Several weeks ago, I burned a bridge in my head and in my heart. I made a decision that only sounds simple. I have decided that I will never join another Southern Baptist church.
Being a Southern Baptist has always been a major part -- perhaps the major part -- of my sense of identity. I am a Southern Baptist preacher's kid. I am a graduate of the world's largest Southern Baptist university. I was ordained a deacon in a Southern Baptist church while in my mid-20s.
Not long ago, I returned to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. While walking around the campus, I felt like I might as well have been at Brigham Young University.
In the years since I left Waco, I have changed and Baylor has changed. I expected that. But, during my short visit, another set of feelings washed over me. By Southern Baptist standards, Baylor is an open -- and to use an SBC buzz word -- "moderate" campus.
What I was feeling was stronger than the musings of a disenchanted graduate wishing for a return to the good old days. I realized that if I was rejecting Baylor, and Baylor rejecting me, then I was much further out of the mainstream of Southern Baptist life than I had ever dreamed. I asked myself, "If Baylor is left of center in the SBC, where does that leave me?"
I began to try to fit my thoughts and feelings into some kind of mental and emotional structure.
What was I really feeling? What is -- what will always be -- most important to me as a Christian? At some point could my struggles against the majority in the Southern Baptist Convention hinder me, or warp me, as a Christian?
First of all, I have decided that there are a number of religious and social causes that will always be important to me: the equality of women and men, civil rights, hunger in the United States and abroad, the environment, a concept of economics that does not worship capitalism as a god, a view of church-state relations that accepts religious liberty as a given, a bilateral freeze on nuclear weapons, free speech. I am on the opposite side of the front from the vast majority of Southern Baptists on these issues.
I love the arts and feel uncomfortable in a denomination that distrusts artistic people because their messages are often subtle.
In the past decade, I have been influenced the most by great Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis, Garry Wills, Martin E. Marty, Frederich Buechner, Andrew M. Greeley, Madeleine L'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkein, Charles Williams and Dorothy Day. There are no Southern Baptists in that list.
Many of the Baptists I most admire are people who were, or are, happy being renegades. Many are no ex-Baptists.
I am tired of being in a proud, defiant, rejected minority of people who believe they are the "only true Baptists left." I want to be in a church in which I fit in, in which I can focus on the positive.
And maybe I'm not even a "true Baptist."
I am wedded for life to liturgical worship -- both in music and in the liturgy, itself. I see worship as praise to God and a source of spiritual strength that leads to personal evangelism, behavior based on a Christian concept of living unselfishly for others and the creation of that strange web of lives that we call the church.
Spiritual pep rallies turn me off. I get angry when I hear the kind of pulpit evangelism that crushes personalities and emotions under a steamroller of jargon. Emotion plays a valid role in faith and in conversion, but does it always have to be linked to simplistic, high-volume sermons? I don't think so.
I also have to admit that I am no longer happiest when worshipping in "moderate" Southern Baptist churches, where religious symbolism and centuries of church tradition are kind of hinted at during festive parts of the church year -- just touched lightly, like a frying pan that is too hot to really grab and hold.
On top of that, I have begun to doubt the radical individualism that is at the heart of Baptist thought -- fundamentalist, conservative and moderate. I do not love freedom for its own sake. Knowing that I can believe whatever I want to believe and not be kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention is no longer enough for me.
Let me be clear. The concept of the "priesthood of every believer" is very important to me. However, I have decided that Baptists' historical fear of church tradition and creeds has had at least one bad side effect. Since Baptists have few, if any, accepted or articulated tenets, there are few traditions to discuss, interpret and defend.
When SBC moderates protested efforts to promote mandated prayers in public schools or to slap controls on seminaries, there were few -- if any -- defenses to fall back on.
"Southern Baptists have always believed like I believe," rings hollow. Moderates were on the same thin ice that the fundamentalists were on when they claimed that the "majority of Southern Baptists have always believed in the inerrancy of the Bible."
What authority do those statements have?
Southern Baptists are left with a kind of informal, sociological creed.
This creed of "what is or isn't done" can become a kind of baptism of the lowest common denominator. Southern Baptist church tradition is usually whatever is popular at the moment in the nation's biggest SBC churches.
"The Church" ends up being viewed in terms of American, upper-middle-class, usually white suburban norms. With very few exceptions, the members of the SBC's denominational "cloud of witnesses" have been informally canonized in post-1950s America.
In a denomination based on a casual form of majority rule, the saints do not have the right to vote.
Thus, Southern Baptist life has become dominated by the latest charts on statistical growth. A simple truth has emerged: it is impossible to out-baptize huge churches based on a glossed- over view of the recent past that puts the Good News in the hands of an authoritarian minister who claims God has told him how to solve all of his church members' problems.
"But," I hear myself saying again and again, "I have been a member of SBC churches that were not like that!" And that is true. Individual congregations can do many wonderful things. They can also be cut off from the flow of Baptist life.
Many moderate Baptists have encouraged me to stand and fight for change. The few liberal Baptists I know have told me not to care so much about what the denomination does. Baptist congregations are absolutely free, they stress. "Forget what those yahoos do at the national convention," they say.
I know that in the future, some SBC congregations and individuals will choose to remain free and will be happy doing so. However, with the continuing rapid growth of the SBC in the more conservative parts of the Southwest, I am convinced that the swing to the right that started in the Houston and St. Louis conventions will continue and have lasting effects on the national, state and maybe even associational levels.
If I am going to be in a church that has a creed, I would rather have the Nicene Creed than one written in Del City, Okla.
Also, I have to be honest and admit that I do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, at least as that term is defined by today's Southern Baptist leaders. The Bible is a book that is both human and divine, carrying a message that is both inspired and authoritative. But the words in the Bible are not the Word. Jesus Christ is the incarnation, not the Bible. The words of the Bible are like waves moving out from that event -- tied to it, part of it, but not to be confused with the event itself.
So I have grown tired of the current infighting in the SBC.
Sometimes, no, most of the time, I feel as if the Southern Baptist Convention has cut itself off from the rest of Christ's Church. Year after year, SBC leaders make thinly-veiled (or in the case of Bailey Smith, obvious) attacks on the worship and traditions of other denominations. There is no sense of humility in these attacks. There is no sense that if the SBC can teach other churches lessons on evangelism and church growth, then perhaps other churches can teach the SBC about social justice, prayer or beauty in worship.
I feel it is time to move to a church I can celebrate. I know I cannot expect to find a perfect tradition or denomination. I don't think that I'm being naive.
Still, I feel the need to move on. It is my response to a Christ that I believe wants me to get on with the business of worship, service and witness. I am very, very tired of fighting.
The author, a life-long Southern Baptist, requested anonymity for the sake of family.
A 1995 POSTLUDE: For online friends
This article was written in spring of 1983, about the time that my wife, Debra, and I left the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., one of the few Baptist congregations in the world that can accurately be called "liberal," and began attending St. Mark's Episcopal Church. We left Myers Baptist Baptist, in large part, due to a conflict over the church's proclamation of universalism.
It really took me back, typing this text into my computer this morning. Many sections are stunningly ironic, in light of recent years in the Episcopal Church. "I am very, very tired of fighting," indeed.
I have chosen to change two references in this article, for the sake of clarity.
In the original text, the list of social causes in the ninth paragraph began with the word "feminism." Why did I change this? At that time, I had no idea about the various schools of feminism -- gender vs. economic vs. whatever. At no point in my life could I have been considered a gender feminist and the same is true of Debra. By the way, it was in 1980 or so that my views on abortion began to change, as I was exposed to the views of conservative liturgical Christians and to the views of the pro-life left.
Also, note this sentence near the end: "I have to be honest and admit that I do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, at least as that term is defined by today's Southern Baptist leaders." The second half of this sentence is new.
Why? At the time I wrote this article, I had only heard the term "biblical inerrancy" defined by leaders on the right and left wings of SBC life, in clashes that focused on issues of history and science. Since then, I have been exposed to the views of many others -- such as Dr. Kenneth Kantzer, or the Anglican theologian J.I. Packer -- who use different definitions of biblical inerrancy that stress doctrine and context. I felt I must clarify this sentence, since I didn't know enough about what I was talking about, at that time.
One final note: It is very ironic that my upbringing in Southern Baptist life had left me cut off from mainstream evangelical life and thought, as well as that in historic churches. In the past, Southern Baptists have been pretty much a kingdom unto themselves -- cut off from everyone. This is changing. In the years since writing this, I have found numerous evangelical writers whose names I would quickly add to the list of those who have most influenced me. Still, C.S. Lewis would lead the list.