Some of my theological friends criticize me for holding on to my “Baptist” identity in the current theological and political context (especially the U.S.A.) where these labels have largely come to mean mean-spirited, narrow-minded, legalistic, even hypocritical religiosity and where they are virtually equated with the Religious Right, of which I am not a part.
Many Baptist churches have dropped the word “Baptist” from their names because it has been so tarnished by television evangelists, right-wing religious politicians and the so-called “Baptist wars” of the last twenty-five to thirty-five years.
Besides, they say, Baptists have very little in common beyond getting people wet. Many (perhaps most) no longer believe in separation of church and state. In fact, Baptists have become known for opposing it. Many no longer believe in or practice congregational autonomy. All the traditional hallmarks of Baptist faith and practice have been sacrificed on various altars political, theological and practical.
Who have been in the forefront of the church growth movement, the Religious Right, neo-fundamentalism, rationalistic theology and apologetics, so-called “complementarianism,” etc., etc.? Baptists.
My friends challenge me to realize it’s too late to rescue the label; the barbarians have invaded and taken over and there’s no point in trying to rescue what is now a hopelessly sullied label and identity.
Besides, as I said (and they keep reminding me) there is very little that has ever or now holds “Baptists” together as an identifiable tradition. So, they tell me, stop reifying or hypostasizing “Baptist” as if it were a real phenomenon. Stop essentializing it, they say.Also, my northern friends tell me “Baptist” has become a primarily southern phenomenon.
A few years ago my late friend Stan Grenz, who proudly called himself both Baptist and evangelical, told me an interesting little story of an incident at his (then) institution of higher education. A well-known Anglican theologian, a colleague, had traveled to the American South (from Canada) to give some lectures at a Baptist university and seminary. When he returned, at a gathering of professors, this Anglican theologian said (commenting on his trip to the South) “Baptists are uncouth.” Of course, Stan spoke up to him and said “Am I included?” The Anglican theologian said “Present company excepted.”
Well, I’m just stubborn enough not to give “Baptist” over to the barbarians or give in to non-Baptists who vilify it; I will defend the label and tradition, as it really was and should be, until I die. Every label has its problems. I prefer to do the hard work of rescuing “Baptist” from all the distortions that surround it in popular culture and even among those who proudly proclaim it.
What I find ironic is that some of my friends who, though moderate, proudly identify as Baptist tell me I should give up calling myself “evangelical” or identifying myself with that movement–for the same reason others tell me to give up calling myself “Baptist” or identifying with that tradition.