A Dutch theologian told global Baptists on the opening night of a three-day celebration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of their faith in Amsterdam in 1609 that change was at the heart of their tradition.
“Being open to change is in our Baptist genes. It is in our DNA. Part of our tradition is that we regularly change our tradition,” said Teun van der Leer, rector of the Dutch Baptist Seminary. “Change in tradition in our tradition is being faithful to our tradition.”
Speaking in a plenary session on freedom at the European Baptist Federation meeting in Amsterdam, van der Leer warned some 900 Baptists from 60 nations, “Tradition is not a problem, traditionalism is.”
He said, “Our tradition is valuable, especially because it is open to change.”
Van der Leer recalled the prophetic courage of Thomas Helwys, a Baptist founder, to change his thinking and to challenge the tradition of the Church of England by advocating for religious freedom.
“One century even before the Enlightenment, almost two centuries before the French Revolution, more than three centuries before the Declaration of Human Rights, he pleaded for the right of freedom of consciousness for ‘heretics, Jews, Turks and them of the Romish religion.’ Although totally disagreeing with them, he stood for their rights to be wrong,” said van der Leer.
“Try to imagine what it really meant at that time to leave the Church of England and start a new church,” said van der Leer, noting that such change was far different from the contemporary Baptist practice of hopping from church to church in search of something different.
He called Helwys’ action “extraordinary and exceptional.”
When Helwys advocated for religious liberty for all in a letter to King James I of England, the king, who was the head of the established church of England, saw the document as intolerable criticism.
“The price was high, as you know, imprisonment and the death in prison a few years later,” recalled van der Leer about what happened to Helwys.
But the fruits of Helwys’ witness and letter “are still being harvested today. It is a heritage to be proud of,” said the Dutch leader, whose address was titled “Building on the Future of God’s History with Us: Are We Spectators or Are We Partakers?”
Van der Leer said, “[F]reedom of consciousness means freedom of religion which means freedom to preach the gospel everywhere and to change religion wherever or whenever people choose to do so.”
He said, “Everybody has the right to hear the gospel and to respond to it freely.”
Noting Amsterdam’s history and reputation, a city of tolerance amid vast diversity, van der Leer said, “[I]t should be possible today that a Christian becomes a Muslim and a Muslim becomes a Christian without problems, let alone persecution. That’s what we have stood for — 400 years — and continue to stand for — freedom to preach, freedom to chose, freedom to change.”
Such a stance was not and is not easy, said the seminary leader.
Working off a biblical story about the transition in leadership from the prophet Elijah to Elisha, van der Leer said that Elisha wanted to be part of God’s history. He dared to be a part of God’s future, not just a spectator, when he accepted Elijah’s prophetic mantle of leadership.
Baptists are at the crossroads of history, said van der Leer. “We are looking back and we are looking forward. God had his history with us. And the question is: Do we only look at it or do we want to be part of it?”
“Do we want to be spectators of this history and speak proudly about it and that’s it? We celebrated it, went home and remained the same. Or do we want to be partakers, builders of the future of God’s history with us? Do we dare to take these mantles of faith and courage and freedom to preach and choose to change?” he asked. “Who dares to take of the mantle and say, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Thomas Helwys…Where is the Lord, the God of Martin Luther King?'”
The Dutch theologian said, “Here we stand and the mantle of our history is laying at our feet. What is our calling today? Are we going to pick it up?”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.