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American Baptist Treasures

While I grew up Baptist, I did not grow up American Baptist. Coming from outside 25 years ago, my perspective may be different from those who have always been here. They may not see or recognize the four treasures I have discovered in American Baptist life. Those treasures are very concrete practices, not abstract principles.

American Baptists are unapologetic in their support and encouragement of women in ministry. I know this is not true in every place. And I also know this is an anomaly among Baptists in general.

John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, commonly identified as the first Baptists, commended women as church leaders, specifically deacons, in 1609. But something happened in the 1700s, and women faded from leadership in Baptist churches. The Spirit broke through in the 1800s when Joanna P. Moore was commissioned as a missionary by the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Others followed.

Historically, Baptist women have served as church teachers and leaders, deacons, missionaries and pastors. Some were ordained. Others were licensed. Still others were commissioned. Too many others had no such recognition at all. Even though this treasure is more valued in some places than others, I rejoice that it is ours.

American Baptists are an ethnically diverse denomination. I survived the ’60s and today celebrate the fact that no other denomination in America today matches our ethnic diversity. Numerically, there is no ethnic majority among us. We truly are a reflection of the Kingdom of God.

At the same time, we cannot rest on self-congratulation.

In too many cases our integration is superficial–it looks and sounds good. We rarely speak honestly with one another, because it might undermine our public persona of openness. We are covered by a façade that often hides condescension and mistrust.

To get past this superficial integration, then we must learn to talk about very real differences. Together we must also expose our differences and cultures to the penetrating light of the gospel. We must learn to discern and speak to the good and true within one another, as well as the ugly and false. Without a fully engaged two-way (actually multiple-way) conversation we will continue to look and sound good while remaining unconverted. The beloved community will come only through conversion.

As much as I treasure what we have become, I long for the day in which “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The third treasure is a commitment to the whole gospel. Our heritage includes the late 19th and early 20th century “evangelicals,” who not only practiced believers’ baptism, they also had a profound sense of social responsibility that was rooted in and sustained by the Bible. They cared for the down and out and forgot about because it was an essential part of the Gospel.

The modern debate that positions a personal gospel opposite a social gospel would be foolish to early evangelicals. It is bad enough when Baptists choose only one over the other and inexcusable when one side identifies itself exclusively as the “real” heritage of Baptists. American Baptist history is full of evidences that we have struggled to keep the gospel whole, with all its implications.

American Baptists sent out the first colporteurs to do personal evangelism work in 1843. At the same time we addressed social sin though leaders like Walter Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harold Stassen.

The continued emphasis on the whole gospel is potentially one of the greatest contributions that American Baptists can make to Christianity in 21st century America.

Finally, there is the treasure of our partnership missiology.

The emergence of the worldwide missionary movement in the 19th century left its mark on Baptists. We were not especially “missionary” before the Judsons went to Burma in 1812. These first American Baptist missionaries were adopted after they were already on the field. We did not begin supporting them until 1814 at the instigation of Luther Rice.

Since then Baptists have been indelibly shaped by international missions. Most of us, regardless of which peculiar Baptist family we claim, have survived to this point in history as missionary churches.

At the same time, there was something unsavory about missions as it was rooted in the 19th century. Intended or not, parentalism and colonialism often lurked in the background.

But American Baptist missiology matured–and that is the real treasure. We have not escaped all cultural bonds, but the arrogant days of missionaries arriving to take control are over. All around the world, American Baptist missionaries are in countries because they have been invited by local Baptists.

The treasure of American Baptist missions is not the number of missionaries on the field, the number of countries in which we have missionaries or the number of dollars we raise and spend on international missions. The real treasure of American Baptist missions is the way we choose to participate in God’s world-wide mission.

In conclusion, I believe these four specific practices within American Baptist churches more accurately describe who we are than any academic study of so-called “Baptist principles.” These are the practices that I have come to treasure.

Dwight Stinnett is executive minister of American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region. This column is adapted from a message presented at the ABC New Jersey Annual Meeting 2007