The other day, in describing to some friends how two people know one another, I said, “They were bed babies together.” My friends looked at me blankly, and I asked, “Do you all not know what bed babies are?” They all said no, and I said, “I guess it’s a Baptist thing.”
For readers who are also reading with blank faces, I explained that “bed babies” are the littlest babies at church. They’re not yet able to crawl, or else they’d be in the “creepers” class in the nursery. To say that two people were “bed babies together” means that they were raised in the church from birth together. To which someone else would reply, “Gosh, you’ve known each other forever!” At my home church, Calvary Baptist, it was common to hear around graduation time, “I can’t believe you’re so grown up! I remember when you were a bed baby!”
After realizing that I was speaking a language my friends didn’t understand, I texted my mom to ask if the term is a Baptist thing, a Calvary thing, or a Kentucky thing. Since she was in church choir practice, she polled the alto section and they agreed, “It’s a Baptist thing.” Since then, I’ve asked a few Baptist friends my age from North Carolina and Texas, and they know the term too.
In the year that this Baptist girl has studied at Candler School of Theology, a school of the United Methodist Church, I’ve noticed a lot of other “Baptist things”. Some of them are just idiosyncrasies, like what we call our nursery classes. Others really matter. We might call these important points of difference “Baptist distinctives” (and we could list 8) or “Baptist freedoms” (of which there are 4 a la Baptist historian Buddy Shurden). The 8 distinctives and 4 freedoms are those things folks have noticed that set Baptists apart from other denominations.
One Baptist thing jumped out at me as soon as I started school orientation last year. As students tried to make conversation, they all asked, “Are you planning to be ordained?” Questions followed between Methodist students: “Are you a certified candidate yet?” “Are you going deacon or elder?” “What conference are you in?” Ordination is a rigorous process for them, which I respect. When people at Candler ask me if I want to be ordained, I say, “Sure. But I’m Baptist, so it’ll be up to my congregation some day.” That’s because one Baptist distinctive is autonomy of the local church. We also call it Church Freedom. That is, each congregation governs itself, calls and ordains its own ministers, and is primarily and ultimately responsible to Jesus. No pope or bishop in a hierarchical denominational system sends out a decree that all Baptist churches must follow. It can get sticky, but in the truest of Baptist congregations, congregational polity is decentralized; every member has a vote; every member is a minister.
Which leads to another Baptist distinctive that I cherish, the priesthood of the believers. Each believer has direct access to the Divine. No intermediary is necessary for confession or to make offerings to God. Furthermore, each believer is not only capable, but is also responsible for interpreting Scripture. We call this Bible Freedom – each individual is free to follow and interpret the Bible for him or herself. Every time we read the Bible, we interpret it. (Actually, we interpret an interpretation… because your English Bible is not the original text. Some lady or man with a PhD made lots of interpretive decisions in their careful translation from Hebrew or Greek to English before the Bible made it to your hands.)
Nevertheless, Baptists claim that the Bible is authoritative. In my ethics class last spring, we looked to Scripture, Church tradition, reason, and human experience to provide guidance for our moral reasoning – these make up the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. There was some push-back from fellow students: How can the Bible have anything to say about some moral issues? Why is Scripture held equal to science for guiding our response to this issue? I agree with these people – the Bible isn’t always relevant to the complex issues of our world. That’s why serious historical and literary scholarship is so important for our biblical interpretation. But I disagreed when one classmate said, “The Bible can’t be an authority for us in the 21st century.” As a Baptist, even though I think context is one of our most important considerations when reading the Bible, I believe that Scripture is the narrative of God’s relationship with and revelation to humankind. And as one of humankind, I affirm that it has something to say to us today about who God is and who we are to be as God’s people.
The other Baptist freedoms, along with 1. Church Freedom and 2. Bible Freedom, include 3. Soul Freedom (each individual responds personally to God and has agency in moral/religious decision-making, without interference of creed or institution) and 4. Religious Freedom (related to the separation of Church and State).
Some things about being Baptist have changed over time. Changes have been made for the better. I’ve surprised classmates when I say: Yes, I am Baptist. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I preach. Yes, I can be ordained. Twenty years ago, a movement of free and faithful Baptists was born out of frustration with gender inequality and a trend toward fundamentalism in the denomination. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has made important changes in the way Baptists do church and mission.
In some Baptist circles, changes have been made for the worse. Many forget that an interpretation of Scripture is only as infallible as the interpreter.
Some changes make me feel indifferent. Apparently, many churches try not to call the infants “bed babies” and “creepers” anymore, and I think I’m okay with this. As long as somebody still speaks my language!
Some things need to keep changing. This video of one of my Baptist role-models points toward good change on the horizon:
Some things I hope never change. I hope Baptists keep having great potlucks. I hope we continue to be the presence of Christ in our own backyards and around the globe. I hope we take the Bible seriously enough to keep reading it and interpreting it for our world. I hope we never stop being free and faithful to God. These things are Baptist things… may they ever be!