Ideas have power. Ideas can start wars – and stop them. They can inspire sacrifice and lifelong service; they can create prejudice and injustice. They can change lives and transform communities; they can also restrict, contain and oppress whole groups of people. Culture itself is ultimately about ideas, ideas about the spiritual as well as the physical world in which we live.
This is the first in a series about Baptist ideas. Now, you strike problems when you try to talk about "Baptist ideas". Some cynically ask, "Do we have any?". Others are suspicious of the whole venture, worried that spirituality might be reduced to dry intellectualism. Neither response is justified. Indeed, what I hope to show is the spiritual power of concepts which genuinely shape our identity and which draw us closer to Christ. That’s not to say we talk about them much. In fact the most significant motivating ideas are those which barely need to be articulated. They are the air we breathe.
A Portfolio of Ideas
So what do Baptists believe? This is a more complex question than is often assumed. There was a vogue for a time for publishing booklets on "Baptist distinctives". Usually the motivation was to identify the reasons why we are not like everyone else. The focus would often be on practice. Baptists baptise adults and have a congregational form of church government, for instance. At another level the assertion might be made that Baptists are about freedom of conscience, or take a non-sacramental approach to ministry and communion. Then there is mission and evangelism. Baptists are about church growth, have an emphasis on conversion and discipleship. Or, again, Baptists are evangelicals, with a high view of scripture and a conviction that a personal relationship with Christ is the core of faith.
Well, there is a lot there - enough to fill a series of articles on Baptist ideas! Obviously all these elements are interrelated. Some are the natural extension of others. We will explore those links and crossovers. But we have to clear the ground a bit first – and face a fact Baptists sometimes find disturbing. The thing is that, historically, the picture is much more muddled than the list suggests. At different times and in different places Baptists have held strongly to some of these emphases but held lightly or even rejected others. There is no simple check-list of doctrines or practices that we can run through which throws up a clear set of "true Baptists" and sorts out the dodgy ones. We also have to admit that all of these characteristics can be found in various combinations in other Christian groups who would not claim to be Baptist. The reality is that, on their own, these elements are not "distinctives" at all! We are far better to conceive of a portfolio of ideas and emphases which, when enough of them are held together, reflects a distinct ethos. Like our children, the combination of the genes can be quite different, but a family resemblance is noticeable nonetheless.
But, wait a minute, I say this portfolio "reflects a distinct ethos". Aha! So there is something truly "Baptist" underlying it all? Not quite. What can be said is that Baptists share in a particular impulse, which has been part of Christianity from its beginning but which came to dramatic light during the reformation period. That is the drive to get to the roots of both belief and practice. This is what it means to be "radical". The radical reformation sought to find the core dynamic of Christian faith and to see it immediately at work in their lives. It is this commitment to core principles, lived out, which lies behind the portfolio of doctrines and practices which Baptists use to construct their Christian communities.
The significance of this dynamic is best illustrated with a famous story of the radical reformation. Dirk Willems was an Anabaptist in the Netherlands in 1569. This was an illegal group and Willems and others were tried and convicted of their "crime". Willems escaped but he was seen and chased by a guard. In an effort to shake off his pursuer Willems crossed an ice-covered lake. The ice was thin and this was a dangerous tactic. Willems made it but the guard, attempting the same crossing, fell through the ice and was at risk of drowning. Willems thus faced a dilemma. This man was his persecutor, but the Lord commanded "love your enemies". Willems returned and rescued the guard. His choice had been to live out the most demanding aspects of his faith. There was no pleasant ending. Willems was rearrested, sentenced to death and burnt horribly at the stake.
Beneath Baptist ideas lies this sort of spirituality. It is a way of being which demands mental, moral and physical commitment. To reach beyond the accrued trappings of tradition to the core issues of faith and to live out the implications in real life. Baptist ideas reflect this ethos. They can never be mere intellectualism and they are all the more powerful for that. Indeed, they are inextricably bound to the concept of salvation itself.
Discipleship is an element of salvation. Not, I must stress, a salvation by works but the view that the very act of following Christ in this life gives us something of the experience of salvation. Discipleship is to lose one’s own life and to gain a new one. Among those things we shed is an adherence to the things and ways of the world. To follow Christ is to let go of those things, to be freed from them, to be "saved" from them. Thus, in the very act of following we are "being saved".In this view, Baptists have tried to make sense of passages which talking of "working out" our salvation, of salvation as process. Key among these are such as Phillippians 2:12, but particularly the soteriology of discipleship found in 1 Peter. This letter, which for much of the church has been on the periphery of theological reflection, is surprisingly often found at the centre of Baptist reflections. It is not hard to see why. Talk of being"‘stranger and aliens" (1:1; 2:11) coheres exactly with the Baptist sense of otherness and distinction. Also resonant are passages such a 1 Peter 1:3-12 which suggests we are "receiving [a process] the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1:9) or 2:2 which talks of "growing" into salvation. These verses serve as introductions to calls for holy living (1:13-21; 2:11-17). They are the framework for understanding discipleship, not as something which is optional or subsequent to salvation but which is intimately bound up with it. And if bound with salvation, then also bound with the very mission of God.