I think it’s time again for a quick refresher on Baptists and religious liberty. We discussed this briefly last week in response to this story about a “Baptist” mega-church pastor who resigned from the Southern Baptist mission board in protest of that agency’s support for the religious liberty of people other than Southern Baptists. That’s evidence that this pastor, a guy named Dean Haun, doesn’t have a clue what it means to be a Baptist.
Apart from the Baptist problem, Haun’s argument is incoherent and self-refuting. He’s advocating “rights” for me, but not for thee, and that can’t ever work. Rights aren’t rights unless they’re for everybody. Restrict them to only some people — the “right kind” of people — and they cease to be rights, becoming only mere privileges. And privileges, unlike rights, can be revoked at any time. The same authorities you’re allowing or expecting to deny those rights to others are thereby authorized to one day deny them to you as well. So in addition to being a brutishly cruel violation of the Golden Rule, Haun’s position is also dangerous for him.
Then there’s the Baptist problem. Haun says he’s a Baptist who rejects religious liberty for all. That’s an oxymoron — an impossibility more absurd than jumbo shrimp or clean coal or compassionate conservatism.
Please understand, I’m not just describing some general tendency here — suggesting that religious liberty is usually important to Baptists in the way that, say, high school football is usually important to Texans. This isn’t simply a matter of custom, heritage or habit. It’s a matter of identity. Religious liberty for all is the defining characteristic of Baptists. It’s why Baptists exists. It’s what makes them Baptists.
It’s right there in the label: Baptists.
Baptism isn’t strange or unique among Christian sects and denominations. Nearly every Christian tradition practices some form of Baptism. So what is it about Baptism that distinguishes Baptists?
Well, a lot of people — even supposed “Baptists” like Dean Haun — seem confused on that point. They seem to think it has something to do with immersion versus sprinkling. That ain’t it.
It’s true that we Baptists like to do the whole-body-dunking thing rather than just drizzling a tiny handful on someone’s forehead. I remember the first time I visited a Catholic church and saw the baptismal font in the sanctuary. I couldn’t figure out how anybody was supposed to fit in that thing.
We Baptists like full-immersion baptism. We generally prefer the death-and-resurrection symbolism (and the throw-the-hounds-off-the-scent symbolism). But that’s not the main difference here — it’s not what makes Baptists Baptist. After all, baptism by immersion is permitted and sometimes practiced even in high church Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. And we Baptists will sometimes resort to sprinkling too — particularly in hospitals and hospices.The defining distinctive for Baptists isn’t about how we baptize, but about why and when.
Baptists get baptized only when they choose to do so. Baptists get baptized only because they choose to do so. (Or, for Calvinist Baptists, because they experience God’s irresistible grace compelling them to choose to do so.)
And nobody else has any say in that choice. Not the state — not Caesar, or the king, or the president. And not some bishop or archbishop or pope. And not your parents, or the elders of your village. It’s entirely up to you. You make that decision to make that statement, freely, uncoerced, and entirely of your own volition.
This is what made Baptists subversive — what made them a threat and a danger to the sectarian states of Europe a few centuries ago. It’s why so many Baptists — and Anabaptists, like the Quakers — hightailed it to the New World.
Around Thanksgiving every year, schoolchildren learn about the Pilgrims and the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony seeking “religious liberty.” That’s sort of true. The Pilgrims fled England because they didn’t want to be required to follow someone else’s religion. They wanted to be free, instead, to require everyone to follow their religion. They didn’t have a problem with state religion and enforced sectarian hegemony per se. They just wanted what they saw as the right kind of state religion and enforced sectarian hegemony. That’s why they hung Mary Dyer and banished Anne Hutchinson and chased away Roger Williams. Those Baptist and Anabaptist believers were a threat to the colony’s religious hegemony because they rejected the whole idea of such enforced uniformity.
The religious expression of this rejection of sectarian hegemony is believer’s baptism. This is why Baptists do not baptize infants, which suggests that everyone born into the community — or into the state, or into Christendom — is marked at birth as an official adherent of some official religion. Baptists don’t baptize anyone until they’re old enough to choose that for themselves.
And that also means they’re old enough not to choose that for themselves. Because without the freedom not to choose that, it can’t really be a free choice.
This core identity of individual religious freedom is what makes Baptists so unruly. It’s why people like Durkheim defined Baptists as a sect rather than as a church, and why Baptists themselves reject the label of a “denomination.” Instead, we form associations and conventions, loose affiliations based on congregational democracy. This is why Baptist polity is such a mess — why “Baptist polity” is pretty much another oxymoron.
Once you’re old enough to make a free decision for yourself, you’re also probably old enough to wade in the water and be baptized via full immersion. And, yeah, we like to do it that way. But, again, that’s not the distinction. It’s not the dunking, it’s the freedom to choose.
The core identifier of believers baptism — freely chosen, or freely not chosen — is what makes Baptists Baptist. It’s why you cannot be a Baptist without defending religious liberty for all, for Baptists and non-Baptists alike.