Exploring What It Means to be Baptist 

Last week I spoke of the need for unity between churches and between individual Christians and the need to focus on the important things that bind us together rather than the things which divide us. But I also said that we are not to be identical and that our differences enhance the flavour of the Christian community, to make us vibrant and not all boringly cookie cutters and beige coloured.
Today I want to ask: what does it mean to be a Baptist.  What is our particular flavour that builds colour into the tapestry of Christianity?
We are often asked why we are Baptist rather than New Life or Presbyterian or whatever other Christian denomination label and I want to give you something to say.
Now I know some people, and particularly young people do not care what denominational banner hangs over the church they attend, and for them it is all about fit – do I fit here?  And some people would come to Eastside because this is Eastside regardless of the label. But we do have this Baptist label and I want to try and explain what it means to be a Baptist today.
At the National Baptist Hui in Dunedin last week, we were introduced to the 5 strategic priorities of the Baptist Union.  One of those is “Grace embodied: we will maintain and strengthen our Baptist distinctive. We will celebrate God’s success among us as we seek to inspire each other to good works (Hebrews 10:24)” 
The introductory taster for this was the comment: “Baptists are a movement shaped by a radical grace—the grace of God that provides salvation and creates communities of hope” and the questions were asked: “what does it mean to be Baptist. What is the Baptist gospel? What is Baptist mission? How have Baptists historically embodied this amazing grace? What does it all mean as we look to the future? How do we outwork our radical message of grace?”
Our National Leader at the Waitangi Day commemorations 2 years ago addressed the gathered people with this statement: “There are 246 Baptist churches in New Zealand. We are a mainline evangelical movement of churches. We occupy grand buildings on Queen Street [Auckland] and shop fronts. We have churches in provincial towns, cafés and any old pub that’s run out of beer. The Baptist church movement began 405 years ago in Amsterdam when a small group of separatists fled from England. There they were being persecuted for their expression of the Christian faith. Since their outset Baptists have always been strong advocates for freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression.”  
The NZ historian Martin Sutherland in his book Radical Disciples: exploring Baptist ideas wrote: “Baptists are not frozen people. We are always forming and reforming ourselves. There are many ways to be Baptist, many more to be a Christian. The Spirit is constantly calling us on. However it is our responsibility to see understanding as we go. Change which is arbitrary or merely pragmatic can undermine authenticity” (pg5)
I find our identity to be a hard concept for me to get my head around because I have grown up in Baptist churches as a child and as an adult.  The way we think and do church as Baptists is embedded in my DNA. When I have to describe what it is to be Baptist, I find myself in the same position as a fish trying to describe the water in which it lives. It is in me and around me, and is part of me.  But here goes:
The Baptist Union of NZ defines our distinctiveness as being 4 statements:

The first is:
Biblical authority:
Baptists believe the Bible is the inspired word of God given to humankind for guidance and instruction on how to live life to its fullest.
We believe in the Bible. We believe it is not just a nice read, but it is authoritative on how we are to live. It is not just a guideline of nice principles. It is how we are to live out our lives.
Let me tell you a sad story of just what that means [Dirk Willems 1569 – love your enemies – Radical Disciples pg 16]
We believe that is how we are to live our lives – radical following of Jesus and what he taught.  We believe it when Jesus said he came to set the captives free, to be good news to the poor, give sight to the blind. We believe when he told us to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. And because God said it, we need to do it.
That is why we do what we do here at Eastside.

The second is:
Congregational government
Baptists do not have a hierarchy of positions within their churches or their denomination.  We believe all members are equal, all are able to hear the voice of God, and all have a contribution to make to the running of the church. We relate to one another and support one another, but each separate congregation makes decisions on how their church will function.
We believe in congregational government.  The Pastor and the Leadership team are not the sole receptacles of godly wisdom. We believe in the priesthood of all believers. We believe that God speaks to each of us and that each of us has a voice into the actions and functions and direction of this church. I am not to be put on a pedestal. I am called to be a follower of Jesus just like you. My particular calling is to pastor, but I am no more important than you and your calling.
Our AGM in a few weeks is not about the leadership telling you how it will be, but is a chance for us to together discern the call of God.


The third is:
Believer’s baptism
Baptists believe baptism is for believers; a sign of an individual’s faith in Christ and their commitment to following Him.  We believe that the preferred means of baptism is full immersion.
We believe that each person has their own responsibility to respond to God’s call to salvation. It cannot be done by proxy. It cannot be done by someone else on our behalf. That is why we believe in adult baptism. We believe you must make the choice yourself to follow Jesus through the waters of baptism – your parent cannot make it for you; your descendants cannot posthumously do it for you
We believe that the imagery of death and resurrection – the death of the old person and the rising of the new creation in Christ means immersion baptism, and that it is more than just symbolic to be immersed in water at baptism.

And the last is:
Liberty of conscience
Baptists believe in the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.
We believe in freedom from state interference in people’s practice of religion.  That is a fundamental of Protestantism – the state cannot tell us what to believe as far as religion goes. As I read earlier from our National Leader: “Since their outset Baptists have always been strong advocates for freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression.”

All those are lovely concepts but what do they mean for us here at Eastside as we work out our faith and model our faith to the people around us? A theology student at Otago University wrote this in her master’s thesis: Within Baptist [understanding of church], the local congregation is a group of people gathered by God to meet under Christ’s reign, in covenant with God and with each other, and they are the visible expression of Christ in the world in so far as they express the hospitality of God to all people by their …diversity and their openness to include those beyond the core group. Within a Baptist vision Christian faith is not private, it is personal but not individualistic, it is visible in that there are visible expressions of believers’ love and commitment to God and to one another, and it is also visible within the community in which it exists as an expression of openness and hospitality to those God is drawing in. 
Let me highlight the last bit of that: Within a Baptist vision Christian faith is not private, it is personal but not individualistic, it is visible in that there are visible expressions of believers’ love and commitment to God and to one another, and it is also visible within the community in which it exists as an expression of openness and hospitality to those God is drawing in.

This is what Eastside and our Baptist denomination are about. Arising out of these distinctives come our mission statement: “to follow Jesus, grow in wholeness, and bring others to Him”, or in Maori: Whaia te Atua kia puawai ai mauria mai te tini me te mano ; and our church motto: “Bringing the community new heart”

Is there overlap with other Christian denominations with these distinctives?  Of course there are, but those are the 4 which identify us as distinctly Baptist. Let us celebrate our unity with the body of Christ and celebrate our distinctiveness as Baptists.