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Who are Baptists?

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We've seen the lot!

Churches in countrified Wiltshire and charismatic fellowships in the People's Republic of South Yorkshire (Sheffield to you). Hot and noisy African worship - loud singing to the beat of the drums - and cool, quietly reverent, orderly and ordered Scottish services. And now, in the Antipodes, after the morning service we descend to the basement and watch as the "Contemporary Church Team" present a show with songs, dance and skits rather like a TV variety performance. Not this week though, for I was preaching to the Korean congregation, Auckland is a cosmopolitan city!

What could be less alike than all these Baptists! Whatever is it that links them all, so that I could be pastor and teacher in each setting? What can it be that makes each of these different from all the other churches where we have worshiped and shared Christian fellowship?

In the sixties there was a lecture series given to Baptist students in London "Baptists: a Peculiar People". You only have to look to see that we are - most peculiar - in the modern sense. But what makes us peculiar in the old sense and across the wide world?

One thing shared even by the Episcopal Baptists of hierarchical African society is that we are "difficult". Stroppy people who will not do as they are told, stubborn and difficult to persuade. (Not you or me, of course, but we both know some who are like that don't we!).

Our view of the Bible is on the whole another thing we share. There are lots of other Christians who take the Bible seriously, as we do. Few though, hold together its humanity and its divine authority as we do. Some, more fundamentalist than most of us, make it out to be so divine that the human authors cease to be heard and the book no longer lives - carved in stone. Others, more liberal, make it wishy washy and the Word of God ceases to be heard with full power. Baptists, on the whole, strive to hold the tension between the human and the divine of this bewildering book and so it speaks with a living voice and clear authority.

Others, like us, recognise and act out the fundamental importance of mission. Many, like us, are evangelical. Many, like us, pray for justice and peace in a world of strife and oppression. Many, like us, give time, money and skills to reach out to people of other lands.

Others, like us, respect what our mothers and fathers in the faith experienced and learned long ago. Others, like us, seek to be faithful to the history and tradition these spiritual ancestors passed on.

Yet on the whole the life and vibrancy of a mission hearted people is found most often outside the "traditional churches". The Spirit of God moves in mysterious and strange places sometimes. At our best, Baptists, whether in Zaire, New Zealand, or the UK, seek to remain both within the historic tradition of Christian faith, yet at the same time alive and powerful in reaching out to a fallen world.

Two strong features of the way we act mark out Baptist churches in Britain, the democratic church meeting and what others call "adult baptism" however neither of these is typical of all Baptists in the world. Democracy and voting is a western, modern invention little used in cultures where people have a stronger and deeper sense of belonging and family. What is more, the biggest Baptist group in the world, the Southern Baptists, happily immerse kids of six. Nor it seems was baptism by immersion always the norm, for one must admit that our earliest Baptist ancestors practiced affusion (though I have no wish to cast aspersions!).

Strange and peculiar people, Baptists! It all seems to stem from our vision of the Church as typically a local, voluntary and gathered community "Where two or three..." which is part of the wider and historic Church, and which seeks to hear the Word of God in the words of the human authors of Bible.

 

© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2002

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