Southern Baptist Conventions were part of my summer schedule for years, until they were no longer home. I then found community in participating in General Assemblies of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Five years ago, I admittedly grieved my formal departure from the CBF when I felt God’s call to pastor an American Baptist church. However, I have since come to admire and appreciate what the ABC-USA accomplishes for the Kingdom of God. Sitting in our national gathering, called the biennial meeting, I realized why God led me to this body.
I knew I was an American Baptist when our keynote preachers included Leroy Gilbert, an African-American preacher from Washington, D.C.; Molly Marshall, the first female president of an accredited Baptist seminary; and Philip Yancey, not an American Baptist at all, but invited to speak anyway.
I knew I was an American Baptist when a young girl gave her testimony that she felt God’s call to be a minister, and she received a life-affirming, thunderous ovation.
I knew I was an American Baptist when divisive issues were discussed and debated in a Baptist kind of way.
I knew I was an American Baptist when Denton Lotz and Daniel Vestal were received warmly when they gave greetings from the Baptist World Alliance and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, respectively. We took up an offering for the BWA; and we applauded enthusiastically when the CBF coordinator and the ABC general secretary embraced each other warmly, announcing that the CBF and the ABC would worship together during an overlap of our two national meetings in 2007.
I knew I was an American Baptist when we approved overwhelmingly a Statement of Concern entitled “A Call to Responsible Action.” Two principles in the statement called us to “advocate our core belief of separation of church and state as inspired by Scripture and tradition,” and to “address our governments at all levels to refute interference in religious life.”
I knew I was an American Baptist when Roy Medley, the ABC General Secretary, received prolonged applause when he proclaimed in his sermon: “Many of us became American Baptists because we saw in this family of faith a profound intertwining of biblical authority with the freedom to explore, examine, and even question. We can testify that coercion in matters of faith does not work, and that what American Baptists have in this twin emphasis is precious and life-giving. Baptist historian Bill Leonard has written that for Baptists, ‘the compelling ideal that informs identity theologically and pragmatically seems to be the belief that the people can be trusted to interpret Scripture aright, in the context of community and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.’ Other Baptists may have forgotten how precious this soul freedom is. American Baptists; don’t you forget it.”
I knew I was an American Baptist when Roy Medley also preached: “We as American Baptists are a unique people in U.S. Protestant life. We are certainly unique in Baptist life. No other Baptist body has been as committed and successful as ABC in bridging the paradoxes of race and ethnicity, of male/female, of conservative/liberal, of evangelical/ecumenical, of Free Will and Calvinist, of charismatics and traditionalists. Living with paradox is difficult. The proof is that there are Baptist groups far more monochromatic in color than we are, and Baptist groups far more homogenous in theology than we are. What has distinguished us as a special gift and task from God is being a living laboratory for the work of reconciliation in the midst of difficult paradoxes. God has uniquely gifted and called us to this difficult but sacred work of reconciliation, of walking with one another in the midst of deep differences.”
I knew I was an American Baptist when we approved a Statement of Concern entitled “Re-Affirming the Association Principle” which stated in part, “Recognize that diversity exists within our American Baptist family and celebrate the many ways we cooperate in service to God.”
Certainly, American Baptists are grappling with difficult issues; but for me, this recent meeting in Denver was much more than a refreshing trip to the mountains. It was a pinnacle confirmation for me of why I am a Baptist.
Allen Reasons is senior minister at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in Huntington, W.Va., and a member of BCE’s board of directors. He also wrote a lesson in Living Wisely, Living Well: Lessons from The Proverbs, an undated, online Sunday School curriculum from Acacia Resources.