If ever there was a time when nearly every Baptist was the same, that time is long past. The cover package of our June 18 issue suggests some traditional distinctives but shows just how far apart Baptists can be on particular matters of faith and practice. This has been true in varying degrees throughout Baptists' 400 years.
Baptists were called Baptists originally because of their emphasis on believer's baptism, and subsequently baptism by immersion. Baptists were those who followed the example of John in the wilderness as he proclaimed repentance and baptized those who responded in the river water of the Jordan. But we Baptists grappled with the significance of baptism as we distinguished ourselves from Catholics and other Protestants - and we still do. Whether or not to require baptism by immersion or baptism at all is a discussion among some Baptists.
Students of American history and certainly students of Baptist history are familiar with the role Baptists - among others - have played in the securing of religious liberty. Baptists fought and sometimes died for the right of every citizen to practice the faith of his/her choice, or to practice none at all. They stood against the concept of a favored - or state-sponsored - church.
The history of various strains of Baptists helps us in understanding each other not only in our agreements and similarities but also in our diversity. The memory of history helps explain a few things, and it enables us to correct misunderstandings and half-truths about where we have been and how we arrived at where we are today.
A disturbing number of Baptist church members don't know, and many don't care, about what makes a Baptist a Baptist.
Ask a random sampling of Baptists what distinguishes their tradition from others and many will identify stands on social and moral issues. Others will say the most important issue is for Baptists to hold the Bible and its authority in high esteem. Others will say evangelism and missions. Still others will cite the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper. For others, the autonomy of the local church is the key element. Perhaps Baptists' traditional emphasis on congregational decision-making might surface. A Southern Baptist might say it is the Cooperative Program for funding education, missions, evangelism and other ministries at every level of Baptist life.
All of the above are important to Baptists, but not one is exclusively Baptist except perhaps the name Cooperative Program. Still, other groups, including other Baptist groups, practice joint funding of institutions and ministries and engage in other cooperative efforts.
Historically, Baptists have picked their distinctive Baptist tradition and each group has gone its separate way. That also is a contemporary reality to the extent people really care about their denominational affiliation today.
This tendency to divide up over theology and practice is very much a part of contemporary Baptist life. In recent years, Southern Baptists have experienced organizational fracture, as have Missouri Baptists. And potentially divisive issues confront both right now.
Our coverage this week is a bit of a primer, tracing Baptist life and issues to the present. Readers may want to save these stories or even use them in settings where Baptists would benefit from a reminder of Baptist contributions and challenges.
Baptists simply can't be pigeonholed, and any effort to force them into a common mold is understandably met with resistance. We could hope for better communication and an openness to learn more about and better understand each other. Our cover package can help.
Baptists are hardly perfect, but we share a rich tradition that can be appreciated. And it is possible we can become better known for our common distinctives and our service to Christ than our public feuds. The Lord deserves that.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.