Tuesday, February 22, 2011

This is What Baptist Looks Like

Back in the 70s when ideas were changing about women and aging, feminist Gloria Steinam had a stock reply to those who informed her that she didn't look 40. She said, "This is what 40 looks like." I'm often tempted to steal her line when I get the occasional, incredulous, "You're Baptist?" I've come to appreciate in recent years the amount of flexibility that comes with the Baptist label. From the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut back in 1801 who insisted on a separated church and state in their famous letter to Thomas Jefferson to the wacko Westboro Baptists who are abhorred by everyone, Baptists are a varied lot. That's what forgoing a creed will do for you. We have a document called The Baptist Faith and Message, and in recent years there has been a push  for members (or at least for missionaries) to swear they believe it, but as a general rule, it's every man for himself. Each local church is autonomous regarding the convention, and each believer is autonomous regarding the church to which he belongs. We require baptism by immersion and communion. Anything else is negotiable to some extent. It's amazing that we're as coherent as we are.

The label certainly carries with it some preconceived notions. This probably explains the trend of the newer larger Baptist churches to omit the label altogether and follow the New Testament tradition of naming the congregation "The Church at CityName." When my daughters moved away to college, both were disillusioned with the Baptist church for different reasons. One now attends a church with traditional worship and liberal social views. "Baptist" is the first word in the title, and the church exists because they were brave enough during the civil rights movement to decry racism, and allow a black woman to join the congregation. They still welcome everyone, and it's still not popular. They allow women to serve as ministers and deacons. My daughter asked, "How are they Baptist?" The other daughter attends a church that she  initially assumed was nondenominational since "Baptist" is never mentioned there. But she knows the ropes, and it only took one service for her to ask, "How are they not Baptist?" She's right, of course. They're members of the Southern Baptist convention; they just choose not to flaunt it.

I admit that it irritated me when hymns were replaced by choruses and committees were replaced by "teams", but considering that Baptists have been in existence only 400 years, any tradition that we have pales in comparison to those of other Christian faiths that have been around for 2000 years. I've been baptized by immersion, and I partake of the Lord's Supper, so I'm covered in terms of the definition. The day it registered to me that the definition is a minimum standard, it opened up a vast expanse of worship options.  It's fine to sit quietly in a pew and listen to a sermon, but I can be Baptist and observe Advent and Lent, burn candles and incense, think icons are beautiful, and make the sign of the cross.  Faith is an experience of all the senses as well as the intellect. Yep, this is what Baptist looks like.

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