Moral Contradictions

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Baptist Curmedgeon

The other week I heard from a reliable source about something familiar, yet disturbing, happening at the International Mission Board (IMB) here in Richmond. First, some background:

Creed: a brief authoritative formula of religious belief. (Merriam-Webster)

From my understanding of where Baptists came from, the Bible was the one source. No longer did priests tell us what to think, we could read the Bible. Baptists were jailed and killed because they refused the authority of a bishop telling them what to believe or how to worship. The printing press nixed the idea of having the higher ups interpreting the Bible for everyone.

My wife is currently in seminary and got a 99 in two semesters of Greek. She loves it and loves translating. Through her and other seminarians, I've seen that certain verses, especially those considered controversial. I learned why they're considered controversial - because the Biblical translation can be difficult, especially some of the more controversial verses. Unfortunately that doesn't stop certain folks from using their interpretation to force their interpretation and subsequent will on others.

I did my fourth grade state report on Rhode Island, only because it's the smallest state. I was intrigued as to how it began and survived - why didn't Massachussetts or Connecticut invade? :) I learned about Roger Williams and how he was forced out of Massachussetts Bay Colony by the Puritans for not toeing the line. Some of the charges levied against him? He respected the Indians and believed that they owned the land - he believed that "the civil magistrate's powers extend only to the bodies, and goods, and outward state of men" - among other things. I was shocked that I did not learn until recently that he in fact started the first American Baptist church.

I'm auditing Dr. Sherman's Baptist Heritage class and thoroughly enjoy what I've learned. I came to like the Puritans more than I previously did (kicking Roger Williams out and that whole Salem Witch Trial charade soured my opinion) because they forged many of the principles that we take for granted. However, they assumed many of the characteristics from the Anglican church that they fought against: oppression, persecution, and arrogance - all characteristics not found in the Bible and which led to the founding of the First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island.

I grew up in a very stable Southern Baptist church that remain isolated during the hell the convention went through in the 80s and 90s - and today. Growing upI was told the great thing about Baptists was that each church was independent - free from a bishop and similar oversight, and that the concept of the priesthood of the believer pervaded - we don't have to confess our sins to someone in a little box, we go straight to God. Each church was independent and each believer was independent, as that was how we are going to stand before God when we die - by ourselves. It was further explained to me as a "big tent" - we can have differences between each other and each church, but again, we don't answer to a pope or bishop, only God, making it a little more difficult to ascertain His will.

The church exists to teach, to build up, and to encourage each of us - the pastor stands up and preaches, we compare what he says to what we know, and if it jives, he keeps his job. If not, we consult the text ourselves and try to understand what they said, and if we still don't get it, we talk to them about it, or let it go. If that keeps happening, then the pastor is invited to go quail hunting... The whole concept of "the pastor is the head of the church" rubs me the wrong way. Yes he's the leader and he carries the weight, but as I've learned in the past few years, ultimately the power is in the laity.

I remember growing up and being proud of my Southern Baptist heritage - however that started to wane when I learned that our denomination was born because of slavery, and we weren't on the right side. That in itself wasn't so bad, except that I seem to remember reading we were the only denomination not to re-join their Northern counterparts after the conclusion of the Civil War. That piqued my curiousity, but I didn't think about it until I heard about a SBC leader saying something to the effect that "slavery was misunderstood". My level of pride also went down some when I learned that my denomination was on the wrong side of civil rights. These factors led me to start questioning my place in this denomination and to start questioning those that lead it. If the SBC was born on the wrong side of an issue and stayed on that side for over 100 years, were there any other issues that they were wrong about? When they tell me to believe something and not to ask questions, why should I?

I'm also reeling from an anecdote that a close friend recently told me. He didn't name names and I haven't independently verified this, but one leader of the Southern Baptist Convention apparently mused something to the effect of "if only we had a translation of the Bible that we could control". Woah.

So when I hear about a missionary couple that had the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message sent to them, only to be ordered on a plane home 2 days later when they refused to sign, I get angry. Extremely angry. Why?

They weren't sent home because they weren't lacking in skills or didn't have a call from God. They weren't sent home after a discussion of beliefs or because they were teaching heretical thought - they were sent home because they wouldn't sign a creed. Who knows, they could have agreed with what that piece of paper said, but they may believe as I believe, and as the American Baptist church was founded, that the Bible is the sole Word and that each believer through the Holy Spirit could discern its meaning. They could have agreed that we as Baptists do need to have some sort of common ground, such as the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message, yet if there was a disagreement that was okay, because we have a big tent. Or they could have understood that some of the phrases in the BF&M are based on verses where the Greek isn't clear, or at least where a rational person can come up with multiple meanings, and disagreed with the interpretation. Again, the 1963 version allowed for that.

Did they even have time to pack? The have a sense of closure? Where does the concept of grace, mercy, and compassion come into this situation? Do these actions compare more with what Pharisees did or what Jesus did?

Look at political parties. Over 100 million Americans voted in the 2004 election for only two parties. Did each voter agree with every single plank of their chosen party and their candidate? No, of course not. If either party came out and said "in order to be considered a Republican or Democrat, you must sign that you agree with every single issue", their party would considerably shrink.

That's what's happening - the SBC is losing good people, not just "liberals" but good and decent people called by the Lord to do His work. Our heritage comes straight from the belief that the Bible is the one written source of which we base our faith, and the priesthood of the believer allows us to read it and interpret it for ourselves - not a bishop or a pope, but us.

I'm also of the belief that arrogance has no - I repeat - no place in our faith. None. Jesus washed His disciples feet - we must be prepared to act in a similar manner. Denying our heritage by imposing your will and interpretation without any discussion at all smacks every historically aware Baptist in the face.

Dr. Sherman told a story last night where he sat down with a Catholic bishop 35 years ago and was asked "how do you deal with laypersons?". He chuckled because he told him that Baptists and other Protestants worked that question out 300 years ago. The leadership of the Catholic Church was starting to have their authority questioned, and they figured that short of an outright rebellion or split, they had to bend and start working with their congregations. Their word was no longer final and they had to adapt. Fast forward to 1990 or so where Dr. Sherman was in an ecumenical conference in which a few Catholic priests attended. They reported that they had to work with laity all the time. Welcome to the club.

So when I hear such statements as "the pastor is the ruler of the church" or "sign this or your out" or "we need a translation we can control", I get very upset. I'm also saddened to - this whole Wade Burleson incident shows that a contingent of the SBC is still out for blood. How many times can you cleave sections of your denomination before you run out of people?

You may not agree with me on some or all of this, but again, I cling to the Baptist notion of priesthood of the believer - this is how I was raised and taught and this is why I think the way I do. You cannot speak for or against me with God when I stand before Him one day, only I. I chafe when folks start assuming the duties of the Holy Spirit and start speaking for God, and I feel my reaction is fair and just.

You can call me a liberal or a heretic, although neither are true - I am a traditionalist, I am a perserver, I am a Baptist.

UPDATE: Just stumbled across a link via Mainstream Baptists that deals specifically with SBC missionaries forced to resign because they refused to allow the BF&M be used as a tool to force them to conform. I haven't gone through it all but I bookmarked it and will very soon.

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