Why would a Baptist be heavily involved in an interfaith organization? Aren’t we known for our unreserved advocacy and commitment to Christian conversion? Shouldn’t our energies be focused on the advancement of gospel sharing? Is cooperation with other faiths a form of endorsement to their claims of spiritual legitimacy?
These are the sorts of questions I have received in various forms from others when encouraging their involvement in the Interfaith Alliance of the Bluegrass (TIABG), where I serve as corresponding secretary. I will admit that ”for a community close to the observation of church historian Martin Marty who said, In the south, there are more Baptists than there are people ”we find few Baptists taking an interest in our work together.
But let me be fair. Some hesitancy is also related to positions the group has taken on the left of the political spectrum. These issues include concerns about raising the minimum wage, thinking about immigration reform as it relates to our common traditions of welcoming the stranger, and reminding community groups to fairly represent all major faiths when praying or including religious leaders in public events.
My involvement with TIABG is rooted in an often neglected but central part of the Baptist heritage. It is the principle known as liberty of conscience. This understanding of Christian sincerity cut its teeth when Baptists began 400 years ago as a minority opinion within the Christendom culture of England and northern Europe. These Baptists believed in the freedom of thought, expression and assembly as preconditions to authentic faith confessions and allegiances.
So they advocated the ability to say no to faith or yes to other faiths as strongly as they held to their own personal convictions. They believed true faith would not survive and that it would run the risk of being corrupted when it is forced or coerced by any power, whether secular or ecclesial. If a person did not have the freedom of choice to say no to God, then how could a yes have any real converting power?
This healthy respect for other believers and defending their rights to believe differently has been one of the greatest gifts of my spiritual journey. Often, I’ve found I was wrong about what a person believes and why he or she believes the way they do. I suspect, at times, that they were wrong about me, too.
I’ve also discovered blind spots in my own faith’s traditions. I have found friends and colleagues in unlikely places. I have learned that the challenges and demands of ministry are the same in each religious context. I have realized, at a profound and sobering level, how our political affiliations often have more concrete influence upon us than our supposed religious convictions.
Why would a Baptist want to be involved in an interfaith organization? I have only a short personal response. It has made me a better Baptist. I can only pray that, in knowing me, others have been made better too. I know for sure we have built roads to mutual understanding and peace. I am content to leave the rest up to God.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.