Baptists have always been free
As a child, there was no better word. It stood for all the best things I knew. It actually still does – but not without a lot of explanation and clarification and qualification. Most of the Baptists I know are Baptist… “but not ‘that kind’ of Baptist!”
Many Baptist churches these days have taken the name off the sign. They’re “Elevation Church” or “Windspring Church” or “Anytown Community Church.” I’m not sure why they don’t want to be “Baptist” anymore – unless they also know the liability, as if to say, “We are that kind of Baptist … but maybe it’s best if we don’t actually say we’re Baptist!”
And some of the “not-that-kind-of-Baptist” Baptists have added qualifiers these days, right on the sign: “Myers Park Baptist: an ecumenical church in the Baptist tradition,” or the curiously named “River Road Church, Baptist” (not River Road Baptist Church).
So … what does “Baptist” really mean?
For too many people, most of whom will never darken the doors of Park Road because our sign still says “Baptist Church,” the word means narrow-minded and judgmental, unforgiving and self-righteous, uneducated and dogmatic. That’s not always fair, but that is what the word means to a lot of people, and sadly, too often it is a fair assessment.
But here’s the point: while most Baptists have mostly been theologically conservative, being Baptist isn’t about a particular theological position. When I teach our children, I ask them to remember one word: free.
Baptists have always been free, and freedom is a powerful and dangerous force, and one that is easily misunderstood and misused.
When people give me that look, or just say out loud, “You mean, you’re a Baptist? How did that happen!?,” I tell them: Baptists have always been free, and if you give people a chance to think – some of them are going to! Then (unless I’m feeling too snarky!), I add that what I mean is not that everyone who thinks will become liberal, just that if you give people a chance to think, some of them will – and some Baptists always have! There’s no Bishop keeping an eye on you, no Pope defining your doctrine, not even a denomination in the strict sense telling you what to believe. Baptists are free, and always have been. Some Baptists think critically. Some are liberal. And, historically speaking, out of that foundational belief in freedom, Baptists and protest go together.
It’s who we are.
To summarize Baptist history I remind folks that our forebears were the dissenters of the dissenters of the dissenters. They protested. The Separatists separated from the English Church; the Puritans wanted to purify the Separatists; the Baptists demanded freedom, even from Puritan ideas of conformity and control.
So these days, with all the anger rising up against all the protestors, I feel myself siding with them. Not because I always agree with them. I do not. Not because I’m ungrateful or unpatriotic or unaware. I am not. Not because I love a good fight. I never have.
I invariably feel myself siding with those who protest because being Baptist doesn’t mean being narrow-minded and judgmental and dogmatic. Despite what it has come to mean in popular culture, being truly Baptist means being willing to question the status quo, to dissent against the majority opinion or the popular voice. It means boldly questioning what is or should be sacred and standing resolutely for justice – even when the act of protest is unpopular.
I think my forebears would agree: let them protest. Not only is it a deeply American freedom, a spirit of dissent has been integral to our vision from the very beginning. That’s what it means to be Baptist.
(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He co-pastors Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte with his wife, Rev. Amy Dean, a native of Clinton and also a graduate of CHS.)