H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
August 10, 2003
WHAT IS BAPTIST?
Text: Matthew 28:16-20
Last week, "What is Ecumenical?" This week, "What is Baptist?"
Letís begin with my definition supplied in your Order of Worship. Letís call it,
Shoemakerís Unauthorized Definition:
Baptist, adj., from the Greek word baptizo which means to "immerse" or
1. A peculiar, sometimes cantankerous tribe of Christians noted for their fierce
faith, independent spirit, love of liberty, and the belief in the sacredness of
2. Baptist Christians trace their roots to sixteenth-century European
"Anabaptists" ("Re-baptizers"), and seventeenth-century English
Dissenters. Roger Williams, the first Baptist in America, was banished from
Massachusetts Bay Colony and established a colony of religious toleration called Rhode
Island. Early Baptists were vilified, persecuted, jailed and killed, accused of being
a mortal danger to both church and state.
3. Baptistsí major convictions include: Believerís baptism, the
"church" as the community of disciples, soul competence and soul freedom,
religious liberty for all people, local church autonomy, and the separation of church
4. The truest Baptist spirit is as a "dissenting" people who stand for
spiritual freedom and stand against all forms of spiritual oppression. Therefore,
Baptist Christians have a healthy distrust of religious hierarchy, creeds, and any
alliance (actually the word I first used was dalliance, though either will do.
Sometimes a dalliance becomes an alliance.) between church and government.
5. Baptist congregations prefer "covenants" to "creeds."
Covenants describe the kind of people we want to be to one another and in the world.
Creeds dictate what we must believe. So Baptists have often said, "Our only creed
is the Bible" - which is another way of saying, "We will not reduce the
majesty and mystery of the ocean to a thimble full of treated water."
6. Because of the freedom of the local church to shape its own life and faith, you
will find Baptists from the far left of the theological and political spectrum to the
far right - and most places in between. Some burn incense and others bay at the moon.
Some practice modern biblical criticism and others handle snakes - - who knows which
is the more dangerous?
7. Contrary to popular belief and current usage, "Baptist" is not a
synonym for fundamentalist, literalist, judgmental or intolerant.
8. Those of this tribe of Christians can say, "Iím not a member of any
organized religion; Iím a Baptist!"
You have to have a sense of humor when you talk about being a Baptist these days, many
current Baptist folk having made a mockery of the name.
Iíve often said that if Roger Williams, the original Baptist in America, walked into
Jerry Falwellís church in Lynchburg, Virginia, or attended the annual meeting of the
so-called Southern Baptist Convention, heíd say, "Whoah! These guys look more like
the ones who threw me out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony than what I had in mind
to get going."
Marney said in his Dickson Lectures here in 1974, "This is the last time I wish to
be heard as Baptist for "Baptist" is an adjective. . . . It ought not to be
lived as a noun."1 He was a Baptist Christian, Baptist being an
adjective, one modifier among others.
If someone asked me today, "Are you a Baptist?" Iíd say much the same.
"No," Iíd reply, "Iím a Baptist Christian with a decidedly ecumenical
bent,"or "Iím an ecumenical Christian with some Baptist convictions hanging
around trying to survive." If thatís not so easy to understand, itís not so easy
to say either.
What is a Baptist? Well, what do Jesse Jackson and Jesse Helms, Jerry Falwell and Jimmy
Carter, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Trent Lott, Bill Clinton and Aretha Franklin, Bill
Moyers and Marian Wright Edelman have in common? Yes, they are all Baptist!
Thatís a pretty confusing place to start. So maybe we should go back to the past, to
sixteenth-century Europe where Baptists began. As Professor Fred Turner of the University
of Texas has said:
Sometimes the present can free us from the shackles of the past and help us
build the future. But sometimes something from the past can free us from the
shackles of the present and help build the future.
We began in sixteenth century Europe as "Anabaptists," which means "Re-baptizers."
The name was given us by our enemies. The radical reformation group known as
"Anabaptists" declared that infant baptism was not true baptism. Baptism came
when you had chosen to follow Jesus, not when your parents carried you to church in their
Such a declaration was highly threatening to the religious status-quo; so they called
us Re-baptizers, which meant the first infant baptism did count.
In Holland we were called Doopsgesinde -- which means "water-minded"
or "baptism-minded" -- though weíd have rather been called
Weíre getting warm here. Anabaptists felt Christianity had sold out to culture. Being
Christian was little different from being born European. In their minds, true Christians
were ones who had decided to follow the Jesus of the New Testament, whatever the cost, and
often that meant standing against culture.
Anabaptists adopted some highly irregular practices which were rooted in the gospels
but which put them at odds with their world: No taking of oaths, which meant they would
not serve in the military nor in the courts; they adopted pacifism and disavowed violence;
they lived simply; there was a radical separation of church and state. Anabaptists were
called anarchists, seditionists, religious fanatics. Some lost their lives.
From this radical reformation movement also came Mennonites and Quakers and Unitarians.
Today we may see best the character of those early Anabaptists in Mennonites, in Quakers
and in Baptists like those in the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America -- which is
headquartered here in Charlotte.
Baptists began in England in the seventeenth-century as part of the larger Dissenter,
or Separatist, movement. John Smyth is known as the first Baptist but had to move his
Baptist congregation to Amsterdam to escape persecution (1608). Thomas Helwys established
the first Baptist congregation on British soil in 1612. He wrote a treatise on religious
liberty which defended the spiritual liberty of all people, not just Baptists, but
Catholics and Quakers, Jews, Muslims and atheists -- a position which cost him his life.
John Bunyan, writer of Pilgrimís Progress, spent twelve years in jail because he
refused to stop preaching without a license from the state.
In America it was Roger Williams who began the Baptist movement. He was banished from
the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his nonconformist theology, his defense of religious
liberty and his friendship with Native Americans. In 1644 the Massachusetts General Court
banned all "Anabaptists," labeling them "the incendiaries of the
commonwealths, and infectors of persons in matters of religion and the troublers of
churches in all places."
Williams began a new colony of religious toleration called Rhode Island. It gave
sanctuary to a number of persecuted religious minorities including Quakers and Jews. As
you see from the Silent Meditation, this political and religious experiment drew ridicule
from the New Amsterdam minister who called Rhode Island the "latrina, (sewer)
of New England," habitated by "cranks" and "riff-raff people." I
think Jesus would have smiled, for he himself suggested that cranks and riff-raff people
might enter into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the respectable folk who think they have
an "in" with God.
In 1845 the Southern Baptist Convention broke away from what is now the American
Baptist Churches, USA over the issue of slavery. It held slavery more dear than Christís
message of freedom -- not an auspicious way to begin.
Thatís a Readerís Digest condensed history of Baptists.
What do Baptists believe? I prefer to talk of Baptist convictions rather
than Baptists beliefs. Convictions are generally those things we want to
take on, whereas beliefs are often things we are made to take on.
Conviction Number One: Believerís Baptism. Baptism is reserved for the
time in oneís life in which one decides to be a follower of Jesus. While we at Myers
Park Baptist Church accept and honor all baptisms, this is the form of baptism we practice
And the mode of baptism is immersion, being dipped under water, because it is a
powerful symbol of what it symbolizes: New-birth, washing, and dying and rising. And
because it is how Jesus was baptized and how he and his disciples most probably baptized
(By the way, in British Baptist churches the favorite hymn sung at Baptismal Services
is the one we all sing at the close of the service. "O Jesus, I Have Promised.")
Conviction Number Two: The Church as the Company of the Committed. You join the
church by deciding to follow Jesus and being baptized. Baptists think of
"church" mainly in the lower case, church with a little "c," the local
Here we come up against the paradox of the meaning of "church": We are more
than the local congregation but we need the local congregation. However one identifies oneís
spiritual "bucket" -- Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal-- Marneyís
three phrases still capture the paradox:
All our buckets leak.
All our buckets are too small for what is great in us.
We need a local bucket to hold things in.2
Yes, we need our buckets "to hold things in," and "to hold things
in." Like skin, as some wag put it: "Some people are so open minded their
brains are falling out."
Conviction Number Three: "Soul Competence" and Soul Freedom."
These are great old phrases. What they affirm is: The individual personís soul is
competent to open the Bible and interpret it for his or her own life, competent to discern
the Spirit of God from within, and if competent, should be free! We need no king or
pope or creed to tell us what to believe.
Baptists are defenders of the sacredness of individual conscience and defenders of the
individual apprehension of truth. Truth can be apprehended by the community or by the
individual. Because of the inclination of human communities to coerce individual belief,
Baptists have emphasized the individual side of their coin rather than the community side.
Such is why Baptists have distrusted creeds. When British Baptists adopted their
"London Confession" of 1677, they largely borrowed from the Presbyteriansí
"Westminster Confession," not only because they agreed with most of it but also
because in their words: "We have no itch to clog religion with new words." Do
you their drift? Words, not even the right words, are the ultimate thing.
When the Southern Baptist Convention adopted their 1963 Baptist Faith and
Message, the preamble said:
Confessions are only guides in interpretation having no authority over the
conscience . . . and are not to be used to hamper freedom of thought or
investigation in other realms of life.
Of course that was 1963, and this is no longer true of the way Southern Baptists
operate, which is one of the reasons we formally withdrew from the Southern Baptist
Convention in 1998. (A copy of the resolution concerning our withdrawal will be supplied
Of course affirmations of faith can be most helpful, as bodies need backbones, music
needs key signature and sonnets need their fourteen lines, but thatís another sermon for
Baptist Conviction Number Four: Local Church Autonomy. Every congregation
is competent to open the Bible and interpret it for its life and faith, to discern the
Spirit of God in their midst, and if competent should be free.
Every Baptist congregation is self-governing and self-supporting. There is no higher
ecclesial body, presbytery, bishop or pope who determines what we believe or what God is
calling us to be and do in the world.
So we are free to govern ourselves and set our own course in the world without the
interference or benefit of the larger church -- that for better and for worse, for
sickness and in health. It is our glory, and sometimes it is our demise.
The last and fifth Baptist Conviction: Religious Liberty and the
Separation of Church and State. Freedom of religion
applies to all, and Baptists have defended it for all, not just for ourselves. Only
a voluntary faith is real faith.
Weíve all seen the danger of Church and State too involved with one another. And it
is the Church which most often loses. As someone has said, The lion is always ready to lie
down with the lamb!
So in America Baptists helped create the documents which protect religious liberty and
maintain the separation of church and state. I do not think it an overstatement to say
that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution has Baptist fingerprints all
over it. It has two clauses. The freedom clause says all religions should be
free from government intrusion. The establishment clause says that the
government cannot establish or favor one religion over another.
So, what shall we say, we do, with "Baptist"? How do I bring
this baby in for a landing? Perhaps the landing is ours to make, not mine, so what
I do is line us up with the runway.
The Baptist cry is freedom. Let us never let go of that: "For freedom Christ has
set us free. Stand fast and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians
The Baptist vision is the saving of the world through the preaching of the good news of
God in Christ, following the Great Commission as we follow Jesus: Go into all the world,
making disciples, teaching Jesusí commands, baptizing in the name of God the Creator,
the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Let us never lose that.
The Baptist part of us is a vital particularity which keeps us from being some nebulous
spiritual entity: McChurch or Spirit-R-Us. It keeps us focused on Jesus and his radical
vision of the kingdom (or should), and saves us from a "culture-Christianity"
which is no longer salt and light to the world.
Of course, this meaning of being Baptist is little evident in what many Baptists in
America have become. Thereís the rub. Can we remain Baptist in a culture where the word
means to most people the opposite of what it originally meant and most deeply means?
Should we keep the name alive until this present madness is over and our strain of
Baptist can flower again?
I tremble at the thought of casting it away. Our forebears suffered and died for
Baptist convictions which are still needed today.
Gene Owens said that if we took "Baptist" out of our name, we could take his
ashes out of the columbarium and scatter them elsewhere! (He said that before he
died -- Iíve had no private conversation with him from the other side. He said it in a
sermon.) Iím not eager to preside over such a ceremony!
May the Baptist part always live somewhere in us. Perhaps keeping Baptist is one way of
keeping our sense of humor. What embarrasses us has the capacity to save us.
But how we keep Baptist and how we mix it with our broader spiritual
identities, that is the question.
"Baptist" says some of who we are, but not all of who we are, but it does say
some of who we are, but not all of who we are. . . .
Ecumenical? Baptist? I am both and I am torn. The writer E. B. White once said (I
paraphrase): "When I get up in the morning part of me wants to savor the
world, and another part of me wants to save the world. That makes it hard to plan
The Ecumenical part of me wants to savor the world, to joy in all God has
created and all God is doing. The Baptist part of me wants to save the world, to
address all that is unwhole and untrue and unjust and in need of reconciliation with God.
That makes it hard to plan the day.
But maybe the saving thing is in the joining of the two. For that is what I think God
is about: Savoring the world and saving it.