Being a Baptist
Let us explore what it means to be a Baptist by looking at:
- Believers Baptism
- Religious Freedoms
See also the American Baptist Churches website: 10 facts you should know about American Baptists
In Christian churches, Baptism (a ceremonial immersion in water, or application of blessed water as a rite of initiation) is practiced in one of two ways; the immersion of an older child or adult (‘believer’) or the sprinkling of infants, or adults, in some churches. A Baptist church practices Believers Baptism, where the person being Baptized is old enough to profess his or her own belief in Jesus Christ. So Baptism has no fixed age limit, but is performed at an age of understanding and ability to believe and articulate that belief in Jesus Christ, and is certainly not restricted to ‘adults only’. The rite of Baptism includes a public profession of faith in Jesus, after which the candidate is lowered fully under the water and immediately raised up again, signifying a new start in a new life. Baptist church buildings are characterized by having a ‘baptistry’, being the small pool in which the Baptism ceremony is carried out. Sometimes the baptistry is obvious and central to the worship area; otherwise it is covered over and only revealed when a Baptism service is scheduled. Often Baptist churches, in warmer weather, will go to a river to do Baptisms, imitating Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.
Baptist Churches are led by a Pastor, run by voted officers (Moderator, Clerk, Treasurer, Deacons and/or Board or Council members) and governed by the ‘Members’, who make decisions on all aspects of the Church life through voting rights at church meetings. To join the membership of a Baptist Church, the candidate must declare their desire, be interviewed by members of the Deaconate and/or Pastor, and be voted in at a church meeting. After a successful vote, the new member receives the ‘Right Hand of Fellowship’ in a ceremony during a subsequent Sunday service and their name is added to the official membership register.
Baptists accept that people are individually responsible to God for their beliefs and consequently do not have a creed stating explicitly what to believe in. Instead they follow ‘principles’ and embrace ‘religious freedoms’:
Soul Freedom: Soul freedom is hard work. Baptists have to do the work of examining their own heart and life and of prayer and conversation with God, of studying the Bible, of questioning and doubting what they hear and see in the world against what Jesus has taught; so that they can know God. A Baptist Pastor will help the congregation explore and question, not prescribing the answers, but helping each of them find their own answers.
Bible Freedom: Freedom to read and study the Bible is the right and necessity of each believer in developing their relationship with God. Baptists believe that the Bible is the central source of teaching for the life of faith. The Scriptures provide frameworks to have and repair relationships, to lead a good and moral life, and to do God's creating, forgiving and sustaining work in the world. Baptists acknowledge that the Bible also contains music, poetry, praise, lamentation and consolation, reflecting the breadth and depth of the human experience and that God continues to be revealed through the Scriptures as they are read afresh.
Church Freedom: Baptists have a congregational polity, which means that the congregation as a whole decides on the way the church is run, owns or manages the church's property and finances, and decides how a pastor is called and who that pastor will be. The local church has the freedom and responsibility to decide all of those things. While a Baptist church will have some usual elements of worship that stay the same from week to week, we don't have a set of weekly common prayers and responses or a mass like you would find among Roman Catholic, Episcopal, or Lutheran churches. Baptists can choose what scriptures to study and teach on any Sunday, where many other churches have prescribed scriptures for a given day. Baptists could change the order of worship or the prayers. Baptist churches can decide independently what local, national or international social justice activities to do or support. Activities that are bigger than an individual church could do alone Baptists do in ‘association’, for example in our association with the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts, through the Merrimack Valley Association.
Religious Freedom: Because of a long history of being persecuted for their belief in believer’s baptism, Baptists were among the instigators of the First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights that says that church won't tell the state what to do and the state won't tell a church how to operate, and neither will tell an individual what to believe. This is paraphrased as: freedom of religion - to choose what religion, or none at all to practice; freedom for religion - to practice the religion as you choose without state interference or dictates, and freedom from religion - that civil government is not under the control of any given religion. An interpretation is that if someone does not share your religious convictions and they are not causing harm to you or your property or your civil rights, then a state should not pass a law that makes their activities illegal.
When our new Pastor was called by the membership, a covenant was drafted as an agreement between the Pastor and Congregation to outline how this new relationship will be guided, going forward. Our covenant appears below and was spoken and a large printed copy signed by everyone at the pastoral installation service:
The Covenant of the People of First Baptist Church Littleton
and Rev. Nancy Willbanks
on the day of her Installation as Pastor, October 1, 2017
Moderator: As we join together at this significant moment in the life of this congregation, we, the gathered community of faith, enter into covenant with one another.
Pastor: Celebrating the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit I do now, in the presence of this assembly, sincerely and joyfully enter into covenant with you in response to your call to become your pastor and in affirmation of the Spirit’s leading me to this place.
Congregation: We, the congregation of First Baptist Church Littleton, do heartily enter into this covenanted relationship with you as our pastor and, with direction from the Holy Spirit; endeavor to walk together in Christian love, striving to be a Christ-like presence in the world.
All Visiting Friends and Clergy: Together we stand as witnesses on this celebratory occasion committing to hold all of you in prayer as you enter into covenant with one another.
Congregation: Recognizing the rich history of this Body of Christ, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, we will walk together in Christian love and continue to strive for the advancement of this congregation by creatively sustaining its worship, ordinances, fellowship, and service in the world through mutual trust and shared goals.
Pastor: As your pastor, I covenant to engage with you in being present with and caring for each other in times of need, celebrating in one another's joys, and bearing each other’s burdens and sorrows; to be slow to take offense, and quick to ask for and give forgiveness and always to strive toward reconciliation and love.
Congregation: As an inquisitive people, we commit - ourselves, our children, and our youth – to grow in the knowledge of God and to work to bring God’s love and presence in this world. We covenant to study diligently the word of God and Jesus’ teachings and the words of others who illuminate these teachings. We will ask the hard questions while acting to confront and address our world’s pressing concerns and will support you in your continued growth as a pastor and theologian, as we grow together in faith and understanding.
Pastor: As your pastor, I will seek to provide a safe, grace filled space for all who worship and come among us. I covenant that, through my preaching and teaching, I will encourage each of you to find and speak your voice in our interactions together; endeavoring to listen respectfully and consider all views. I further commit to provide education and insight to enable individual growth and consensus in making decisions.
Congregation: Given our new model created by calling a part time pastor, we covenant to continually seek ways to care for you and grow and support our ministry together. We will creatively seek to live, organize and engage in ministry with Christ as our model and strive to effectively and equitably honor each other’s time, resources and energy.
Pastor: Heeding Jesus’ Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, I do covenant with this family of faith to be a Christ-like presence in the world – so that we can be a Beacon on the Common. I will encourage the congregation’s strong mission focus, locally, regionally and throughout the world, bringing love, kindness, and justice to those in need and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Congregation: We gladly receive Rev. Nancy Willbanks as our Pastor. As we go forth together as a community of faith we do so with great respect and a sense of anticipation for the ministry that the Lord will place before us to glorify God’s name.
Moderator: It is my pleasure as Moderator of this congregation to declare that Rev. Nancy Willbanks is hereby officially installed as Pastor of First Baptist Church Littleton. May our shared ministry be fruitful and strong and wrapped in God’s Grace.