The reflection below was written by Dr. John Williams, executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of the Central Region. This is part of the featured series, “Proud to be an American Baptist.” Check the ABCUSA website and other publications in the near future to see more stories! View the archive and learn why others are proud to be American Baptist by clicking here.
I suppose I stand in a unique position among our Region staff and many of my colleagues in the American Baptist family. You see, I did not come into this “family” from another faith tradition. I was raised in an American Baptist church in California. I attended with my mother and siblings, and received my early spiritual formation under the tutelage of faithful American Baptist Sunday School teachers, pastors, camp counselors and youth leaders. My conversion experience was greatly influenced by the witness of a dedicated Christian layman, a teacher in my high school and a member of my local American Baptist Church. When I sensed God calling me to vocational ministry, it was my American Baptist pastor who mentored me and helped me understand and prepare for that Call. I was intentional in seeking an American Baptist seminary to engage an education that would best prepare me for ministry and I have served three American Baptist churches prior to answering the call to ministry for the American Baptist Churches of the Central Region.
When posed with the question, “Why am I an American Baptist?” there are some who might expect me to answer, “I’ve never known anything different!” But that’s not exactly correct. As a young believer I was involved in a very strong inter-faith Christian movement in my community. I studied and witnessed alongside believers from many different faith traditions: Methodists, Mennonites, Nazarenes, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals and Roman Catholics to name a few. At the Mennonite college I attended I took a course in comparative religion. It was important to me to have a grounded understanding of what I believed and why.
Here is what I discovered:
As an American Baptist I am a part of a people who have a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. There has never been a time in my church experience that I felt I was being taught or coached to put my trust in the church, my works, the pastor, a stated creed or anything else. The life-transforming gospel that I heard, received and believed is the message that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone. That was not always what I heard from others from different faith traditions. Early on I determined I could not journey on a spiritual path other than the one that follows Jesus. That is why I am an American Baptist.
As an American Baptist I am part of a people who have a deep commitment to reading, understanding and following Scripture. I resonate with the fact that we are “people of the Book.” For me that means a willingness to study, reflect, question, discuss and wrestle with what the Bible says and how I am to apply its instruction to my life everyday. I remember as a young boy, reading a story about the meaning of responsibility. It seems to me that “responsibility” is one of the core values I learned from my American Baptist tradition. We lift up the importance of certain freedoms we hold as Baptists, but with all of them comes the call to responsibility. I have responsibility to study the Bible myself and not simply accept what others might say about it. I don’t get hung up on human descriptors of the Bible’s importance but try to pay attention to what it says about itself; that “all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” … That it is “a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” … That I must study “to show [myself] approved unto God, a workman that need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” … That it bears witness to Christ and thereby teaches the way of salvation and life. We take the Bible seriously; that is why I am an American Baptist.
As an American Baptist I am part of a people who have a passion to share the gospel and lead lost people to faith in Jesus. The stories I heard as a young person about our American Baptist missionaries and their witness around the world thrilled me. We prayed regularly for our missionaries and for the people with whom they shared the good news. We supported our missionaries with financial gifts and listened attentively when they visited; awed by their stories and amazed at the remarkable ways God used them to change the world. But that evangelistic passion I learned in my American Baptist church was not only for those far away. We were challenged to witness to our friends and neighbors and to invite others into a life changing relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. The evangelistic fibers of outreach and evangelism are beautifully woven throughout the fabric of our American Baptist heritage. How could I abandon that heritage to wrap myself in the cloth of another faith tradition?
As an American Baptist I am part of a people who have a commitment to see the gospel of Jesus make a difference in people’s lives right now and not just in some future heavenly eternity. As a child of the 60’s and 70’s you might expect that I was raised with a social consciousness. But I can assure you, it didn’t come from my civics teachers, it came from my church. The American Baptist witness for justice is integral to who we are. Recently I heard someone describe American Baptists as the conscience of the nation. We were at the forefront of anti-slavery sentiments in our earliest days. We have been speaking truth to power throughout our history, declaring that the justice and freedom set forth in the gospel is for all people. So ours has been a compassionate voice for women’s suffrage, racial equality, refugee resettlement, religious freedom and more. We have sought to apply the truth of Scripture and the good news of the gospel to social structures, governments and institutions because we believe the mandate of Luke 4:18-19. We follow Christ to make a difference in the world. That is why I am an American Baptist.
As an American Baptist I am part of a people who recognize and value the importance of ecumenical relationships. We are secure enough in our own identity to be able to work and fellowship with people from different faith traditions. We have wisely come to recognize that God is bigger than any one faith tradition, including ours. There is a certain humility within ABC life that resonates with my spirit. It is a humility that enables us to learn from, work with, and grow alongside those who may approach faith from a different perspective without compromising out stance to be radical followers of Jesus Christ.
As an American Baptist I am part of a people who are the most diverse denominational group in America. Our diversity spans racial, social, economic, political, theological and age barriers. When our wider American Baptist family gathers (as we did in Overland Park for the Mission Summit/Biennial last month) we more closely resemble what I believe heaven will look like; people from “every tribe and people and tongue and nation.” I believe such rich diversity is only possible because of our understanding of our four Baptist distinctives of soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom and religious freedom. These freedoms give us the ability to embrace our diversity as a God-given strength as we work together in unity as the Body of Christ. That is why I am an American Baptist.
As an American Baptist I am part of a people who are determined to follow Jesus Christ. We have intentionally refused the adoption of creeds and doctrines crafted by human thought, denominational structures and hierarchies, and even gifted leaders to become the determining factors for how our churches live and move and have their being. We are passionate about obedience to God as we follow the way of Jesus Christ and are guided by the Holy Spirit, living out our faith within the context of a local church family. That is why I am an American Baptist.
You will not hear me say there are no other faith traditions that seek to faithfully live out the truth of the gospel. Nor will you hear me say that the ABCUSA is a perfect faith-tradition. I will say, however, that my experience within the American Baptist family has enabled me to live out my faith in ways that resonate with who God has created me to be as a follower of Jesus Christ. Being an American Baptist fits me and it is within this context I have best been able to follow Jesus.