First Baptist Church in America, North Main Street, Providence, RI

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Why we need to be American Baptist

September 26, 2023

I was brought up in an American Baptist church in Boston because my parents were grateful to First Baptist Church of Boston for assisting my mother’s immigration from China in 1947. I knew that other churches existed when there were many historic steeples dotting the Back Bay of Boston. But FBC was my home. I knew no other who counted me as one of their own.

In June 2023, I attended the most recent Biennial Mission Summit of the American Baptist Churches, USA in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Hanging from my issued name badge was a ribbon recognizing that I have attended over 20 biennials in my life. I am a lifelong member of the American Baptist tribe.

Over the course of a lifetime of ministry, I have had many reasons to challenge the ABC. There were decisions and statements that I didn’t agree with. There were policies that felt disingenuous to me. Honestly, there were people in the ABC that I would rather not be in the same room with. But after many good reasons to walk away, I have remained in the ABC. In retrospect, I think that now more than ever, there are good reasons why we need to be American Baptists.

Biblically, Christ commanded us to be united: “I ask not only on behalf of these but also of those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21) Since we are on this side of God’s revealing reign and not yet fully arrived in becoming God’s beloved community, we are more like “children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine…” (Ephesians 4:14)

In 1998, I was called to be the senior pastor of First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco. Soon I realized that there were many Chinese seeking a Baptist church to attend. But these Chinese were largely from Hong Kong where historically, the Southern Baptists engaged in foreign mission. Unsurprisingly, these Baptist seekers were looking for a similar theology to what they had in Asia. While our church welcomes everyone, it was also not necessary to have a theological debate. To recognize our theological differences, I added on our Sunday morning bulletin, “An American Baptist church since 1880.” This disclosure informs all visitors that if they choose to join our mission, they are welcome to become a part of the ABC family.

In our postmodern period of American religious life, the trend is to become less sectarian by changing church names. The Baptist label is replaced with names like “Community” or “New Life” or anything else but Baptist. People whom we have referred to as “Dones” who are done with traditional church or “Nones” who have never attended church are suspicious of denominational designations. We now have nondescript church names.

Amid today’s political polarities and culture wars, American Baptists have significant contributions to make to American society, particularly in the recognition of women in ordained ministry and the rightful place for all religions to provide spiritual life and practice to all Americans and residents from all corners of the world.

In our desire to become less sectarian and perhaps more attractive to people in general, I wonder if we are teaching and practicing less of our American Baptist life. Even in churches that are clearly identifying with American Baptists, are we passing on American Baptist convictions and witness to the next generation?

We know that there were many people and different groups that bore witness and made contributions in the making of the United States besides American Baptists. And without this panorama of saints, we may not have the freedoms that we share today. But as Baptists and particularly American Baptists, we need to be more American Baptist today than ever before.

American Baptists affirm the four Baptist freedoms[i] that shape our distinctiveness:

  1. Bible Freedom recognizes that the Bible is the primary text to guide our lives in faithful discipleship without the need for any creeds or confessions.
  2. Soul Freedom, also known as the Priesthood of All Believers, recognizes that everyone has the capacity to lead and serve since all are created in God’s own image.
  3. Church Freedom recognizes the autonomy of the local church to make decisions on their own and to associate with others to promote ministry and missions.
  4. Religious Freedom, also known as the Separation of Church and State, recognizes that since Baptists have the right to freely practice their faith, therefore others also should be able to practice their faith without infringement from the government or any other religious groups.

When American Baptists find ourselves in any community and have the understanding of our heritage, convictions, and leanings, we contribute to the conversation and discussion in constructing a viable neighborhood. We, like others hailing from their particular backgrounds and perspectives, add to making decisions supported by all groups. If it weren’t for our sectarian distinctives, there wouldn’t be a need for ecumenism. The ways we practice our faith should not separate us but rather for the sake of the commonwealth, we share openly our points of view with the faith that the Spirit will lead us to the Creator’s overall plan for everyone.

It’s possible that my fear of being erased of my identity as an Asian American leads me to also advocate for the importance of continuing the particular contributions that American Baptists share, along with all religious groups offering to one another in creating a rich and life-giving American landscape of religious pluralism.

Amid today’s political polarities and culture wars, American Baptists have significant contributions to make to American society, particularly in the recognition of women in ordained ministry and the rightful place for all religions to provide spiritual life and practice to all Americans and residents from all corners of the world.

The religious landscape in America is rapidly becoming more tolerant and inclusive of many different religious traditions outside of Christianity. And that it should be, especially standing on our historic Baptist freedoms. But while the world is becoming more secular and maybe more neutral, it is also important that all religious groups, including American Baptists, become more familiar with our own history and beliefs in order to have a more vigorous and informative dialogue with our sisters and brothers. What is your Baptist voice to add to the many voices in a world in Pentecost? I pray in God’s time that we may all be one.

Today, I remain an American Baptist.

Rev. Donald Ng was president, American Baptist Churches, USA, 2014-15, the first Asian American to serve in this elected position. For 17 years, he was senior pastor of the historic First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco. He retired from full-time ministry in 2015.

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

[i] Shurden, Walter B. The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1993.

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