“Hello. My name is Joe, and I’m a Baptist.”
Being Baptist these days is tough, but not only because the diverse group is generally painted with a single brush of public opinion.
Being Baptist is also tough because it’s addictive.
How else to explain my visit to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention just to snoop around a bit?
Several years ago my congregation separated itself from this particular national body of Baptists. Too many Disney boycotts, disavowals of science, suppression of women, partisan politics (my friend calls the SBC “the Republican Party at prayer”).
And yet, like a car crash rubber-necker, I found myself wandering into the fray of people, mostly older men, gathered to conduct their business.
They came to my city, I argued to myself; it was only a short drive.
It must be an addiction. Those of us raised Southern Baptist continue to engage them, even when we’ve left the SBC. Our relationship to this group we no longer claim is dysfunctional and enmeshed.
Perhaps this is it: While I and many in our city feel betrayed, besmirched and beleaguered by the SBC, while I disagree with almost every conclusion drawn by the SBC as an institution, I find that, by and large, Southern Baptists as individuals are genuinely nice people. I had more folk call me “brother” in my hour at the convention than I have in the last five years. They are earnest. They care. They love God. They love others.
But SBC beliefs about the Bible, how to read it, how to frame it, the way it points, what it means to please God, on and on, are amazingly narrow and exclusive. For SBC leaders, the chasm this creates between them and others is a sign that they’re on the right track.
“There’s a way that seems right unto man,” they quote from Proverbs, “but the end thereof is destruction.” Their interpretation: Tow the pre-approved party line, even if you’re drawn to a new insight, or you’ll end up on the road to hell.
I admit I have become more progressive in my views as a Baptist over the years, but not nearly as much as the SBC has narrowed its definition of who could play on its team. Suddenly churches like mine, which built Baptist seminaries, children’s homes and hospitals, found themselves outside the fold. Our alleged “liberal” way of thinking was the cause for denominational decline.
So they kicked us out, or at least excluded us.
A funny thing though: They’re still in decline. They’ve discovered they can’t fight demographics, though they try. The “full quiver” message (a claim that the Bible requires us to have as many children as possible) is one strategy to stem their churches’ numeric decline.
So why do I care? Why did I take an hour out of my day to visit the SBC? Why don’t I simply let them go their way?
Maybe I really do need to attend Al-Anon to address co-dependency. Perhaps it’s because, like siblings, we have the same name and it bugs me. Perhaps it’s because I think they need to hear my minority voice.
Or perhaps I cling to the hope that a power-hungry institution like the SBC can eventually be influenced by people of good will who reason together. I’m starting to be more realistic about this hope. An institution based on power like the SBC cannot tolerate a diversity of thought, even when it is composed of genuinely good people. Apparently the unrealistic hope to the contrary lingers somewhere within me.
As I entered the convention hall I learned that the SBC had voted to “disfellowship” a Fort Worth congregation because it hadn’t taken a strong enough stand against homosexuality. The church had tried compromising — rather than include gay couples in their pictorial directory, they opted not to include families at all and to only photograph Sunday school classes. Not good enough, said the SBC — you must condemn homosexuality.
I immediately sat down to write a motion for the SBC: In light of today’s action to disfellowship the Fort Worth church, I move that the SBC embark on a more thorough investigation to ferret out churches, like my own, that welcome into membership all baptized followers of Jesus.
It struck me that most in the room would not get the irony of my motion. Southern Baptists seem deaf to irony. (Why else would they have as this year’s theme “Actions speak louder than words”?)
Then something reminded me that this was no longer my fight. It was time to “shake the dust off my feet” as Jesus instructed. There are plenty of other Baptists around the world who bear the beauty and mystery of Jesus, do justice, celebrate science, promote peace, welcome truth no matter its source, champion religious liberty for all, and cause me to say with gratitude, “Hello. My name is Joe, and I’m a Baptist.”
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.