Happy 400th Birthday, Baptists!

When I meet people and tell them I am in the ministry, they assume that I am a Catholic priest. My dark complexion and Italian name do not necessarily yell “Baptist,” so when I correct people as to my religious background, they seem taken aback.

For me, being Baptist is a mark of honor. The first Baptist church I ever stepped foot in was the same church in which I made a profession of faith. I was 12 at the time and, after attending the youth group for several months, I felt that familiar tug on my heart to ask Jesus into my life.

It was in the context of Baptist collegiate life that I also heard God’s call to ministry. I studied under Baptist professors who instilled in me a love of the Bible and theology, as well as the Baptist heritage of which they were so fond. Attending a Baptist seminary — one at Mercer University, in fact — was the eventual next step.

Although you may not hear it often in the news, the Baptists, among other denominations in the religious scene, have much to be proud of. This past year marked the 400th birthday of the Baptist movement. Its two founders, Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, established the first First Baptist Churches in Holland and England between the years of 1609 to 1611.

At that time, the Baptists were affiliated with the Mennonites. They had a reputation for being separatists who advocated for literacy, the separation of church and state, and the priesthood of all believers. They were pacifists that avoided public office; they were persecuted often, especially during the reign of King James I.  Yet, many of their founding, core values remained benchmark standards in the Protestant cause, and still do to this day.

The priesthood of believers is one of the values that caught my attention in my youth. Baptists believe that every person is a minister unto God in the service of others. The denomination is a participatory one, so much so that Baptists have always avoided creeds that excluded individuals from roles in leadership and missions.

There are a diverse set of leaders throughout history to prove it — leaders from the likes of liberal Walter Rauschenbusch to conservative, missionary pioneer Lottie Moon. We who call ourselves Baptists stand on the shoulders of giants, that’s for sure.

The Baptist understanding of the separation of church and state also attracted me to the movement. Although it seems that not a few Christians have abandoned this principle in order to push for legislation that discriminates against others, many Baptists know that political power is something not to be wielded lightly.

Baptists are keenly aware that nations that marry the church with the state prove to be oppressive time and again.

This conviction does not mean that Baptists are apolitical. Every person who engages in public policy and dialogue brings to the table an entire worldview, and Baptists are no exception. It is just that Baptists fulfill their civic duty with a sense of critical skepticism and suspicion.

There is a growing animosity toward religious denominations in our culture; we are living in what some have coined a “post-denominational age.” This has surely eroded the influence that Baptists have on culture: The Southern Baptist Convention has noted on more than one occasion that both financial giving and baptisms are down, and many Baptist churches are in steep decline.

With 400 years behind the Baptist movement, however, Christians can rest assured that we Baptists will be around for a long time to come, that is, if the denomination remains true to its past and continues to join God in bringing about His redemptive future.

Published by Joe LaGuardia

I am a pastor and author in Vero Beach, Florida, and write on issues related to spirituality, faith, politics, and culture.

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