Baptists and a Passion for Freedom

What follows are the opening paragraphs of my sermon from last Sunday:

This personal ad once appeared in a major metropolitan newspaper: “Single woman seeking single man. Considerate, intelligent, and honest. Overweight OK, but no slobs, smokers, drinkers, convicts, or Baptists.” Ah, the company we keep! So many people think of Baptists as narrow-minded and mean-spirited, and, unfortunately, a lot of Baptists have worked overtime to earn that reputation for us. Writer and Catholic Christian Walker Percy once said: “[J]ust because Jimmy Swaggart believes in God doesn’t mean God does not exist. But it doesn’t make life any easier . . . And, just because the Moral Majority comes out for morality doesn’t mean that one should be immoral” In a similar way, I have felt that the Baptists who make headlines don’t make life any easier for the rest of us. Too often, when a group of Baptists make news, it’s for harshness and pettiness: boycotting Mickey Mouse, “putting women in their place,” and tearing churches apart in the name of saving them. Whenever I tell people I am a Baptist, the very next thing I feel compelled to say is, “but I’m not that kind of Baptist.”

All of which makes me very sad, because it was a passion for freedom which gave birth to the Baptist movement. 400 years ago, in 1609, a small band of persecuted Christians declared their independence from the controlling force of the Anglican Church and the British crown. Unable to find liberty in their homeland, they fled to Amsterdam, because they insisted on being free from coerced conformity to creeds, doctrines, and ideas; free from imposed patterns of church order and practice; free from any authority other than the authority of Jesus. John Bradford, who chronicled their risky freedom movement, said: “Thy shook off the yoke of antichristian bondage, and as the Lord’s free people, joined themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church. . . . ”

Many early Baptists made their way from England to the American colonies, and their leaders added their voices to the growing clamor for religious liberty and civil rights. In 1776, that clamor became the birth-cry of our nation.

Our Baptist forbears believed that their love of freedom reflected the nature of God—God who called Moses to lead the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” They believed it captured the spirit of Christ, who said in his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” And they were convinced that they were following the counsel of Paul who said: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

Almost 90 years ago, in 1920, the then famous pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas TX, George W. Truett, stood on the east steps of the U.S. Capitol and said, in part: “Baptists have one consistent record concerning liberty throughout all their long and eventful history. They have never been a party to oppression of conscience . . It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced . . . God wants free worshipers and no other kind.” A passion for freedom is the Baptist spirit and the most dominant strand in our DNA. That commitment to freedom is why I am still a Baptist, and our witness to freedom the best gift we have to offer the wider church.