Calvary Baptist Church, a 150-year-old congregation in D.C.'s Chinatown, recently left the Southern Baptist Convention. Rachel Johnson, chairwoman of the diaconate and a Yale Divinity grad, helped the church -- which now has about 270 members --make that decision. She will be ordained by the church in October.
Why did your church leave the Southern Baptist Convention?
Our decision to finally leave the SBC has been a long time in the making. Being Baptist, we get to freely associate. We believe in autonomy of the local church, which means all of the decisions about the governance and beliefs of the church reside in the local congregation and can't be dictated by larger bodies outside of the congregation. The SBC made a considerably more fundamentalist split several years back. At the time, we began to evaluate who we are as a church and how it aligned with those changes or not. A number of factors made this the right time for us. For us, it came down to two major issues: autonomy of the local church, and our ability to call for leadership positions and affirm anyone whom we feel the church sees has specific gifts. We believe the ability resides entirely in the community to name a person's spiritual gifts and encourage those. Female ordination is one area where we have marked differences with the Southern Baptist Convention, which, at least for the time being, prove to be irreconcilable. If they will not recognize female leaders, then we feel that is an encroachment on our God-given ability to recognize people's gifts.
The second issue is separation of church and state, which has long been a Baptist distinctive, and it is because of Baptist pastors that this principle was included in the Bill of Rights. As a congregation, we very much believe that doesn't mean separation of faith from the public sphere. Our faith calls us to engage in the world around us and to be a prophetic witness and to speak out about pressing issues. But that never should be done in a way that violates core principles of church-state separation and should never be done in a way that is overtly partisan and allows the Gospel to become captive to any political agenda. And over recent years, we feel representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention have allowed partisanship to dominate their prophetic witness.
Your brochure calls Calvary "a different kind of Baptist." What does that mean?
There are over 700 different Baptist groups within the country. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest single denomination, but there's a wide variety out there. Nonetheless, for many people, when you say the word "Baptist," it brings to mind a specific caricature. It's often more ideologically stringent, more narrow than I think a lot of Baptist churches are. For Calvary, what we're trying to say is we very much claim our Baptist heritage, but we are not the stereotype you might expect.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
My defining belief is Jesus Christ --God made incarnate in the world to be one who proclaims release to the captives, sight to the blind, loves the least, the last and the lost, and calls us all to live lives of reconciliation.