Each time I filled in the hospital admission papers, for giving birth, I was asked, “What is your religion?” and each time I would get into trouble with the Baptist chaplain because I wrote ‘Christian’ – not ‘Baptist’ – so she never found out that I was there. (I would be forgiven after she had a cuddle of the new baby!)
The correct answer to the question, however, was ‘Christian’! My religion is Christian – not Baptist. Far more significant than what denomination you are part of is whether you have a living relationship with God, the God who is revealed in Jesus. This is what makes you a Christian. The next question I was asked, however, “What is the baby’s religion?” would present me with a very Baptist conundrum. Yes, I hope to bring up this child with an understanding of Christian faith, but it is eventually their decision to follow Jesus, to own this faith as their own.
It’s a simple story, but it illustrates why being a Baptist matters, a pertinent question to consider as we begin, this Sunday, a four week series on Baptist values.
Yes, I am first and foremost a Christian, but there needs to be a part of this great wide wonderful Christian family that I am part of, one that helps me to live out my love for God, “to explore,” as we say in our church goals, “what it means to follow Jesus.” For me, Baptist values, values of being Jesus centred/discipleship, community, mission and freedom, are values which empower me, challenge me, and make sense to me as I live out my faith. That I want to belong to a Baptist church, that I find Baptist values the most helpful way, for me, to work out what it means to follow Jesus, has become very clear to me, in the significant moments of my life, like deciding to be baptised or moving into ministry, as well as the difficult periods in my life, when I thought about switching denominations or now, as our Association wrestles with questions of Baptist identity and welcoming LGBTIQ people. I am very much a Baptist and don’t think I could be anything else!
So who are the Baptists?
Baptists are one of the oldest, largest and most widely distributed Protestant denominations across the world today.
Our origins go back to 1609 to a group of about 40 English exiles who moved to Amsterdam, Holland, seeking religious freedom. Their leader was John Smyth. In accordance with his reading of the New Testament, he rejected baptism of infants and instituted baptism only of believing adults. He later joined the Mennonites, but, under the leadership of Thomas Helwys, the church continued and in 1612 returned to England. Helwys then published a short declaration of the ‘mystery of iniquity’ (Longson 1612) a work appealing for complete religious freedom, though he was later imprisoned and died in prison. The Baptist movement however continued to grow, and, with particular emphases on mission activity in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, spread to every continent.
In 2020, according to the CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) there are around 170 million Baptist believers in the world. In places like the US the Southern Baptist Convention represents 47,530 churches and 14,525,579 members and the National Baptist Convention, 21,145 churches and 8,415,100 members. In Africa the Nigerian Baptist Convention is made up of 13,654 churches and 8,000,637 members with other large Baptist associations in Tanzania and the Congo. In Asia, the Myanmar Baptist Convention has 5,319 churches and 1,710,441 members, the Nagaland Baptist Church Council, 1,615 churches and 610,825 members, the Garo Baptist Convention, Bangladesh, has 2,619 churches and 333,908 members, and the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches has 2,668 churches and 600,000 members. In Europe the All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptist represents 2,272 churches and 113,000 members, and there are significant Baptist Unions in the UK and Germany. Here in Australia, Australian Baptist Ministries, our national association, is made up of 1,021 churches and 76,046 members.
What are the distinctives of our Baptist movement?
Baptists are people who hold in common a set of core values (below). Many denominations share one or more of these values, but Baptists embrace them all.
1. The Lordship of Christ and the authority of the scriptures
We believe that to be a Christian one must confess Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives. Jesus reveals himself through the Bible, the authority for us on matters of faith and practice because it points us to Jesus. For this reason Baptists have not normally been required to accept formal creeds or statements of faith.
2. The church as a company of committed disciples
For Baptists the church is made up of members who have made a profession of faith in God through Christ and whose lives give evidence of that faith. Because each member has a living relationship with Christ, Baptists believe that each member shares in the ministry of the church, the priesthood of all believers.
3. Baptist of believers by immersion
The theology and practice of baptism is delivered from the New Testament and consists of the immersion (wherever possible) of believers. Baptism is not viewed as essential for salvation, but as a way of identifying with Christ, of symbolising his death and resurrection. As an expression of a believer’s repentance and commitment to following Jesus, baptism is generally a requirement of membership in a Baptist church..
4. Congregational government
Given the priesthood of all believers, the authority for a local congregation rests with the congregation itself, not with its leaders or external authorities. Congregational government is exercised when members meet together to discern the mind of Christ on matters related to the work of the church.
Baptist believe that God’s people are called to make the love of God known to others.
6. Religious freedom
Historically, Baptists have strongly supported religious freedom for all people. They have opposed all forms of religious coercion and affirmed the rights of all people to follow their conscience on matters of faith. We seek to affirm diversity even among our own churches.
I hope you are looking forward to this exploration of what it means to be Baptist! I hope being Baptist is something that is meaningful and helpful for all of us on our journey of faith.
Please join us as we worship together and learn together during February – and if you are not part of a small group and would like to discuss this series further – please join us for lunch (11:30am onwards at the manse) or on Zoom at 6pm Sunday evenings (February 6, 13, 20, and 27).
Grace and peace,