Since I was born in 1983, I was too young to be conscious of all the happenings that led to the present division of Baptists into the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Nevertheless, I became painfully aware of many details during my time at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, during undergraduate and seminary. Stories about what transpired shocked and saddened me. After all, I was attending a Baptist university where I was learning about the Baptist distinctives of soul freedom, church freedom, Bible freedom and religious freedom.
The more I learned about the events that took place in my pre-teen years and shook the Baptist denomination, the more it seemed that many had forgotten or denied the concepts central to Baptist identity. Reports that Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, has been disfellowshipped from the SBC because of their views regarding homosexuality has shown me, yet again, that many Baptists have continued to forget or deny our heritage and founding principles by allowing non-essentials to take “center stage.”
It is quite evident that in the past few decades conservative leaders within the Baptist denomination have decided to exalt “pet doctrines” and personal opinions to the status of dogma, thereby rejecting any significant manifestation of unity with diversity. Rather than allowing dogmatic essentials to be a rather minimal list that could be affirmed by all Christ followers, the trend in the SBC has been to compile a rather large list of “essentials” by exalting one perspective as the infallible word on the matter. Anyone wishing to hold a different position has a choice: Accept the dominant leadership’s decision or risk being disfellowshipped.
As Broadway discovered, it is that clear cut. Still, one has to wonder where the idea originated that those in power or that the majority opinion possesses the infallible word on a matter? Didn’t Baptists form around the concept that on most issues there are numerous perspectives, and we can agree to disagree and yet still do ministry together?
Isn’t it a foundational Baptist distinctive that our conventions at the state and local level are not governing bodies in the sense of controlling the local churches but are to be a means by which we cooperate to reach the world with God’s redemptive way of life? When did the idea arise that the role of convention leaders was to be “keepers of the gate” who exalt their particular views to the status of dogma and force everyone else to fall in line?
When did it become an act of love, which someone once said was the quality by which the world would know we were his followers, to malign, condemn and disfellowship those who held a different opinion than you? And when did it become acceptable to exalt issues such as homosexuality — about which the Bible speaks very little, if any, depending on whom you ask — while ignoring matters about which the Bible has much to say, such as the danger of wealth, the exploitation of the poor and the reconciliation of all peoples into one new humanity.
I recognize that my statements here could be seen as doing what I’ve just critiqued, namely maligning and condemning. I also realize that as someone aligned with CBF my thoughts will be taken with a grain, and likely a bucket, of salt by those in the SBC. My purpose is not to condemn or malign. It is to point out that when Baptists, or any Christians, are better known for what we reject and condemn and oppose rather than for the glimpses we manifest of God’s redemptive grace, we have lost our way.
As long as non-essentials take “center stage” we will not be known for our love, which is to be the defining quality of those who have encountered God’s redemptive way of life through Jesus the Christ. Disagreements over particulars are inevitable and expected. In fact, the understanding that we can hold a wide variety of opinions and still remain united in purpose is woven into the DNA of Baptists.
Therefore, the old adage “unity in essentials, diversity in non-essentials, in all things charity” needs to be heard and heralded once more, so that we can express a beautifully unified diversity within our common confession “Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord.”