Editor’s Note: This is the tenth installment of a new series called “Illuminations,” which aims to highlight stories of cooperation, unity and diversity from across the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Illuminations is a communications initiative of the Illumination Project, a project of discernment and accompaniment involving CBF congregational leaders to illuminate the qualities that have built unity in CBF, and through discernment, identify intentional processes to maintain and grow unity through cooperation. Learn more about the Illumination Project at www.cbf.net/illuminationproject.
By Bruce Gourley
Our faith’s beginnings appeared far from promising.
As religious immigrants in the New World of the 17th century, we were despised and hated by many. We denounced theocratic “Bible commonwealths” established upon and mandating Old Testament law. For this we were perceived as dangerous.
We cited Jesus as Lord in opposing Old Testament law and religious creeds. For this we were dismissed as heretics.
We reminded the establishment church that humans were created in the image of God, and that the New Testament Jesus taught freedom, love and human dignity and condemned coercion, hate and discrimination. For this we were deemed a public enemy.
We put our beliefs into action by advocating for voluntary faith and demanding freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all. For this we were harshly persecuted.
We sought protection for all persons despised, hated and persecuted by helping establish and maintain a colony upon the radical principle of church-state separation. Rhode Island served as a haven for religious refugees and other dissenters, including persons with whom we greatly disagreed. We believed we were following the example of Christ and living as his disciples.
For some 150 years and in the face of sometimes crushing and brutal opposition by colonial theocracies, we held aloft a united witness to the freedom of Christ, a redeeming message that quietly drew people from all walks of life into our faith communities.
But if our critics would have looked closely, they would have noticed something unusual: internally, we were far from united.
Theologically, some of our congregations were Calvinist, others Arminian. Some churches welcomed women leaders, others did not. Our worship services varied from formal and staid to loud and rambunctious. Some of our ministers were highly educated, while many others disdained formal education. We disagreed over the scope of communion (open or closed?), the correct weekly day of worship (Sunday or Saturday?), the use of music in worship (none or some?), the proper methodology of preaching (from notes or not?), and so much more.
Yet amid this tangled and vast assortment of internal differences, we all remained within the Baptist family and stood united on important foundational principles: the belief that since God alone is Lord of the human conscience, freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all must be preserved at all costs so that authentic faith could flourish.
Our long, ceaseless efforts eventually bore fruition in the establishment of national freedom of religion for all and church state separation in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Finally able to practice our faith freely and openly, we celebrated alongside others who had been persecuted for their beliefs.
Then something unexpected happened.
No longer stigmatized as a public menace, our faith appealed to many more Americans. We outgrew our minority status and became a religious majority, gaining new-found privilege and power.
Thereafter our unity amid diversity shattered on the shoals of cultural accommodation, racial divisions and social upheavals. Some majoritarian Baptists became the oppressors they had long opposed. Others channeled their power and privilege into justice and mercy. Both strains remain to the present day.
Meanwhile, the most visible embodiment of the early Baptist witness of freedom, love and human dignity in Christ fell to and remains with new generations of minority, persecuted and disadvantaged Baptists.
As a majority and minority, advantaged and disadvantaged, privileged and counter cultural people of faith, in what ways should we as Cooperative Baptists live out our faith heritage in today’s increasingly fragmented and complex world?
Within our faith community we must strive for transcendent unity under the Lordship of Christ. We must seek to be a people of Christ.
Within our faith community we must strive to be Jesus to one another, and together to the world. We must seek to be a Jesus people.
Within our faith community we must strive to allow scripture to speak to us freely, openly and contextually. We must seek to be a biblical people.
Within our faith community we must strive to set aside personal theological differences to share and live Christ’s love for all persons. We must seek to be a people of love.
Within our faith community we must strive to set aside diverse personal beliefs to advocate for freedom of conscience and religion for all persons. We must seek to be a people of freedom.
Within our faith community we must strive to set aside any sense of superiority in order to defend the dignity of all persons as images of God. We seek to be a people who neither hates nor discriminates.
Within our faith community we must strive to open our church doors and our hearts’ doors to all. We must seek to be a welcoming people.
In striving for unity in what matters most, we can bear witness of the biblical Jesus who embraces all with freedom, love and dignity.
And when challenges confront our unity of purpose in Christ, we must remember that we have a heritage of overcoming.
Our faith’s future is indeed promising.
Bruce Gourley is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, and chair of the CBF Nominating Committee.