Radically Baptist, Radically Free
Last October, when UBC was dismissed from the Pinebelt Baptist Association and the MS Baptist Convention, one of the most startling questions I repeatedly heard was: “Is UBC still Baptist?” It’s not unlike the description, usually said with a bit of loving jest, that UBC is “barely Baptist.”
I understand the question, and even get what is really meant by the “barely” comment. However, as one deeply rooted in Baptist tradition who spent two years of my life writing research papers on our early Baptist roots I want to wave my arms and yell as loud as I can “what do you mean—we’re just about as Baptist as Baptists can be!” Indeed, I think you would be hard pressed to find a church in our region that more faithfully lives out the Baptist tradition than UBC—really!
You see, my sisters and brothers, like it or not, we Baptists were born on the margins as a pack of free-thinking radicals. Yes, as much as we like to celebrate the Protestant Reformation and lift up early reformers like Martin Luther or John Calvin, the truth is we Baptists scared even the great reformers. Indeed, we are part of that wild and free-growing branch of the Christian family known as the Radical Reformation. Yes, “radical” from our inception. What made us so radical… in a word, “Freedom!” That is how one of the great contemporary Baptist historians and theologians, Walter Shurden, summarizes the essence of the Baptist way of following Jesus. Admittedly, it is a way that has gotten us in a lot of trouble throughout our history, but one cannot claim a Baptist identity without holding tightly to principles of freedom for all people. These include (as defined by Shurden in The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms):
Soul Freedom: the historic Baptist affirmation of the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to deal with God without the imposition of creed, the interference of clergy, or the intervention of civil government.
Church Freedom: the historic Baptist affirmation that local churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine their membership and leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whom they perceive as gifted for ministry, and to participate in the larger body of Christ.
Bible Freedom: the historic Baptist affirmation that the Bible, under the Lordship of Christ, must be central in the life of the individual and church and that Christians, with the best and most scholarly tools of inquiry, are both free and obligated to study and obey the Scripture.
Religious Freedom: the historic Baptist affirmation of freedom OF religion, freedom FOR religion, and freedom FROM religion, insisting that Caesar is not Christ and Christ is not Caesar.
This June, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) begins a year-long celebration of our twenty-fifth anniversary. It seems appropriate that as we join this celebration, we spend time thinking anew about what it is that makes us Baptists—not “barely” Baptists, but radical, freedom-loving Baptists (perhaps we should say “bravely” Baptists!).
Each Sunday in June, the sermon will focus on one of the above freedoms. The sermons will be a mix of stories from Baptist history (and being radicals has given us some fascinating stories to tell, I promise), the freedoms we espouse, and the responsibility that comes with those freedoms (yes, the old adage is correct, “with freedom comes responsibility.”). My hope is we will recognize that many of the reasons we love UBC are actually living expressions of our great heritage as the wild, free-growing branch of the Christian family.