The truth, I believe, is this: The baptists in all their variety and disunity failed to see in their own heritage, their own way of using Scripture, their own communal practices and patterns, their own guiding vision, a resource for theology unlike the prevailing scholasticism around them.
James McClendon, Ethics (1994)
James McClendon’s baptist vision is his portrayal of authentic Christianity. It flows from the waters of the Radical Reformation, the 500-year old movement that is neither Catholic nor Protestant, and neither Lutheran nor Reformed. This vision of following Jesus emphasizes the link between small communities of disciples now with the original band of disciples in the New Testament then, as well as the ‘final’ group of disciples at the renewal of the world, the appearing of Jesus at the glorious last day.
The community today continues to live out a radical faith in Jesus the Lord and Messiah as characters in the ongoing narrative of God and his people in Scripture. The plot-line of God’s creation and salvation continues as followers of Jesus enter the rule of God, the common setting of the New Testament and of diverse contexts of Christian communities all over the world. McClendon summarizes this baptist vision with five points:
...the awareness of the biblical story as our story, but also of mission as responsibility for costly witness, of liberty as the freedom to obey God without state help or hindrance, of discipleship as life transformed into obedience to Jesus’ lordship, and of community as daily sharing in the vision. [Ethics, 35]
The baptist vision is one of many competing visions of what it means to follow Jesus. There are more than 500 denominations or sub-traditions of Christian faith in North America. According to McClendon, the baptist vision is an attempt to guide radical participation in the Christian adventure in communities from roughly 100 of those denominations—-anabaptists, Baptists, Mennonites, Brethren, Evangelical Free, believers church, amongst others.
McClendon writes of this ‘contest’:
What these varieties of understanding reveal is that the essence of Christianity (or real or authentic Christianity) is itself an essentially contested concept, one that by its very nature cannot be agreed on by all sides. [Doctrine, 43]
Thus, communities must remember that there are many ways of thinking about and participating in the Christian life, of displaying the essence of what it means to follow the crucified and risen Jesus today. But the key test for these competing visions is the love, humility and gentleness of each vision as they listen and learn as each vision reflects a subtly different shade of light from the face of Christ [Ethics, 20]. We worship a God that values variety—-these competing visions serve the King in different ways, all appreciated in his Kingdom.
The baptist vision has unique contributions to offer in regards to what it means to read the Bible and how to organize a community [church] that bears the name of Jesus. Both Scripture and church are intertwined factors that influence each other-—they dialogue with each other. The story of Scripture shapes the community and the community reads Scripture through the unique contextual lens of that community. The structure of the community gives voice to all members (no hierarchy, no clergy/laity split, everyone is a leader according to his/her gifts) and the reading strategy of the community values both the interpretation and the live performance of the ongoing biblical narrative.
This strategy (1) allows for a variety of Bible readings, (2) allows for a variety of applications and (3) depends on the individuality of readers in the community. The life context of each and every individual in the community is vitally important for interpretation and performance—-as long as it centers on the main character, Jesus the Lord and Messiah, and focuses on what it means to be the people of God living under his rule.
The key question is,
How does the story of Jesus come to bear on our world?