Editor’s note: This column is another of several EthicsDaily.com will carry from an initiative from Great Britain called “Beyond400.net – Baptists Imagining Life After 400 Years.”
I wonder why you became a Baptist.
Maybe you never did: perhaps you’re a cradle Baptist, or you just found yourself once in a church with a Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB) logo on the front, or perhaps you’d first reach for words like “Bible believing,” “liberal evangelical” or “charismatic” to describe your church tradition.
You wouldn’t be alone. Our wider Baptist identity has become a bit of an optional extra.
Recently, all first-year ministerial students were invited to attend Baptist House (the national BUGB resource center) for a conference where there was a Q-and-A with BUGB’s general secretary, Jonathan Edwards.
Neatly sidestepping a difficult question about the Baptist position on something, Jonathan Edwards replied “there isn’t the Baptist church in Britain, there is only a family of Baptist churches within Britain.”
Risking the wrath of Baptist House when this is published, I have to say, I disagree.
If we are “only a family,” then there is something in our DNA which, although expressed differently and freely in each place, provides us with a common identity: we all understand ourselves as Christ’s church.
You see, I actively chose to be a Baptist. When discerning a call to ministry, I was attracted to this denomination above all others because I think there is something unique summed up in our Declaration of Principle, which gives us a revolutionary approach to handling the challenges of the 21st century (women’s ministry and homosexuality are two good examples so far) and the diversity of opinion on those issues.
To say that Jesus Christ is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice makes us a radical denomination and it unites us together.
For Baptists, it is not just about right or wrong ways of reading the Bible, or liberal or conservative interpretations. It is about Christ.
Far from “no creed but the Bible,” it means that reading Scripture cannot just be about condemning or affirming homosexuality or women’s ministry or children receiving communion or [insert debate of choice here], but it is about further opening up the church’s relationship with God.
I am not arguing that Scripture is woolly or unimportant, rather, if we are seeking a relationship with Christ through our reading of Scripture, then we cannot proof-text: our own agendas are trumped by our love of God and of each other.
If, as an ardent liberal, I see that in the conservative there is a deep desire to serve Christ faithfully, I cannot write them off, attack them or leave a relationship with them.
Instead, I have to love them as I disagree. And if they know Jesus, then it follows that I would want to hear about their relationship with him, so that I may grow in my own knowledge of him.
Not just my relationship with our Lord matters, but yours too. Jesus said it was when two or three gather that he is there with us, so it is in community – and diversity – that we meet Jesus and relate to him.
This fellowship with Christ and each other is what we declare as we emphasize the role of each church to govern themselves, but we must not become individualistic about “each church.”
We need to recognize that everyone else’s church is called into being by Christ, too.
After all, if we are only a local church, then why do we need to stay in fellowship with other churches that have made different decisions?
Why stay part of a denomination which is frustratingly conservative or worryingly liberal? In fact, why have a Union at all if it is only the local church that matters?
The follow-on from our emphasis on Christ being met in community is that not just that my church’s stance matters, but your church’s, too. Diversity becomes an important part of unity; difference is not a dividing line.
This common kinship to Christ can hold us together as we handle the difficult theological and ethical questions all churches will be forced to face in the next generations.
Christ expects us to be diverse and still he calls us to be in Union: For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is no longer traditional or charismatic, there is no longer conservative or liberal, there is no longer complementarian or feminist; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Beth Allison is minister-in-training at Market Bosworth Free Church through Regent’s Park College, where she is also studying for a master of theology degree. This column first appeared on “Beyond400.net – Baptists Imagining Life After 400 Years.”