Several years ago I attended a breakfast hosted by a large Grand Rapids-based publishing house. The event targeted local ministers from various denominations in order to promote recent publications. I like both books and good food so I accepted the invitation.
At the breakfast I was seated next to an Episcopalian rector. As we talked, I shared with him how I came to Christ as a high school teenager. I confess I was a little surprised when he told me a very similar story about how he became a Christian during his college years through the influence of a strongly evangelistic Bible study. When he trusted Christ his life was changed, and he determined to study for the ministry. His upbringing was Episcopalian. Although he had never been confronted with the gospel in this church, it never occurred to him to leave for a different denomination. No one ever suggested to him that he should.
As we continued talking he shared his intense frustration with his church. His denominational leaders openly denied some fundamental Christian doctrines. And of late they were tolerating and even endorsing gross distortions of traditional morality such as so-called gay marriage. He said few in his local congregation appeared interested in the Bible. Finally, he said, “I think less than half of my parishioners are truly born again.”
I told him that I was a Baptist. In our church, in keeping with what we understand the Bible to teach, only people who profess to be born again are allowed to be church members. There was a pause. Then this gentleman said rather dramatically, “That is a good idea!”
It is a good idea. For centuries western nations had a state authorized church. Basically, all citizens were church members. But throughout church history there were small fringe groups which rejected the idea of the state church. Instead they advocated the model of the church found in Acts 2. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, magisterial groups arose which sought to reform the church. They are identified as “magisterial” because they were protected by magistrates or governments. But there were still other, more radical reformers who argued for the necessity of individual personal conversion prior to baptism and church membership. These often suffered persecution for their beliefs.
Not all of these radical reformers were in agreement with each other. Sadly, some held to unbiblical heretical teachings. But we gladly identify with many of these saints. They were labeled Anabaptists, Dunkards, or Baptists as an intended insult. Many of these people were “back to the Bible” Christians who set a pattern of faithfulness that we try to follow. So today we gladly embrace the name Baptist.
I am not a Baptist because I was raised one (I was not). Neither my grandparents nor my parents were Baptist. I became a Baptist because I believe the Baptist distinctives such as the sole authority of Scripture, believers baptism by immersion, separation of church and state, individual soul liberty, and a regenerate church membership are good ideas. What makes them good is that they are found in the Bible.
I recall a Baptist preacher from the south telling how he responded when asked by a young ministerial student what he would be if he were not a Baptist. He replied, “I’d be ashamed!” This is obviously a bit of comical overstatement. However, there is no reason to be ashamed of being Baptist. If being Baptist simply means following the Bible’s teaching regarding my personal responsibility before God, church membership, church polity, and the ordinances, then being Baptist is a good idea. These ideas do not come from tradition. Rather, they come from the inspired writings of the apostles. For everyone who claims to be Christian, following the teaching of Christ and the apostles about these matters is always a good idea.