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ON BEING A FIRST BAPTIST:
CHURCH FIRST BAPTISTS
Preached by Robert B. Setzer, Jr.
Pastor, First Baptist Church of Christ
Macon, Georgia 31201
August 17, 2003
Acts 6:1-6; Ephesians 2:18-22
Cecil Sherman, a veteran Baptist preacher and leader, tells about a preacher out in Texas who called the Baptist building in Dallas. A perky lady answered the phone: "Baptist headquarters!"
Surprised, this good brother replied, "Ma'am, where are you?"
"Why, at the Baptist building in Dallas," she answered.
His blood rising, this old preacher replied, "Lady, I pastor a local Baptist church and I've got news for you. I'm at Baptist headquarters."
Baptist headquarters has always been the local church. A Baptist church is a community of believers who answers to no higher authority than the risen Lord and one another. Unlike most churches, bound together by bishops, bureaucracies, and bank accounts, every Baptist church is independent and free. We own the real estate, we call--and sometimes recall, the pastor--and make our own decisions about what Christ would have us be and do.
Now that freewheeling style of church management is called "congregational church government" in the trade. Itís particularly suited to the American temperament because we Americans donít like anybody trampling on our freedoms. But thatís not why early Baptists came to the conviction that to be faithful, congregations must be free. That conviction arose because Baptists and other Reformation radicals insisted on reading the Bible without first donning the misty spectacles of church tradition.
And what did they see when reading the Bible with fresh, new eyes? They saw that the church in the New Testament was not what the medieval church had become: a territorial empire overseen by state and religious authorities. No, the New Testament church was composed of those who freely chose to confess Christ as Lord and Savior. One did not enter the church through a natural birth, by being born into a parish. One only entered the church through a new birth. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, so he says to us all: "You must be born again!"
With this white hot, biblically forged conviction, fueling their enterprise, early Baptists jettisoned the church of everybody they inherited to start a believersí church. Then, just to make sure no one missed the point, they made believersí baptism the point of entry into the family of God. Having a little water dabbed on you as a baby wouldnít do. You had to go under the water with Jesus for yourself!
So what does all this have to do with us, situated at the top of Poplar in the year of our Lord, 2003? Well, in a word, everything. Everything we are and do as the First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon should flow from the conviction we are a believersí church, sealed by believersí baptism, answerable finally to no one but Christ and one another.
Take the way we run our church. Notice, I said, "The way we run our church." No pastor runs a church worthy of the name "Baptist," and many who try quickly get their comeuppance. Theyíre like the Baptist preacher who had to leave his church for medical reasons: His deacons got sick and tired of him!
Baptist churches are not run by preachers, priests, or popes: they are self-governing. Read your New Testament and you will see. The churches of the New Testament were free to follow Christ wherever his Spirit led them. Paulís letter to the Ephesians, for example, is not written to the "Bishop of Ephesus." It is written to the "saints in Ephesus" and the "faithful in Christ Jesus" (1:1). Virtually all New Testament letters are addressed to congregations, not individuals. The main exceptions, Timothy and Titus, are written to two young pastors. And the bulk of that correspondence is to remind these young Turks they are the churchís servants, not its sovereigns.
Further, all decisions made by the church in the book of Acts were made by the congregation. The calling of the first deacons in Acts chapter 6 is but one of many examples. The Apostles didnít hand pick their chosen few. Rather, they said to the congregation, "Friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. . . . And what they said pleased the whole community" (6:3, 5). That the churches of the New Testament were self-governing is so obvious, the point can hardly muster rational opposition.
In practice, this means Baptist churches are a spiritual democracy. They seek to ascertain the mind of Christ through honest, informed dialogue and debate and a democratic process. Such a method is not fool proof, of course. It can be abused, mishandled, and manipulated like any other. But Baptists much prefer a spiritual democracy to other, more coercive forms of church government.
Iím reminded of the young rabbi facing a knotty problem in his new congregation. During the Friday evening service, half the congregation stood for the prayers, while half remained seated. Worse, each side often took to finger pointing and shouting, insisting their way was the right way. At witís end, the young rabbi sought the counsel of the synagogueís founding rabbi, a revered sage, advanced in years.
"So tell me," said new rabbi to the rabbi emeritus, "was it the tradition for the congregation to stand for the prayers?"
"Aha!," said the younger man. "So the tradition was to sit for the prayers?"
"Well, what was it then? What we have now is complete chaos, with some standing, some sitting, and half the crowd shouting at one another."
"Ah," said the old rabbi. "That was the tradition."
Congregational self-government is not always elegant or easy. It can be messy, even painful at times. But as a believersí church, Baptists are driven to the logic of a spiritual democracy for Christ can and does speak to every member of the body. Thus, every member of the body, must be valued and heard.
Secondly, a believersí church is a local church. It is sometimes said, "All politics is local." Well, Baptists believe that about the church. Since the church is made up of relationships, one canít go to church, or be the church "in general." One can only go to church and be the church in a particular place and time.
Remember that wonderful one liner from Charlie Brown? "Loving the world is easy. Itís particular people I canít stand."
A lot of people have a mystic, idealized view of the church that exists only in their imagination. But the church is not some pristine and perfect spiritual reality. It is real people--flawed, hard-headed, and occasionally ornery like ourselves--doing their dead level best to follow Jesus. Perfect churches exist only in fantasies, brewed by the Devil himself to entice us from the real work of discipleship: learning to love and forgive one another . . . and ourselves.
Listen how Paul describes the church in Ephesians chapter 2: "You are no longer strangers and aliens, but . . . but members of the household of God." Thatís what a church is, first and foremost: a family. A family of brothers and sisters who through a spiritual rebirth, know God as their Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Thereís a wonderful story that has entered internet immortality. Perhaps like me, youíve seen the email forward several times. Itís about a kindergarten teacher who asked her students to bring something to show-and-tell to explain their religion.
The first child stepped forward and said, "Iím a Muslim and this is my prayer rug."
The second child said, "Iím Jewish and this is my Star of David."
The third child said, "Iím a Catholic and this is my rosary."
The last child said, "Iím Baptist and this is my casserole dish."
For Baptists, church is about relationships. The church is not a religious organization managed by higher ups in Rome, New York, or Nashville. No, the church is family. The church is a hand on your shoulder, a handkerchief passed to a grief choked friend, and a casserole dish, piled high with love.
A believerís church is self-governing. A believerís church is local. And finally, a believersí church is biblically and theologically literate, or it sure ought to be.
Jesus said, "To whom much is given, much is required." Along with the immense privilege of being a free church comes the holy obligation of immersing ourselves in the scriptures. We Baptists have no human founder, as do most denominations, to tell us who we are. We have to figure that out for ourselves. And we can only discern what Christ would have us be and do by engaging the scriptures, one another, and a broken world, in spirit-breathed conversation.
In his Four Fragile Freedoms, Buddy Shurden quotes Bishop Fulton Sheen as saying since the United States has a Statue of Liberty on the east coast, she should erect a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast. The greater oneís freedom, the greater oneís responsibility.
Just as a political democracy depends on an informed citizenry, so a spiritual democracy requires church members who know and love the scriptures. They must be what Paul calls able craftsmen of the word, "rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). Itís not enough to glory in our freedom. We must become biblically and theologically literate so that freedom serves Christ, and not just ourselves.
What is the "First Baptist Church of Christ at Macon"? She is a believerís church. She is a self-governing church. She is a local church. And pray God, she is a biblically and theologically literate church.
Granted, those are high ideals. But dare we offer our gracious, liberating Lord, anything less?