17th Century England was not a promising environment for serious discourse on theological matters. Indeed, discussing theology in public could lead to loss of employment, imprisonment, exile, and on rare occasions, death.
Pressure to conform to the prevailing winds was enormous, with both governmental and ecclesial bodies (the two often working in tandem) interpreting difference as hostility and something to be silenced.
And yet this period of English history also witnessed tremendous Gospel growth, and playing a significant role in the missio Angliae were the early Baptists.
“Perhaps no group in England made more use of public disputations than did Baptists. Between 1641 and 1700 at least 109 such public debars involving Baptists were held in England, with 79 of these between 1641 and 1660. These debates pitted one or more Baptist champions against opponents from Anglican, Quaker, Independent, or sometimes, Roman Catholic groups. Baptists welcomed these occasions, for they gave opportunity for declaring the gospel to large crowds, helped defend Baptists against unjust slanders, and often led to numerous conversions and the planting of new Baptist Churches. Many leading Baptists of that time were converted at public disputations.” (Leon McBeth, ‘The Baptist Heritage’, p64)
The Scriptures encourage Christians to live quiet, peaceful and productive lives. We are to pray for all, including those who Govern over us, and to submit to their authority with humility and obedience. At the same time, we are to live courageous lives, choosing godliness and faithfulness over compromise and indifference.
Of course, we do not need to choose between 1 Timothy 4:1-2 and 2 Timothy 4:2-5, or between Ephesians 4:1-6 and Galatians 1:6-9. All are applicable to our circumstances and they are driven by the desire to see God saving people and bringing them to a knowledge of the truth.
Challenging the norms of society is no easy task; it requires grace and wisdom the size of the outback.
A century of ecumenical murkiness makes the Rio Olympic pool smell and look like pure H2O. Indeed, one might forgiven for thinking the only heterodoxy left is the view that still believes that there is a line separating orthodoxy and other.
As we look at the enormous social and spiritual challenges before us, both in terms of engaging in the public square and in the ecclesial circle, there is encouragement to be found from among our Baptist grandparents. They didn’t permit a culture of fear to win the day. Instead, taking their confidence in the power, truth, and beauty of the Gospel, they sought to persuade all. Not all were convinced, but many were and thus begun one of the great church planting movements in Western history.
I wonder what might happen if we in Melbourne (and Australia) adopted this kind of Gospel determination?