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Friday, August 17, 2007

If there is one thing that has identified Baptist history in the United States it has been a sense of individuality. Rugged separatism in the colonies and even more vehement segregationist policies in the modern era has been the calling card of many a congregation of the Baptist family tree, and for good reason. It was in the face of State influence that the original Baptists declared their independence, a spirit that in no small amount contributed to the ideals of democracy and freedom upon which this nation was founded. However, once such freedom was indeed attained and this new nation was settled, Baptists developed church doctrines that reflected the same mentalities. In reaction to Catholicism’s hierarchy and the State’s infringement on the people’s freedom of religion, Baptists in America began seeing themselves scripturally as extreme independents in matters of faith and worship.
This is no minor matter; it is the soul competency of the believer and the priesthood of all believers that makes a Baptist a Baptist. However, I must think that there is something we are missing as the people of God, whatever our denomination, when individualism goes too far. This is generally expressed in the “church on an island” mentality of our congregations. We see the body of believers in our community as independent and autonomous, freely choosing to participate in associations and missions endeavors. Yet when taken farther, say, over the course of many generations, this tendency of individualism sinks into the personal piety of the believer in a detrimental way. By casting off the heroes of the faith of the other Christian traditions the Baptists are in severe danger of missing out on some great episodes in the history of the people of God.
Here is what I mean. In the Eastern Orthodox Church each place of worship is internally adorned with the faces and names of the heroes of Scripture, the saints, and the faithful servants of God. When you stand in the midst of that worship space there are no stages, no long plain walls, and no single cross or other icon. Rather, when worshipping in such a place one cannot help but feel a part of the great tradition of Christianity. So many faces and names immediately draw the worshipper’s mind to the stories of Scripture, further enhancing the worship experience and seating the Word ever deeper in their heart.
Will a Baptist church ever be so decorated? Certainly not – we have a cultural allergy to such things. However, as the author of Hebrews says, we are indeed surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” to the faith. As Baptists, and as the people of God in general, we would do well to see those men and women who have gone on before us, whose lives we can imitate in piety, Godliness, and prayer. May we be reminded of all these witnesses and may we live similarly.

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