This past Sunday morning I spent some time with one of the adult Sunday school classes at the church where I am pastor. They had spent several months working through a study of doctrines important to Baptists, and I had been asked to visit and wrap up the study. After some thought, I decided to talk about why I choose to remain a Baptist Christian.

The topic is important to me. I have a number of friends who have left Baptist ranks to make their home among Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians or other branches of Christianity. A few of them sometimes wonder why I have not followed their lead.

In addition, I find myself revisiting the matter each time various Baptist bodies or individuals embarrass me by their public actions. One does not have to be immune to embarrassment to be a Baptist, but it helps.

Finally, I am an ecumenical Baptist. I have never believed Baptists have cornered the market on religious truth, and I’ve often benefited from insights offered by other Christian traditions.

So, what binds me to the Baptist version of Christianity? Aside from accidents of birth, culture and personal inertia, I find several factors combine to keep me in the Baptist fold.

–Intentional Christianity: The Baptist insistence that each person chooses for himself or herself to become a Christ-follower is important to me. At our best, Baptists have understood this to be an ongoing decision, from the moment of one’s “conversion” through all the days of one’s life on earth.

Baptists are not the only ones, of course, to make such an emphasis, but our insistence on the priesthood of the believer and soul freedom makes it an integral part of our faith perspective. I choose to become a Christian, and I choose to take each step in my journey with Christ. I am free and responsible for the beginning and the shaping of my faith. Others may, and do, help me.

Circumstances certainly play a role as well. Still, in the end I am responsible for my decisions. Whatever our failings, we Baptists (at our best) are big on personal responsibility, hence on intentional Christianity. Such a stance seems biblical to my way of thinking.

–Clergy and Laity: Historically, Baptists have practiced egalitarianism when it comes to laity and clergy. Our traditional insistence on the priesthood of the believer–not to mention the American experience–fuels such a perspective.

Clergy have no authority to “rule” the church or the laity. Conversely, laity have no authority to dictate to clergy. Instead, laity and clergy engage in an ongoing conversation. Hopefully, the conversation is conditioned by ever-growing respect and affection. It certainly ought to result in church health with regard to worship and service.

Still, the relationship remains conversational. While I, like many laity and clergy, sometimes long for the power to “get things done and done now,” my sense is that conversation more nearly reflects the manner in which God has dealt with us. We ought to mirror God’s approach in our dealings with one another.

–Church and State: From their earliest beginnings, Baptists have insisted on absolute religious liberty and separation of the roles of church and state.

Baptists buttressed their arguments with numerous biblical texts. Their experience of being a minority religious movement in a state church culture also strengthened their commitment to religious liberty.

Across four centuries, Baptist leaders and laity believed it dangerous when the state lent its power to the support of any religion, even their own particular brand. They also taught that coerced religion is worthless. State-sponsored religion is inherently coercive, whether by direct force or cultural pressures.

Having seen the results of the union or alliance of religion and state in other cultures (think of some portions of the Middle East at present), I find I agree with our Baptist forebears. Religion must stand on its own.

Mike Smith is pastor at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This column appeared previously as his personal blog.

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