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Free To Think…Bound to Serve

Christianity is more Doing than Doctrine: Half of every relationship with God is the individual.  God, who is timeless and constant, is known “as in a mirror dimly” while we live.  We, who change and die, find our knowledge of God change throughout our lives.  And we not only differ from our younger selves or who we shall become. We differ from each other.  Temperament, experience, inclination give our approach to life different emphases.  We each have our own perspective. Some Christian traditions address this fact by establishing doctrine as definitive.  Individuals subscribe to set teachings, by an act of will, and forgive themselves privately for being puzzled or unpersuaded by some of the formulations.  Personal conviction is in the authority of the church which has decreed dogma. Our tradition takes a different approach.  We urge that for religion to be real, it must be based on a person’s honest beliefs.  This means that each individual trusts himself or herself as a reader of scripture and a thinker about what is revealed there about God.  We know we shall each understand God a bit differently from each other, and that the inevitable limitation of our understanding will carry through all the concepts which are part of our religious life.  We trust God’s grace and the Spirit’s work to keep us in community, and to keep us ministering to the world. We are required, as followers of Jesus Christ, to love others.  Feeding, healing, forgiving, clothing, and paying attention to those with needs is the way Jesus embodied God’s approach to life.  We must do the same. The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel states that it is caring for other people, and not profession of religious views, which counts with God. The church long has aimed to make its Christianity a matter of active service, and long has accepted open, earnest inquiry as part of its character.  For twenty years we’ve summed up this approach to discipleship with the credo “Free to Think, Bound to Serve.”

THIS MONTH’S ESSAY FROM THE PASTOR

One of the instincts of religion is that everyone should believe the same things in the same way. Paul the apostle pleaded with his more carefree churches to exercise restraint and observe discipline, and to those congregations overly scrupulous he argued for liberty, all to establish a church broadly in agreement. Johnʼs gospel made two bids for uniformity among Christians, first by closing ranks against an unbelieving world and then by making part of Jesusʼ work that “they [those who believe in him] all may be one.”

At least the other historical religions, Judaism and Islam, also feel that there shouldnʼt be varieties of their belief system. Members of their various sects operate, with differing amounts of tolerance toward others, as though they alone were correct about God, or at least the most right.

Some of the other world religions have emphases which make them less apprehensive about divergent views within their own faith, but most of their practitioners still would think that their way to God, or their approach to spiritual progress, is better than some totally foreign creed. “Single-minded” is considered praise in spiritual pursuits, and I suppose thatʼs why, when we want to describe rigorous devotion to fixed goals, we say that persons (exercise, or keep up with current events, or participate in the blood drives, or play cards, or whatever it is) “religiously.”

Baptists run the gamut in questions about how differently one may believe or practice oneʼs faith without missing altogether the point of religion. There are plenty of persons who advocate believersʼ baptism who strictly construe both the right things to trust as true, and the proper way to perform prayers and rituals. However, because the tradition counts on the sincere conscience of individuals, it always has admitted to itself that people simply donʼt believe the same things in the same way, and that this fact about human life canʼt stymy the salvation achieved for disciples through Christ.

This feature of Baptist life long has meant that at least some individuals and certain congregations put more weight on the acceptability of individual variety, and lean less on the necessity of prescribed doctrines or rubrics of ritual life. Some Baptists hold that immersion alone constitutes baptism, while others trust that more partial or symbolic forms of washing suffice. Some churches feel that only the ordained minister should preside at communion, or elected deacons serve it, while others insist that it is the faithful participation of those sharing communion, and not hierarchical offices or verbal formulas, which fulfill Jesusʼ command to “to this in memory of me.”

First Baptist, Lewisburg, is a Baptist church which emphasizes the freedom of individual conscience, and the interior spiritual life, over set teachings or traditional usage. One expression of this is our invitation to all in the congregation to share in the distribution of the elements of communion. The Lordʼs Table is still prepared under the authority of the Deacons of the church, and specifically the one charged with worship responsibilities, but the actual handing out of communion during worship is something we trust anyone to do who is willing to share in this part of our life of celebration and devotion.

Should you be asked whether you are willing to help serve communion at church, consult your conscience. Pray for guidance. You may feel that it is a nice chance to be part of something important, or you may feel that you would prefer that someone else do it. We wouldnʼt be true to our own principles if we insisted on your doing anything connected with your belief in God which didnʼt jibe with your own personal beliefs.

Whatever your background, and however it is that the handling of communion most speaks to your heart, be assured that Christʼs invitation to join in the bread and fruit of the vine is offered to include, and to provide both a personal and a public way to remember the source of our being set free from sin and death.

Peace, Mac