Recently, I visited the offices of the Czech Baptist Union in Prague, whose leaders of these past few years have become my respected friends.
They are always supportive of the European Baptist Federation (EBF) and were gracious about the decision of the EBF and International Baptist Theological Seminary (IBTS) to relocate from Prague to Amsterdam, something that I know was quite difficult for them at the time.
And their hospitality by way of a table awaiting us piled high with “goodies” is becoming legendary.
But on this particular visit, we discussed an issue that they, as a union, have had to work through and make a difficult decision.
The government of the Czech Republic has been addressing the question of compensation for church property confiscated during the communist era. It has offered all the churches a considerable annual sum of money for each of the next 30 years by way of restitution.
After a long period of debate, nearly all the churches in the Czech Ecumenical Council (ECCCR) decided to accept this government compensation except the Baptists, who were divided in their opinion about it.
A few years ago, for the same reason, when the government offered some state help to pay the salaries of pastors, about half the Baptist churches accepted and half refused.
This latest compensation issue, though, had to be decided by the whole union, and I think they engaged in their decision-making in a very Baptist way.
Each church had discussed it and come to its own recommendation. Then, the whole union came together and after a lively debate voted by a narrow majority not to accept the money offered by the state for the work of the union.
Were they right or wrong? The debate goes on within the churches and within the union.
Some felt that by deciding the matter as a union the “congregational principle” had been breached.
Others were equally sure that to accept such money, which would actually amount to a lot more than the value of the Baptist buildings confiscated in the communist time, was to deny an important aspect of Baptist identity – the essential separation of church and state.
I think it took some courage of conviction for the majority in a small Baptist union to turn down a considerable annual grant from the state, which might have enabled new initiatives of the union and its churches.
Outside reaction to the decision has been interesting.
There has been some dismay from ecumenical partners of the Baptists who wanted the churches in the Czech Republic to agree together about this question.
The Baptists stand alone in their opposition. But then, Baptists have always been non-conformists.
In the secular media (and the Czech Republic is one of the most “secular” countries in Europe), there has been a lot of interest in the decision of the union.
There has even been some support and praise for the Baptists from those who do not see why taxpayers’ money should be given to the churches in a country that has such a small number of professing Christians.
It is not the first time I have encountered approval from secularists for our Baptist understanding of the separation of church and state, and our belief that no religious group or groups should have a “privileged” position in society.
Some years ago, a prominent member of the British Humanist Society told me of his liking for Baptists because of their opposition to state churches, privileged status and state-funded religion.
Should I feel concerned about these approval ratings for Baptists by secular society?
Well, yes, if their spokespersons go on to conclude, as they often do, that we are content to have our faith put into a privatized space in society with no expectation that Christians will have any right to contribute to debates in the public square.
But, no, if it means that we are true to our Baptist origins and identity of putting forward a vision of a society that guarantees space and freedom for all religions.
For us Baptists, that means that no religious group should be privileged regarding state recognition or financial support because we believe our full and committed involvement in society is by influence as salt and light, not by privilege or entitlement.
This was not an easy question for the Czech Baptists to resolve, and the result was a close vote.
But I am glad that they engaged so wholeheartedly with this important question, which has wider implications in contemporary Europe, and that they sought to discern together the mind of Christ.
And, personally, I believe they came to the right decision.
Tony Peck is general secretary of the European Baptist Federation.