Dr. William Brackney is Professor of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and a noted Baptist historian. The following lecture was addressed to the General Conference of the Seventh Day Baptists of the United States and Canada in Buckhannon, West Virginia, on August 4, 2004.
The talk was transcribed from the tape by Janet Thorngate. It was originally published in the October 2004 issue of The Sabbath Recorder. It is reprinted here for documentary purposes with the kind permission of the author and of Kevin Butler, Editor of The Sabbath Recorder.
The beginning and the end of the lecture were addressed specifically to the Seventh Day Baptist Conference. They are included here for your information. The greater part of the lecture provides an informative and challenging assessment on the current situation and prospects for Baptists around the world.
We are cousins
We are cousins and it’s good to be among you. We don’t see enough of each other these days, and, believe me, the rest of the family really needs to hear from you.
We really need to see you in our gatherings. We really need to know how you’ve been all these years. Seventh Day Baptists have been a particular blessing to me in my pilgrimage as a Baptist historian.
Once upon a time, four centuries ago, we were all in the same pool. Once upon a time there were three kinds of Baptists. You don’t find that in a lot of the general narratives of our history. You just find the two, the Generals and the Particulars, but I’m reminded that Seventh Day Baptists were there from the 1650s.
They made quite an impact, as you well know, on the greater Baptist witness, and for many decades there were three distinct kinds including your branch of our family. And so it’s been a great privilege from the general perspective of writing Baptist history to begin to find illustrations.
I picked up two yesterday about an early ordination of a woman in ministry among Seventh Day Baptists, and another about how education was important in the most open terms to this group in our family. In the next edition, if I have anything to say about it, there will be many illustrations of the pioneering work and the blessing of God upon the Seventh-Day part of our family.
So I come to you and I bring you greetings from your Baptist brothers and sisters, who these days are troubled and energized in ways that they have not been for years.
I will be walking through some things that I hope will challenge your heart and maybe put some things in a perspective that you haven’t thought about before. We will think about areas of concern for the contemporary Baptist family, and then some suggestions about how we all together may provide some remedies for the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
I want to be the cousin that leaves – I hope in a moment of good will – suggesting to you how you can once again rise to the occasion in the Baptist family and maybe help us understand how to stand once again in strength on a position of high ground.
Where are Baptists today?
We are a very large family. Denton Lotz, the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, counts about as evangelistically as anybody I’ve ever seen. I count about 38 million Baptists. But he claims, when you begin to count all of the connections, there are close to 75 million Baptists worldwide. Most of them are in North America but-put an asterisk there-that is beginning to change.
As the former Soviet Union and its satellite states are open now to some modicum of religious liberty, and those Baptist unions are beginning to grow like they have never grown in their history, Baptists are beginning to multiply in that area of the world in great numbers. There are countries in the world that I had never really heard of before I began to take seriously the global family of Baptists, like Nagaland where 98% of the country is Christian and 97% of the Christians are Baptists.
So we have made a huge impact in our worldwide witness. We have had tremendous accomplishments in the grace and spirit and energy of God, but one really has to ask the question: If you read the Baptist press or any of our journals and denominational spreadsheets, where are we? Where are Baptists today really making an impact? Where are we leaders in the Christian world?
– Is it in evangelism? Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board is so concerned about the area of declining numbers of baptisms that the new President of the Southern Baptist Convention is going on the road in a bus. He is encouraging people across the constituency to get back to the basics of sharing the Gospel and baptizing converts to the faith. They are down 400,000 baptisms in one decade.
– Mission? Don’t look now, but many of our missions organizations are struggling to make ends meet. The downfall of the stock market and other world circumstances have made some of the oldest missions organizations very blunt instruments these days. The American Baptist Foreign Missions Society is suffering a severe funding crisis. Some of the smaller mission-sending organizations are talking more about partnership now than they ever did before (which is a good thing), but it’s because they cannot any longer hold up a singular, unitary form of Christian missionary appointment.
– Human rights? You hear more from Presbyterians and Lutherans (and Roman Catholics since Vatican II) than you do Baptists at the United Nations tables of debate about human rights.
– Social activism? There used to be a number of Baptists involved in those areas, but we’ve become very timid. You will see that the list of people, for instance, signed up in the newspaper called Baptist Peacemakers seriously declined in numbers even as the United States is involved in a major military conflict in Iraq.
– Stewardship? I read some of what is published and I see that we are not giving as generously as we used to. Shall we blame it on 9/11? Shall we blame it on many different claims on our livelihood? Or shall we blame it on not being challenged as we used to be for the work of God? Our stewardship is down.
– Witness? We have elected two U.S. presidents who are Baptists-actually three in this century. But their witness as Baptists has been somewhat problematic. There have been in the last part of the century two Baptists to win a Nobel Prize for Peace, and you read almost nothing in the Baptist Press about either Martin Luther King Jr. or President Jimmy Carter.
Some troubling trends
Where are Baptists making the impact for the principles that we believe have shaped us over four centuries? Let me suggest to you some troubling trends that I find in our family, especially in North America.
* Extreme congregationalism
There is an extreme form of congregationalism. You know we’ve always talked about congregational polity. We’ve always talked about how the congregation is at the center of what we mean for the church.
But in recent years that sense of congregationalism, autonomy if you will, has become a kind of protective device for non-interference in our affairs.
Many of our churches have become laws unto themselves. They resist interaction within their own family, much less the larger family of Christians.
I’d also have to say-and this is certainly not true of your part of our family-that we have experienced some problematic, uneven, downright difficult circumstances in denominational leadership. In one of our major North American families of Baptists, in one decade under one group of leaders, three of their historic boards have closed, gone bankrupt, and the vision has been lost, and that part of our family is in great disarray.
In yet another part of our family, there has been a virtual takeover of institutions, of mission-sending and educational organizations, a takeover that has more of a characteristic mean-spirit than it does a spirit of Jesus Christ in its midst.
* Resurgent confessionalism
A resurgent confessionalism. I’ve been talking with some of you about the way in which I think Baptists have been hijacked into a form of discussion that is not really ours. We are not Presbyterians.
We are not the great theological minds of church history. We are the doers and the movers and the shakers.
It is the area of ethics that has always been our strength, and yet we find ourselves-in some of the largest parts of the Baptist tradition-bound into discussions splitting theological hairs about what we are supposed to believe. And this according to a statement that h
as been adopted by some Baptist group which is beyond the local church and beyond, in many cases, our own understanding of the Gospel.
This resurgent confessionalism, a sense of trying to make every person believe according to the jots and tittles of a confessional statement, has been a problem for a people who are essentially put together by their religious experience.
I still remember some of the most loving moments of my upbringing in my home Baptist church when “testimony time” came along. It was far more important to hear a person talk about what Jesus had done in one’s life: How Jesus helped me solve a problem in the past week. How the Holy Spirit had guided another in an interpretation of Scripture. This was much more important than asking if I could recite a creed or if I could somehow give an interpretation of some confessional statement.
We are bathed in religious experience, and yet so many of our theologians and leaders are telling us today that if we don’t get it right in the confession, we’re somehow second-class Christian citizens.
* Blended agendas
I find a very curious blending of social and political agendas with our religious ideals. Somehow there are a number of Baptist voices, on the political side of questions, that are speaking as though they were the word of God on given issues.
There have been some moments of great embarrassment where God seemed not to honor the word that they thought He had given. And the social agenda seems more of a human craftsmanship than it does of a Biblically defined sense of justice or mercy.
One person has put it this way, “The membrane that used to exist between fundamentalism, for instance, and mainstream Baptist thinking, has been breached, and we have people that we used to consider on the fringe-politically very extreme-now moving in to be the keynote speakers at some of our largest Baptist gatherings.” Some tell us that we need to turn our backs on public education, that we need to take on a political agenda that could be very troubling for our own religious ideals. These are people that carry the name “Baptists” but they have somehow come to be defined within the mainstream, if you will, of Baptist thought.
Where I sit in the middle of Waco, Texas, I’m very much aware that in many of our denominational institutions, some significant Baptist leaders have adopted someone else’s theological agenda. We are now being told that being historically Baptist is simply not effective any longer. We’ve got to join the Roman Catholic tradition in its great humanistic rationalistic experience of Thomas Aquinas, and so the philosophy department in one of our great institutions is now coming to overwhelm the religious studies department.
We’re bringing in people from a Roman Catholic point of view to teach theological and philosophy courses that used to be taught by persons from a religious perspective in the free church. We find people talking about an evangelical tradition that somehow seems to be at counterpoint with what Baptists are when many of us thought that Baptists were a kind of evangelical, a kind of free-church evangelical.
* Breakdown in consensus
There’s a breakdown in our denominational consensus worldwide. If you visit some of our unions overseas, they’re very troubled with what they hear in North America, and they’re wanting to put up barriers to make sure that what is troubling us doesn’t get to them, like some kind of epidemic.
And then, of course, there is the shattering, saddening news this spring, of the largest group of Baptists in the world no longer related to the Baptist World Alliance.
The Baptist World Alliance will be 100 years old next year. Who would have thought ten years ago that the largest part of our family would walk out of that relationship without any interest in renegotiating its position? No longer does our international organization even represent, numerically, most of the people called Baptist in the world.
Then, very curiously, beyond our own family, I find that others have actually seized the ground that was once ours. If you go back to the 17th century, you find Baptists of all kinds-yours and ours, first-day, seventh-day, General, Particular-all being characterized as people of The Book, people who were trying to create a Biblical Christianity, a mission-oriented, evangelical witness.
But, you know, there are denominations (if you read David Barrett’s Encyclopedia of Christianity), that are actually far in advance, much more creative than we Baptists are these days. Pentecostals are growing at a pace far ahead of where Baptists are in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia. They have seized the ground of religious experience and of making the Bible come to life for virtually millions of people. That was once ground that Baptists had a serious leadership development in.
The Christian Missionary Alliance in Canada is now the place where you find new churches being developed that fit the neighborhood context – in ways that we used to have strategies that worked a hundred years ago. Some of our emphases, I find in listening to pastors, may even be worn out.
Dare we still talk about things like the priesthood of all believers? Martin Marty has said we were so successful at that, that by 1970 we had “Baptistified,” he calls it, the rest of the Christian world. They accepted the premises that we put down as part of what we thought God’s gift to us was in the 17th century.
A Catholic priest told me recently that a bishop would never think of just “dropping” a new priest into a parish without talking to the parish relations committee, without having the person lead in worship, without having the person preach a sermon. I said, “A Catholic church? That sounds like the call system.” He said, “Yes. We got it from you.”
Lutherans have come to a point of understanding ordination as attached to the task of ministry, because ministry happens essentially for them in a congregation. That sounds like a Baptist emphasis as well.
What are the remedies?
Those are some of the areas of concern. What in the world are possible remedies? Where do we find ourselves?
We’re facing the 400th anniversary of our tradition in the providence of God. Do we just sit back and passively let things evolve to the point where we have lost altogether much of our effectiveness?
I have a short list that might be worth considering. I suggest these humbly to us cousins in the family.
A people of The Book
First of all, we are a people of The Book. But that has been a problem for us. We need to look again at what the nature of religious authority is.
There has been so much bickering about what the Bible means, using words like “infallible,” “inerrant,” “guide,” “sole authority,” etc., that we Baptists have a real vocabulary problem about what we do with Scripture. We need to think again about how Scripture interacts with religious experience and with the God-given gifts that lie within us; the powers of reason that the Holy Spirit energizes within our own minds and personalities.
What will a Bible Christianity look like? Baptists ought to be concerned about that for the 21st century. The Bible used to be a sure sense of authority for us, the people of The Book. It has become instead a battleground on which a lot of blood is shed.
I think that’s problematic. So we need to work hard at that, folks. Seventh Day Baptists can come to the table with something creative at that point and I hope you take up the challenge.
Renew the associational principle
I said to a group of ministers a couple years ago on a beautiful mountaintop in California, “We need to renew the associational principle and begin to enlarge it and expand it. Our associations are too smal
l. They are too ingrown.”
One of the geniuses of early Baptists was our ability to reach out and find people of like faith and order, and expand the horizons of the Gospel. If that means a prayer meeting with ministers who are not of our denominations, so be it. If that means cooperating in mission-sending organizations that meet our expectations and needs, so be it. If that means celebrating a worship service with people of like faith and mind and heart on Thanksgiving, or around a sunrise service, then so be it.
We need to expand that wonderful thing that Winthrop Hudson called the associational principle.
Read our culture
Third, we need to read our culture. We’re reading a lot about ourselves and we’re writing a lot about ourselves, and the culture is evolving very rapidly. A relevant denominational tradition, many observers have said, is going to be one that will be able to read its culture and understand how to relate to the real issues and the real people who are living in the world and the communities around us.
There is a prophetic role here, I think. In a world where people are hungry, there are more refuges than ever before. There is torturous treatment of prisoners. Human rights should not be just the province of the United Nations.
It was a great thing that happened in 1948 when the United Nations declaration on human rights was proclaimed. It had several Christian leaders, including Baptists, involved in it. But it really caught the church short. It reminded us that we hadn’t been talking about things that other people in the human family, not as fortunate as we, are very concerned about.
Isn’t it time that Baptists say a little bit more about the rest of the agenda of human rights than just about our religious liberty?
In a pluralistic setting today, what better time to begin to understand the other great religions of the world and how Christianity can, in peace and justice and mercy, interact with Muslims and Buddhists and all the variety. I just finished a course in Christianity and other world religious. It was a real eye-opener where graduate students for the first time were thinking about the doctrine of Scripture as Muslims might understand it, or the doctrine of salvation as a Buddhist might understand it bound in his or her own experience.
And how in the world-in a pluralistic world-do we Christians ever relate to something called “the finality of Jesus Christ” and the Gospel to those kinds of challenges?
Learn anew our Baptist distinctives
We need to learn anew what our own distinctives are. That old list of Baptist distinctives may need some revision because in this generation what it means, and needs to mean, to be a Baptist might be very different. The only way we’re going to revise those distinctives is by talking with each other.
We need to restore our commitment to evangelism and mission in a new paradigm. We need to find ways to work together: Seventh Day Baptists, First-Day Baptists, Baptists from Nagaland, Baptists from Latin America – all have a sense of commitment, of ownership personally in the Great Commission. But what does it mean to be faithful to the Great Commission in this day and age?
I’m glad to see that my friend Brent Walker is going to talk with you about the challenges to separation of church state and religious liberty. Let us never become lax about that issue, because as sure as we let down our vigilance, those who would have an “establishment” kind of political and civil structure will rise to the occasion. That’s still an important issue for Baptists to press.
I’d like to think, because it’s the way I was raised as a Baptist, that we’ll learn again how to act boldly. I find Baptists around the world today being intimidated-intimidated by maybe a sense of less education, intimidated by declining numbers, intimidated by authoritarian leadership that silences debate and says, “Here’s what we vote on,” and never calls for the negative. It’s time for Baptists to behave like Baptists and to act boldly.
We have to recognize that we’re in a time of transition. In the providence of God, you and I were born for such a time as this. Things won’t be easy. They call it post-modernity. They call it the uncertainty of the cybernetic future.
We Baptists need to respond again and read our culture and relate our religious experience to the real issues of the world where it is. We’re in a time of change.
And most of all, let me suggest that merely being a denomination-there are a lot of denominations of a lot of things-is not in itself a blessing. We need to pray that God will once again restore the blessing to Jerusalem. We need to pray that God will once again put the candlestick back in His power that has the name “Baptist witness” on it. Then we will begin to understand what the true nature of God’s blessing is on our family of Christians.
A word to Seventh Day Baptists
Finally, let me suggest to you, cousins, where Seventh Day Baptists might fit in, in my humble opinion, to a dynamic and creative future for our family.
* Avoid quaintness
As I think about it, from my historical perspective, one challenge that Seventh Day Baptists face is to avoid the “quaintness” syndrome.
I teach a course which I very much enjoy at Baylor called Radical Christianity. It’s a course where we look at all of those little groups, throughout church history, who have been known by their plain clothes, their architecture, their communitarianness, their otherworldliness, and even their ice cream flavors.
Seventh Day Baptists need to be careful. I used to visit Ephrata, the German Seventh Day Baptist site in Pennsylvania, and I was struck (literally) by the low doorsills. They told us that the structures were built there so that people would be humbled and they would have to lower their heads.
Is that what Seventh Day Baptists are all about these days? A certain kind of architecture?
Then there were the Wissahickon hermits. They lived up in caves so as to praise God in a solitary and reflective manner.
In Waco there’s a group of people who are quasi-Baptists. They put together a community of people who live according to the style of the 19th century, the old ways of farming and craftsmanship. They’re taking barns out of New Jersey and Pennsylvania that George Washington’s horse slept in, bringing them to Waco and recreating them. They make wonderful pumpkin soup. People come from all over Texas to eat their soup and their ice cream. Is that what Seventh Day Baptists are like?
As I listen to you, the passion for Sabbath, the dynamics of this kind of Conference meeting, which is like an extended family; they are religious ideals. May you never be an historic site. May you never be a group of people that are known for a recipe. Your ideals are deeper than that. Your contributions to our family are more important than that.
* Don’t hide your Sabbath
Your distinctive is essentially that of the Sabbath. And I want to say something in 60 seconds or less about that. You know, I’m half “on the verge” when I’m in your midst.
I’m half on the verge of accepting your idea of Sabbath. But what holds me back, friends, is that you don’t bring me along the whole way. You hide the blessing in the pocket.
You tell me that it’s there for me to look at, but you’re not entirely persuasive about the matter of Sabbath. I had a long discussion with a colleague yesterday about it. And again I went back to my room last night thinking, Now there’s an idea that really might speak to our culture.
Talk about reading our culture: Wal-Mart is defining the week. It’s open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It’s the largest employer in North America. Do you have anything to say about that?
In Nova Scotia, in the valley, i
t took Wal-Mart 10 years to move in. They didn’t want to ruin their little green grocer and mom and pop stores. So they said, “Wal-Mart, you can move in but you’ll play the game with the rules that the rest of us do. You will close on Saturday night at 6:00 and you will not open until Monday morning because we observe [if you will] the Lord’s day.”
Sabbath is an idea whose time may have come for the rest of us.
* Teach us how to be family
Another hidden idea – that I find one has to come to your annual gathering to experience – is Conference.
If I go to one of the major U.S. Baptist denominations, I find that the most important things about that meeting, held every two years, happen “around the edges” where two things are going on. People are asking people about pastoral changes. They’re out there in the hallways. They come to the meetings to seek a better place to serve. So it’s a kind of pastoral recruitment place.
Secondly, there are people talking about how to get enough votes to get the next thing on the agenda passed. There’s “politicking” going on. There’s very little sense of worship. It has to be politically correct.
But I find here a wonderful sense of Bible study – a gifted people. You know, I have to go away from your Conference this year saying that pound for pound, person for person, there are more gifted people in this family than in any other that I’ve been in in the Baptist tradition.
So be a blessing to the rest of us! Teach us how to be a collective family. Teach us how to come together with our young people in ways that will go from one generation to the next.
We don’t hear people talking about meeting their spouses or about growing up around camps. That’s often a bygone part of another century, but you still have it well in place. You could teach us to live with diversity.
I had a wonderful visit yesterday to Salem College, now Salem International University. Down on the lower floor of the chapel area, there’s a plaque that says something about the historic emphases of Salem College in the Seventh Day Baptist tradition. On that plaque is an unforgettable quote that indicates that Seventh Day Baptists formed that college as “a place of openness without regard to a religious test.” It was an educational gift to the community and to its culture.
You can teach us about that in an age where religious conformity has come to dominate, and if one doesn’t “tow the line” of the administration, one can be ostracized and sent to Canaan, or worse.
Seventh Day Baptists have a lot to teach us. You can teach us about the real blessing that is yours, and has been for nigh unto four centuries.
Let me close with the reading of our Lord’s words. He always says it better than we do, and here’s the Scripture lesson:
“No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light” (Luke 8: 16).
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© 2004 William Brackney