I have a problem with going too long and so I separated this into two sections in an attempt to keep somebody reading at least. The first half of this post dealt with the explanation of the distinctive. This half will deal with how this distinctive works itself out and its strengths and weaknesses. I'm trying to be a bit shorter - no promises!
How this Distinctive works out practically
Historically, as I hope you saw in the last section, this distinctive has meant that Baptists have stood up not only for their own right to worship God as their conscience dictates, but also for the rights of others to practice their religion. This included not only other Christian denominations, but also, as we saw, Jews, Muslims, and American Indians. This does not mean that Baptists believe that these religions are equally valid or that they can lead to God. Any Baptist who held to the first distinctive (sole authority of Scripture) could hardly hold to that! What it does mean is that Baptists realize that one cannot be forced to become a Christian and that a forced conversion is a false one. The best way to evangelize others is to treat them as you would want to be treated and thus share the gospel with them verbally and nonverbally. It also recognizes the importance of genuine faith and the worthlessness of salvation by dead ritual, baptism, or by doing "Christian things". Salvation has to come by genuine faith, not coerced, not forced, not bribed.
Consistent Baptists should not only stand up for their own religious rights, but also for the religious rights of others. To be a consistent Baptist is to realize the reality of the fact that we live in a world of not only many religions but many different understandings of the Christian faith expressed in a multitude of denominations. Consistent Baptists should never try and force policies through that coerce others to worship God as they do. For me, for instance, I would not try and work towards any kind of official prayer time in public schools. Not only is this not an effective way of evangelizing, but it would result in blasphemous insincere prayer - worse than no prayer at all! We are not working towards a Christian State with any sort of special privileges for Christians or unfair treatment towards Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Methodists, or Mormons. We recognize that if people are to be converted, it will be by the convicting work of the Holy Spirit in one's heart, not by the sword of man.
I want to quickly point out what this does not and never has meant. This distinctive has never meant that Christians cannot be involved in politics or run for office. Reread Thomas Helwys' quote if you need a refresher, but Baptists do not believe that we can do no good whatsoever in the political scene. We just recognize that one cannot use political coercion to spread the "gospel". It hasn't worked from the beginning of Christian political power in the 4th century. It won't work in the 21st century. Unfortunately, I think our overemphasis on politics often alienates people to the point that they will not listen to us. Remember, the problem isn't that people are proabortion, gay, or that they smoke marijuana. The problem is that they are lost and need the gospel. The gospel has a way of transforming people. Let's worry about their eternal destiny first not allow politics to destroy our chances to preach Christ. I see so often that the first barrier I have to cross with unsaved people is a political barrier. What's sadly ironic, is that it is too often built by those who call themselves Baptists.
Why this Distinctive is Good
1) This distinctive is pragmatic in a good way. It recognizes the boundaries of what one can do through government and that we will never all agree on the best way to worship God. Killing each other doesn't honor God and it only makes the problem worse, so freedom of religion is the best possible option in a pluralistic society. When Jesus comes back, he can outlaw all our bad theology!
2) This distinctive represents a good sort of Christian tolerance. Tolerance means something very different than it used to. Tolerance used to mean that you learned to live alongside those who disagreed with you. Tolerance could sit and listen to what another said without killing, torturing, or persecuting that person. Today tolerance means accepting that the beliefs of whoever you disagree with are equally valid. It means that you cannot tell someone that they are wrong. It means you cannot preach messages on right and wrong. It means you cannot say that someone's lifestyle is sinful. This distinctive represents the first kind of tolerance and I think this better represents the attitude of Jesus than the slaughter of Jews and Muslims during the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation.
3) This distinctive recognizes what has been proven throughout church history that when one mixes Christianity and Politics, Christianity becomes the whore. Over and over again, people have been manipulated through the use religion for political purposes. Power attracts some very shady characters. When we make it advantageous to be a Christian, we invite goats to infiltrate the church and contaminate her. If it is no better, politically and socially to be a Christian, you will have fewer fake believers.
4) This distinctive represents a practical outworking of the Golden Rule.
Challenges and Problems for those who hold to this Distinctive
1) The overemphasis on this distinctive could result in the attitude that politics doesn't matter and an apathy on the part of Christians towards our country. I think that this is part of what HAD been the case before the arrival of the Christian Right and the pendulum ended up swunging too far the other way. Christians must maintain a careful balance here. I do not think it is wrong for us to try and protect the rights of unborn babies. We shouldn't be trying to take away the rights of those we disagree with, but we can try and influence our world for good through politics. This is difficult and careful balance is essential.
2) Holding this distinctive makes it much more difficult to think through the issues as a Christian in political office. A Christian who is attempting to institute a theocracy has a clear and obvious goal. A Baptist in politics will have a lot more difficulty thinking through and implementing a philosophy of politics.
A Conclusion and a Question
Someone reading this has probably already figured out that I think many Baptists have become too political. Its not that I think we have become too involved as that I think we have become too much associated with the Republican party (or the Democratic party if you are a member of an African American Baptist church). It's not that I think you can't be a good Christian or a good Baptist and vote Republican. I voted for Republicans in the last election and probably will again in 2012 (although I really hope that certain unnamed candidates are not nominated...). Its that I think that Evangelical Christians are thought of more as a special interest wing of the Republican Party than they are seen as those who stand up for righteousness, justice, and peace. I think I see more republican influence in the church than I see Christian influence in the party. We need to remember that we are not a political entity, that lasting change will only be a result of the change brought on by the transformation of the gospel, and that (as I kept repeating to myself whenever I was getting upset during the last presidential election) "our salvation is not in politics".
I won't push my political beliefs on you. I'm more of a libertarian (though even probably doesn't quite represent my political beliefs accurately) than a Republican or Democrat, but that's not the point. The point is that we need to remember our priorities and our mission. The great commission says nothing about creating a Christian nation. I'm sick of Evangelical Christendom being seen as a political machine. Quit trying to create a Christian state. You'll never succeed and I'm scared of the results if you were somehow able to do it. Politics has a place, but its a bit lower on the totem pole than we've tended to put it.
Question: Are most baptists still baptists?
I know this is a controversial and very difficult topic. I would like to hear your feedback, just so long as you aren't trying to lop off my head....
Longing for a New Movement
5 years ago