Christian Articles Archive

What Brand of Church Is This?
How denominations came to be,
the American Baptists' place among them

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

My daughter and I go shopping for graham crackers at the grocery store. Simple graham crackers, nothing exotic, mind you. There's a whole shelf of boxes to choose from.

"Which one is the graham crackers?" my daughter asks.

"They're all graham crackers, honey." She looks puzzled.

One box has a full-color photo of the resident crackers, complete with a frothy glass of milk, a "serving suggestion."

On another, a happy little cartoon man dressed as a baker smiles at me. Maybe he's eaten some of the crackers already, who knows?

One is made with "real honey" and is sealed in "three packs for freshness." Another is baked with "100% vegetable shortening." For "no artificial colors" I would pick up a third box.

The final box is plain white with plain black letters--"Crackers, Graham," or something like that. It's cheap.

Annie says, "Daddy wouldn't it be easier if there were only one kind?"

"I suppose so, honey, but I'm not sure you'd really like that. What if one had more cinnamon sprinkled on top than you like? What if one is soggy and one is crisp?"

Finally I buy one. We take it home, I break off a square, and take a bite. Mum, crisp. I pour a glass of milk. AHD. Next time at the store I'll look for that box. After all, I know I like it. Brand loyalty, I guess they call it.

I suppose, though, all the brands taste nearly the same They're all graham crackers, not Popsicles[tm].

Church Brands

To look at the signs in front of churches you'd think they were different brands, too. So what brand of church are we?

That's not the important question. First you need to know what's in the box. We're Christians. We follow Jesus Christ. We believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That's who we are. When you ask about the brand you're really asking about packaging, about tiny differences. But with Christians, differences aren't the important thing. Jesus, he's important.

Denominations are confusing. "Aren't you all Christians?" you ask.

Yes! Every church which believes that Jesus is the only Son of God, that he died for our sins, that he rose from the dead, that he is coming again--churches that believe these things are Christian churches. Christians, pure and simple. Proudly Christians, too, for we serve Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Who loves us. Who forgives us. Who, when we invite him, comes into our hearts and lives with us, and enriches and fulfills us. Are we proud of him? You bet!

But that's where denominations got off the track. They started getting proud of themselves. A generation or two ago, the Baptists would say, "We're best." The Methodists would counter, "No, you're not." And the Catholics would say, "We're the real church." Like "My daddy can lick your daddy," they were at each other's throats.

A whole generation of people said, "Forget it. Get your act together. We'll come back when you stop fighting each other."

I think you'll see we've stopped fighting. More and more new churches are calling themselves "Community Church," or emphasizing things which we have in common with the community, rather than stressing denominational differences. I think we're moving in the right direction.

"Why are there denominations?" you ask. Good question. Let me ask you one: "Why is your last name different from mine?" The answer? History. Your parents may have come to this country from Holland or Spain or Africa or Germany, while mine came from Scotland and Ireland. That's why some families are big on pasta and others are into fried rice.

A Bit of History

I'd like to share with you a bit of history so you can understand how our American Baptist "family" of churches came to be.

Back in the early 1600s in England you didn't become a Christian. Everyone was assumed to be a Christian just because they were born into a "Christian country." As a result the Church of England had leaders who didn't really believe in Jesus as their Lord--they were in it just for power and money. People finally said "enough." The "congregationalists" or "puritans" determined, "We want churches made up purely of those who believe." So they formed them. Instead of being governed by the corrupt hierarchy of a state church, each local congregation governed itself. Every so often people from these "congregational" churches would get together to encourage one another. Sometimes they would take on projects together: to start a school to train ministers, or to send out a missionary-that sort of thing.

Now a problem arose. Congregationalists baptized their babies into church membership just like they had done in the Church of England. But after a generation or so their children had positions of leadership in the congregational church, but didn't really believe in or follow Jesus. Here's where the Baptists come in.

Baptists went back to the Bible. They found it didn't really talk about baptizing babies--you couldn't find that anywhere--but it talked about baptism as a sign of a person's faith and allegiance to Jesus. Come to think of it, babies aren't old enough to put faith or allegiance in anyone.

So Baptists dedicated their babies to their Lord in a beautiful and meaningful ceremony--something like Jesus being dedicated in the Temple when he was a baby--but they waited to baptize people until they were old enough to make decisions for themselves to follow Christ. That meant that all the members of the church were personally committed to Jesus Christ. No one did it for them, they did it for themselves. Baptism was a sign of their personal faith.

When Baptists came to America, though, they ran into trouble. In Virginia, for example, everyone had to pay taxes to support a state-sponsored church. Baptists, like "good Americans," protested. They were whipped, put in jail, their property confiscated. No wonder when it came time for the Constitution that Baptists called for an amendment to prevent the government from choosing a particular church to support. Baptists have been some of the strongest voices for freedom of conscience this country has had.

When a powerful spiritual awakening swept the American colonies a few decades before independence, Baptists caught fire. They went everywhere proclaiming the power and love of Jesus and new churches sprang up all over. Ever since, Baptists have felt a strong urgency to share the good news of Jesus with others. If you were a beggar and you knew where they were giving out free bread, it'd be a crime not to tell other beggars where to find it. That's how we feel about Jesus.

Our history has also led us to have a social conscience. After all, Baptists were persecuted and oppressed so we understand what that feels like. Around the turn of the century, for example, American Baptists took a leading role in speaking out for sensitive child labor laws. During the civil rights movement American Baptists demanded that the rights of all races be recognized--and guaranteed by law. We have a social conscience, but no Right Reverend So-and-So tells us what we have to believe about social issues.

American Baptists, because we've been persecuted for "being different," tend to be accepting of Christians of other denominations. We can disagree without being disagreeable. We can hold our beliefs without putting down Christian brothers and sisters who see it differently.

We not only have an active fellowship and common projects with American Baptist congregations in the area, we cooperate with other Christian groups, as well. We get together with representatives from other church bodies to see how we can work together. After all, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.

When we get to heaven, Baptists won't be there by themselves. All who put their trust in Jesus will be one. In fact, we are one right now!

I think you can see from all this that we take the Bible seriously. It is God's inspired Word from which we can learn how to live and grow as God's children.

Well, that's a quick tour of our history and some of the influences which have molded American Baptists. This'll help you figure out what "brand" we are, if that's really important.

A Worldwide Outreach

Our vision reaches around the world. We have significant mission outreaches to a dozen different countries. Missionaries and nationals work in evangelism, starting new churches, literacy work, emergency relief, health clinics and hospitals, and schools and colleges. Through Baptist World Relief we can channel money quickly and securely and to needy spots nearly anywhere on the globe where disaster may strike.

We have work in this country, too--in the inner cities, on Indian reservations, as well as outposts in Alaska and a whole group of churches in Puerto Rico.

A Gospel of Mercy

Funny. A lot of people have a stereotype of old-time backwoods Baptists that are pinch-faced, self righteous, and angry at everyone. So they ask me, "Do you preach fire-and brimstone?" No, we don't. Now, Jesus talked more about hell than anyone else in the Bible. It's real. But he didn't try to scare people into the kingdom. Rather he reached out to them with love and compassion.

We know wrong will be punished. But it blows my mind to realize that the God who knows all about us, loves us in spite of our sins, and sent Jesus to bear the punishment of our sins for us. People already feel guilty for their sins. Our message is that Jesus came to forgive us, to lift our guilt, to live in our hearts and give us a fresh start. We have good news for you!

Now don't take so long trying to choose the right brand that you don't get around to tasting what's inside the package. It's great!

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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