FIRST-PERSON: A high view of a low and free church
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) -- Whereas Baptists, at times, have made unhelpful contributions to the Christian tradition throughout their history (see the Landmark movement as one example), they have also made helpful contributions.
Baptists have served other churches, for example, by a healthy articulation of the place of the local church in the lives of Christians, while at the same time seeking to defend the freedom of other churches and religions to disagree with them.
These two contributions, a healthy ecclesiology and religious liberty, have a larger end in mind than the petty attempts to show how the Baptist tradition is "the most thorough" among all Protestants. That is, as Baptists have advocated for "low" churches governed by the congregation and "free" churches functioning separate from state oversight, they have done so not only for their own interests, but also for the interests of other churches with differing distinctives.
As church historian Timothy George says, "Yes, by all means, let us maintain, undergird, and strengthen our precious Baptist distinctives ... but let us do this not so that people will say how great the Baptists are but rather what a great Savior the Baptists have, what a great God they serve." Baptists have had much to contribute to the body of Christ when they have sought to build local churches and defend the freedom of religion with the Gospel and for the Gospel.
In essence, I am summarizing what evangelical Baptists have discussed often in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, namely Baptist distinctives and Baptist identity, and thus am not aiming to say anything new, but rather reasserting and affirming the path whereby future Baptists can continue to make a helpful contribution to the Christian tradition.
Baptist historians and theologians regularly engage in an ongoing discussion of what exactly comprises a list of Baptist distinctives. In the seminary classes I teach, after weeks of building a case for the value of the Baptist tradition, despite its flaws and errors in history, I conclude each term by summarizing what identifies the Baptist tradition as marked by:
(1) a People of the Book who preach the Gospel and have found it helpful to summarize what the Bible says about the Christian life and practice in the church and the world in confessions of faith.
(2) The practice of believer's baptism by immersion as the entrance to a (3) believer's church that is
(4) free and separate from the state and thus advocates for the religious freedom for all in society while
(5) seeking to share the Gospel with all in society and to the ends of the earth in an intentional and organized Great Commission focus of evangelism and missions. All of this is done through
(6) biblical cooperation among churches.
For simplicity, I often condense all six of these distinctives into the two categories of church health and religious liberty, both advocated by Baptists for and from the Gospel in service of other churches.
Or to put it another way, as one my Ph.D. students said recently, playing their part in the larger Christian tradition, Baptists assert a high view of a low and free church.