Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

I never felt more Baptist

January 25, 2024

I have a closet in the corner of my office. I’m inclined to believe most pastors do. On the top of it is a container filled with Duplos. Resting beside the building blocks is an original Lite-Brite.

Plastered all over the outside are drawings from my oldest daughter. Her artwork showcases the leaps of her fine motor skills. Her pictures, paintings, and handprints constantly clarify to me who she’s becoming. Lastly, a long mirror covers one of the doors. Sometimes, when I’m stressed, I look in the mirror for answers. The guy staring back rarely has any.

Tucked away inside the closet is a menagerie of items rarely used. A small washtub for foot washing. There’s a pair of well-worn boots and a neon green yoga mat that has never been unfurled. At eye level, a wooden bar supports several hangers. On them are a couple of cozy sweaters, including a Mister Rogers-style cardigan. Going down the line, a few pieces of academic regalia. And, finally, a plain black cassock with a smattering of stoles tucked around the neck. These vestments are a collection of what I rightly label as comfortably cumbersome.

You see, for me, a low church-grassroots loving sort of preacher, the robes and stoles rarely see the light of day. Sure, I’ll suit up for Lent, Advent, or what others might call the higher holier days. And, in the case of a wedding or funeral, I always ask the family if they’d prefer I wear the more formal attire. Out of courtesy, I respectfully bend the knee.

But here’s the deal: I just don’t possess the wherewithal to know when and when not to wear hallowed garments. You see, my upbringing in institutional religious communities was, shall we say, limited. Even growing up in the Southern Bible belt, all things church were more peripheral; my experiences were shaped by sporadic Vacation Bible School attendance and the once-a-year Moravian Lovefeast service my family flocked to around Christmas time. Not hard to imagine then that I simply never developed an image of what a minister was supposed to look like, or more precisely, what they were supposed to wear. Collars? Cloaks? All an ensemble, a costume I never felt the need to mimic when I accepted a call to work in congregational ministry.

As fate or providence would have it, maybe that’s why I landed in the stream of Christian faith I have. While it took some time to profess it, my identity as a follower of the lowly Galilean is exercised through my identity as a Baptist. Now, the term Baptist is as broad as it is at times problematic. There are a slew of folks who claim the moniker—some of whom I know I can greet in a liquor store, and some who would stone me if they saw me there. While the group comes in all different flavors, one of the primary ties that bind us is the concept of freedom. A mentor once told me that if you want to correctly spell Baptist, you spell it F-R-E-E-D-O-M. From the most progressive to the most fundamental, all Baptists cling to the fragile Bible, Soul, Church, and Religious Freedoms.

Walter B. Shurden gets a fair amount of credit for naming these Baptist pillars. Still, if I could make a small addendum to his famous book, I’d tack on the freedom of attire and self-expression. This is why you might find a Baptist minister in a robe on Sunday morning or a pair of overalls, perhaps even an apron. I’ve worn all three and openly confess to finding more meaning in the latter two. None has an edge in helping me feel like a minister more than the other.

Walter B. Shurden gets a fair amount of credit for naming the four Baptist freedoms. Still, if I could make a small addendum to his famous book, I’d tack on the freedom of attire and self-expression. This is why you might find a Baptist minister in a robe on Sunday morning or a pair of overalls, perhaps even an apron.

Of course, I know other individuals and traditions that place significant importance and prestige on attire and vestments. I’m fortunate to know and work with clergy peers who absolutely enjoy, value, and treasure their priestly uniforms. I was reminded of this fact recently when I received an invitation to participate in an ordination service for a fellow minister. 

I arrived early to their church, wearing black jeans, Doc Martens, a striped short-sleeve shirt, and an inky unisex dress jacket. The thought of bringing my seldom-used cassock never crossed my mind. I did have enough sense to grab my red stole, a reversible one oozing classiness. However, as the other ministers filed in, I realized I was dressed for the wrong sort of party.

Intimidating-sized traveling bags were flung over my ministry peers’ shoulders. After being unzipped, I saw they were full of stark white robes. Springing forth next came an exhibition of intricately designed polychromatic stoles. Some displayed images of rising flames accompanying a host of Holy Spirit doves. Others came with cincture at the ready, tying knots that would put any Eagle Scout to shame. I knew I should have read the invitation closer when I spotted one gentleman coming through the parking lot supporting a staff which would have made Tolkien’s Balrog of Moria think twice.

As the ministers and others more revered than me lined up for the processional, I was afraid the wielder of the impressive walking stick would bar my entrance into the sanctuary with his own rendition of the wizard Gandalf’s famous line “You Shall Not Pass!” Be it mercy or pity, I was permitted inside.

Now, let me tell you, from the start, the service was beautiful. It was, to me, the epitome of what I understand to be high church. It was dignified, possessing an air of sophistication I rarely rub elbows with. The flow was orderly and scripted. It was layered with solid liturgy, including the part of the candidate’s charge to accept the responsibilities of their call to ministry; the presiding bishop asked them to affirm the authority of Scripture and the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. Before I could ask, “What’s a creed?” I surveyed the room and decided not to.

And for those next couple of hours, I don’t believe I’ve ever felt more like a Baptist.

This recognition of my dissenting, non-conforming faith and how I choose to live it out warmed my heart more than a warm cup of soup on a cold New England day. Witnessing what I wasn’t helped me name yet again who I am.

Later that afternoon, I placed my red stole back in the closet, securing it away until I need it again. Thankful how it works for some but not for others. Thankful I caught another glimpse of how big the kingdom of God can be.

Justin Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Opinions and reflections are his own.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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