When people ask me what I do I tell them I’m a pastor, and when they ask what kind of pastor I tell them Baptist.
“What kind of Baptist?” they ask.
“Just Baptist,” I answer.
And that’s when the conversation gets interesting.
“Not Southern Baptist?” they ask. “No.” “Not American Baptist?” “No.” “Not Cooperative Baptist?” “No.” “Not Alliance of Baptists?” “No.” “Not National Baptist?” “No.” “Not Primitive Baptist?” “No.” And when they run out of all the options they can think of they ask, “What are you then?”
“Baptist,” I say. “Just Baptist.”
I sometimes tell newcomers to Baptist life that there is “a Christian way to be human and a Baptist way to be Christian.”* That’s what I’m talking about: the Baptist way of being Christian. It goes back four hundred years to that time when a group of Christians left the Church of England to start a church grounded in the New Testament scriptures and committed to the principle of freedom. They felt that believers should be free to make up their own minds about Jesus, and free to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. They felt that the local church should be free to determine its own mission and ministry, and that it should be free from any control by the state. Those four freedoms are essential to the Baptist way of being Christian.
Our grounding in the New Testament scriptures has led to an emphasis on missions and evangelism through the years. Baptists really are an apostolic people (from the Greek word for “sent”), meaning they understand themselves to be sent by Jesus to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). That commitment led Baptists in this country to organize for effectiveness, and in 1814 the Triennial Baptist Convention was formed (so named because it met once every three years). The purpose was to elicit, combine, and direct funds for the support of the Baptist missionary enterprise, mostly overseas. In 1845 the Triennial Baptist Convention split into two parts—the Northern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention—primarily over the issue of slavery.
When I became a Baptist in 1981 I did it by joining a church that was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. If you had asked me then what kind of Baptist I was I probably would have said Southern Baptist, and I would have said it with pride. The Southern Baptist Convention was the largest Protestant denomination in the world, sending thousands of missionaries into dozens of countries, including this one. But by the time I went to my first annual meeting in 1987 the Convention was embroiled in conflict. People were talking about the “Battle for the Bible,” and at that meeting affirmed an earlier resolution stating that women could not serve as pastors in Southern Baptist Churches because the first woman, Eve, had committed the first sin.
That’s when I first began to reconsider my relationship to the Southern Baptist Convention. I hadn’t been in seminary very long but even I knew that while Eve ate the forbidden fruit Adam also ate it, and apparently he didn’t even need to be talked into it. Excluding women from pastoral leadership simply because Eve was the first to sin didn’t seem like a good enough reason even if it was in the Bible, and I began to suspect that there were other reasons behind this resolution, reasons that had more to do with the question of “Who will control the world’s largest Protestant denomination?” than with the question of “How can we faithfully live out the teachings of Scripture?”
By the time I graduated from seminary in 1991 that first question had been answered. The Southern Baptist Convention was controlled by those who called themselves “conservatives” and whom others called “fundamentalists.” Baptist agencies and institutions had been taken over; Baptist journalists and seminary presidents had been fired; local congregations had been divided by conflict. There may have been those who were celebrating the victory but all I could see was the ravages of war.
So when I came to Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina I came determined to leave denominational conflict behind, focusing my energies instead on loving and serving the Lord and that little congregation. It wasn’t hard; those people were easy to love. And it was during that time, when people asked me what kind of Baptist I was, that I began to say, “A Wingate Baptist,” meaning the kind of Baptist I found in that wonderful church: Christians who were committed to the historic Baptist principle of freedom and to the New Testament emphasis on missions and evangelism. It’s hard not to love people like that.
I’ve been at Richmond’s First Baptist Church long enough now to feel that way about this place and these people, too, and maybe next time someone asks me what kind of Baptist I am I’ll say that: “I’m a First Baptist Richmond kind of Baptist.” Those who know the church will have some idea of what I mean, and those who don’t know the church may just be curious enough…
…to come and find out for themselves.**
A related article on former president Jimmy Carter’s decision to leave the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 can be found HERE.
*I attribute this quote to Dr. Randall Lolley, former president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.
**Interestingly, Richmond’s First Baptist Church was founded in 1780, sixty-five years before the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m guessing that I’m not the first pastor of this church to identify himself as “just Baptist.”