Summary: Baptist Heritage Sunday: broad as we are, we can stay together if we live out our understanding of soul competence and if we focus on missions and evangelism.
I want to introduce you to the least exclusive club in the world. A club so open that anybody can get in, whether they qualify or not, although the club says it has high standards for membership.
It is a club so broad in its social standings that it has included the lowest of the low and the highest of the high; everybody from the absolutely destitute to the Rockefeller family has been a member of this group. Every cultural outlook is represented, from those whose idea of art is something painted on black velvet, all the way to concert pianist Van Cliburn. All of them belong to this group.
It is a club so wide in its political and social outlook that it includes extreme conservatives and extreme liberals and, if there is such a thing, people in the extreme middle. Every political turn is represented: Democrats Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Albert Gore, and Marion Barry belong but so do Republicans Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, and Mark Hatfield. This is indeed a wide-open club.
More than that, it is very large, with members in more than 165 countries, yet nobody is quite sure who is at the head of it or who is in charge of it or if anybody is in charge of it. This is a very peculiar club!
I am speaking of the Baptist club. Or rather the Baptist family. We Baptists are a people of contradictions. We seem to conform to no particular standards of belief, behavior, or conduct, and yet the rest of the world sees us as dogmatic, strict, stern, and unbending. We say that we prize our independence, and yet some of us will give our freedom to whatever the current pop idolatry is. We claim no creed but the Bible, but every study shows that we do not know the Bible. We argue that we want to sing the old, old songs, but then go absolutely crazy for the latest synthesizer beat. We contend that every believer is a priest, every person is his own interpreter, but then we ask our pastors to know everything and be everywhere and step on everybody’s toes. We are a people of contradictions, we Baptists.
The first Sunday in February each year is designated as Baptist Identity Sunday through the Baptist World Alliance. This Sunday is an opportunity to focus on what we hold dear as a Baptist people. I haven’t done this very often at Takoma, because I never want to leave the impression that we are too concerned about sectarian things; after all, there weren’t any denominations in the New Testament church, and I am quite sure that the brokenness of modem Christianity is not what the Lord Jesus had in mind when He founded His church. And yet we are a part of this family. It is good on occasion to learn about our family. And particularly good in this church, because so many of us have backgrounds in other traditions. I know for a fact that some of you have come from places which are very, very different; some have come from the far left, like Unitarians, and some have come from the far right, like Pentecostals or Catholics (who, by the way, would be very surprised to hear themselves put in the same slot!). Let me just get a flavor of this: how many of you have at one time or another belonged to a church that was not a Baptist church?
My aim today is really very simple: to celebrate our kinship with Baptist brothers and sisters to build on the values that are truly important. I am by no means suggesting that Baptists have a comer on the truth; but I am suggesting that our Baptist interpretation of the gospel is distinctive, it is important, and it is life-giving … if we understand it.
I want you to hear, then, a passage of Scripture that tells us about Christ’s church and what it ought to be like. And I want to illustrate from Baptist history and practice two principles that are of great value for us.
Ephesians 4:1-6, 11-16
First, please notice that we are a people who prize our independence. We are a people whose most basic value is that every person has the right to have a personal relationship with the living God. Every person is a person of infinite value; every believer is his own priest before God. One of the things we ought to fight for and insist on is the freedom and the dignity of every individual soul. This is called, in Baptist theology, "soul competence".
Soul competence. That means that every person is competent to stand before God, without the intervention of anything else. Neither priest nor church, nor ritual nor doctrine, nor anything else can substitute for each person’s individual experience with the living God.