If Baptists’ fifth century is to be faithful to its first four, its adherents will continue their tradition of “uncoerced faith grounded in the power of conscience and the inevitability of dissent,” according to Bill Leonard, historian and dean of Wake Forest University‘s Divinity School.
Leonard, who has taught at places like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Samford University in addition to Wake Forest, spoke Feb. 9 during the Convocation for a New Baptist Century at First Baptist Church, Greensboro. The year 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of Baptists emerging as an identifiable entity in Amsterdam.
Their birth knew the difficult and deadly pains of labor, as they were persecuted for their commitment to faith based on conscience and not coercion from a state sponsored religion. They were “an unashamed Christian sect, born of the idea that the church should be composed only of believers, those who could testify to a work of grace through faith in Jesus Christ,” Leonard said at the event sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina.
“Baptists understood conscience and dissent in light of the need for sinners to be ‘regenerated,’ made new through conversion to Christ,” he said. “Yet in their assertion that conscience could not be compelled by either state-based or faith-based establishments, they flung the door wide for religious liberty and pluralism in ways that even they may not have fully understood.”
That religious liberty for which some early Baptists were martyred meant freedom not only from state-based churches, but also freedom from persecution for non-believers or adherents of non-Christian faiths.
Their “commitment to freedom of conscience led Baptists to oppose religious establishments and develop principles of religious liberty that anticipated modern pluralism,” Leonard said.
He briefly traced some examples of Baptist dissent from the state church in Europe and disagreements that emerged among believers in America. Baptists “began as a community of dissent,” he said, and were “non-conformists who often refused to abide by the rules of religious uniformity demanded by the state-based churches of their day.”
They rejected laws that compelled them to support a “religious communion in which they had no voice.”
Baptists were unruly and never “all that respectable,” Leonard said. “As their earliest critics saw it, Baptists demonstrated bad theology, bad citizenship and bad manners every time they opened their mouths.”
While they freely argued with opponents and each other they asserted the right of others to do the same.
They rejected the idea of being born into a state-sponsored religion or church and maintained that “true faith was grounded in freedom to choose or reject God’s gift of grace,” Leonard said.
He said even in America, conscience carried Baptists into dissent, setting them against the “principalities and powers” of religious and political establishments, leading to exiles, imprisonments and sometimes death.
What of the future? “How might Baptist churches become, in the words of Roger Williams and John Clarke, ‘a shelter for persons distressed of conscience’ and a prophetic community that distresses the consciences of members and non-members alike in response to the great issues, ideas and injustices of our times?” Leonard asked.
“Might we determine to nurture a safe environment in the church and the society where consciences are enlivened even as they collide?”
He said it is important to discern and challenge “religio-political establishments that seek privilege and entitlement through sectarian or secular hegemony over politics, religion, educational institutions and economics.”
Leonard asked if early Baptists’ radical understanding of conscience might encourage an environment in which everyone can speak even when differences are vast and irreconcilable.
He implied that the organizational structure that might aid Baptists in “perpetuating an effective witness in the world” might more closely resemble the older “society method” of Baptist organization, “rather than the more Southern-style “associational or convention’ systems.”
He said, “Societies allow for multiple groups with varying ideological emphases to join together (not necessarily unite) around common ministry endeavors to facilitate mission, ministry, education, publication, evangelism, and identity.”
He suggested that with their early brothers, modern Baptists might examine and raise voices of dissent “in the face of such issues as mass culture, media religion, and the struggle for global resources,” even if that dissent “will never secure majoritarian approval.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — The full text of Leonard’s speech is available as a pdf file here.)
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