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Why I Am a Baptist
By Dr. Charles Deweese
Baptist History and Heritage Society
Sermon Preached at
First Baptist Church, Macon, Georgia
September 7, 2003
Grady Cothen, former president of the Baptist Sunday School Board, once wrote that "Anyone who tries to define a Baptist ain't one." So when Bob Setzer invited me to do this sermon on "Why I Am a Baptist," I quickly accepted the challenge. I wanted to find out if I really am one.
I do not claim that my answer should be your answer. In fact, I would contend that your answer must be totally unique to you. God makes Baptists like he makes apples and oranges; all of us have our own shape and color. Conditioning processes vary dramatically; diversity is the stuff that gives us distinctive qualities as individuals.
After careful thought, I have concluded that I am a Baptist for three basic reasons: First, I was born, reared, and nurtured in a Baptist home and a Baptist church. Second, I believe that responsible approaches to Baptist history support the essential biblical ideals that have driven the Baptist experience. Third, I have consciously chosen in recent years to remain a Baptist when, at times, circumstances tempted me to throw in the towel.
The following will flesh out these three reasons in more detail. Rather than offer you a set of abstract explanations, I have decided to get personal. I will reveal names. I will describe special events. I will identify heroes. I will cite values that matter to me. Most of all, I hope to convince you that being truly Baptist acknowledges the Lordship of Christ.
First, I was born, reared, and nurtured in a Baptist home and a Baptist church. I was born into a Baptist family in Asheville, North Carolina. That family made it a point to take me on a regular basis to Beaverdam Baptist Church, a small congregation, from birth until I went to college. I actually studied church history in that church in study courses, Vacation Bible Schools, and Training Union. That church licensed and ordained me to the gospel ministry, and it graciously tolerated all the awful sermons I preached while serving as Youth Week pastor for several years.
It's show and tell time. I am holding a sheet of paper that you cannot see well. Let me tell you about this document. The Biblical Recorder is the Baptist state paper of North Carolina. This sheet is a copy of the cover page for the issue dated June 24, 1950; so it's more than 53 years old. The caption for the photograph of a groundbreaking at the top of the page reads: "Beaverdam Church Has Started New Building." The purpose was to replace the old building that had been constructed in 1885.
This photograph features dozens of people; let me briefly tell you about five of them. On the left stands Aunt Laura Ward (she was not my real aunt; she was everyone's aunt). My earliest memories of church are sitting in her Beginners Department in a little wooden chair eating cookies she had made and listening to her tell stories about Jesus as she used colorful teaching pictures to illustrate her points. Aunt Laura died several years ago; at her request, I did her funeral.
On the right stands Mr. C. M. Carter, an older man who always wore a hat to church. He taught me and other young boys in the Junior Department. He sold small appliances door to door. The back seat of his car was filled from floor to roof with irons, can openers, and other household items; I could never figure out how he could find anything if someone wanted to buy it. What I could figure out, however, was that this man, gentle in spirit, cared about me and my friends at church.
Closer to the center of the photograph stands Mr. C. H. Dean, a laundry-truck driver who served for years as superintendent of the church's Sunday School. When I was 10 or 11 years old, Mr. Dean did something to me (or was it for me?) that I have never forgotten. He placed both of his big hands on my shoulders one Sunday morning, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, "Charles, have you ever considered entering the ministry?" That question, both inquisitive and affirming, stayed with me and factored into my future big time. Mr. Dean's favorite hymn was Amazing Grace, and his favorite stanza started, "When we've been there 10,000 years." One night, Mrs. Dean died; the next night, Mr. Dean died.
Directly in the center of the photograph stands Rev. W. G. Russell. As pastor, he invested himself in young lives. He cut out pieces of wood so we could make birdhouses in Vacation Bible School. He talked with me in his office about the meaning of salvation. He baptized me. His preaching made an incalculable impression on me.
Near the center stands a young mother with three children. Because her husband was a long-distance truck driver and since she did not drive, she and her children walked about a mile to church every Sunday. Across the years, she directed church-wide Vacation Bible Schools, led WMU programs, and taught Sunday School. She exerted extraordinary spiritual influence on her children. At age 36, when her three children were teenagers, she died tragically in an automobile accident. This photograph shows the faces of many wonderful Baptists who comforted and cared about her husband and children in the days, weeks, and months following her death. Priesting the hurting was as natural as for these people as eating and sleeping. By the way, most people called this woman Faye; I called her mother.
Why am I a Baptist? I am a Baptist because of a conditioning process. The Baptist laypeople in that little church in Asheville heavily invested themselves in training me and other youth—and they never got paid a dime for doing their ministry. Baptist voluntarism lay at the heart of their strategy.
Someone might ask, "Wouldn't you likely have received similar training and care if you had grown up in a Lutheran, Methodist, or Presbyterian church." And that would be a good question since I strongly believe that all of us need to learn more about our neighbors in other denominations than most of us know. But my reply is that anything I would say about that would be pure speculation. The persons whom I have described for you today, Baptist though they be, are real people who told me in thousands of ways that they loved me. These Baptists are my history.
Second, I am a Baptist because I believe that responsible approaches to Baptist history support the essential biblical ideals that have driven the Baptist experience. The best Baptist historians agree that Baptists originated in the early 1600s, first in Amsterdam and later in England. And I share that view. However, I am convinced that at least one Baptist wiggled himself into the Old Testament. His name was Daniel.
Manipulated by his assistants, who were jealous of Daniel's achievements in the king's administration, King Darius threatened Daniel within an inch of his life. He signed a document, specifically intended for Daniel, stating that any person who petitioned any god or man within thirty days, other than Darius himself, would be cast into a den of lions.
Daniel responded to that threat like a Baptist who knows the difference between church and state. The Revised Standard Version reads: "When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously" (Dan. 6:10).
Daniel refused to let the state dictate the nature, content, or timing of his prayer life. He refused to let an earthly king tell him what God he would worship. He refused to violate his personal liberty of conscience in order to please low-minded people around him. He refused to abandon the high and holy gift of voluntarism with which God had endowed him. He refused to suppress the competency of his own soul. He refused to cave in to pressurized faith, even though he knew the consequences would be serious.
Lots of good Baptists across the years have imitated Daniel's carefully calculated decision to be a dissenter and a nonconformist. Never content to follow the crowd, they have chosen to make a difference by denying themselves, taking up their crosses, and following their Lord.
I believe in the value of primary sources. For me the primary sources for my faith are not the writings of John Calvin—or any other theologian. They are not the sermons of Billy Graham—or any other preacher or evangelist. They are not the resolutions of the Southern Baptist Convention—or any other convention or fellowship. They are not even my own writings, heaven forbid, which, in moments of weakness, I have, at times, deified.
The primary sources of my faith are the life of Christ and the teachings of the Bible. I find amazing similarities between historic Baptist principles and the claims of Christ and biblical ideals. However, I appreciate the fact that members of other denominations read the same Bible and study the same Christ and reach different conclusions. And I respect the right of all Baptists to do the same.
But I believe that when one throws the bedrock principles of Baptist history against the teachings of Christ and the documents of the Bible, they fit together. Believer's baptism runs throughout the New Testament: that's Baptist. Religious liberty as a gift of God for all people permeates the Bible: that's Baptist. Calls for voluntarism in faith and practice characterize the teachings of Jesus: that's Baptist. Recognition of the priesthood of all believers is a New Testament given: that's Baptist. Jesus' efforts to free women, minorities, the poor, and dispossessed saturated his life and teachings: that's Baptist. And the list goes on.
Roger Williams, the first Baptist pastor in America, turned New England religion on its ears in the 1600s with his emphases on believer's baptism, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state. Affirming the spiritual and civil rights of all people was his cause.
John Clarke, noted colonial Baptist pastor, spent twelve years in England in the 1650s and 60s patiently securing a charter for Rhode Island guaranteeing religious freedom for all citizens. Church-state separation was his cause.
Luther Rice rode horseback thousands of miles up and down the eastern seaboard in the early 1800s. He crossed rivers, endured bad weather, suffered illnesses. Missions was his cause.
Gottfried Alf, founder of Baptist work in Poland, baptized more than 3,600 people by 1883 and experienced numerous imprisonments on account of his faith. Believer's baptism and missionary expansion were his causes.
Addie Davis was ordained to the gospel ministry by a North Carolina Baptist church in 1964—the first woman to be ordained in Southern Baptist history. Woman's right to be called to ministry by God was her cause.
Martin Luther King, Jr., African-American Baptist leader, served as a pastor, developed a theology of non-violent opposition to human injustice, received the Nobel Peace Prize, and was assassinated. Civil rights was his cause.
Williams, Clarke, Rice, Alf, Davis, and King provide models directly from our heritage that I believe are worth imitating. These people were willing to sacrifice themselves for the absolute Lordship of Christ, the authority of the Bible, believer’s baptism, voluntarism in faith and practice, religious liberty, the priesthood of all believers, missions, congregational government, and other sacred Baptist teachings. Biblical principles jump from their stories.
Why am I a Baptist? The Bible and Baptist history, approached rightly, place us in the contexts of real heroes, show us how to take up our crosses in pure obedience to Christ's calling, teach us how to defy the negative, and thrust us into the offensive as principled Christians.
Third, I am a Baptist because I consciously chose in recent years to remain one when, at times, circumstances tempted me to throw in the towel. The past 25 years provided many good reasons to jump the Baptist ship, but I decided not to do that. I worked for ten years—from 1985 through 1994—in the Southern Baptist Convention Building in Nashville, Tennessee. In eye-witness fashion I saw strange things happen to a good denomination. Jugular-cutting ethics replaced the Sermon on the Mount in the ways the SBC Executive Committee operated. I saw armed guards at a closed-door session of that committee. I saw good people lose their jobs simply because Paul Presssler did not like them. I saw power surges take over the polity of trustee and convention meetings. I saw a denomination convert a statement of faith into a creed and then use that creed to punish all who would not buy into a certain version of what it means to be Baptist.
Events like these prompted many good friends to sell out and join other denominations. And why not? The corporate integrity of the one they were leaving was dying a slow death. When things seemed as bad as they could get, when the denomination for which I had worked for 21 years shafted my own professional future, I remember that my wife, both our daughters, and I questioned whether being Baptist was the best way for us to spend our future as a family. So I had many good reasons and high motivation to tell Baptists goodbye and head elsewhere.
But something kicked into gear for me: my memory. I remembered those seminary professors—like E. Glenn Hinson, Dale Moody, Frank Stagg, and Penrose St. Amant—who taught me that the proper way to be Baptist was to open one's Bible and one's mind at the same time. Soul competency and freedom of biblical interpretation lay at the heart of their vision for students. For them, being Baptist was a commitment stacked around the priorities of Christ, the same priorities that received full play in the formative experiences and documents of Baptists.
I remembered that while motifs of control, creedalism, and suppression of women in ministry characterized some segments of Baptist life, historic Baptist principles advocated liberty, voluntary confessionalism, and all-out opportunities for women in ministry.
I remembered that although some elements of my own denomination could not be trusted, the Baptist vision could. The Baptist dream was a compelling as ever.
Candidly, I am a Baptist today working in a Baptist history organization because I am more convinced than ever that Baptists have significant messages to share with one another and with the world.
How Baptist am I? I am so Baptist that my wife and I and our two daughters are graduates of four different Baptist colleges and universities in four states. I am Baptist enough that, when needed, our family has always used Baptist Hospital in Nashville. I am Baptist enough that the organization for which I work is housed in a Baptist state convention building. I am Baptist enough that my wife and I helped move my mother-in-law into the Western North Carolina Baptist Retirement Home in Asheville.
I am Baptist enough that I will not join a Baptist church that removes the word "Baptist" from its name. I am Baptist enough that I will not attend a Baptist meeting (association, convention, or otherwise) in which the moderator or parliamentarian runs roughshod over Baptist principles of self-government. I am Baptist enough that I will not serve on a Baptist board or executive committee whose goal is to control, rather than to facilitate ministry. I am Baptist enough that I will not work for an agency, teach on a seminary faculty, or serve on a mission field where creedalistic uniformity dominates patterns of belief. I am Baptist enough that I will not use curriculum literature governed by a statement of faith that oppresses women in ministry, downgrades the priesthood of all believers, and disavows Christ as the criterion for interpreting Scripture. I am Baptist enough that I will not run and hide in a closet when narrow-minded fundamentalism raises its ugly head and attempts to oppress me. I am Baptist enough that I will fight efforts to rewrite Baptist history to support personal agendas. I am Baptist enough that I will not draw a faith-based circle designed to weed out everyone who disagrees with me.
How Baptist am I? I am Baptist enough to affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord; to acknowledge the Bible as the sole written authority for my faith; to accept God's offer of soul competency; to practice my faith in the context of a healthy sense of freedom, cooperation, and accountability; and to stand firm for the rights of all persons to practice their faith as they choose.
It's time to end this sermon. You have heard the word "I" too many times. So let me invite you to deal with some questions of your own.
Are you Baptist enough to believe that God knew what he was doing when he created Adam and Eve and you and me and endowed us with the intelligence to think for ourselves, to choose our own God, and to forge our own faith?
Are you Baptist enough to believe that the prophet Amos knew what he was doing when he declared the word of the Lord during times of oppression and injustice, thereby setting the stage for scholars like Walter Shurden to deliver that same message to those who violate Baptist principles in self-serving, opportunistic fashion today?
Are you Baptist enough to take Jesus at his word when he launched his earthly ministry in a synagogue in Nazareth by pulling freedom themes from Isaiah? Listen intently, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19).
Why am I a Baptist? Because this liberty-based self-identification of Christ in Luke 4 set the pattern for what it means to be Baptist. The foremost contribution of Baptists to world civilization resides in their contributions to freedom. Do you see the link between Christ and Baptists?
The invitation is simple. I want to invite you to tell your own story. Think though it. Write it down. Then boldly telephone it, fax it, e-mail it, and place it on your Web site. It's time to commit. Welcome to the Baptist party!