Controversy can erupt at any time in a Baptist church, association, convention, fellowship, alliance, federation or union. In fact, Baptists have experienced crises at all these levels. Given the democratic nature of Baptist polity (and efforts to override that polity), disagreements and arguments are inevitable. Read daily Baptist news, and one will quickly discover that storms are always brewing.
The topics of controversies in the Baptist past have ranged widely: Baptist origins, missions, the church, baptism, Lord’s Supper, slavery and segregation, theology, speaking in tongues, worship, church discipline, abortion, homosexuality, women’s ordination, creedalism, biblical inerrancy, pastoral authority, finances, leadership and just about everything else.
Controversies of the past offer some valuable lessons to help Baptists deal constructively with crises today. This article will identify and briefly discuss six such lessons.
First, Baptists who fight too much risk losing their integrity. Some people seem born to quarrel. Their DNA spells clash. They wrangle over small things and big things. Bickering makes their day. Difficult to get along with, they inject a constant flow of negativity into church business meetings. They squabble and beat down the ideas of other people (and sometimes the people themselves) to the point that they lose their credibility as Christians.
Second, Baptists who refuse to fight sometimes compromise their souls. Some Baptists straddle every fence in sight. For them, no cause is worth defending or dying for. Unity is always the ultimate goal–even if based on values without substance. Or are they concerned with job preservation? They defend the status quo and never accept the prophetic requirements of ministry. Their souls dissipate through inaction and moral failure. Some battles must be fought; refusal to participate is spiritual cowardice.
Third, some battles are not worth fighting, and some wars can never be won. Sometimes, Baptists fight over issues that do not merit a battle; the issues are simply inconsequential. At other times, Baptists fight long-term wars that are impossible to win. In both cases, Baptists waste enormous amounts of emotional and spiritual energy, financial resources, and valuable time misusing the stewardship of life.
Fourth, controversy can never be totally eliminated from Baptist life, because there is no Baptist authority that can issue the final verdict that all must accept. To some, that may sound like a deathblow to the Baptist future. To the contrary, it spells marvelous opportunities for Baptists to accept and re-emphasize the value of autonomy under the Lordship of Christ. Every Baptist has an equal vote in every business meeting. That has a powerful equalizing effect on the nature of Baptist decision-making.
Fifth, Baptists can make major strides forward by championing biblical causes regardless of the cost. Baptists have made their highest, noblest, longest-lasting and most daring accomplishments when they have stood tall for the principles and practices reflected in Scripture. Consider the Lordship of Christ, the authority of the Bible, believer’s baptism, voluntarism, the priesthood of all believers, religious liberty, separation of church and state, congregational church government, missions, human rights, and women in ministry. Baptists have suffered ridicule, threats, imprisonments, beatings, and death defending such causes.
Sixth, Baptists can use crises as tools to gain a new sense of direction and new insights into Baptist identity. While painful, controversy can produce redemptive results. If a struggle within the Baptist community does not lead to improved understanding of critical issues and historic Baptist values, then the struggle may be in vain. More positively, new appreciation for being self-denying, taking-up-one’s-cross, following-Christ kinds of Baptists can emerge from responsible approaches to Baptist skirmishes.
Lessons for today: Controversy and crisis constitute important stuff in the Baptist experience. While inconvenient at times, they offer Baptists great opportunities to reflect on the meaning of their history, the nature of their mission, and the content of their faith. Democratic surges, while occasioned with conflict, remain a major gift of Baptists to the Protestant movement.
Charles W. Deweese is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.