Four years ago our church went through a visioning process that included among other things a lengthy discussion about who we are. The first issue put on the table was whether or not we should keep the word “Baptist” in our name. As a brand, Baptist has become something of a problem.
In fact, according to Jeannie Babb Taylor, in a column on June 11 at EthicsDaily.com, a trend is developing with some Baptist churches not using the word “Baptist” in their name. She notes the Louisburg Southern Baptist Church in Kansas becoming the Eastside Church of the Cross. Taylor also mentions two churches in her hometown of Ringgold, Ga. — the Church at Catoosa and Origin Church — both of which are Southern Baptist, neither of which uses Baptist in their names.
There are certainly multiple factors involved with this trend. Three decades of conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention may make folk wary of Baptist churches. Southern Baptist identification with right-wing politics may also have contributed to a toxic taste to the word Baptist.
For her part, Taylor notes Southern Baptists’ use of heavy-handed tactics to suppress the number of women pastors serving churches. In the wider religious marketplace, this comes across as intolerant and dismissive of the role of women in the life of the church. The practice is so pervasive that even Baptist churches that have women in ordained positions are often assumed to be on the other side of the issue.
That was the dilemma we faced. We have ordained women on our staff and in lay leadership roles. Our church is inclusive and inviting. Our motto is “we reserve the right to accept everyone.”
But it’s hard to get that message out past a tainted Baptist brand. People who might otherwise enjoy our approach to faith and life are put off by our Baptist connections. In fact, the most frequent inquiry I get with this column begins with some form of the question, “How can you call yourself a Baptist and believe the things you believe?”
In the end we decided to keep Baptist in our name. Neither the pressures of marketing nor the corruption of historical amnesia will force us to give up who we are.
Instead, along with many Baptist congregations like ours, we are seeking ways to reclaim the meaning of the name Baptist. Many of the principles of historical Baptist theology and polity not only make good sense in congregational life, but also provide a solid basis for citizenship in a free and diverse society.
For instance, Baptists have traditionally been committed to religious freedom. The only way to ensure the freedom to worship as we choose is to make sure everyone else has the same freedom. That even includes the freedom not to worship.
Connected to religious freedom is separation of church and state. Baptists did not invent this idea, but historically we have been among its greatest champions. Baptist leaders such as John Leland exerted significant influence on the founders to include language in the Constitution ensuring that these two pillars of Baptist belief enjoyed legal protection.
It’s ironic that just as Baptists are celebrating 400 years as a movement, there are some who might drop the name for marketing reasons. It’s true a rose by any other name smells the same, but there is something in a name. If we can reclaim the historic significance of what Baptist means, it will be a job worth doing.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).