Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on October 25 2009.
Hebrews 1:1-2; 4:12; Joshua 24:14-15; 1 Peter 2:4-5; Matthew 22:21
I remember as a small child eating out in a restaurant with my family. My mother was trying to help me decide what to order from the menu. I was still at the age where I thought my mother knew everything, including how my taste buds worked. So I asked, “Mother, do I like meat loaf? What do I like?”
My story reminds me of another that I read this week. Donald Miller, a former pastor and seminary president, reports that one Saturday night he received a phone call from a woman who asked, “Dr. Miller, what do I believe?”
“What do you mean?” asked Miller, not sure he heard the woman correctly.
“I mean,” she said, “what do I believe? You see, I’ve just come from a party where several people got into a discussion about their various beliefs. One woman was Jewish, and she told us what she believes as a Jew. Another was Roman Catholic, and she told us what Catholics believe. Somebody was a Christian Scientist, and he talked about what they believe. I was the only Protestant, and frankly, I didn’t know what to say. So, what do I believe?”
“That woman,” said Miller, “must have come into the church on confusion of faith, not the confession of faith.”
Even though Donald Miller is a Presbyterian, I have to wonder if the woman who called him was a Baptist! You can almost forgive Baptists for our confusion of faith because over our 400 hundred-year history we Baptists have been all over the theological map.
As we continue our celebration of the 400th birthday of Baptists, we may ask ourselves why it is so difficult to spell out with precision what Baptists believe. Answers to that question include…because we have no infallible Pope to tell us what we believe like our Catholic friends. And we have no single, charismatic founder who spelled out our beliefs like Martin Luther did for our Lutheran friends. And we have historically shied away from adopting creeds like the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed. And we have no single, authoritative Baptist confession of faith or covenant.
What we have instead is multiple and sometimes conflicting statements of faith. For example, those Puritan Separatists who founded the first Baptist church in 1609 in Amsterdam were heavily influenced by the Dutch theologian Joseph Armenius, who believed that Christ died for the sins of the whole world and that all persons in theory were elected by God to be saved. These first Baptists were called “General Baptists” for obvious reasons.
But by the 1630s, a second group of Baptists—called “Particular Baptists”—formed in England and were Calvinist in theology, believing that Christ died not for everyone but just for the elect who had been chosen before the foundation of the world. For this reason, Bill Leonard (Dean of WFU Divinity School who will be preaching for us next Sunday) contends that Baptists are the only Protestant group that begins at both ends of the theological spectrum, and almost from day one we have been theologically schizophrenic!
All of which raises still another complication—much of what Baptists believe is inherited from other faith traditions. Most of what we believe about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit was inherited from the Catholic Church. Most of what we believe about the Bible, salvation, and the priesthood of all believers was inherited from Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers. Most of what we believe about the importance of personal conversion and the need to evangelize the whole world was inherited from evangelicalism.
And that’s not all. When you look at all the variations of Baptist theology and practice, you realize we’ve been influenced by Anabaptists, Landmarkers, Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, and progressive liberals, just to name a few!
I remember years ago being interviewed by a search committee of a Baptist church in this state for a staff position. At some point in the interview, the pastor of the church said, “Of course, you believe in the fundamentals of the faith, right?” The pastor did not seem terribly pleased when I replied, “I don’t know what fundamentals you mean.” With obvious frustration in his voice the pastor rattled off the five tenets of early 20th century fundamentalism— the inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus on the cross, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the second coming of Christ. Because I didn’t know these fundamentals, the interview was effectively over.
But if I had been on the ball, I could have quoted W.B. Johnson, the founder and first President of the Southern Baptist Convention. In a book published in 1846, Johnson argued, of all things, for the ordination of men and women as deacons! And he spelled out his five fundamentals of being a Baptist that included: the sovereignty of God in salvation, the supreme authority of scripture, the right of individual interpretation of scripture, democratic church government, and believers’ baptism.
The moral of the story is this—the fundamentals of the Baptist faith vary from Baptist to Baptist. There is no one universally agreed upon list of Baptist beliefs!
That said, I want to borrow from Baptist historian Walter Shurden and list four distinctive Baptist beliefs that stand out over 400 years of our history. Shurden calls them “four fragile freedoms.” And they include:
· Bible freedom
· Soul freedom
· Church freedom
· And religious freedom.
Bible freedom is the idea that the Bible is central to Christians, and
individual believers are free to interpret the Bible under the Lordship of Christ, through the leadership of the Holy Spirit, in the context of Christian community. Baptists follow Martin Luther in saying that the Bible—not human traditions or creeds—is the supreme authority over our faith and practice.
This is why Baptists are forever encouraging Bible study. The Bible is the key book of our existence. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the attitudes of our heart. That’s why there simply is no substitute for meditation of the Word.
But the Bible is not our final authority—Jesus is. The author of Hebrews says as much when he writes, In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
Forty-five years ago in 1964, Baptists around America celebrated the 150th anniversary of “The Triennial Convention,” or the first Baptist convention in this country. In that same year a group of eighteen SBC leaders and scholars issued a marvelous statement of Baptist distinctives called “Baptist ideals.” The opening statement of Baptist Ideals reads, “The ultimate source of Christian authority is Jesus Christ the Lord.” By the way, the chair of that distinguished committee was none other than Ralph Herring, who was pastor of this congregation for some 25 years.
The point that Hebrews and Ralph Herring’s committee was making is this—the Bible is not Lord. Jesus is Lord. And Jesus is the norm by which we interpret all of scripture, and all of life.
This point was not lost on another former pastor of this church. Randall Lolley left this church in 1974 to become President of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Thirteen years later, despite an outstanding tenure as president, Randall stood at the edge of a precipice, fighting for his professional life. The problem was that a growing number of theological conservatives in our convention, including some of his own trustees, were applying increasing pressure on the seminary to interpret the scriptures in the way they saw fit.
In his last address before resigning in protest as seminary president, Randall notes that historically Baptists have made Jesus the norm for interpreting scripture. Then he adds, “We do all our work at Southeastern Seminary under the Lordship of Christ. This is why we can afford to let our consciences be free. Our interpretations are not subject finally to the opinions of any other person living or dead. Jesus alone is the norm around which our interpretations must coalesce. He is the Lord of the message and Lord of the messenger.”
Friends, you need to know that former pastors of our church put their reputations on the line and even lost their jobs over the principle of Bible freedom. That’s because Bible freedom runs deep in the blood and marrow of the Baptist faith.
So does the principle of soul freedom. Soul freedom is the idea that every person has the right to make a free choice when it comes to matters of faith. No creed, no clergy, no government official has the right to force faith on anyone.
Now if you were with us last week, you know that for centuries the Church of Jesus Christ did not behave as though it believed in soul freedom. In fact, the Church persecuted and executed folks who did not tow the official religious line, thinking they were doing Jesus a favor every time they burned a heretic at the stake.
So where did Baptists get the idea that people ought to have the right to choose who and what they believed? From the Bible, of course. Baptists believed that because every person is created in the image of God, every person is therefore competent, and even obligated to make his or her own spiritual decisions. They noticed that time and time again in scripture the people of God were given a choice when it comes to following God. A case in point is when Joshua says to the Israelites—choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.
There are certain things we can and should do for each other. But one thing we cannot do for each other is choose whether to follow or reject God. You and you alone can make that choice.
This is why, by the way, believers’ baptism is so precious to Baptists. It’s not that there is anything magic about dunking people in water. It’s that the person being baptized has made a free and informed choice to follow Jesus. Baptists in our early history shed their blood so we might have that right to choose.
In 1925 the most famous Baptist preacher in the United States, George W. Truett, made a big splash in Winston-Salem when he preached the dedicatory sermon of our newly constructed sanctuary. Five years earlier this heralded pastor of FBC Dallas grabbed the attention of our entire country when he delivered his famous sermon, “Baptists and Religious Liberty,” from the steps of the capitol in WashingtonD.C.
Listen to this quote from that sermon: “It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced, and that it is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel (people) to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not belong and in whose creed they do not believe. God wants free worshippers and no other kind (emphasis mine).
Church freedom is another cardinal tenet of the Baptist faith. Church freedom is the idea that local churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine who they will be, what they will do, and with whom they will associate.
Throughout their history, Baptists have been a part of the “free church tradition,” meaning that they dissented from a centralized, established church of the state. Baptists have prized their freedom to enter into local communities of faith voluntarily without the coercion or restriction of outside forces.
No bishop or pastor, no civil leader or magistrate, no religious body or convention of churches can tell a Baptist church who it can hire, who it can ordain, or what ministry it can undertake. The individual members, under the Lordship of Christ and in prayer and discussion with one another make the decisions for each local church. This is called local church autonomy.
Why would we give such freedom to the people? Because we believe in the priesthood of all believers, the ability of each and every believer to access the wisdom of God and sense the guidance of The Holy Spirit through prayerful discernment. Is this a risky proposition? Yes, but then so is biblical faith.
The last of the four freedoms is religious freedom which we discussed in detail last week. It is the longing to worship Christ without any interference from Caesar that gave birth to Baptists 400 years ago as they fled English persecution. The fact that neither politicians in Washington or Raleigh or preachers in Nashville or Atlanta have any power over what we believe as American citizens is something we ought never, ever take for granted. Baptists have made plenty of mistakes over 400 years. But one thing we’ve done right is fight for religious freedom.
So the next time you’re at a party and you’re asked what Baptists believe, don’t be calling me on your cell phone for a review! Just remember the four fragile freedoms—Bible freedom, Soul freedom, Church freedom, and Religious freedom—and you’ll be fine.