By Josh Hunt
Some time ago, the members of my preaching group had the opportunity to go on a preaching retreat/workshop. The three-day gathering afforded us plenty of opportunities to chat.
As the lone Baptist voice at the gathering, I got several questions which are drawn from Baptist stereoypes.
By the way, do you want an unconventional way to observe the season of Epiphany? Here’s a fun, epiphanic experiment. Ask someone who comes from a tradition other than your own what they know and think about Baptists. Brace yourself for their response.
We should all resolve to be involved in more ecumenical and interfaith conversations. Such dialogue helps us sharpen our knowledge about our own tradition and assists us in learning about traditions other than our own, and both of these things are very good.
When some of my United Methodist friends were talking about their District Conference business, I took the opportunity to ask them about Methodist polity — how their denomination makes decisions. We discussed districts, charges, Bishops, District Superintendents, Pastor-Parish Relation Committees, etc.
"That's a bit different than the way Baptists have traditionally understood our polity," I offered.
One of my Methodist friends turned to me with a smirk on his face and said, "Do Baptists even have a polity? Do you guys even have church discipline?"
"Yes, we have a polity," I said, "but it isn't always very disciplined.” (Sometimes I’m guilty of understatement.) “Our polity is freedom."
He rolled his eyes.
"No, I'm serious. What I mean by freedom is that when the Baptist movement was formed, we were the underdogs, the illegals, the outsiders. (My Methodist colleagues, serving as they do in a county that sometimes feels saturated with Baptist churches — Baptist churches that sometimes aim to scoop even the most die-hard Methodists into their membership — probably cannot imagine such a scenario.) And we swore to ourselves that if we ever got into power, we'd be all about freedom — for ourselves and freedom for others, even with folks with whom we disagree. You have Bishops and District Superintendents, but we believe in what we call the 'autonomy of the local church,' which has historically meant that no denominational authority outside of my church can tell my church what we must believe or do."
This raised more questions. "What about the church in Mt. Airy that called a woman as their pastor and got kicked out of their association for doing so?"
It wasn’t the first time someone asked me about Baptist life framed in a question regarding the events at Mt. Airy a few months ago.
"Well, there IS that," I replied. "That wasn't necessarily a violation of Flat Rock's autonomy; they were technically able to call a woman as pastor. I'd say it was more the association's violation of historic Baptist principles, but there are many Baptists who would disagree."
Could our Baptist ancestors have chosen a more messy polity with which to govern our churches? Freedom? Autonomy? What were they thinking?
We can cheer the freedom that is an essential part of the Baptist birth story, but we need to own that ours is a messy system, and one of the implications of freedom is that we allow other people the room to disagree with us. It means that we allow other people the opportunity to choose what we consider to be the wrong path.
Autonomy allows room for churches to disagree with one another— for church members to disagree with one another — to do the wrong thing, to take the wrong position. Early Baptists just plain ol' didn't like the alternative, and they suffered greatly so that what we inherited from them would be better than what they saw as lacking alternative systems of church governance.
A polity of freedom is not easy, but it’s what we’ve got. It’s a crucial part of who we are as Baptists.