Reaffirming Baptist Identity

published in Baptists Today June 25, 1997

by Dr. Bruce Prescott

Recently a group of professors and pastors issued a manifesto calling for "Re-envisioning Baptist Identity."  I believe their statement creates as many errors as it attempts to correct.  I offer the following constructive alternative as a re-affirmation of our distinctively Baptist tradition.

 Scriptural Identity

Baptists identify with the Bible.  We believe it is divinely inspired and humanly authored.  We affirm the process of its canonization and the integrity of its text.  We humbly recognize the inexhaustibility of its meaning.  We affirm both the literal interpretations that ground our faith and the critical interpretations that stretch our faith while seeking a mature faith that embodies the truth of scripture in daily living.  We recognize the necessity of reading the Bible in faithful dialogue and fellowship with others while affirming the responsibility of all persons to conscientiously interpret scripture for themselves.  We find the unifying center and truth of scriptures in Jesus Christ.

 Personal Identity

Baptists identify with persons.  We respect the individuality of every person while acknowledging that no person exists apart from the care and direction of a community.  We believe that all human beings are created in the image of God.  We affirm the irrevocable value, the irreplaceable uniqueness, and the irruptible giftedness of every person.  We respect the inviolability of every personís conscience.  While communities have authority to exercise discipline and call individuals to account, each person is ultimately accountable to God for his/her actions and intentions.  We confess that, with the exception of Jesus Christ, everyoneís actions and intentions are less than God intended.  We acknowledge that our sins have enslaved us and separated us from Godís love.  We believe God was in Christ liberating us and reconciling us to Himself.  We believe that God desires that every individual hear the gospel and respond to the call to become Christís disciple.  We hold that every person who answers the call to discipleship is responsible for fulfilling the commission to serve God as prophet and priest to others.  We find the true meaning of individuality, freedom and personhood in Jesus Christ.

 Church Identity

Baptists identify with the church.  We love and enjoy fellowship with other Christians.  We believe the kingdom of God includes the redeemed from all times and places.  We live in anticipation of the day when all of the redeemed are united in worship and service.  We humbly acknowledge that all redeemed individuals and institutions remain imperfect through time and history.  We respect and value the diversity of denominational and doctrinal traditions in which worship is expressed and service is organized. We most strongly affirm the values shared among Baptists.  We believe that the task of Baptists in the ecumenical community is to uphold the value of individuals in relation to the community.  Baptists recognize that individuals must respond to the call of the gospel personally within their ownmost "heart" or conscience.  Baptists vigorously uphold the inviolability of individual conscience in order to secure a hearing for the gospel summons.  We firmly maintain that church and state must be separate.  We baptize only those who personally confess their faith and voluntarily identify with the fellowship of believers.  Our polity extends our concern for conscientious particularity in relation to the broader community.  We affirm the responsibility of every congregation to form its own covenant, determine its own organization, choose its own leaders, discipline its own members, and to enter its own cooperative relations with other churches, associations, conventions or fellowships.  While we recognize that communities have authority to define traditions and discipline members, we are ever aware of the limitations and imperfections of communities, and affirm the responsibility of individuals to conscientiously question their traditions.  We find the deepest understanding of the church in the metaphor of the Christian community as Christís body.

 Social Identity

Baptists do not identify with the world as it is.  We hold that the world, as it exists in time and history, is less than God intends.  We believe that, in Christ, God acted in history to save and redeem the world.  Through time God is reconciling the world to himself and re-creating it.  We believe that Godís time and Godís kingdom are separate and distinct from the time and order of the temporal kingdoms of this world.  We hold that the love and fellowship of the church represents the eternal order of the end time breaking into historical time.

We affirm that the mission of the church is to serve the world by bearing testimony to Godís love and redemptive power.  We hold that the church best serves God and the world when it remains separate from political orders and prophetically calls the temporal states to account for their injustice, inhumanity, and inequitable distribution of goods, services and privileges.  We believe the church best gives witness to the gospel when it is organized to involve every member in personal ministries that meet human needs.  We affirm that every Christian is commissioned to active, personal involvement in the work of evangelism and missions.  We believe that every member of the body of Christ is responsible for personally ministering to the spiritual and material needs of others.  We find the end or goal of the world in the personal love and fellowship of Christ and his kingdom.

We recognize that, as citizens of Godís kingdom, Christians must live by the light of eternity while residing in the worldís temporal order.  We acknowledge that living in two times and under two orders requires Christians to make difficult choices.  Under these circumstances, we respect the inviolability of individual Christian conscience and recognize that Christians may conscientiously make conflicting choices.  For example, while the church must remain separate from the temporal order, we believe that individual Christians are free to risk serving others through the structures of temporal authority.  We hold that Christians may conscientiously work for justice by taking oaths and/or serving in governmental office and/or law enforcement.  We affirm that Christians may conscientiously work for peace by serving in the military and/or law enforcement.  At the same time, we believe that Christians may conscientiously work for peace and justice by refusing to take oaths and refusing to serve in governmental offices, law enforcement and the military.  At extreme times, we affirm that Christians may even conscientiously disobey and/or actively oppose the temporal authorities in order to remain true to divine authority.

Note:  Obviously an understanding of "conscience" is critical to the adequacy or inadequacy of this statement. Most influential to the authorís understanding are Paul Ricoeurís essay "The Summon Subject in the School of the Narratives of the Prophetic Vocation" in Figuring the Sacred (Fortress Press, 1995) and Gerhard Ebelingís essay "Theological Reflexions on Conscience" in Word and Faith (SCM Press, 1963).   See also my essay "The Baptist Distinctive of Personal Integrity," in Baptists Today, February 20, 1997 and the articles "Whatever Became of Conscience," "What is Conscience," and "How to Have a Good Conscience" in the January 1999 issue of the Mainstream Messenger.


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