Baptists — We Might Not Be What You Think
by Pastor Jeff Long-Middleton
We’re the folks who gave you religious liberty. That’s right. We helped with the First Amendment to the Constitution — you know, the one about freedom of assembly, speech and preventing the government from establishing a “national” religion. We came to love religious liberty because some folks wanted to deny it to us. Our Puritan neighbors, it seems, didn’t like the idea that they might be wrong about baptism. So what did they do? Well, when they learned that the First Baptist Meeting House in Boston was actually going to be a church rather than a brewery, they nailed its doors shut! They whipped Baptists in Boston Common and Roger Williams had to flee the Commonwealth. He ended up in Rhode Island where he founded the First Baptist Church of America and created the first colony based on freedom anchored in the separation of church and state.
And here is something else you should know. This church is associated with the American Baptist Churches, USA. Why is that important? Well, back in 1844, the Baptists in the South seemed to have lost sight of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would reminded us all of about a century later – namely, “No man is free until all men are free.” And of course we add women to the list, too. (Oh, I should tell you that Dr. King was affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA) But back in 1844, the Northern Baptists and the Southern Baptists split over the issue of slavery. So not all Baptists are alike. Surprised? That’s understandable. There are some folks who are calling themselves “Baptist” who don’t seem to like freedom very much. They seem to think that they have such a lock on God’s will that you have to believe as they do. Well, that’s not very “Baptist.” Here’s why.
Baptists believe in “Soul Competency.” This means that each individual’s soul is competent to find the will of God, that you not only can discover God’s will, you’re responsible for what you come up with. Now stick with me for just a second longer. Our belief in Soul Competency leads us to defend “Soul Liberty.” I guess we’re kind of like Thomas Jefferson (who wasn’t a Baptist but should have been!) when he wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man [and we would add ‘woman’].” We believe every person has to be free to come to Jesus and to Jesus alone — not to some church’s vision of who Jesus is but to Jesus alone. So we are all about freedom, which doesn’t mean that we don’t have some pretty strong convictions. Rather it means that I must defend not only the liberty of my soul, but the liberty of my neighbor’s soul, too. It means that we must guard against any form of tyranny over what a person must believe. Otherwise no one is free to follow his or her conscious when it comes to following Jesus.
Okay, I’m almost done. There’s one last thing about us Baptists you should know and that is the “autonomy of the local church.” Because we honor freedom so highly, we don’t like hierarchy. Each Baptist church governs itself. That’s another reason Baptists aren’t alike. Each church may see a given issue differently. We know this can make it hard for folks to know where Baptists stand on any given issue. One church may say one thing and another church just the opposite, but if you are going to defend soul liberty, you can’t start telling folks what they have to believe. You have to convince them that God, the Bible and the Holy Spirit see things differently. As you can imagine, such freedom makes for some exciting times!
Well, that’s not everything that could be said, but it covers the essentials. Are Baptists what you thought we were? I hope so, but at least now you know that we would defend your right to think what you want. After all, that’s what got us going in the first place.