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What’s the Big Deal about Being Baptist?

Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on October 18 2009.

1 Corinthians 9:19; Galatians 1:1, 13

Billy died and went to heaven.  St. Peter offered to show him around.  As they walked from place to place, St. Peter pointed to the different groups and explained who they were.

          “There are the Episcopalians…those are the Catholics…the Methodists are over there…the ones in the corner are Lutherans…”   

          They arrived at a compound surrounded by a high wall.  From inside could be heard the sound of voices and laughter.  “Who are those people?” asked Billy.

          “Hush!” said St. Peter.  “Those are the Baptists, but they think they are the only ones here.”

          Today as we continue our celebration of the 400th birthday of Baptists, the last thing I want to do is reinforce the idea that Baptists are the only folks in heaven.  Not that I didn’t grow up thinking that. 

          The Baptist church where I grew up came dangerously close to believing and saying that Baptists were the only true and faithful church.  We had doubts about Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Methodists, serious doubts about Episcopalians, and where Catholics are concerned—let’s just say that the first date I had a with Catholic girl triggered a major crisis in my home! 

          I still remember reading a pamphlet published by Baptists entitled, “If a Christian Why Not a Baptist?”  Unfortunately, I don’t have the pamphlet anymore because when I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary a Presbyterian student stole the pamphlet and threw it in the trash (just kidding)!

          What my home church conveniently ignored, of course, is that Baptists have far more in common with other Christian denominations than we have differences.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Baptists brag that “We Baptists believe the Bible,” as though no other denomination does.  The truth is all Christian traditions believe the Bible is the Word of God, and Jesus is the Son of God.  Various interpretations of scripture and Christology abound, of course, but suffice to say we Baptists are not the only ones who cherish the authority of scripture and the divinity of Christ.  And suffice to say when we all get to heaven denominational distinctives will fade away.

          But we’re not in heaven yet, and there are some things about being Baptist that need to be celebrated.  That’s true even though we live in a supposedly post-denominational age. 

          For many years now I’ve been reading that denominational identity is diminishing in the United States.  Truthfully many of us are Baptists only because we were born in Baptist families.  We never really compared the differences between denominations—we just went to church where our parents took us.  These days, as children grow into adults, they no longer feel bound to stay in the denominations of their births.  They simply go where they want to go, where they feel like they belong and are spiritually fed.  The denominational label is increasingly irrelevant.

          Furthermore, the evidence clearly shows that the fastest growing churches in America are non-denominational.   Indeed, given that virtually all Protestant  denominations are in steep decline—or at best plateaued—denominational labels look more and more like a liability.  This is especially true of Baptists in the South who have managed through the Southern Baptist Convention wars to convince much of the American public that we are judgmental legalists who fight constantly and are spiritually superior to everybody else.  This is why many young Baptist pastors wish they could lead churches without “Baptist” in their name.

          All that said, I still think it’s important to not only review but celebrate our Baptist heritage.  For one thing, even churches without “Baptist” in their name operate with a set of principles and a brand of polity that closely resembles the Baptist model.  That’s why Martin Marty wrote in Christianity Today some 25 years ago that much of the church in America was being “baptistified.”  And then there’s the fact that every freedom-loving American citizen—Christian or not, and especially those who are not—owes a debt to Baptists.

          To truly appreciate the legacy of Baptists we’ve got to dial the clock back hundreds of years.  From roughly 500 to 1500 A.D, freedom was a word scarcely understood by most people.  Much of Christianity in the West was part of a monolithic culture dominated by top-down, hierarchical rule.  As Bill Hull observes, “The monarch ruled the state, the pope ruled the church, and the father ruled the home.” 

          What’s odd about this configuration of Christianity is that it flies in the face of biblical Christianity.  The Apostle Paul knew all about top-down, hierarchical rule.  He once was a key leader of a religious establishment that handed down countless rules and regulations to its followers, and expected them to obey or pay a heavy price. So Paul heartily agreed with the crucifixion of that rebel, Jesus of Nazareth, and supervised the execution of the first martyr Christian named Stephen.

          But then Paul had a personal experience with the Risen Christ that turned his world upside down.  Once he received the Spirit of Christ, he realized he was no longer a slave to Jewish traditions and laws.  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, writes Paul.  Now he belongs to no one but Jesus.  Of course Paul will not abuse his freedom—he will use it to serve Jesus and those for whom Christ died.  But make no mistake—all that Paul does will be done freely, not out of blind obedience to any priest, institution, or law.               

          But like many other articles of New Testament Christianity, this freedom in Christ was gradually lost.  And it remained lost, a victim of the marriage between an authoritarian church and an autocratic state. 

          As early as the fourteenth century, reformers like John Wycliffe and John Hus began to question the infallible rule of the Pope and the authority of the state in religious matters.  Then in 1517 Martin Luther shook the medieval world when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, claiming that he valued his own personal understanding of the scriptures above the collective understanding of the Catholic Church.  Soon thereafter, a priest named Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland followed Luther’s lead, as did John Calvin in Geneva.

          But there was a group of radical reformers who didn’t think Luther and company had gone far enough.  They were especially bothered that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin retained the practice of infant baptism, which effectively automatically admitted newborn citizens of their country into their churches.  This still left the state determining who was and wasn’t a Christian.

          Felix Mantz was one of those radical reformers who was a “Baptist” before Baptists were officially born.  In 1523, he was sentenced to be drowned for his commitment to believer’s baptism, or the idea that only believers in Christ should be baptized.  Led through the streets of Zurich, he preached to the people as he walked.  His old mother and brother, brushing away their tears, walked by the side of the executioner’s cart exhorting Felix to suffer bravely for Jesus’ sake. 

          About the same time, the Catholic Church of England was splitting, thanks to the shenanigans of King Henry VIII who wanted to illegally annul his first marriage and start another.  Soon the Anglican Church of England was up and running.  And it wasn’t long before members of that Anglican Church called “Puritans” began complaining about the corruption of their church.   They were called Puritans because they wanted to purify the church. 

          “Non-separating” Puritans believed the Church of England was still the true church of Christ, and worth saving if it could just be rid of the remaining residue of the Catholic Church.  “Separatist” Puritans believed the Church of England was rotten to the core and beyond reform.  King James I—the same king who authorized the famous King James Version of the Bible—took a dim view of these rebellious Puritans, especially the Separatists, and he began vigorously persecuting them.

          So, many Puritan Separatists fled to Holland to escape this persecution, including a former Anglican pastor named John Smyth.  Smyth eventually teamed up with another English refugee named Thomas Helwys.   Helwys was a relatively affluent businessman who apparently paid for the passage of many English Puritans to Holland.  Convinced that believers’ baptism was the only authentic New Testament form of Baptism, Smyth and Helwys decided to form their own church in a bakery in Amsterdam in the year 1609.  John Smyth baptized himself first, then Helwys, and then several other followers through a process called affusion, pouring water upon himself and others three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

          And so, according to most Baptist historians, when John Smyth baptized himself he became the first official Baptist in history.

          Ironically, John Smyth did not remain a Baptist long.  After researching a nearby Mennonite church, he became convinced that the Mennonites were even closer to the New Testament than the newly formed Baptists, so he applied for membership in a Mennonite church.  Meanwhile, Thomas Helwys remained faithful to the original Baptist vision, and eventually moved himself and his fellow Baptists  back to England where they became the first British Baptists.

          Just before leaving Holland, Helwys wrote a book entitled, The Mystery of Iniquity.When he returned to England, he mailed a copy to King James.  On the flyleaf of the book he wrote this famous inscription:

          “Hear, O King, and diligently note the counsel of the poor, and let their complaints come before you.

          “The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects, to make laws and ordinances for them, and to set spiritual Lords over them.

          “If the King has authority to make spiritual Lords and laws, then he is an immortal God, and not mortal man.

          “O King, be not seduced by deceivers to sin so against God, whom thou oughtest to obey, nor against thy poor subjects who ought and will obey thee in all things with body and life and goods, or else let their lives be taken from the earth.

          “God save the King.”

          Most scholars agree this statement by our Baptist founder Thomas Helwys was the first statement advocating about religious liberty written in the English-speaking world.  In his book Helwys argues for the unthinkable—every person, even the heretic, should be free to make his or her own mind up about faith, without pressure or punishment from kings or bishops or churches. 

          Of course, King James did not agree, and he had Thomas Helwys thrown in prison, where he spent the rest of his life.

          Meanwhile, this new spirit of freedom spread to the New World of America, though it did not develop here without difficulty.  Both Non-Separating and Separatist Puritans came to the shores of America in the early 1600s, and it wasn’t long before the Non-Separating Puritans were persecuting the Separatist Puritans.  When one of those Separatist Puritans—Roger Williams—was thrown out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious beliefs, he started the first Baptist church in America in Rhode Island in 1639.  Oddly enough the first Baptist in America followed in the footsteps of the first Baptist of Europe as he eventually left the Baptist church.  But the fledgling Baptist movement took root, and began to spread throughout the colonies despite fierce persecution from the Congregational church in the north, and the Anglican church in the South. 

          Speaking of the South, we owe a great debt to a Virginia Baptist named John Leland who fought tooth and nail to end the state church of Virginia, and have inserted into our American Constitution language guaranteeing the freedom of every individual to make his or her own mind up about religion.  It is no overstatement to say every American can thank a Baptist for these precious words that appear in the First Amendment of our Constitution:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

          No, Baptists aren’t the only freedom-loving people in the world.  But thanks to their efforts, millions of people here and abroad enjoy freedom of conscience when it comes to religion.  No elected official, no ordained minister controls what we believe, or what we do about church, if anything.  And that, my friends, is a very big deal!