Saturday, June 17, 2006

Baptists and the Church

Matthew 16:15-20; Ephesians 1:20-23

There is a wonderful story about a Baptist who was the only survivor from a shipwreck out in the Pacific Ocean. For hours he drifted with the current on a piece of wreckage from the ship he was on. Fortunately, the current carried him to a small, deserted island. For months he was on the island. Finally, rescuers found the island and rescued him. As they arrived on shore, they noticed that the man had built three huts. They asked him why he had three huts. He said, “Well, that one over there is where I live. The one beside it is where I go to church.” They said, “Well, what about the third one?” He responded, “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church!”
How should Baptists understand the concept of “church?” First, I think we should understand the meaning of the word “church.” It comes from a Greek word ecclesia which literally means “the called out ones.” Therefore, from the New Testament understanding, the word “church” has nothing to do with buildings. We tend to think of it that way though. Do you remember the little children’s game, “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the door, there’s the people?” We learned that as a child. But, theologically and biblically, we were taught that the church is a building. “This is the church.”[1]
The “church” is not a building. The church is people who have committed their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ. We are “called out” on the basis of our commitment to lives our lives by the values and example of Jesus and not by the values of the world. We who are a part of the church should have different values than those who do not confess Christ as Lord.
How, then, should Baptists understand the concept of church? I believe there are three important lessons about the church that Baptists need to understand to be true to our tradition.
I. A Baptist Church is a Local Fellowship of Believers Who Have Committed Their Lives to the Lordship of Christ
In Matthew 16, in the conversation with his disciples, a very important theological understanding of the church is conveyed. Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him. “Who do people say that I am?” Their response, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus then asked, “Who do you say that I am?” It was Peter that responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
A confession of Jesus as Lord is at the very heart of the proper Baptist understanding of “church.” It was an individual confession, yet it was made within the community of disciples. Last week we talked about the Priesthood of Believers and its relation to the Baptist tradition. A correct Baptist understanding of “church” is a corrective to an over-emphasis on individualism or “Lone Ranger Christianity, which misunderstands the concept of Priesthood of believers. Peter made an individual confession but did so within the context of the community of disciples.
I got my first taste of pastoral ministry within the loving hands of the good people in Cego, Texas. You have heard me talk lovingly of this congregation before. The church no longer exists. However, for most of the 20th century, it was a local fellowship of believers who had committed their lives to Jesus Christ.
Several years ago, I got the church records and simply wrote a little history of that congregation. It was a labor of love for me but I think also helped to establish a lasting memory of that wonderful fellowship of believers. In 1911, the church was organized this way:
Rev BJ Patrick acting as mod. and J. T. Hardcastle acting as clerk, The Baptist people of Cego went into the organization of a Baptist church Bro. L. C. Garrison Pasto [sic] reading from Col. 3 chapter after Clerk recording the names and calling them Bro Patrick read the articles of faith a motion and second that we adopt them carried Then _____ he read the church Covinant [sic] motion and second that we adopt it motion carried. Motion and second that we recognized the church duly organized.[2]
What was that body of believers doing? They were doing exactly what those who constituted this church 175 years ago did. They were coming together as a fellowship and organizing themselves together into a church, Baptist style. Notice that there were no representatives from the Association present. There no representatives from the state convention or the national SBC present. The church chose later to affiliate with those entities. But, the church was created by the people, not by the denomination.
II. A Baptist Church is a Part of the Universal Fellowship of Believers Who Confess Jesus as Lord
The New Testament speaks of the local fellowship of believers quite frequently. But, there are also a few places where it mentions the universal church. One such place is Ephesians 1: 20-23. Here Paul is talking about all believers, not just a local fellowship of believers. A proper understanding of the concept of “church” should recognize both of these aspects.
During the last half of the 19th century, within the Southern Baptist Convention, a movement called Landmarkism took hold and almost destroyed the young convention. Landmarkism starts with the basic belief that the only true church is a local, body of Baptist believers. In other words, Landmarkists believed that the only true church was a local Baptist church. They denied that Methodists or Presbyterians, or any other group of Christians could have a legitimate church because Baptists were the true inheritors of the New Testament tradition. In fact, if you asked a Landmarkist (and there are some still around in Fundamentalist Baptist churches!) when the Baptist tradition began, that person would tell you that it began with Jesus, John, and the Jordan River.
But, we know better today. Baptists are a part of the larger universal fellowship of believers. The early Baptist confessions of faith were modeled after other confessions of faith. For example, the Second London Confession of Faith, written by British Baptists in 1688 was modeled after and sounds very similar to the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith. Why? Because the early Baptists wanted to show that they were not an aberration from the mainstream. They wanted to show that they were a part of the universal church. They understood baptism and church polity differently. But, theologically, they were in the mainstream of the universal church.
On July 11th, 1905, almost 101 years ago now, in Exeter Hall, London, England, the 74 year-old Rev. Alexander MacLaren, a Scottish Baptist, stood to delivering the opening address of the gathering of Baptists which constituted what we know today as the Baptist World Alliance. In the middle of MacLaren’s speech, he did something unusual, he said:
there should be no misunderstanding on the part of the English public, or the American public either—before whom we are taking a prominent position . . . as to where we stand in the continuity of the history Church. And I should like the first act of this Congress to be the audible and unanimous acknowledgment of our Faith. So, I have suggested that . . . it would be an impressive and right thing, and would clear away a good many misunderstandings and stop the mouth of a good deal of slander—if we here and now, in the face of the world, not as a piece of coercion or discipline, but as simple acknowledgment of where we stand and what we believe, would rise to our feet and following the lead of your President, would repeat the Apostles Creed.[3]

The entire assembly, thousands of Baptists from around the world, rose and repeated together the Apostles Creed to signify their affirmation of the great doctrines of the Christian faith and their affirmation that they belonged to the universal church.
You know, it wouldn’t hurt local Baptist churches to repeat the Apostles Creed once in a while as a reminder that we are a part of something much larger than we. We are a part of the universal church.
III. A Baptist Church is Free To Govern Itself
In the Baptist tradition, we talk about something called “Autonomy of the Local Church.” By that we mean that the local church in Baptist life answers to no one but its membership. A Baptist church can call its own ministers without interference from the outside. It can ordain for leadership whomever it chooses. It can affiliate with whomever it chooses. It can give money outside of itself to whomever it wishes and in the amount that only it determines. A Baptist church is truly free to govern itself.
It is sad that many Baptist churches today have forgotten that. A local Baptist church is beholden to no one save Jesus Christ and its own membership. When the Southern Baptist Convention passes a resolution at its annual meeting which generates a lot of press coverage, it has absolutely no bearing on a local church. When the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina passes a motion which might attempt to force a local church to do something against its will, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina needs to be reminded that it has NO control over local congregations. And a local congregation can say to the Baptist State Convention, to the Southern Baptist Convention, or to any outside entity “we will have nothing further to do with you and there is nothing you can do about it!” You, the body of Christian believers in this place have the power in Baptist life.
On August 9, 1964, the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham did a very courageous thing. It was something that no Southern Baptist Church had ever done before. It ordained a woman by the name of Addie Davis to the Gospel ministry. The pastor of the church, Warren Carr, received almost 50 letters criticizing his church’s action. Addie Davis received criticism as well. One letter referred to her as “a child of the Devil.” It was a courageous act taken by a church that believed it was doing the right thing.[4]
In March, 1992 Pullen Memorial Baptist Church voted to bless the same sex union of two of its members. Also that month, the Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill voted to grant a license to the Gospel ministry to a man who was openly gay. I realize that I am making some of you uncomfortable here. But, what I’m illustrating is the Baptist concept of autonomy of the local church. Most of us would probably agree with the ordination of Addie Davis and might disagree with the actions taken by Watts Street and Binkley. But, all represent local Baptist churches being “Baptist” and like my friend and colleague, the late Don Keyser used to say, “a local Baptist church always has the right to be wrong!”
So, where does this leave The Memorial Baptist Church? Well, I think I know you well enough to know that you are probably more willing to ordain a woman to the ministry than you are to bless the union of two gay men. But, I do want you to always cherish your freedom to govern yourself.
I can’t think of a time in the 400 years of Baptist history when it is any more important for Baptist churches to know their heritage and value their freedom than it is now. And, it is also vitally important that you educate yourselves about what is going on in the Baptist world beyond yourselves and in the broader Christian world beyond Baptists. You need to make informed decisions.
You are about to exercise your autonomy in calling a pastor. I pray that God’s Spirit would lead you as you do just that!
[1] William Powell Tuck, Our Baptist Tradition (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 1993), p. 48.
[2] Minutes of the Cego Baptist Church, Book I, 3 November 1911. There is very little punctuation visible in many of the church entries due to the age of the materials.
The existence of these church records is actually an amazing story. I served as pastor of this congregation from 1987-1991. The church treasurer, Mrs. Edith McKee once told me that she went to the church one morning (several years before I became the pastor) and found a former pastor cleaning out some closets. In the trash she found the church minutes and other record books. She asked him what he was doing and why he had thrown the minutes away. He said, “Oh, they were just some old records we no longer needed.” Mrs. Mckee then took the books out of the trash and gave them to the church clerk, Mrs. Lorene Wittner for safe-keeping. The first week after I became the pastor of this church fire destroyed Mrs. Wittner’s house. By an interesting coincidence, just that week Mrs. McKee had taken the books to her house to look up something. Amazingly, they were preserved once again. When I heard this story, I received permission to take the church records to the Texas Collection at Baylor University in Waco, Texas to have them microfilmed. The Texas Collection currently has a microfilmed copy of the church minutes from 1911-1986.
[3] Walter B. Shurden, ed., The Life of Baptists in the Life of the World: 80 Years of the Baptist World Alliance (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985): p. 17.
[4] Addie Davis’ story is told well in Pamela R. Durso and Keith E. Durso, Courage and Hope: The Stories of Ten Baptist Women Ministers (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2005): pp. 17-30.

No comments: