Leonard Speaks on Audacious Baptist Identity
Influential pastor and academic leader Bill Leonard presented Samford's 2012 Ray Frank Robbins Lecture March 29. The lecture series, founded in Samford's Religion Department in 2008, honors the longtime professor of New Testament at New Orleans Baptist Seminary who began his academic career at Samford.Leonard currently serves as James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Professor of Church History and Religion at Wake Forest University. He led the Wake Forest School of Divinity from 1996-2010 after four years as chair of Samford's Department of Religion and Philosophy. Prior to coming to Samford, Leonard served almost two decades as professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
For the Robbins lecture, which focuses on the intersection of scholarship and Christian living, Leonard dipped deep into the history of "dippers," as Baptists once were called by those who disapproved of their signature practice of immersion. "Indeed, for some people then and now, Baptists will never be more than a bunch of fanatical, soul-ruining, river-defiling dippers!," Leonard joked.
By show of hands at Leonard's request, audience members conceded his point that, even today, many Baptists struggle with their denominational identity and are sometimes embarrassed to claim the association. "Now, get over it," he advised, because Baptists have always had an "audacious identity," starting with their initial heresies and running right through to the stereotypical behavior of the likes of Westboro Baptist Church, known primarily for its offensive protests at the funerals of U.S. military service members killed in wartime.
But as varied as Baptist identities might be, Leonard said, there is a core of common belief. He noted that English puritans in exile united around the idea "that the church of Christ is a company of faithful people separated from the world by the word & spirit of God, being knit unto the Lord, & one another, by Baptism upon their own confession of the faith and sins." "In that single sentence those exiles, not yet practicing immersion, not yet named Baptists, said what it meant to be Children of God," Leonard said. "At their best, four hundred years later, that is still who Baptists are."
Leonard noted that Baptists are losing the "cultural privilege" that may never have been as great as some believe, but should worry less about "worship wars, culture wars and church growth strategies" than about maintaining the church's witness. They must continue to tell "the old, old story," he said, embrace the tradition of welcoming all on the basis of experienced grace, and "be less concerned for a single plan of salvation that completes a required transaction than for a lifelong process of conversion that transforms human beings day by day."
"Today, perhaps we Baptists should stop worrying about our name and start reclaiming our witness; quit fretting over the loss of culture dominance and turn loose our consciences," Leonard said. "Let’s go out as children of God, born again, and again, and again in one of the church’s clearly dysfunctional, but grace-filled families; children of God in the Water and at the Table, in the Word and in the world, children of God, knit together by grace."