I was a Baptist before I was a Christian.
Allow me to explain.
My mother always bragged about the fact that she took me to Sunday School and church for the first time when I was ten days old which means that I was enrolled in the Sunday School of Midway Baptist Church, located in Lamar County, Georgia, four miles outside of Barnesville on City Pond Road (a road that I spent my entire childhood thinking was named “County Maintained” because that’s what the only sign on it said); indeed, given that those were the days of “Cradle Rolls” I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody from the church was standing there in the delivery room to sign me up as soon as I exited the birth canal.
Since Baptists don’t believe that you can become a Christian until you have reached a point in life where you can accept Christ for yourself and since I waited until I was almost eight years old to put my life of sin behind me and turn to the Lord and submit to the believer’s baptism that made me an “official” member of the church, you can see why I say that I was a Baptist before I was a Christian. I had attended, worshipped in, and studied the Bible in a Baptist church for all those years before I became a Christian.
I’ll admit, though, that I didn’t learn much about being Baptist at Midway. I don’t recall our ever having a Baptist doctrine study and believe me, if we had, my parents would have made sure I was there. We did have Training Union during my formative years and there may have been some Baptist doctrine included in those classes but if so it didn’t stick.
My mother was the church treasurer and at the monthly church business meetings she would say how much we had sent to Searcy Garrison (the then Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Georgia Baptist Convention) that month; I later learned that those were our Cooperative Program gifts she was talking about. And around Easter time she would talk about how much money we had sent to somebody named Annie Armstrong and around Christmas time she would mention how much we had sent to another lady named Lottie Moon; given all the money they were getting I kind of wished one of them would adopt me.
My father, the late great Champ Ruffin, was a good Southern Baptist in the sense that he didn’t think there was anything particularly perverse about Baptist Sunday School literature or about Baptist institutions of higher education, although he had little to which he could compare the former and so far as I know he had never set foot on the campus of one of the latter until he dropped me off for my freshman year at Mercer University. Daddy would get riled up when some independent Baptist preacher or poor misguided church member who had fallen under the influence of some such false prophet questioned the veracity of said literature or integrity of said institutions; while I couldn’t understand at the time why he thought it was such a big deal, I later—much too late to tell him so, unfortunately—came to appreciate his efforts.
I went to Mercer because somewhere along the way I had sensed and accepted a call that I perceived to be from Almighty God—whose almightiness was proven by the fact that he was able to find me in Lamar County, Georgia—to be a minister of the good news of Jesus Christ, in its Baptist permutation, naturally, and so I heeded my father’s advice: “Son, it seems to me that if you’re going to be a Baptist preacher you ought to go to Baptist schools.” Well, I was so I did, although Mercer was not my first choice mainly because I had once heard someone use the word “liberal” to describe it and, while I was wasn’t sure what that meant, it didn’t sound good but, thanks to some not-so-gentle prodding from my high school English teacher Mrs. Key, whose father-in-law was a Baptist minister and Mercer graduate, I, to make a long story short, changed my mind.
My first year at Mercer brought with it my first experience working in a Baptist church; I became the Associate Pastor, serving with the aforementioned Preacher Key, of the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church in rural Jugtown, Georgia, a bedroom community serving Thomaston and Meansville. Once again it was my fate to be a part of a Baptist church that wasn’t all that Baptist; a healthy percentage of the congregation had a Pentecostal—I think primarily Assemblies of God—background. Once, in all my seventeen-year-old wisdom, I preached a sermon at Pritchett on the one Baptist distinctive that I had picked up at my home church, namely, eternal security/the perseverance of the saints/once saved always saved, following which a couple who fell in the Pentebaptist/Bapticostal category verbally accosted me saying in snarling tone, “You’re preaching doctrine”; even at that point in my theological pilgrimage it occurred to me to wonder why preaching one way was preaching “doctrine” while preaching the other way was not, so I concluded that what had them all worked up was that I was preaching a doctrine other than theirs.
That wasn’t the last time that sort of thing happened to me.
Toward the end of my freshman year, the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church requested that the Midway Baptist Church ordain me to the Gospel ministry which they agreed to do despite my youth (seventeen), relative inexperience (seven months of very part-time ministry) and lack of formal education (two quarters of college, although I had already taken both Old and New Testament at Mercer). The ordination was scheduled for an April Sunday afternoon with the ordination council to meet on the Saturday evening before; the council was tasked with making a formal recommendation that I be ordained and I confess it occurred to me that it would be somewhat embarrassing if they decided, on Ordination Sunday Eve, to present a negative recommendation.
Despite what I said above about not learning much about Baptist doctrine at Midway, our pastor, Rev. Herman J. Coleman, known to everyone as “Preacher Bill,” felt it appropriate to grill me on the finer points of said doctrine. So right there in front of that roomful of Baptist ministers and deacons, Preacher Bill read each article of the Baptist Faith and Message (1963) statement and, upon the completion of each one, he looked at me and asked, “Do you believe that?” to which I each time answered “Yes, sir.”
Preacher Bill later said that I had given the most brilliant answers he had ever heard.
(Part 2 will be posted on Tuesday night, December 21)