Denominational tags have fallen on hard times. History and tradition have become baggage.
I would be surprised if you know of a new church that can be identified with any recognizable branch of Christianity. If you can get creek, river, brook, or tree into your church name, for sure it will grow. The more bland, comforting, serene; the more easily confused with a country club or a rock band your church name is, the more in tune with the times you appear.
And the latest trend has moved beyond nature: Bridge. Liquid. Radiance. Paradox. Propulsion.
In the interest of transparency, I began a move to change our church name 15 or 20 years ago, then I chickened out. Baptist is still our middle name.
Here is my attempt to give a bit of context and explanation for our church name to a deep blue, urban, postmodern population.
What’s in a name?
John the Baptist, eccentric prophet. William Carey, linguist, humanitarian extraordinaire. Fredrick Douglas, abolitionist-orator. Charles Spurgeon, urban crusader. Nannie Helen Borroughs, women’s leader. Walter Rauschenbusch, social justice warrior. Lottie Moon, China champion. Martin Luther King, renowned activist. Billy Graham, global evangelist. Mahalia Jackson, vocalist without equal. Rick Warren, mega-church pastor, best-selling author. Baptist is a name associated with colorful, controversial, influential figures here and around the world.
There are approximately 32 million Baptists in the U.S., half of them are “Southern Baptists,” over 100 million in the world. As for “The Baptist Church,” there isn’t one. Each Baptist congregation is independent, autonomous, self-governing. Many churches participate in larger entities, but those affiliations do not infringe upon congregational self-determination. Yes, this lends itself to some craziness and confusion; it is what it is.
Baptists are not self-named. Our persecutors began using this label in derision beginning in the 1400s. Theologically and historically, Baptists are those who hold the Word of God, the Scriptures, the Bible, as sole authority in all matters of faith, church order, and practice rather than looking to tradition, human hierarchies, committees, or governments.
Many historians seemingly fail to notice that many who came to America for religious freedom, instituted the same state church systems, persecuting those who did not adhere, repeating the sins of the governments they fled.
In U.S. history, Rhode Island, the first colony with complete religious freedom, was founded by Baptist Roger Williams. Williams’s life was a crusade for freedom of conscience and religious liberty. He founded Rhode Island in 1636 after purchasing the land from the Narragansett Indians.
A refuge from religious persecution, Rhode Island became home to the first Jewish synagogue in America and a sanctuary for Quakers who were being persecuted and killed by anti-Quaker laws in Massachusetts and other colonial territories. Rhode Island was an open door to all people, a safe harbor in a sea of tyranny and oppression.
In the flurry of activity around the colonies becoming states, the constitution presented for ratification did not provide for religious liberty. Baptists supported the proposed constitution on the condition an amendment on religious freedom would be added.
Finally, Massachusetts and Virginia became the pivotal states in the process. James Madison was running for the state legislature of Virginia against Baptist pastor John Leland.
Madison was about to lose the election. Leland knew this. He also knew without Madison’s golden voice and political influence there would be no constitution. With victory already in his hand, Leland dropped out of the race, giving Madison an open road on the promise that he would pursue language providing for religious liberty.
So sympathetic was Congress, urged on by President Washington, that they made it their first business to consider the issue Baptists were pressing. As a result, the line of the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Baptist then is not a “brand name” so much as it is a historical, theological descriptor of people who adhere to biblical authority over human authority and are advocates of religious liberty for all.
Charles Lyons pastors Armitage Baptist Church in Chicago.