AMSTERDAM — As Baptist World Alliance representatives gathered July 30 to celebrate 400 years of Baptist life, former secretary general Denton Lotz told them that Baptists must continue the struggle for religious freedom or else become irrelevant.
Meeting in the rugged, three-tiered sanctuary of a Mennonite church that dates back to 1608 – a year before the first Baptist church was founded a few blocks away – more than 350 Baptists recalled their heritage through reading scriptures, singing hymns, and joining in a litany of naming and appreciating Baptist pioneers.
In an impassioned sermon, however, Lotz warned that Baptists cannot rest on the laurels of those who defended and suffered for religious liberty through the years.
The first Baptists emerged, under the leadership of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, from a group of English Separatists who came to Amsterdam because they were fleeing religious persecution in England. From the beginning, zeal for religious liberty became a hallmark Baptist legacy.
“Freedom in Christ has been the theme of Baptists for 400 years,” Lotz said, noting that the small group of 40 believers who were baptized in Amsterdam has now grown to become the world’s largest confessing church.
Religious liberty also has come a long way, Lotz said: “most civilized and democratic governments recognize religious freedom as an inherent right,” and a 1948 United Nations declaration on human rights affirms religious freedom and the right to conversion.
That does not mean the struggle for religious liberty is over, Lotz said. Even in countries that allow freedom of religion, “the real enemy of religious freedom is the religion of secularism” that is willing to accept private religious practice, but limits the public expression of faith.
Lotz charged the media in particular as having a secular mentality that excludes religious expression and denies religion a fair hearing. Baptists must challenge “the new dark age” in which “the hatred of religion and Christianity” threatens to marginalize faith in society, he said.
Baptists must also avoid being lulled to sleep and allowing the mission of Christ to devolve into the maintenance of an institution, Lotz said. “Where are Baptists going?” he asked. “On mission, or just maintaining?”
Lotz called for Baptists to be committed to evangelism, united in heart and spirit, and to go forth “proclaiming the liberty that comes from Christ.”
Following the worship service, participants had the option of touring several historical religious sites, including the address on Bakkers-straat (Baker’s Street) where the bakery in which the first Baptist church was organized once stood.