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Not Your Mother’s Baptist Church: Church Freedom

Romans 12.1-8

The year was 1993.  Walter Shurden had just published his seminal work: The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms.  He could have used me as a case study in the book: I was about as Baptist as one could get.

My father was a life-long Baptist, and was in fact a pastor at a Baptist church.  My mother was a life-long Baptist, and her mother had been volunteer staff at the Baptist church where she was raised.  Needless to say, I had always been a Baptist.  I was on the cradle roll in a Baptist church, was baptized in another Baptist church, and felt called into ministry – in 1993 – in yet another Baptist church.  In Frankfort, Kentucky, where I was living, it felt like just about everyone was a Baptist.  And as I started to look at colleges, you won’t be surprised that my number one choice – and the school where I eventually landed – was Georgetown College, a denominational school, run and funded by…you guessed it: Baptists.

Shurden wrote about church freedom and I swelled up with pride.  They suggested that the king should not have the power to tell the denomination what do to, nor the denomination should not have the power to tell the local church what to do, nor the church have the power to tell the individual believer what to do.   We Baptists aren’t just franchises from the home office.  We don’t let any “Baptist pope” tell us what to do.  We are Frank Sinatra Christians: we do it “my way!”  Around the year 1600, when the Baptists were first coming on the scene, this was this model of doing church that they clung to.

And yet… There is a line that we cross between doing it “my way” and thinking that my way is the “only way.”  We like to do it our way – no one is going to tell us where to go to church, or tell our church what to do.  But somewhere along the way, I think that maybe my 1993 prideful self was a little…too proud.  A little too arrogant.

In fact, it reminds me a little of my favorite Baptists joke about church freedom…

A ship happened upon a deserted island, where a man had been shipwrecked alone, by himself, for years…decades.  Just him.  When they found him on the island.  There were three huts.  When they asked him what the huts were, he said the first is his house.  The second is his Baptist church.  And the third is the Baptist church that he used to go to.

We do it our way, don’t we?

In fact, think about all of the ways that we can be a little like this shipwrecked man…a little arrogantly segregated.

Think about the ways that we are individually segregated.  Whether it is our Sunday school class or the youth group, or even our favorite section of the sanctuary to sit.  How easy is it to create a little cocoon and think that our way is the only way that matters?  We think that the things that matter to us, or the things that we are good at, should be just as important to others.  Christian Schwartz talks about “spiritual gift projection.”  In the same way that we project our biases psychologically, he says that we project our giftedness.  “I care about the music ministry, so EVERYONE should care as much as I do about the music ministry.  Or about Family Promise.  Or about the youth group.”  We project our gifts on others, assuming that they should have the same gifts and talents and passions that we do.

Or think about the ways that we are congregationally segregated.  How easy is it to isolate and separate ourselves from other congregations in our denomination.  This is especially true in Lawrence, I think.  We are the only American Baptist church in town.  We are the oldest church in the region, depending on how you count the years between us and Leavenworth.  We like to think that we are the only church like ours in the Region, that everyone else is a boring vanilla that is all the same, but we are special.   The cream of the crop.

Or what about our denomination as a whole?  How are we denominationally segregated?  I know that in 1993, I was filled with all kinds of assumptions about how special Baptists are, and how we were God’s chosen people.  I remember this chart, called the Trail of Blood, that charted how Baptists have been around since John the Baptist.  Of course, it is wildly historically inaccurate…Baptists have really only been around since around 1600…but it felt good to say that we were the originals.  In fact, if we traced our roots to John the Baptist, then we were Christian before Jesus!

But perhaps there is a danger to this segregation.  This isolation.  We can become rather arrogant rather quickly, can we not?  I know that my 1993 self thought I had it all figured out.  In some ways, we haven’t grown up that much.

But never fear.  If you need someone to knock you down a couple of notches, the Apostle Paul is always a good candidate.  In fact, as we read today from Paul’s letter to the Romans, it sounds like our segregation might be similar to what the church in Rome was dealing with.

They were also pretty segregated.  They were separated geographically from the rest of the Christian churches of the time.  Jerusalem.  Antioch.  Even Corinth and Philippi and Thessalonica.  These churches might as well have been light years away.  Paul had not even been able to visit the church there when he wrote his letter to them.

More than that, Rome was spiritually segregated.  Rome was basically the center of the world, at least in their own minds.  The seat of political power, cultural influence, and even religious leadership was Rome.  So, it is no surprise that the Romans were a little full of themselves – they thought they were the centers of the universe!

Until Paul came along: “do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought.”  Paul was ready to knock them down a couple of notches, in the name of Christ.  Instead, Paul wrote, they should think of themselves with “sober judgment.”  Instead of thinking that my church, my congregation, my gifts are the only ones that matter, we should not think of ourselves so highly.

In fact, Paul claimed that the life and love of Christ would transform them.  Instead of conforming to the arrogance and the segregation and the isolationism of the world around them, they were to live in a new way!  They didn’t have to live the ways of one-ups-man-ship, or “king of the hill thinking” that was so prevalent in Rome.

There was a different way: the way of the Body of Christ.

Paul uses here the metaphor of the Body of Christ, a metaphor that he uses throughout several of his letters.  It is a simple metaphor.  Instead of living a competitive, arrogant, violent way of life, we should pay attention to the body.  The body doesn’t compete with itself.  The arm doesn’t say that it is better than the foot.  Or the eye better than the ear.  Instead, the body works because each part performs its role.  It does what it is supposed to do, what it was made and designed to do.  Of course, that’s the same way with the church.  We all have our roles, our gifts.  To presume that some are better than others, or that people who do certain gifts are somehow more Godly than others…is ludicrous.  Paul makes it clear that some of us are supposed to preach, others of us are supposed to give financially, others of us are supposed to teach, and yet others are supposed to show compassion and cheerfulness.  For the church in Rome, this was the ultimate message: “don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought…think of your place, your position, your role, in context with the rest of the Body of Christ.”

This was a radical proposition in the church of Rome.  And it has been radical ever since.  In fact, I think that this is a helpful way for us to translate this idea of church freedom.  While we cling to this freedom, this “my way,” I think we have to ask what does it look like in the context of the Body of Christ?  What if we laid this message of Paul over the top of the arrogant segregation in which we often find ourselves?

And I think what that means is that we need to go back to our chart of segregation.  We need to shift the conversation from “freedom from what” and ask, “freedom for what.  We need to lay the model of the Body of Christ, this transformational model, over the top of these pictures of isolation and segregation and ask “How can Paul’s model of the Body of Christ energize, clarify, and even challenge our ideas of Baptist principles?”

First, individually.  As helpful as Shurden’s book on “identity” is, I would say that our radical church freedom should push us beyond identity.  When we talk about identity, we run the risk of “thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought.”  And again, while it is helpful to talk about who “we” are, what makes “us” distinctive, the danger there is that with every “we” there is a “they” and with every “us” there is a “them.”  Instead of identity, perhaps we should talk of alterity.  This is a new word that I have learned recently.  Alterity basically means “otherness.”  The state of being different.    Instead of thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought, perhaps the “body of Christ” thing to do is to listen to others, to trust their otherness, to value alterity: “I am a leg.  Teach me about your arm-ness.”  In fact, this is the model that we have been moving to as a church.  Think about some of the programs from the last few years.  The Long-20’s have given us an opportunity to ask millennials what they are looking for in a church, and our coffee ministry and social media ministry our direct results.  The Theme Team meeting in the summer asks lay leaders to evaluate and plan our worship for the year, instead of the cloistered staff.  The Emerging Worship experiment over the last year has listened to voices that want to try worship in a new style.  “I am a leg.  Teach me about your arm-ness.  These are my gifts.  Teach me about yours.”  These are very Baptist things to do!

Or look at congregational segregation.  What does the Body of Christ model tell us to do when we think that our congregation is the only one who knows what is right?  Associate!  Our Baptist history has plenty of unhealthy examples of congregational isolation – “we will do it our way, thank you very much!”  But when church freedom is healthy, it looks like association and connection.  Whenever we go to regional meetings, or Biennial meetings, or cluster pastor groups, or denominational camp at Green Lake, we are practicing associationalism.  We may think going in that that church does it all wrong!  But when we worship beside, minister beside, and fellowship beside those who are different, the Body of Christ comes alive!  I remember a special moment at a denominational meeting a few years ago, when we held communion together.  Throughout the meeting, different churches in the Region had led very different worship services: a cowboy church out west, a suburban praise and worship band, us and the robes and Christ candle.  I was struck by our differentness.  It was definitely an example of church freedom: we were no franchises of the same home office!  But when I looked around the room at people who did church very differently than I did, but held in my hands this common bond…this connective power…in the body and blood of Christ.  We were different, but we were held together.  The Body of Christ.

And, of course, look at the denominational segregation.  How often do we in our congregational siloes all do our own thing?  Again, unhealthy church freedom means that I am going to keep my doors closed to you and your way of doing things, peeking out with suspicion and mistrust.  But healthy church freedom is the opposite!  When we apply the body of Christ to denominations, the end result is a radical ecumenism!  I have learned this since 1993.  I went to a Presbyterian seminary.  I am at a UCC seminary now, connected to five other seminaries, none of them Baptist.  Over the years, I have done amazing things beside sisters and brothers of different denominations…because it is the smarter way to do things.  It is the “Body of Christ way” of doing things.  Think of all the things we do with other congregations: Vacation Bible School, shared Holy Week services, Habitat for Humanity, Justice Matters, Family Promise.  We are free to do it our way.  But of course, if we are to live out the Body of Christ, then we are free to connect with others who do it differently.  This is what Church Freedom looks like.  This is what the Body of Christ looks like.

Last week, I shared a Body of Christ moment….at the coldest Easter sunrise service I have ever been to.  Along with the Mennonites and the folks from Plymouth, we gathered on top of the hill and froze.  I have been to some cold sunrise services, but none this cold.  And so, we stood there on the top of the hill and shivered.  Margaret’s fingers froze to the point that she couldn’t play the flute.  Those of us reading had to work hard to not let our teeth chatter the whole time.  And finally, at the end, we stood to sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today.  And I don’t know if someone suggested it or we just decided, but we all huddled in close.  We had streamers and we were waving them in the air, singing as loudly as we could.  I am sure that folks driving by on the way to Munchers thought we were nuts.  But we didn’t conform to the ways of the world, but were transformed in our Easter joy.  And so we waved our streamers, and sang our best.  It was a powerful Body of Christ moment.

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