The Paradox of Community
There’s a tension in baptist life lurking within this study of community that we’ve not yet named. It’s the tension between two competing commitments: one to living in Christian community and the other to respecting freedom of conscience and the responsibility of each believer before God.
Or at least, throughout baptist history these two commitments have been seen as competing, with many baptists erring on the side of freedom of conscience, to the point that it looks more like a kind of “rugged individualism” that’s rooted more in our identity as Americans than it is the body of Christ.
This tension in baptist life goes back even to what’s often considered to be our founding, when John Smyth led a group of English separatists out of the Church of England. Reaching the conclusion that his baptism into the church has not been sufficient, he decided to baptize himself before baptizing the rest of their fledgling congregation. He later reached the conclusion that it was perhaps not right to baptize oneself and sought to be baptized again by another community of anabaptists, and sadly died before he was granted admission.
With a founding story like that, you’d think we’d be doomed from the start!
Baptists have long struggled with this tension between the biblical mandate to live in Christian community with others while also paying attention to one’s our faith, practice, and conscience. This tension has played out in an at times painful history of fractures and schism, but also in some beautiful examples of associational fellowship. Even we as a church have experienced both, knowing the pain of breaking ties with one denominational home and challenge and joy of helping form another. We’ve also been blessed by relationships with First Baptist on New St., and other congregations outside our tradition such as our friends from Centenary United Methodist Church, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, High Street Unitarian Church, and Temple Beth Israel, just to name a few. So many of these relationships have required us to find points of essential unity within our diversity that is so crucial to exploring the depths of our faith.
These things are on my mind this week as I travel in your name to be a part of two different associational gatherings. I’ll first be in Atlanta serving on the Ministries Council for CBF. The Ministries Council is an advisory council to the Governing Board of CBF to connect individuals and congregations with the ministry networks and resources of CBF.
Later in the week I’ll be traveling to Princeton, NJ to participate in the second gathering of A Convocation of Christian Leaders (ACCL), a program through Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School I first attended earlier in the spring. Our current series on community was inspired by some of the required reading for this meeting, just one way I hope these two connections will enrich our common life together here at First Baptist.
This is, perhaps, the truth, or paradox, of it all: community is only possible when we bring our whole selves to the table, we are most ourselves when in community with others.