Breaking up is hard to do, but we Baptists seem to be pretty good at it, at least when it comes to our preferences about with whom and how we worship.
We find points on which to disagree with an alarming regularity, define reasons to refer to one another as “wrong” almost every day, and frequently create excuses to leave and join ever more narrow groups with whom we can agree on everything … at least until we find another question over which to divide again.
The history of Baptists in the United States is a history of division. We’re divided by race, divided by region, divided by doctrine. The most important split in Baptist history in the United States, of course, took place not over the question of the inerrancy of Scripture or the priesthood of the believer, but rather because Baptists in the South wanted to keep their slaves. Splits within and between churches have occurred over everything from five-point Calvinism to open communion tables to the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. Disagreeing is what we do.
Why do we split? Because we feel we must. We are driven by conscience, conviction, preference, and occasionally economics to take a stand, to find a hill on which to die, to refuse to lose our seminaries and state conventions to those people.
I can’t in good conscience attend a Baptist church that won’t acknowledge that God might call women to ministry. He is deeply convicted that any church that would ordain homosexual individuals as deacons isn’t a Bible-believing community. She can’t imagine attending a church that doesn’t use the same Baptist Hymnal from which her mother and grandmother sang. No one but Jesus will tell us how to believe. And on and on it goes.
Yet here is a savior who tells us that, before we can make a sacrifice in the temple, before we can rightly go to worship God, we must reconcile. Jesus doesn’t say, work out your differences to the last detail, figure out who’s right, punish the one who’s wrong, agree to disagree. He says, look, if you remember that there’s a problem between you and someone else, you need to go and reconcile. Before worship.
I grew up watching Baptists fight one another, and I’ve long wondered how it could possibly be pleasing to God for us to hate each other. Maybe “hate” is too strong a word, but the rancor I have observed between the types of Baptists I know best suggests that we are anything but reconciled to one another.
Conservatives, moderates and liberals alike throw around pejorative terms like “fundamentalist” or “liberal” or “fascist” as though we were speaking of evil personified. Meanwhile, our relationships with our brothers and sisters of other races and socioeconomic backgrounds are all too often shamefully nonexistent. We all go to worship quite regularly, I’m sure. But we are not reconciled.
I don’t fully understand what reconciliation means. It’s a theme I hope to explore in future posts. But I can tell you that the primary reason I am so excited about January’s Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant is that it provides an incredible opportunity for us to practice doing that which God has called us to do.
This gathering of Baptists from more than 30 different groups and from thousands of different backgrounds gives us the chance, in some small way, to reconcile. For two days next winter, we can set aside some of our past conflicts–about race, about doctrine, about selfish ambition–to work together, learn together and stand in worship together.
We have a chance to reconcile. Will you join us?
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.