret and claim this identity as a Jesus follower in ways that I find most authentic and genuine, fueled by my own conviction and (I hope) the Spirit of God.

This freedom is part of a long history both in the 183 years of Hatboro Baptist Church, and in the 300 years of the American Baptist Mission Society and even in the 2000 years of Jesus followers throughout history. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on!

I want to echo Rev. Dr. Butler’s thoughts in closing: “I guess ultimately for me, being Baptist has been an experience not unlike that of Elias Keach.  Elias Keach was the delinquent son of a well-known Baptist preacher in England, Benjamin Keach.  Elias was such trouble that, at the end of his rope, Benjamin Keach decided to send his son to America so he could get his life together.  So Benjamin sent him along with a letter of introduction to the Baptist community in Philadelphia.  I suppose the letter wasn’t that specific, because Elias thought it would be fun to play a joke when he arrived in Philadelphia and pretend that he himself was a minister.  (Having been a preacher’s kid, he could pull that off with his eyes closed.)  So he was invited to preach, which he did.  The thing is, he preached so well and so convincingly, that in the process of delivering his sermon…he got converted.  He was so moved by the experience that he confessed his deception to the congregation.  And then he went on to become a highly respected Baptist pastor in early America.

“That’s what I love about being a Baptist most of all: that the unpredictable movement of God’s Spirit is welcomed, and that in its working even somebody like me can find a place at the table.”

Join Hatboro Baptist Church, Sundays at 10:30am for fellowship in the Narthex and 11am for Worship.