Word of the Week

Denominational Confusion

People often ask me who visit our church, "Are you sure you are Baptist?"

Yes, Washington Plaza is a Baptist Church. Officially we are members of the American Baptist Churches USA, the Alliance of Baptists, the DC Baptist Convention, the NorthStar Church Network and the Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. All connections that make us Baptist, I suppose.

I guess all of this would make us feel pretty important or at least well-connected. But think it makes us confused. We haven't been particularly involved with any of these groups in recent years (some more than others, but still).

What kind of Baptist church are we? Who are our like-minded friends? With whom can we partner?

Such are important questions for any church with a denomination tied to its name and especially for any pastor in their first year of ministry with a new congregation.

Many years before I came, Washington Plaza had an important discussion about what beliefs matter most to them in their life together. The question on the table was: "Are we really Baptists? Or, should we drop the name altogether?"

With guidance from our local denominational leaders, the question was answered with a resounded YES! we are Baptists (even with all of the crazy stereotypes associated with it) because everyone felt good that our missions and values were in line with historical Baptist principals. According to one Baptist theologian here they are:

Soul Freedom - The individual is responsible to none except God, is totally competent to stand before God, and is capable of discerning meaning and action in life and practice under the direct inspiration of the Spirit of God and Holy Scripture.

Bible Freedom - The Bible is our authority in matters of faith and practice and is to be interpreted in its entirety, using the best scholarship and the discernment of the community.

Church Freedom - We are autonomous and congregational in governance. Our practices, policies, associations, and ministries are set by the congregation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture.

Religious Freedom - The Church and civil government are independent of each other (separation of church and state). We support a free Church and a free state, separate and individually responsible to God.

But, even with all of this being true, there are still problems. Did you know that there are over 100 different kinds of Baptists? Just to say that you are attending a Baptist church is not specific enough. Because of local church autonomy every one you attended in a given area could be completely different.

This is our problem-- we are different. We are a welcoming bunch of folks who aren't afraid to be unique.

Thus, the problem is (from my perspective) that we find ourselves not fitting in with most Baptist groups. It is as if we are the long lost strange cousin that others in the room don't want to play with. But, yet we know the call of the local church is not to sit as an island, but to be connected with others.

My colleague, Jim Somerville who is Pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, recently wrote about this topic in his blog. Click here to read it.

My response to Jim was this: 

I am not sure what kind of baptist I am either. I think just baptist seems to fit me too. However, it seems being the pastor of a baptist church you have to pick. This is the part that I have trouble with. What kind of church am I going to help my people become? What do they need from outside our local church that requires me to connect them with a particular baptist group over another? If you have any thoughts on this, please share. I am finding that I/ my church really don’t fit the mold of any of the Baptist groups. We are just happy to be on our own path seeing where the adventure of church takes us in Reston.

And this was his response. I share it here as a way to start the conversation among us about what denominational loyalty means, especially in churches as different as ours.

These are good questions, Elizabeth.

I have served as pastor of four Baptist churches now and each of them was established before the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention. I can almost picture the business meeting at which someone said, “There’s this new organization called the Southern Baptist Convention that sends missionaries to the ends of the earth. Let’s sign up!” And they did. They saw the SBC as a way of fulfilling the Great Commission. Somewhere along the way we got denominational loyalty confused with our loyalty to Christ. We forgot that it was his mission we were trying to fulfill and ended up fighting over control of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I think the right question to ask is: who will help us fulfill the mission of Christ? Baptist churches are free to determine their own mission and ministry, and if you decide your mission is to help provide clean drinking water to the people of Malawi, then you find someone who is doing that successfully and join in. Or you start a ministry to skateboarders in Northern Virginia and invite others to join you. What you’re looking for is a way to fulfill the mission of Christ. Beware of any earthly organization that claims to be the way. We already know The Way, and his name is Jesus.

Maybe then I am asking the wrong questions. Maybe it is not just about denomination but about mission and ministry-- wherever this takes us.

What do you think?