Monday, August 20, 2012

Being Baptist: Religious Freedom

Baptists believe in complete religious freedom for everyone. Freedom for religion and freedom from religion. This strong belief was born from religious persecution suffered in England and the colonies. State churches tend to use force to uphold a particular set of doctrines and silence dissent.

When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the emperor took the role of protecting the faith. Both pagans and heretics were persecuted. Over the centuries, many were burned at the stake in an effort to keep the church pure.

The Protestant Reformation enabled many churches break away from the Roman Catholic Church but, rather than bring religious freedom, it only increased persecution. Each ruler decided the religion for their territory. The Protestants became the persecutors and the Catholics retaliated.

Religious refugees came to America seeking religious freedom but only for themselves. The Puritans that founded Massachusetts created a state church supported by taxes. Only members of the church could vote or hold office. Dissidents like Quakers and Baptists were imprisoned and executed. Each colony set its own standards for religious freedom.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all. Nothing in this amendment prevents religion from influencing the government and being a voice for justice and morality in the public square. Jesus said that we are to be salt and light in society and that we are to be His witnesses.

This creates tension and conflict in a society that seems to be increasingly polarized. The recent Chick Fil A confrontation showed that both sides of the gay marriage debate have significant clout. Public debate is good and Christians should be a part of it but we must not confuse politics with the gospel.

Political power is not the way to bring about the type of Kingdom that Jesus describes. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas lamented that 20 years after the Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan, America was pretty much the same. He wrote, “For Christians, the vision of worldly power is not a calling, but a distraction. It is a temptation Jesus rejected, not because it was dangerous, but because it was trivial compared with his mission.”

We need changed hearts NOT changed laws; we need revival NOT revolution. II Chronicles 7:14: “if my people which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sins, and will heal their land”.

God does not belong to any political party. Isaiah was discouraged in the year that king Uzziah died. He had ruled for decades and now the future was uncertain. But Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up. Uzziah was dead but God was still on the throne.

God can work through any government. Rome was pagan and hostile to Christianity but Roman roads and laws helped Christianity to spread. The Bible says that all authority comes from God and we should submit to it. This was written particularly about the government of Rome who crucified Christ, persecuted Christians, and had morally bankrupt rulers.

The church must reserve the right to speak the truth to all parties. When church becomes the mouthpiece for any political party it loses its prophetic voice.

So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, 
and to God what is God’s.”
Matthew 22:21

Monday, August 13, 2012

Being Baptist: Soul Freedom

Soul competency or freedom is a foundational Baptist distinctive that is essential for our teaching concerning humanity, the church and salvation. It is tied to the Reformation principle of the Priesthood of the Believer. At the heart of this doctrine is that every individual has access to God without the need of a priest or any human mediator. The Bible says, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6 NIV).

Each individual is responsible before God to accept or reject salvation. Therefore Baptism and church membership are for those who make a personal decision to accept God's gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

A further understanding comes from 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (NIV)

There is no special clergy class. The church is composed of a “royal priesthood” chosen to tell people of God's love. The work of the church is not the sole realm of the pastor and a few paid professionals, it belongs to all God's people: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV)

Congregational church polity is also tied to soul freedom. Baptist churches are run in a democratic manner. Each member has an equal say and a right to be heard. Born again Christians can be trusted, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to help the church make wise decisions. However, congregational church polity only works if people show up at business meetings. Otherwise, the church is run by a small group of those who show up. The church is at its best when its members faithfully participate in making decisions.

Soul Freedom has both rights and responsibilities. “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10 NIV)

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Thriving Church

I recently heard a speaker say something about churches that were thriving but not growing. The phrase caught my attention. Growing churches are the ones that usually get attention. Fast growing churches get the most attention. It is generally assumed that if a church is thriving it is growing numerically but that's not always true.

One piece of advise I received early in my ministry was that, if I wanted a growing church, I needed to be in a growing community. That makes sense but God wants churches everywhere even in communities that are not growing.

Those words, “thriving but not growing,” made me think of churches that are numerically small but still have vital ministries. One is Vieux Carre Baptist Church in New Orleans' French Quarter. Their geography puts them in an are of need but not growth. They converted some Sunday School space into dorms and installed showers. They serve the homeless community and provide lodging for mission teams visiting N.O. They have a vital ministry and are thriving but not growing.

Many downtown churches provide a vital ministry to their communities. They no longer have the large numbers and sizable contributions as they did in their hey day but they are still a relevant symbol of God's love and grace. They minister to their aging congregations, minister mercy to their neighbors and share their now excess space with others who benefit the community. First Baptist Church of Bennington,Vermont, is a church that is thriving but not growing. They rent space to non-profits and find ways to minister to their clients. For example, they offer cooking classes to the teen moms that come to one program that rents space.

Baptist Temple is experiencing some numerical growth but more important we are thriving. We have hundreds of people in our building almost every day of the week (Saturdays are still a little slow). The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the lost are saved. Our church has become, once again an important part of our community.

Gideon's reduced force of 300 were able to defeat the larger Midianite Army and a young David was able to defeat the giant Goliath. “'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty” Zechariah 4:6.

Not every plateaued church is dying and not every fast-growing church is living.

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Matthew 18:20 (NIV)

Monday, August 06, 2012

Being Baptist: Local Church Autonomy 5, 2012, the Bishop Seabury Anglican Church held its last service on  the property where they had worshiped for 135 years. In 2006 the church was one of six Connecticut congregations that decided they could no longer be a part of the Episcopal Church. The six congregations disagreed on biblical grounds with recent decisions by the national body. The Episcopal Church moved to evict them.

Bishop Seabury Anglican Church appealed all the way to the Supreme Court but lost a six year struggle. The US courts decided that the Episcopal Church owned the 165 acres and buildings that the congregation had paid for, improved and maintained for over a century.

A foundational Baptist principle is local church autonomy. The Baptist movement was born out of similar conflict with the Anglican Church over 400 years ago. Some members of the Church of England believed that the Reformation had not gone far enough to correct the errors and abuses that had crept into the Church of England. The Puritans wanted to change the church from within but were frustrated because the bishops refused. Some who felt strongly about this left the Church of England and became known as Separatists. Baptists were among these Separatists. Baptists believe that, since churches in the New Testament were autonomous, each local church is a complete organization that is self governed and self supporting. Baptist churches own their own property, decide who their pastor will be, how their money will be spent, and how and if they will relate to other churches.

The rise in the number of “non-denominational” megachurches combined with the ubiquitous independent churches found in storefronts and converted homes bears witness to the growing consensus on this doctrine. Lutheran church historian, Martin Marty, called this part of the “baptistification” of the American church in a 1983 Christianity Today article.

Hierarchical forms of church government (run from the top down) gave birth to the Protestant Reformation and other church renewal movements. Political control of large numbers of people and resources are a temptation that is attractive to people who are power-hungry and lacking in scruples. Moreover, the leadership of hierarchical denominations tend to be out of touch with the people in the pews and are often more concerned with protecting the status quo than the concerns of their parishioners.

Free churches are able to choose the best programs and materials from a variety of para-church groups, Christian businesses and denominational sources. They can partner (or not) with other churches and para-church groups without losing their autonomy. They can apply biblical truth in their own context and reject teachings from national leaders whom they deem to be in error.

I commend Bishop Seabury Anglican Church for standing up for its principles and pray for their continued prosperity

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. 
Stand firm, then,and do not let yourselves 
be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1

Friday, August 03, 2012

Being Baptist: The birth of the Baptist movement

The Baptist movement began nearly 100 years after the birth of the Protestant Reformation and embodied the spirit of ecclesia semper reformanda est (Latin for “the church is always to be reformed”). This was one of the tenets of the Protestant Reformation.

There were Anglican Christians who believed that the Church of England had not gone far enough to correct the errors and abuses that had crept into the church. Some who felt strongest about this decided they must leave the Church of England and became known as Separatists.

Separatist John Smyth organized the first Baptist church in 1609. The name was given to them because of their practice of only baptizing believers. If salvation is by faith than the person being baptized must have faith. This is known as soul competency. Each person is free to accept or reject Christ.

These early Baptists contributed other significant reformations to the Christian faith. They believed in the autonomy of the local church; the Bible does not dictate any authority over the local church other than Jesus Christ. Baptists also championed religious liberty for all; the state should not interfere in the affairs of the church.

Other groups held these beliefs but it was this unique combination along with tenets inherited from the Protestant Reformation that continue to define Baptists. Following the principle of ecclesia semper reformanda est, Baptists throughout history have used the Bible to ensure that there doctrine and practice was pure. This led to many divisions among Baptists ever the years but the freedom to examine the scriptures and act accordingly still continues. This may explain why whenever you have two Baptists you get three opinions.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1