Recently I left the Baptist church where I was raised, saved, baptized, and theologized. Yet in that process, I found myself unable to leave the anti-traditional tradition I have always known. I have not done the academic work to explain my choice, but would appreciate interaction regarding my thought processes. This is not a definitive statement, but just some thoughts that have rolled around for a while.
Why am I a Baptist?
- I have always been one.
-When I mentioned this post to my wife, she said, “I know why you’re a baptist. You were born a baptist.” I pointed to my notes where I had written a 1 followed by “I have always been one.” In some ways, this is a very baptistesque position. But, one’s ecclesiology is no small matter and changing traditions requires a far greater level of theological conviction than I felt against the Baptist tradition.
- I affirm many characteristics (distinctives) of Baptist theology
A. The centrality of God’s Word for faith and practice. I remain convinced that the Bible can still guide God’s people when understood. (This is not a confession on bibliology where I would need to qualify that sentence.)
B. Reformed soteriology and epistemology. While these features of Baptist thought are rarely expressed, the are foundational for Baptist theology and deeply ingrained in my worldview.
C. Locality/Glocality. Again, this is rarely understood or expressed by Baptist laypersons. But Baptist ecclesiology does place an incredibly high value on the local congregation. Observe lifelong church members and take note that their church is the center of their identity. We won’t say it aloud, but we know that there is no hope for enjoying God’s salvation apart from being joined to Christ’s Body. Globally, Baptists are able to fellowship with Baptists anywhere in the world because our only recognized Head is Christ, who is present wherever there are two or three of us.
- (Disclaimer) I think the Baptist statements of faith offer the potential to truly embody God’s Kingdom on Earth. However, something has gone wrong and we seem to be fighting all the wrong battles with all the wrong people. If Baptists took the Bible as seriously as we say, the shape of our lives would look radically different. The danger of isolation in autonomous bodies often frees us from outside prophetic calls to think about other people.
- I have failed to understand the concept of tradition shopping. Numerous peers whom I highly respect have left the traditions of their upbringing to find more “rooted”, “historical” Churches. Jumping ship and swimming from one to another until you find the one that can best carry all your baggage seems absurd to me. Sorry. (More on this below)
- Sacraments. I am open to a range of articulations of the Eucharist. I think the Baptists trivialize even Zwingli’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. But, I am not convinced by the speculative, metaphysical articulations found in some other traditions. Regarding baptism, neither the Scripture nor the earliest church documents (at least what I have read) instruct the baptism of those who can show no spiritual awareness.
- My heuristic (hopefully not false) dichotomy regarding hierarchical ecclesial authority.
(a) Autonomous Local Bodies. One statement in Baptist confessions I have always distrusted was the belief in “the autonomy of the local body.” Without any biblical support for this doctrine I have been incredibly skeptical of its legitimacy. But this is one possible view, and my own by default.
(b) Roman Catholicism. However, as I read the writings of early Christians, I have been impressed by the urgent need to establish an institutional authority based on relationships with the Apostles. The prevalence of false teachers and heresies made it absolutely necessary to identify who could and couldn’t articulate doctrine and manage the practices of the Church. Over time this develops into the Roman Catholic position that the Pope remains the ultimate authority based on his apostolic succession. I remain more compelled by the early arguments than the later developments. On the rare occasions I find myself in Catholic settings, so much seems foreign, non-biblical, or even anti-biblical. Yet it seems to be the most logically consistent alternative to autonomous local bodies. You can either hold that every abiding congregation of believers is a church (that practices the sacraments, teaches the apostolic faith, and disciplines sin, etc.), or you can hold that any congregation detached from the Apostolic tradition via succession is delinquent at best or apostate at worst (thus my-hopefully not false-dichotomy)
(c) Non Apostolic Hierarchy. Most protestants seem to want the comfort of being joined to a (Denominational) Church. They recognize that democratic rule has no New Testament support nor traditional basis. Yet they want no domination from the Vatican. (I have Anglican Radical Orthodoxy strongly in my mind here.) Either Christ’s authority is given to each congregation by the Spirit, or it is solely mediated through his Apostles’ successors. How can it be diversely mediate through sundry ecclesial hierarchies? When my peers go tradition shopping, I perceive their decision thusly: “I know I must be under the authority of Christ’s Church wherein Christ’s salvation is offered. Now I simply need to pick which I authority to give my approval.”
(d) Incidental Hierarchicalism. I suspect there are also many believers who are not a part of a tradition based on its understanding of the authority of the Church. I think these persons are involved in their respective tradition for other reasons. They may not believe the Christian Reformed Church is the one true Church of God, but they do believe in Christ’s special presence at the Eucharist and the importance of sealing their children in God’s covenant family. Yet on a theoretical level, this seems to be the same as believing in the autonomy of local bodies.