On Being Baptist

by Rev. Holly Vincent Bean

September 04, 2011

by Rev. Holly Vincent Bean

"Pass me not, O gentle Savior, 

Hear my humble cry; 

While on others Thou art calling, 

Do not pass me by.

Savior, Savior, 

Hear my humble cry, 

While on others Thou art calling, 

Do not pass me by."

by Fanny J. Crosby, W.H. Deane

While attending two large meetings of fellow American Baptists this summer, this old Fanny Crosby hymn was one of the few that I a) recognized or b) thought I could sing. Most of the other songs—and there were many—left me standing awkwardly trying to mouth the words and catch the tune, even though I was not sure I wanted to be singing the song at all. I was definitely out of my comfort zone while others were singing fervently, eyes closed, and hands lifted, apparently, meaning every word. This disconnect is not unusual in gatherings of American Baptists from across its wide and diverse denominational spectrum. I know others who attend these meetings and are also uncomfortable with the forms of piety that dominate them.

But, wait, that can happen right here at Judson, my church home. I’ll bet some people were out of their comfort zone when I began singing—
Thinking, “O Lord, now what?” Or, “I really wish she would stop.” Or, “Is this church what I thought it was?” So I ask you this morning, is there something that redeems such discomfort?

I think there is and it deserves our attention. It has to do with why we are here in the first place and what matters in our common life. It has to do with Judson’s Baptist roots and branches, which hold a powerful promise that is often overlooked or discounted. That promise lives within the peculiar Baptist tensions between freedom and belonging, and it offers hope.

First, a disclaimer. In speaking of denominational life—which I am about to do—I know that I may be the fool rushing in where angels fear putting everyone to sleep. Denominations—those religious uber-organizations of obscure purpose—seem so far from our daily concerns that you may right now be considering a nap. Some here, who have walked the denominational walk, may be more annoyed than bored, remembering all too well the endless meetings and pointless politics. Many question whether denominations still have a role to play in religious life; some would claim we live in a post-denominational time. But hear me out.

Judson belongs to two denominations—the American Baptist Churches (ABC) and the United Church of Christ (UCC). In the past, its relationship with both has been selective and uneasy. We kept a critical distance, you might say. I have been a denominational worker in the ABC for years. I have felt the tension of serving a larger church that was not always in good graces with my home church. Now Judson seems more comfortable in its UCC connection and, perhaps, less so with its ABC ties. We find common cause with the UCC’s “still speaking” stance and, of course, of course, we support the UCC’s official stand on gender issues—something the ABC has not yet been able to achieve. But I digress. This reflection is not a comparison of the two; after all, both of them grew from the same free-church tradition and have more in common than in contrast.

Let’s talk about belonging. When I first came to live in New York in the late 1960’s, I found Judson to be a haven, an antidote to the bewilderment and loneliness brought on by New York’s size and power. Like a heat seeking missile, I sought out a church, expecting to find friendly people who would welcome me into a community of faith and meaning. And I did.

Many, if not most of us, come here week after week for similar reasons. We need to belong to a community that brings meaning and consolation to our lives. Feeling a part of a group of people we value helps to allay some deep and powerful anxieties that we humans can feel about our place in the world. We dare not minimize our need to belong to one another in trustworthy and caring relationships—a community.

When I came to Judson, I was not looking for a Baptist church. I sought (and found) a church that was interesting and creative and authentic in its witness. It was only later that I came to appreciate how Judson’s Baptist roots contributed to these qualities in its life. By belonging to this church, and, later, to the larger American Baptist community, I learned how seriously Baptist values are held and the powerful influence they have.

People—wonderful people—find their way to Judson because of the ABC or UCC. In the early 1990’s, my work for the ABC pension board took me, and a colleague, to an ABC conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin. We were there to present a workshop on pastoral care for persons living with AIDS. At the conference we met a quiet and unassuming minister from Kansas who was serving as the chaplain for Ottawa University, an ABC school. He wanted very much for us to present our workshop at Ottawa. We were not optimistic about how our presentation would be received there; after all, weren’t all Kansans conservative Christians who flatly rejected anything to do with the gay community? In spite of our misgivings, we accepted the invitation and were surprised and pleased at the welcome we received. As we got to know this chaplain better, we learned that, years earlier, he had heard Howard Moody—Judson’s Senior Minister at the time—speak at an ABC gathering and had followed Howard’s ministry with interest ever since; he knew of Judson and was eager to know more. We also learned that he had a son living in New York who might be interested in attending Judson. As I got to know this man better, he ceased to be one of those Baptists from the Bible belt. He became the Reverend John Blythe. I learned that he was (and is) a man who lived his faith in many inspiring ways. And he wanted to help his son find a church home in New York. Not that our dear David Blythe—a beloved member of this church ever since then—needs much help doing anything.

From this and many other experiences, I learned not to believe any of the hype about Baptists. I learned that Baptists usually defy labels, even the ones we give each other. I learned that the best way to know Baptist life is to get to know Baptist people, even if you can’t find comfortably common ground. In a time when churches are moving more and more towards marketing and other habits of corporate culture, I am glad the essential nature of Baptists is hard to label. Belonging to the Baptists means living under a very wide tent, one that brings people together because ultimately they, we, belong to God.

In this very wide tent, there is freedom. A prominent Baptist voice, Walter B. Shurden, writes, “ . . .I am convinced that the one word that comes closer than any other to capturing the historic Baptist identity is the word ‘freedom.’ This is a strange assertion at a time when many view Baptists as narrow, provincial, and even reactionary.”1 This passion for freedom is rooted in an understanding of the gospel that emerged from the left wing of the Protestant Reformation. It has been shaped by centuries of testing. Freedom, in Baptist life, is cherished not only as freedom from but also freedom for, and it reflects and honors the mysterious freedom of God.

Walter Shurden also claims, “The Baptist passion for freedom is a major reason why there is so much diversity in Baptist life.” Diversity. 2

In American Baptist circles, denominational diversity is considered a gift, albeit a bewildering one. Did you know that the ABC is one of the few denominations that have no racial or ethnic majority? That certainly shapes our ABC community, as do our great theological differences. These days, Baptists rarely speak with one voice on religious matters. But I’ve seen Baptists fight like hell over an issue—one that really matters—and then cheerfully link arms like old friends and go to lunch together. I have known individual Baptists to come together deliberately because of their differences—to talk them through, to look for common ground, and to intentionally stay in relationship in spite of the hard work and pain of differing. These people take diversity seriously, as a corollary to their freedom, and they protect their relationships.

Here at Judson, in our membership litany, we acknowledge our differences cheerfully, saying, “We gladly differ.” In all honesty, though, there are times when our differences do not make us glad. Just think about how truly different we are. Each of us is like a multicultural microcosm, bringing into every encounter, willy nilly, the cultural traces of upbringing, education, gender and racial identity, not to mention religious conviction, no belief and everything in between. (And that is just a short list.) Because we have consciously worked so hard to transcend some well-known stereotypes, we may believe ourselves more adept than we are with other differences—like theological or political ones. To say “we gladly differ” is more a statement of aspiration than of fact. We are not exempt from the tension that our passion for freedom and belonging brings. How baptistic of us.

I have also witnessed Baptist splintering—the wholesale dis-fellowshipping of some groups, the willful departure of others. When Baptist disagreements reach a certain point, it is not unusual for a split to occur. New churches, even new denominations, may arise from the wreckage, but something important was lost in the process.

Whether at Judson or in the larger church, runaway anxiety about differences always threatens our bonds. Cutting people off does not express freedom but fear. What are we afraid of when we resist associating with other churches with different values? Why harbor distorted views of them? Perhaps we can learn something if we simply accept the tension and allow the discomfort to lead us into conversation, possibly to new understandings. When we don’t protect our precious connections, we lose authenticity as a faith community that claims a God of love.

The Baptist influence here at Judson is strong, even if we do not talk about it much. It permeates so much of our common life, in what we love and how we disagree. If we are to protect the freedoms that are our heritage, we would do well to exercise them thoughtfully and accept the tensions they present. We can learn a lot from others in the Free Church tradition. If you don’t already, get to know a Baptist.

Back to standing in unfamiliar worship. This time the scene is a little ABC church in Coamo, Puerto Rico, a small town about 1 hour south of San Juan. The pastor, Pastora Carmen Diaz-Davila, someone I would never had known without my Baptist ties, has invited a group of us ABC clergywomen to worship at the church she pastors while in Puerto Rico for the ABC Biennial convention. About 15 of us are visiting. The church members welcome us generously with smiles and embraces and food and gifts. It is very warm. We smile and smile and try to follow the service (all in Spanish, of course) and sing. The preacher, Dr. Yamina Apollinaris, translates beautifully for us, even as she preaches mostly in Spanish. She talks about the faces of the congregants, how she can see in them the faces that have gone before them—their parents, their forefathers and mothers in the faith. I feel I can see them, too. When asked to bring greetings on behalf of our group, I tell them how grateful we are for their welcome and for allowing their pastor to come to our meetings. I tell them we will never forget them or their kindness to us. Our faces and theirs, blending in the same worship and the same desire to celebrate our common bond; this is an image I will not forget. We are part of each other’s lives.

The communion we shared that day was memorable, and it was every bit as free and open as the communion we share here today. This symbolic meal brings us into the memory of that ancient circle of believers, doubters and betrayers who freely followed Jesus and who he loved. It connects us with each other and with a host of others, kindred spirits with whom we, at times, will differ. As we prepare for communion today, let us pray that this meal will affirm our common humanity and grant us the courage to live in freedom. All are welcome.


1 Shurden, Walter B., The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 1993, p. 55.

2 Ibid. p. 2.


Ancient Testimony

II Corinthians 3:17

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

Modern Testimony

~Eldon Ernst, Baptist Historian

“The autonomy of the local church is an essential part of our history but so is the understanding that the church does not begin and end with the local congregation.

National assemblies, regional gatherings, these too are church; they are expressions of the whole people of God. If we lose a sense of the largeness of the church we will lose something precious. We must find ways to lift up the mystery of a church that transcends cultures, beliefs, centuries, continents and customs. We must understand that the church is more than a collection of like-minded individuals.”


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