The Baptist name has taken a hit this summer! First there was the Rev. Chan Chandler, pastor of the East Waynesville Baptist Church who led efforts to expel nine members of his congregation for refusing to support President Bush in the 2004 presidential election. The story gained national attention in May, 2005 and the exposure coupled with the potential for legal action led to Chandler’s resignation. Second, Rev. Creighton Lovelace, the pastor of the Danieltown Baptist Church in Forest City, North Carolina posted a message which read “The Koran Needs To Be Flushed,” on a sign in front of his church. At first he refused to apologize even in the face of massive criticism from community and Southern Baptist leaders. But, he quickly relented and changed the sign saying, “Now I realize how offensive this is to them, and after praying about it, I have chosen to remove the sign. I apologize for posting that message and deeply regret that it has offended so many in the Muslim community." Finally, just yesterday, Edgar Ray Killen, a former Baptist preacher and member of the Ku Klux Klan, was sentenced to 60 years in prision for the murders of three civil rights workers in Nashoba County, Mississippi 41 years ago.
There is an oft-quoted story attributed to Sören Kierkegaard about a fire that broke out in a theatre. The stage manager sent the clown out on the stage to warn the people. No one took the clown seriously, however, because they thought his warnings and gestures were just his act. Referencing the story, John Claypool says that “they heard the clown with their eyes.”
I worry sometimes that non-Baptists in the Christian world hear Baptists “with their eyes rather than their ears.” By that I mean that it is easy to stereotype Baptists on the basis of the “clowns” who seem to receive much of the national media attention at times. Readers should be reminded, though, that although Baptists do have their share of “clowns,” they still have a rich tradition of diversity and that not all Baptists are like the caricature.
Baptists were born in the early 17th century in the midst of the reign of King James I who refused to allow any religious freedom to dissenters. Early Baptists were champions for religious liberty, not just for themselves, but for all, because they believed that ultimately the government had no authority over the conscience of an individual. This devotion to freedom of the individual conscience has a double-edge to it. It champions the voice of dissent. But, at the same time, it gives voice to the "clowns."
So, don't let your impression of the Baptist name be formed by the "clowns." There are a lot of good Baptists out there!