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 Bootleg Baptists?

 We are a Baptist church; at least that's what the signboard outside says! That's what the church bulletin says! But that is not quite, not exactly the impression that all members of this particular church have! I have heard comments like these: "This church is Baptist in name only!" "People don't check us out because when they hear the word 'Baptist' they get the wrong idea." "Maybe this church is evolving beyond its Baptist identity." Does any of these sound familiar to you? Have you perhaps made some of these comments? Are they justified? Perhaps. But this morning I think it would be worthwhile to examine the Baptist identity, in order to see whether we really have gone beyond it, whether or not it still fits. You may be surprised.

            There are various possible ways to proceed. It would make sense, for instance, to review the history of our denomination, starting with the Englishman John Smyth in the Seventeenth Century and the separation of Baptists from the Church of England. Or one might examine the beliefs most Baptists do in fact hold. But instead I would like to look at the Baptist agenda, the platform on which Baptist doctrines rest. I think that we will find what will seem to some of us a long-hidden treasure. We may discover that being a Baptist is a cause for rejoicing, even if, or even precisely because one deems oneself a free-thinker in matters of religion.

A Radical Voice

In the Eighteenth Century Matthew Tyndal wrote a tract called "Christianity as Old as the Creation." Well, it occurred to me to call this sermon "Baptists Older Than Christianity." The Baptist voice of dissent and affirmation is heard first on the eve of Christianity. In more than a trivial sense, the Baptist movement was alive and well years or decades before the first convert was baptized in the name of Jesus. After all, Jesus himself, we are told, was immersed by John the Baptist, i.e.,  the Baptizer. And John represented only one segment of a larger movement of Jewish baptizing sects including the Essenes, the Hemerobaptists, the Masbotheans, Mandaeans, etc.

            What did this Baptist movement stand for? What made it a distinctive and controversial voice within Judaism? It took nothing for granted! It insisted that the individual cannot take refuge in his parents' religion, the faith of her state or culture, even that of one's own past! It reminded the uneasy conscience that it must deal directly with God. You cannot let the Sanhedrin, the Temple, the ancestors believe in God for you. "Do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father.'" In other words, don't kid yourself thinking, "We've got religion all taken care of! Father Abraham and all our forbears in the faith have worked out a deal with God. The whole people tacitly agrees with it. So I won't rock the ark of salvation."

            "No!" says John the Baptist. If all God wanted was children of Abraham, he could cause stone statues of the Patriarchs to come to life. Instead, what he wants is new Abrahams who will decide for themselves about the God question. He wants to make a new covenant, with each one, as he made with Abraham. That is why John and the others baptized: each person who stepped forth to confess sins and be baptized was assuming individual responsibility before God. No religious credential mattered. Paul spoke in the tradition of John the Baptist when he said, "If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the Law a Pharisee... as to righteousness under the Law blameless. But whatever gain I had I count as loss for the sake of Christ" (Philippians 3:4b-7). Yes, such a resume, impressive to others, is nothing before God. It is simply God and you, right now. Will you face him? This is the dynamic, uncomfortable message of the Baptist movement.

            Now all this could be said and was said before Jesus Christ entered the picture. You see, there is a Baptist heritage that is prior to and distinct from the Christian heritage! And this is no purely semantic distinction. There are Christian churches that are not Baptistic in the sense I have described, churches in which faith is a matter of humbly acquiescing in the tradition and the authority of Mother Church. We are Christians; we are also Baptists. In this light, lets review some implications of the Baptist identity.

The Baptist Agenda

Baptists have always advocated separation of church and state. This belief is almost universally held in America today, not just by Baptists, usually because people in a secular society don't want to be forced to live by the norms of some religion they don't believe in. In the State of Israel and in the Islamic Republic of Iran religious leaders can govern the behavior of secular citizens according to religious laws. Americans don't want that. But Baptists first championed church-state separation for a slightly different reason. We wanted to live by religious values, all right--but the ones we chose! Thus Baptists had to leave England, then Puritan Massachusetts, to escape the Church of England's jurisdiction. The issue for us is freedom of the individual conscience before God. We recognize it is evil equally for a totalitarian state to forbid religious faith and for a "Christian" state to assume responsibility for your religious decisions.

            Baptists have always rejected infant baptism for the same reason: we do recognize the responsibility of parents to educate and to nurture their children religiously, but we don't think you can infuse faith with mother's milk -- or that it would be right to do it even if you could! Presumably, you could hypnotize or brainwash someone into having faith, but would such "faith" be worth anything? It wouldn't really be their faith. It would be yours, having supplanted theirs. And how is indoctrinated faith any different, when you think about it? Instead, we put our young people on the spot! We say our faith is one thing you can't simply inherit. Secondhand "faith" is not good enough for us! You must accept or reject faith for yourself. Don't say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father, and that's sufficient." If you do get baptized, it's your decision!

            Baptists have a congregational system of governance; we reject interference from bureaucracies and hierarchies. We view the local church not as the local franchise of a national chain, taking orders from the home office, but as a voluntary association of individuals here and now. We have a representational democracy. We don't take orders. Why? Because to recognize any authority over our consciences outside of God and Christ (whom we will interpret, thank you), is again, to abdicate our responsibility. You can't let some bishop (or some Baptist pastor!) decide for you what you are to believe and do. As Kant said, you must try to discern the will of God within and then be solely accountable for your decisions. (This, by the way, is how our congregation can be dually aligned with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Churches: neither tells us what to do. It's true, as Jesus said, "You cannot serve two masters" at the same time, but whoever said you couldn't have two servants?)

            For the same reason we do not have creeds, that is, prescriptive statements of what you must believe to be a Baptist in good standing. No! That would preempt your autonomy and responsibility before God. Some Baptists have drawn up "confessions of faith," to be sure, but that is a rather different thing.  Indeed, the difference is crucial! I think that the Southern Baptist Convention's future hangs in the balance over whether they can keep that difference straight! You see, a confession is a descriptive statement. a survey reporting what most or all Baptists in a particular area or organization happen to believe. It comes after belief, not before it! It reports on faith already freely decided; it does not try to pre-empt free decision.

            Similarly, Baptists uphold freedom of the individual conscience in interpreting the Bible. No preacher can tell you to believe that the text means so-and-so. No seminary professor can insist you adopt such-and-such a theology, whether inerrantist or higher-critical. Don't get me wrong: it's not that none of them do it! Sadly, plenty of them do! It's just that they are not being good Baptists when they pontificate, because we're not suppose to have a Pontiff!

Now! Are We Baptists or Not?

I believe this congregation, liberal and free-thinking since the days of its illustrious pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick, renewed in that spirit by the Reverend Don Morris, stands foursquare in the Baptist tradition  as I have described it. We are all for liberty and responsibility of the individual conscience. That is why we encourage, even demand, free thought of our members. That is why we respect the different conclusions drawn by various of our members, whether conservative or liberal, traditional or radical. We at First Baptist of Montclair are pluralistic and free-thinking. Does that mean, as some suggest, that we are not really Baptists? No! On the contrary, it means we are being very good Baptists indeed! No matter how much a Falwell or a Criswell might disapprove of us! They called Harry Emerson Fosdick a "Bootleg Baptist" when he was serving a Presbyterian church. Are we "Bootleg Baptists" in another sense? Do we not perhaps belong in another denomination, maybe the Untiarians? I have made as clear as I can why I think we are not Bootleg Baptists.    

            But then what about the Falwells and the Criswells, the Paige Pattersons and the Paul Presslers? Are they then the phonies, the bootlegs? Well, insofar as they are trying to impose a kind of creedalism, I think they are being inconsistent with their proud Baptist heritage, but let me hasten to add it is not their theological fundamentalism per se that makes them unbaptistic. No, they have every right to decide for conservative beliefs. More power to them! Let them frame confessions of their fundamentalist faith! That is a perfectly good Baptist thing to do. But don't insist that I sign it! That wouldn't be Baptistic! Falwell and Criswell are good Baptists! Amen! But so was Fosdick! So is Harvey Cox! So is Jesse Jackson! And, my friends, so are you!

Robert M. Price
July 9, 1989


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