Monday, August 26, 2013

A Big Baptist World

The website of the Baptist World Alliance reports that there are 42 million Baptists around the world in 177,000 churches.  There are 228 various Baptist conventions and unions in 120 countries.  The Baptist "tent" is indeed big!

The International Baptist Convention is one such group that contributes its part to the world-wide Baptist family.  According to their informational brochure, the IBC is "a fellowship of international English-language churches and missions currently in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas."  The IBC has approximately 75 cooperating churches located in 27 countries.  It boasts 7,200 members from 140 different nationalities.  To say that this is a small, diverse group of Baptists is an understatement!

I had the wonderful opportunity this summer to attend the "IBC Interlaken Summer Experience," held annually in Interlaken, Switzerland and sponsored by the International Baptist Convention.  One of my former students, Dr. Mason Smith, is pastor of Immanuel Baptist church in Wiesbaden, Germany which is affiliated with the IBC.  He extended a gracious invitation for me to come and participate in this wonderful experience.

For the last 15 years the IBC has hosted this event in which missionaries, pastors and laity bring their families to beautiful Interlaken for spiritual nurture, fellowship, ministry, and training.  I taught two seminars during the week; one titled "How We Got Our Bible," and the second on the book of Jeremiah.  Each morning during the week I had a diverse group of participants literally from around the world.  Some were United States military personnel assigned to various bases around the world who had found a local IBC church near their base.  Others were missionary clergy who serve as pastors in some of the churches.  There were also participants for whom English was perhaps their second or third language.  It was an amazingly diverse group of people.

While the adults were in the seminars taught by me and other faculty members and clergy from around the world, a Vacation Bible School was conducted by a group of people representing the Alabama Baptist Convention with a few folks from Virginia and even North Carolina thrown in for good measure!  Away from Interlaken the teenagers participated in a youth camp.  There was something for everyone that week!

I came away from this experience with a wonderful feeling about Baptists.  This was the most diverse group of Baptist people I had ever been around.  Different languages, nationalities and cultures made this groups of Baptists more like a quilt than a blanket.  And yet, through the entire week, there was no fighting, arguing, or disagreeing about anything.  In fact, a concerted effort was made to focus only on the things that bind us together, not the things that divide.  And, with a group as small as the IBC, they can't afford to argue and divide like many Baptists in America have done over the last couple of centuries.

So, when I get depressed thinking  about Baptists in the southern part of the United States and how much we have quarreled over the last half century, I find myself feeling much brighter about the worldwide Baptist movement because of groups like the International Baptist Convention.  Dr. Jimmy Martin, the group's General Secretary, is to be commended for his splendid leadership of this wonderful group.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Jesus and Religious Freedom

Every July 4th we celebrate the birth of our nation.  The United States is a nation that stands for freedom.  One of our most basic freedoms that we cherish is the freedom of religion.  Within the first sentence of the first amendment to the Constitution, we find the words that spell out the doctrine of the separation of church and state.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  For more than two centuries Americans have enjoyed the fact that they can exercise their faith any way they please, or have no at all, and not have to worry about religious coercion from the government.  That, in my opinion, is one of our most basic of freedoms and it has served us well.  It certainly explains why religion thrives so well in America.

The 4th of July also marks a special day in the history of Baptists, particularly Virginia Baptist history.  On that day in 1802, "Swearing" Jack Waller died after preaching himself to exhaustion.  If you are a Baptist and don't know "Swearing Jack," you should.  His name was actually John Waller but he had the nickname "Swearing Jack" before his conversion to Christ.  By happenstance he was on the grand jury that indicted a Virginia Baptist preacher named Lewis Craig, the first Baptist preacher brought before the court in Virginia for preaching without a state license.  This occurred in the 1760s.  Because of the powerful testimony of Craig in the hearing before the grand jury, Swearing Jack confessed Christ as his Savior and became a Baptist preacher himself.  He experienced persecution because of it, serving time in prison with some other Virginia Baptist preachers in 1766 for preaching without a state license.  Of course, the Constitution, and particularly the Bill of Rights, changed things a little more than two decades later.

Did Jesus talk about separation of church and state or religious freedom for all?  Well, the way that Christians behaved for much of Christian history and the way that many Christians today treat those of different faiths makes one wonder.  However, I believe there are some places in the teachings of Jesus from which we can build a case for religious freedom.  For example, in Mark 12, when the Pharisees asked Jesus if they had to pay their taxes, Jesus in turn asked to see a coin.  He asked them a question: "Whose head is this and whose title?"  Their answer: "The emperor's."  Jesus then said, "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."  From this I believe we can draw a conclusion that Jesus saw two realms, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world.

There is one other place in Jesus' teaching that I believe is the foundation for an ethic of religious freedom.  I believe it can be found in the so-called "Golden Rule."  In Matthew 7:12 Jesus said, "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you."  Can you imagine how just following this simple teaching of Jesus (the thought of which is found in all the world's major religions) would revolutionize our world, our nation, our state, our communities?  This simple teaching is the key to how we should respond to those whose faith may be different than ours.  How would we want them to treat us?  That is how we should treat them.  Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Liberal Christian, Fundamentalist Christian . . .  

And so at the heart of one of the most common sayings of Jesus is I believe the key to living and celebrating our religious freedom as Americans.  This coming Thursday, before you fire up the barbecue, before you go to the parade, before you watch the fireworks, think about your Muslim neighbor down the street.  Or think about your Buddhist co-worker.  Or think about the Christian who believes differently than you do on a certain point of doctrine.  And, remember the Golden Rule!

Friday, April 12, 2013

The North Carolina General Assembly, Rowan County Commissioners and Religious Freedom

I had a very good church history professor in seminary named Dr. William R. Estep.  Dr. Estep taught me a lot about Christian history and especially Baptist history.  He inspired me so much that I chose to pursue a PhD in Church History.  Most of my research and publication has concentrated in the area of Baptist History.

One of the defining characteristics of Baptists in the 17th century (when the movement began) was their intense devotion to religious freedom.  Unlike other dissenting groups in the 17th century, the Baptists believed and agitated for religious freedom for all people (Christian, non-Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist, etc.).  This devotion to religious freedom for all comprises a unique contribution of the early Baptists to the world.  They wanted no part of establishment for religion.

The early Baptists knew their history well.  They understood, and had experienced for themselves, the dangers of establishment.  They knew that when the state had an established religion, other religions suffered.  And they also knew that what might be established today could easily be disestablished tomorrow.  So, one group might have the power right now but with a change in the government, a new group might have the power.  Simply put, the early Baptists knew the value of the "Golden Rule" when it came to advocating for religious freedom.  "I will grant you the freedom to practice your faith as you choose because I would want the same from you if you were in power."

Dr. Estep inspired me because in him I saw a modern Baptist who remained loyal to the 17th century Baptist notion about religious freedom.  He understood, like our Baptist forebears, that although Baptists are no longer dissenters and in the minority on the American religious landscape, nevertheless, we need to remain consistent to the principles of religious liberty for all.  If I heard him say it once, I heard him say it a dozen times: "freedom of religion has always got to guarantee freedom from religion."  He understood that establishing one religion, or showing favoritism to one religion, can have the opposite of the intended effect.  State support of one religion actually serves to weaken all religion.  Just look at the history of established churches throughout Christian history!  Establishment tends to weaken rather than strengthen.

So, that brings me to Rowan County (my home county) and the North Carolina General Assembly.  The Rowan County Commissioners are engaged in a dispute right now with the ACLU over the issue of Christian prayers to open its meetings.  They are contemplating a lawsuit over the issue.  The Forsyth County Commissioners have already litigated this same issue all the way to the SCOTUS, which refused to hear their case.

This means that the lower court rulings, that such sectarian prayers are unconstitutional, must stand.  It is the law of the land.  The Rowan County Commissioners will waste thousands of taxpayer dollars if they choose to litigate an issue that is legally a dead end.

That reality is probably what prompted two Rowan County representatives (NC Reps. Henry Warren and Carl Ford) to the NC General Assembly to propose a bill a couple of weeks ago which made national headlines.  It was supported by 14 other Republican legislators as well.  Essentially, their proposed bill would nullify SCOTUS rulings for the state of North Carolina.  If the state didn't like the rulings, the state could nullify them.  The same argument has been tried unsuccessfully since the end of the Civil War.  In the matter of religion, it would allow the state of North Carolina to choose an established religion.

So, here's what Warren and Ford are up against.  They are carrying water for the Rowan County Commissioners who are fighting their own losing cause that has already met a dead end in Forsyth County.  They are also using a legal argument (nullification) which has been tried since the Civil War, particularly in civil rights issues.  They are showing a complete ignorance of the dangers of establishing religion.  And, perhaps most importantly, establishing one religion over all others would be a direct contradiction of the Golden Rule.

Bill Leonard (James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the Wake Forest Divinity School), wrote a column today that discusses this issue much better than I.  It is located here:

The best line in the whole column is this: "The issue is not the loss of religious liberty, but loss of religious privilege."  I suspect he's right.  A couple of generations ago religious pluralism meant Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, non-denominational, Catholic, all Christian groups living together in community.  Today, all over America, religious pluralism is being redefined.  Have you seen a mosque in your hometown yet?  It will be coming soon.  Have you noticed the new Buddhist temple going up in the county seat town?  It will be soon.  The American religious landscape is changing at light speed.  One day in the not too distant future, Christians may realize that we no longer corner the religious market.  Hopefully, then Baptists will once again become the agitators for religious freedom for all.  And, when that day comes, it will be much easier for Baptist Christians to make that argument if we abide by the Golden Rule now.