I represent a small convention of Baptist churches, the Italian Baptist Union, around 120 churches more or less. Sociologically speaking in Italy we are a small minority. For us it is important, therefore, to look at the life of Baptist churches and conventions outside our country.
It was important for us, for example, to participate in the Baptist World Alliance Congress in Birmingham, England. And so on. We like feeling part of a wider family of churches. It is vital for us, for our youth and for our churches.
Therefore it is not strange that we look with great interest at what happens in United States, a country where evangelicals, and Baptists particularly, are not a small reality, but a numerically relevant group.
We read articles in American Baptist magazines and look up on the Internet the press releases about Baptists. We feel we need to learn a lot from Baptists abroad. They are our point of reference.
With this introduction I share some of my feelings about the news I have been reading in the last few years about the evangelicals in U.S.A.–particularly Baptists, but not only Baptists.
The dominant feeling is of discouragement and dismay when I see Baptist conventions struggling and splitting over and over again.
Moreover, we observe that none of the separating groups joins other already-existing groups of Baptist churches. And so the body of Christ continues to be dissected, and nobody seems to reflect that division among believers is a sin.
The letter to the Galatians calls attention to “acts of the sinful nature.” They include not only “sexual immorality, idolatry and witchcraft,” but also “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions and envy.”
Division is not according to the will of God. It is not the testimony that we should give the world. It does not help the church of God to grow in faith, love, hope and numbers.
The second thing that I observe is that one of the most common reasons for conflict and division in these last years (a division that crosses almost all Protestant and evangelical denominations) has to do with an ethical question, and particularly the position concerning the homosexuals: whether to accept them fully and ordain those of them that feel called to serve as pastors and whether we are to fight civil legislation allowing some sort of partnership rights.
The latter question is put differently in different countries. Some talk of marriage. In Italy they are talking of recognizing some rights to those who covenant to live together–homosexuals and heterosexuals alike.
My point is not to say what I think about the different positions. Italian Baptists have not taken any official position. The point is: Why?
Why split on this or other controversial ethical matters? Why should we separate if we do not agree on something?
Do we always agree with our children? Do we always agree with our spouse? Do we always agree with our friends, our mother, father?
Or does it mean that we should separate from our loved ones just because we do not agree on all subjects? Sadly, this is exactly what is happening with many of our families, but is it what we think it is right?
Do we no longer believe we should love and accept one another, even when we are different? Why should we be “like minded” in everything?
These are very simple, almost banal, questions. How is it possible that we see the sin in the other side and do not see that division is a sin in itself? And a serious one because it weakens our testimony to Christ.
But I want also to add another point which touches two important principles of Baptists of all times: the autonomy of every congregation in matter of doctrine and the basic idea of separation between state and church.
I have not been a Baptist for all my life. I was born in a Catholic family, but at a certain point of my life I made a personal encounter with the Living God, and I had this experience in the context of a Baptist congregation.
These two principles were among the distinctives that I learned immediately while entering membership of my Baptist Church of Naples.
Maybe I am naive, but I believe that unity among Baptist churches should start from the respect of the freedom of every single congregation in matters of doctrine and ethics–within the boundaries of the biblical Christian faith and in critical continuity with the faith of our forefathers and foremothers.
The second principle, that of separation between church and state, is a hot issue here in Italy, because of the influence of the Catholic Church who tries her best to enforce Catholic positions in the laws of the Italian state.
We Italian Baptists have always been very critical of this political behavior by declaring that the state should be a lay state and make laws respecting all views, disregarding religious belonging and granting freedom of conscience to all: a free church in a free state.
It appears to us that the Catholic Church here fights still for a Christian state, with the ideal being small state in a privileged church.
Now we Italian Baptists see that this old Baptist principle is no longer observed even by many evangelicals and Baptists in U.S.A.
And this, sincerely speaking, embarrasses us here in Italy.
Anna Maffei is president of the Italian Baptist Union.