RIGHT or WRONG: The 'Baptist' name - Word&Way

RIGHT or WRONG: The ‘Baptist’ name

Why should we keep using the name “Baptist” since it is so divisive and detrimental to the cause of Christ? Does the Baptist name matter?

 In this year in which Baptists worldwide are celebrating their 400th anniversary, your question about revisiting the significance of the Baptist name is surely a timely one. Seems like Baptists in recent years have gained media attention mostly because of their boycotts, bigotry and bitter controversies. The truth is that in the past, Baptists seem to have been on the wrong side of history more often than not. For example, some 19th century Baptists defended slavery, and in the mid-20th century, many Baptists in the South opposed desegregation.

Given these realities, is there any reason in 2009 to hang onto the Baptist name, especially when we recognize that even early Baptists were hesitant to use the name? In the 17th century, Baptists much preferred to be called “the church of Christ,” “baptized churches,” “baptized Christians,” “baptized congregation” or “baptized believers.” More recently, some churches have dropped the word “Baptist” from their church name.

So why should we even think about holding onto the Baptist name? To answer that question, we need to look back to our shared past as Baptists. An examination of our heritage reveals one of the most significant historic principles held by Baptists has been religious liberty. One of the founders of the first Baptist church, Thomas Helwys, preached and wrote about freedom — freedom for Baptists and for other Christian groups but also freedom for those who were not Christian — for atheists and Muslims. Helwys and other early Baptists believed faith must be a free, uncoerced response to God. As a result of his insistence on freedom, Helwys ended up in prison, where he eventually died in 1616.

A second historic Baptist conviction has been our commitment to a believer’s church. Early Baptists faced harassment and imprisonment because they rejected infant baptism and the state-sanctioned church and instead expressed their conviction that a church must be composed of only those who had expressed faith in Christ.

Along with these two principles, Baptists have also held to the Lordship of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the priesthood of every believer, the freedom of each church to self-governance, and a strong desire of Baptists to associate with one another in order to share the gospel. Those principles have been the foundational teachings for Baptists. A commitment to these principles has kept the Baptist name alive for 400 years, not so much because the name Baptist matters, but because the principles have mattered. So perhaps that is the better question: Will our Baptist identity, our Baptist principles survive? Will those principles continue to matter?

Pamela R. Durso,
associate executive director-treasurer
Baptist History and Heritage Society
Atlanta, Ga.

Right or Wrong? is sponsored by the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University's Logsdon School of Theology. Send your questions about how to apply your faith to btillman@hsutx.edu.