WHAT DO BAPTISTS BELIEVE?
Galatians 5:1, 13-18
BEING BAPTIST MEANS FREEDOM
What do Baptists believe? I like the book the Alliance of Baptists published in 1988: Being Baptist
Means Freedom. This theme is that being Baptist means being free. Paul writes in Galatians 5:1, Christ has set
us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you. What God
has done in Christ is to set us free.
This morning we have already sung one of the oldest songs about freedom--“Let my people go!” The
dramatic exodus from Egypt by the Israelites is the foundational image for the way our God offers freedom. The
Israelites were under “a new king who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) and they did not do anything to force
their release from bondage. God did.
Moses and Aaron go to the Pharaoh and say, “Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, „Let my people go,
so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness‟” (Exodus 5:1). As we citizens of the United States
of America celebrate our Independence Day this week, we hear this word about freedom as liberation from
whatever enslaves us. And we Baptists are also big on freedom from what enslaves us!
What we Americans often miss, however, is that the biblical image of freedom is not only freedom from
slavery, but also freedom to something else. In other words, being free does not mean being free to do anything
we wish as autonomous, independent selves. The Lord sets us free to use our gifts for a higher purpose. The
Israelites who were liberated from Egypt in the Exodus were not free to do what they pleased. As Moses and
Aaron tell the Pharaoh, they are called to be free to worship and follow Yahweh rather than Pharaoh. As Bob
Dylan sang years ago “You're going to have to serve somebody; you're going to have to serve somebody. It may
be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you're going to have to serve somebody.”
Paul in Galatians 5 points out what we have freedom from. Eugene Peterson’s recent translation
provides a lively rendition: It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the
time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and
joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-
consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and
divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival;
uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on (5:19-21a).
Then Paul names some fruit of the Spirit which will grow out of our lives when we point our freedom
toward God: But what happens when we live God‟s way? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way
that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a
willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness
permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in
life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely (5:22-23).
Today I wish to answer the question, “What does it mean to be a Baptist in a Baptist church?” I believe
the Lord has set us free from slavery and freedom for a greater purpose.
FREE TO MINISTER
Baptists are free from hierarchy in ministry. Many Baptist churches have a defining statement on their
printed materials such as “Every member a minister.” I have found that Baptists have a tough time accepting
this freedom from hierarchy. We are enslaved to the word “minister” as reserved only for ordained clergy.
It’s hard to be consistent in a Baptist church. Many Baptists think you have to be ordained to serve
communion to the church. As a Baptist I believe anyone authorized by our church can serve communion. And I
have I stated publicly and later practiced my view that you do not have to be ordained to baptize someone in a
local Baptist church. Some Baptists have a hard time wrapping their mind around that policy. Almost every
time, however, the candidates request a clergyperson to immerse him or her. I wonder if that is because they
know we have done it before and assume we won’t drop them or drown them! I believe Baptists are free from
the religious hierarchy which demands only ordained clergy to serve communion or baptize believers.
Paul writes, It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don‟t use
this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to
serve one another in love; that‟s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God‟s Word is summed up
in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That‟s an act of true freedom (5:13-14).
We are free from religious hierarchy, and we are free to serve one another. In 1520 Martin Luther, who
began the Protestant Reformation, offered this paradox in light of Paul’s writings: “A Christian is a perfectly
free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.” 1
I am a minister and you are a minister, which means that we are ministers to one another. In other
words, we are free to be servants and priests to one another. Each month we act out this role of members as
ministers/priests to one another. When we share communion, deacons serve you on the end of the row and then
each minister/priest serves the person next to him or her. We serve one another and do not have to come
forward and take the elements only from an ordained clergy. Today we will come forward, but, again, ministers
will serve other ministers. We are free, but we are not free to do whatever we want. We are free to be ministers
and servants to one another because of our devotion to Christ.
FREE TO INTERPRET
We are also free from hierarchy in biblical interpretation. When you come each week to join your Bible
study class or to hear a sermon, do not expect in a Baptist church for your teacher or preacher to say, “This is
the text and this is the only way it can be interpreted.”
In case you haven’t noticed, I have some definite views on interpretation of Scripture, but so do you! I
hope my sermons end not with a period but with a semicolon. I do not presume to summarize and answer
completely each question this summer. If you say to me, “Great sermon, Pastor!” I may say to you, “That’s yet
to be seen!” In other words, you finish each Bible study and each sermon because you are free to interpret.
You’re a Baptist, for goodness sake! And we know that where there are two Baptists there are at least three
Because we are free to interpret, Baptists are free from creeds. Baptists prefer to write and say
“confessions,” which, according to The Baptist Faith and Message documents of the past, “Confessions are
only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.” I like to say the Apostles’ Creed and
other creeds of the larger church. When I invite you to say them with me in a Baptist church, however, I
introduce these historic creeds as guides and not tests of orthodoxy. I believe we are free from those who tell us
we have to interpret the Bible a certain way and have to believe the same creed. We are free to interpret the
Bible and to state clearly confessions of our faith.
FREE TO BE CHURCH
To be Baptist means to be free from anyone who tries to tell us how to be church. You can tell Vienna
Baptist Church a lot, but no person or group can tell Vienna Baptist Church what to do! We are free to organize
as we wish (which Vienna Baptist Church has done numerous times). We are free to follow the lectionary or not
follow the lectionary and liturgical year. We are free to call the pastors we sense are right for us. We are free to
ordain those we sense are called to clergy ministry, deacon ministry or other ministry.
In the 1980’s I invited church members to join me at the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist
Convention. We were fighting for the freedom of the local church. When the business sessions started, members
of our church would say, “Pastor, how do you want me to vote on this issue?” And I would say, “This is exactly
why I wanted you to come to this meeting. I will not tell you how to vote on issues. It’s up to you.” Of course,
they watched me raise my ballot and followed with their ballots as well!
Local Baptist churches are free from hierarchical rulings on how to be church, but we are also free to
reach out to other groups. Early on Baptist churches were not content to serve alone and formed associations so
we could do mission work together. We choose to associate with other Baptist churches, with other churches in
our area, and with other rooms within God’s large house.
This weekend the American Baptist Churches USA are meeting in DC to celebrate one hundred years as
a denomination. If you attend some of the sessions you will notice we are a diverse group of Baptists united
around common mission. This weekend I am glad we are American Baptist! We are free to be church. We are
not just free from denominational hierarchy but also free to associate with other local churches and faith groups
for mission and understanding.
FREE TO WORSHIP
We also are free from government regulation in worship. Baptists have long championed the principle of
a free church in a free state. The first Baptist in America, Roger Williams, moved to Providence, Rhode Island
to begin the First Baptist Church in America. My friend Dan Ivins is currently the pastor there. Perhaps you are
aware that even though the first settlers came to America because of religious persecution back in England, the
Congregationalists did what most minorities do when they are free. They came here and established their own
faith community as the majority and excluded those who did not agree with them. Roger Williams fled this
persecution in New England and founded the First Baptist Church in America.
Baptists fight for the separation of church and state and also fight for religious liberty. Here in Virginia
we have are proud of our state’s influence in religious liberty. Our own John Leland of Orange, Virginia (also
one of the homes of another famous pastor--Ben Wagener) influenced James Madison and others to include
religious liberty in the Bill of Rights. Virginia Baptists have been strong voices in the decisions to provide
freedom of religion in our nation.
Today we began our service with some words from George W. Truett, who, on May 16, 1920, preached
a powerful sermon from the steps of the U. S. Capitol. This past Friday morning, I, along with hundreds of
Baptists, gathered on the Capitol lawn to witness the reenactment of that sermon. Eighty-seven years ago Truett
built upon the words of John Leland and proclaimed that Baptists do not believe in religious toleration. He said,
“Toleration implies that someone falsely claims the right to tolerate. Toleration is a concession, while liberty is
Baptists do not profess religious toleration because “toleration” assumes that we are right and everyone
else is wrong. “Religious freedom” means that Baptists will fight for your right to believe what you think is
right for you and, more importantly, we will fight for your right to believe in nothing but yourself. That’s
religious liberty and a hallmark for being Baptist. Baptists believe not only in freedom from government
influence but also freedom for all to worship (or not worship) as they wish.
Being Baptist means being free. If you are glad you are free to minister to one another, reach out and
touch the person next to you. If you are glad you are free to interpret the Bible, lift up the Bible there in front of
you. If you are glad you are free to be church lift up the hymnbook in front of you. If you are glad you are free
to worship in a free land, stand up right now for religious freedom. Christ has set us free to live a free life. So
take your stand
Robert E. Albritton, Ph.D.
Vienna Baptist Church
July 1, 2007
1 Martin Luther, The Freedom of A Christian, November, 1520