Mainstream Baptist leaders credit ‘freedom’ for keeping them Baptist

By Marv Knox
Published: February 26, 2007 by Associated Baptist Press
http://www.abpnews.com/1775.article

IRVING, Texas (ABP) — A refrain of freedom echoed through a Mainstream Baptist Network convocation in suburban Dallas Feb. 23-24. About 80 participants from across the South gathered for the sixth-annual event.

During the session, seven speakers addressed the theme “Why I am still a Baptist.” They mentioned a broad range of issues, but freedom — and resolve — provided a common denominator.

“Many folks today are scared of being a Baptist, and [they] run off in fear,” Joe Lewis, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Petersburg, Va., said. “I stopped counting the friends who left.”

In the early 1600s, spiritual pioneers John Smyth and Thomas Helwys “began the Baptist movement demanding freedom,” Lewis said. Citing church historian Walter Shurden, Lewis noted that “four fragile freedoms” — Bible freedom, soul freedom, church freedom and religious freedom — are Baptist hallmarks.

After Lewis spoke, Tyrone Pitts recalled that his appreciation for religious freedom and its corollary, the separation of church and state, grew as he worked with other faith groups like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.

“Others in the ecumenical movement do not have this quality,” Pitts said. He is the general secretary of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, one of four predominantly American-African Baptist bodies.

“We are unified around soul freedom and liberty,” he said. “It was no accident that Martin Luther King was a Baptist, just as it was no accident that other key civil-rights leaders were Baptist ministers.”

A focus on freedom is Baptists’ defining characteristic, agreed Bill Underwood, president of Mercer University in Macon, Ga.

“We are free to think for ourselves, free to read the Scriptures to determine what they say — free,” Underwood insisted. Although people are accountable to God, no government and no individual has the right to tell them what to believe, he said.

Unfortunately, such a conviction “is becoming somewhat out of fashion,” not just among fundamentalists but also among moderate Baptists, Underwood said. He mentioned the “Baptist Manifesto,” drafted in 1997 by a group of “Baptist communitarian” scholars.

The group, influenced by Methodist ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, has said it cannot commend the “unchecked privilege of interpretation” of the Bible. “Who will do the checking?” Underwood asked, noting Hauerwas has advocated “spiritual masters” to regulate correct interpretation.

“Who are the official ‘spiritual masters’?” he asked. “It is right to suggest we exist in community and have a responsibility to the community, but it is wrong to insist the community can declare orthodoxy. It is wrong to deny a place for the individual in community.”

No one has a monopoly on truth, Underwood continued. Besides, he said, sometimes the community is wrong, like the Roman Catholic Church’s past declaration that the sun rotates around the Earth and the Southern Baptist Convention’s endorsement of slavery.

“What truths held today will be proven false?” he asked. “What communitarian Baptists ignore is the need to acknowledge a place for that lonely, prophetic voice — the voice of dissent.”

In his speech, Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, said the historic demand for that freedom is rooted in an understanding of God and creation. The Mainstream movement is composed of so-called moderate Baptists who strive to preserve what they see as traditional Baptist distinctives.

“God did not create androids and robots,” Prescott said. “You cannot coerce someone to love you. God desires everyone to love him, but if love is a free response of faith, then to reject him must also be a possibility. So, if God leaves us to be free in matters of faith and religion, then what right do men have to force them upon others?”

Although some religious conservatives claim otherwise, Jesus advocated the separation of church and state, Prescott insisted. Moreover, Baptist forefathers “would have scoffed at the notion that nationality has anything to do with being Christian. Nations cannot be Christian; only people can be Christian.”

Freedom also manifests itself in the unique nature of Baptist churches, said Suzii Paynter, executive director of the Baptist-affiliated Christian Life Commission in Austin, Texas.

“A group of individuals will have its own character,” she said. “We live in a franchise-oriented culture, where people validate their identity by being like others. Church is not a franchise.”

Instead, molecules make better models for Baptist churches, she said. A molecule is a cluster of cells that attract each other, and they differ in type by the way they form clusters. Similarly, each church is free to cluster with churches and denominations as it sees fit.

“Every molecule is different, despite intense efforts to franchise,” she said. And just as “there should be room for every molecule to be different,” churches should be free.

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