Four Southern Baptist missionaries for the International Mission Board were killed on March 15 in a drive-by shooting. The group was researching needs for future humanitarian projects.
As these murders remind us, missionaries are not bulletproof. God spared Daniel from the lion’s den, and God spared the Apostle Paul from a murderous mob. But God did not spare John the Baptist from being beheaded or Stephen from stoning by an angry mob. God didn’t even spare his own son, Jesus, from crucifixion.
Though it shocks us, it shouldn’t surprise us that missionaries are still laying down their lives for people who don’t understand their love or their faith. I marvel at the courage of these missionaries who entered into harm’s way to offer a loving hand of aid to people who have been oppressed.
It is being demonstrated all over the Middle East that extreme forms of Islam are oppressive to the people of these nations. Any government that does not allow religious freedom within its country becomes oppressive by nature. When a government and a religion become inseparable, the two work together to oppress rather than to liberate the people.
America ought to understand this, because our country was established by people who sought relief from persecution for their religion. They made the dangerous journey to these shores to worship as they chose. Ironically, no sooner than colonies were established these people began setting up their own exclusionary religious rules.
It took a man named Roger Williams to cut a path of religious freedom in the new land that still has implications for religious freedom in America and still has theological implications for many Christians.
Unlike most settlers, Williams befriended the Indians and defended their property rights. As a man of faith, Williams had a deep desire to share with the Native Americans the gospel about Christ, so he learned their language and their culture. While his relationship with the Indians grew stronger, his relationship with his own colony grew weaker until he was banished from the colony.
Raymond F. Dolle writes that “the banishment of Williams from the colony reflects basic conflicts and concerns in the patriarchal Puritan society of colonial New England. The community leaders felt an urgent need to maintain authority and orthodoxy in order to preserve the ‘city on a hill’ they had founded. Any challenge to their authority undermined the Puritan mission and threatened the New Canaan they had built with such suffering…. Williams advocated attractive individualistic principles that threatened the prevailing system, and he was banished from Christ’s kingdom in America in an attempt to hold the community of saints together.”
Other than sharing a spiritual heir in Abraham, fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims share the same mentality of the patriarchal Puritan society of colonial New England.
Islamic fundamentalism sees any American and any form of Christianity as a threat to Muslim authority and Muslim culture. To them, we are the Great Satan. In an attempt to hold the Muslim world together, free of “corruption,” Americans and Christians must be banished, even if it means killing them. This attitude ensures that Islamic countries will continue suffering from isolationism. Freedom of religious expression does not exist. Power is maintained by a few with religion as the ultimate weapon for controlling the people.
Christian fundamentalism is not as bloody. Bullets rarely fly. Yet the underlying fear that diversity within the religious system is evil is just as real. One goal of fundamentalist systems is to remove all those who question the authority and orthodoxy of the religious leadership. For the last 25 years, for example, there have been more banishments of Southern Baptist leaders from seminaries, colleges, boards, agencies, media organizations and the mission field than in all previous years of Southern Baptist life combined.
While any body of faith must have theological common ground to work together, a retreat into isolationism is not the answer. One current example of this retreat into a narrow theological view is the proposal from a nine-member study committee appointed by the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has recommended that Southern Baptists discontinue a 99-year-old relationship with the Baptist World Alliance. Southern Baptist messengers will vote to approve this recommendation in June.
The Baptist World Alliance represents a community of approximately 110 million Baptists ministering around the world in more than 200 countries. The BWA unites Baptists worldwide, leads in evangelism, responds to people in need and defends human rights. Southern Baptists have given a lion’s share of financial backing for this body of believers and have provided many of its key leaders.
The leaders of the SBC have charged that the rest of the Baptist world is out of step with orthodox Southern Baptist theology. They have charged the Baptist world organization with “advocating aberrant and dangerous theologies,” and with an unfair discussion of the issues.
In response, Denton Lotz, general secretary for the BWA, said the move “will bring a schism within the life of our worldwide Baptist family and thus it is a sin against love.”
Last week, four Southern Baptist missionaries gave their lives in love for the people of Iraq.
Yet, back home, their leaders have decided the Southern Baptists in America no longer have enough in common with the rest of the Baptist world to join hands with them to evangelize, to respond to human need and to defend human rights.
How can Southern Baptists expect a non-believing Muslim world to lay down its fundamentalist Islamic faith long enough to hear the story of God’s love through his Son, Jesus, while at the same time fundamentalist Baptists refuse to join hands with people of like faith throughout the world to do ministry in the name of Christ?
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column appears in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.