Thank you, Dan Buttry, for answering our question this week! For more information on Dan, please click here.
That is a difficult question, because one of the key Baptist beliefs is freedom of conscience. That means that we agree to disagree. The joke “When you have three (name the religious adherents) you have five opinions” is often the lived reality of Baptists.
Freedom is a foundational belief. Baptists were born in England and then came to the U.S. in the era of state churches (the Anglican Church in England, and the Puritans in Massachusetts). The early Baptists were dissidents who rejected state authority over matters of religion and conscience, and many went to prison because of their different beliefs. This concern for freedom was so rooted in Baptist thinking that local congregations were free from higher denominational authorities in establishing their beliefs and practices, and within congregations individuals were free to present their own interpretations of the Bible. Of course, there was also the freedom to disagree, to challenge, and to organize in congregations and associations with others who thought someone similarly.
Each local church can determine how they will be governed. Though there are traditions about beliefs and structuring church governance and how to worship, these traditions aren’t binding. You will find many alternative ways to think, organize and worship among Baptists. Baptists especially come together voluntarily to engage in mission work, sharing the “good news” (that’s what “gospel” means) about Jesus Christ in word or deed.
This passion for freedom has two results that we see today. One result is that Baptists can be found in many different theological perspectives, from very conservative fundamentalists (they are the ones who often make the news for some of the socially conservative stands they take) to liberals in theology or social views. Some Baptists think anyone who doesn’t think like them are going to hell. Other Baptists are leaders in ecumenical and interfaith activities.
The second result is that Baptists have stood and continue to stand for religious freedom for everyone, not just themselves. Roger Williams and John Leland laid the foundations for religious liberty and separation of church and state in the United States (their stories can be found in Interfaith Heroes and Interfaith Heroes 2 respectively, available from http://www.readthespirit.com). Though there are some conservative Baptists who support prayer in public schools, there are other Baptists who have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court to support religious minorities, even non-Christian minorities, to have their rights respected. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Affairs is a lobby in Washington for issues of religious freedom (http://www.bjcpa.org/). This deeply engrained understanding of religious freedom prompted my wife Sharon Buttry, as a Baptist, to become the spokesperson for the right of Muslims to broadcast the call to prayer in Hamtramck (see that story in Friendship and Faith, from http://www.readthespirit.com).
Generally, however, (with lots of exceptions!), Baptists hold to the core Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ being God in human flesh, who died on the cross for our salvation, and rose from the dead on Easter. We believe the Bible (Old and New Testaments, or Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament) to be God’s Word (though we have many interpretations about how that is so and what it means). We worship on Sunday, though one branch of Baptists worship on Saturday (Seventh Day Baptists). Individual Baptist congregations choose and “call” their own pastors. Some Baptists ordain women as pastors, some don’t–again freedom of conscience at work and freedom of the local church to decide how they will be governed and led.
These are the characteristics of Baptists in general. The name “Baptist” comes from the practice of “baptism” where people old enough to make a decision about their faith choose to follow Jesus Christ and make that public by being immersed in water. Baptism symbolically shows the washing away of sin, but more dramatically our union with Jesus in his death and burial followed by his rising up to new life.
There are many different Baptist denominations or “conventions,” as well as “independent” local congregations that aren’t affiliated with any larger body. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant Christian group in the U.S., and in the last thirty years they have been taken over by the more conservative or fundamentalist wing. The American Baptist Churches (ABC) have almost 6,000 churches and about 1.5 million members. They are very theologically and ethnically diverse–close to the point of having no ethnic majority (if not there already). The ABC is generally evangelical and ecumenical–that means we share our faith in Christ with others but we also work collaboratively with other Christians. The ABC is involved in many interfaith dialoges as well.