I did not grow up a Southern Baptist. In fact, I only stumbled into the denomination 12 years ago. But every year I become happier and happier to be associated with this great tradition and organization. And this year’s Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis made me more pleased than ever before to be a Baptist.
Maybe I am set up for future disappointment. I hear that these meetings are not always as eventful. This year, attendance was up. Emotions were high. We gathered in the immediate wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, the worst in our country’s history. We remembered the tragic shooting in Charleston one year earlier and acknowledged the racially charged atmosphere reflected in nearby Ferguson. “Election” also loomed large. The theological understanding of the term was a subtext for the hotly contested SBC presidential election. And the upcoming U.S. presidential election was in everyone’s mind.
One of the most memorable moments for me, though, came amid a flurry a motions presented to convention messengers. One brother from Arkansas had requested the removal of Southern Baptist officials or officers who support a right for Muslims in America to build mosques. The next day, after the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s report, the same brother pressed ERLC President Russell Moore on the issue, likening the defense of the right to construct mosques to Jesus endorsing the erection of temples for Baal in ancient Israel.
As our culture unravels, we must remember our hope is in Christ, not country.
Dr. Moore’s response was sharp and received by the majority of messengers with applause. “The answer to Islam is not government power,” he said. “The answer is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the new birth that comes from that.”
In defending the idea of soul freedom for every individual, he illuminated a critical theological concept that lies at the heart of being Baptist. I am referring to religious liberty—the belief that no religion should be established by the state, but all faiths should be free to win adherents through the power of persuasion and not the sword.
In our history, Baptists have been persecuted by the government for non-conformity. We have seen the damage done by state churches to true religion. We do not baptize babies, in part, because we believe you cannot be born a Christian. Everyone must be genuinely converted without coercion. This should compel us to a radical witness to our Muslim neighbors and refugees, not to seek political action against them.
Recently there was a debate between a Christian and an atheist at the university near our church. It was sponsored by an evangelical campus ministry. To get there, you took the escalators to the third floor and turned left to find a small room with perhaps 100 mostly Anglo attenders. That same night, in the large room to the right of the escalators, there was a banquet for Islam Awareness Week with hundreds of Muslims from places like the Middle East and South Asia.
The lesson is this: We can wring our hands at the growing influence of Islam in the U.S., or we can get to work witnessing in new ways. Now is not the time for fear, but for bold faith.
In the New Testament era, the church is an altogether different institution than the state, with distinct ends and means. The two cannot be confused. So today, the proper analog to Baal altars in Israel is not Islamic Centers in Wheaton. It is idolatry in the corporate worship of the Church.
Patriotism definitely has its place, but perhaps one appropriate application would be to examine whether nationalism has crept into our Christianity. There are many forms of syncretism. As former SBC President James Merritt eloquently said in favor of a resolution to cease display of the Confederate battle flag, “Southern Baptists are not a people of any flag. We march under the banner of the cross of Jesus and the grace of God.”
As our culture continues to unravel and even the Bible Belt unbuckles, we must remember that our hope is in Christ, not country. His kingdom is unshakeable. And in many ways the dismantling of cultural Christianity that fused God and country is a good thing for the cause of the gospel. We Baptists want real believers that worship Christ alone, even if they are persecuted by a secular state or Islamic State.
– Nathan Carter is pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago.