The 68-year-old dean of Baptist ethics professors began teaching in 1962 as an instructor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary while completing his dissertation from Duke University. After two years at Meredith College, he joined Baylor’s religion faculty in 1966.
In four decades, McGee has witnessed dramatic social changes in America and the world. He has seen the emergence of complex moral and social issues that have brought unprecedented challenges to Christian ethics and moral decision-making. And he has experienced 20 years of denominational upheaval that has significantly altered the Baptist landscape in America.
Through all the changes, McGee has steadfastly followed his calling: teaching men and women how to apply the gospel to every life situation through biblical and theological reflection.
His devotion to Christian ethics is contagious, inspiring not only hundreds of students through the years, but also his children. He and Merolyn, his wife of 46 years, have two grown children. Son Glenn is a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of the new American Journal of Bioethics. Daughter Caroline recently received her M.D., following a master’s in medical ethics from Vanderbilt University.
McGee recently spoke with EthicsDaily.com about Baptists and Christian ethics.
What led you into teaching Christian ethics, and who were the primary influences on that decision?
I “surrendered” for the Christian ministry as a high school student and went off to Furman University in 1952 with that vocational goal in mind. Those were interesting days in the South as we began to struggle openly with a number of important social issues, especially race relations.
I began to write a weekly commentary for our school newspaper dealing primarily with these social issues. Simultaneously, I took “The Ethical Teachings of Jesus” taught by Dr. H.J. Flanders Jr., and one of our texts was Paul Ramsey’s Basic Christian Ethics. I became “hooked” on Christian ethics.
I went from Furman to Southeastern Seminary where Dr. Olin T. Binkley became my mentor, and then to Duke where the majority of my work was with Dr. Waldo Beach. Both Binkley and Beach had strong connections with H. Richard Niebuhr, whose writings became seminal for my early academic understanding of Christian ethics.
I say “academic” because it has been very clear to me for many years that my first mentors in Christian ethics were my parents, Bennett and Lucy McGee. They didn’t lead any protest marches against the racism of that day, but they taught me that it was wrong, requiring me to speak respectfully to the African-American tenant farmers of our community. These simple courtesies—and hundreds of acts of helping the sick and hungry in our community—were my first lessons in Christian ethics.
What are some of the significant changes you have seen in Baptist life since you began teaching?
I think it’s fair to say that in the last 25 to 30 years the ecclesiastical and academic institutions associated with Southern Baptists have become more “culture bound.” This is not unlike what has happened in most religious communities—including Catholicism, Judaism and Islam—largely in response to the fears created by the turbulent events of the 20th century.
We have been inclined to respond in fear rather than in faith. In our search for security and absolute certainty we have been inclined to embrace authoritarian leaders and hierarchical structures in our families, our churches, denominational structures and our political system. There has been a general loss of confidence in shared leadership and decision-making in which the will of God is patiently searched for through prayer and listening to the understanding of the entire community.
The number of full-time ethics professors has declined among Southern Baptist seminaries in the last decade, and there are no full-time ethics professors on the faculties of the new schools associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Is this one indicator of an emerging vacuum in Christian ethics among Baptists?
From the beginning, Baptists have been an amalgam shaped by a number of traditions from within Christendom. It seems evident to me that during the last several decades the Anabaptist or Believers Church tradition with its sense of mutuality has declined within the Southern Baptist establishment with a corresponding ascendancy of a more authoritarian style that has often characterized the Calvinist tradition.
As ultra-conservatives seized control of Southern Baptist seminaries and agencies, they have focused more on orthodoxy than orthopraxy, and one of the casualties has been a declining interest in Christian ethics.
I think there has also been a move away from the historic Baptist understanding of the Christian community as a minority committed to being true to the radical demands of Christ’s word’s and example. Instead, a desire to be a ruling majority has emerged with a willingness to use coercive means, including the power of the state, to promote the church’s cause. Early Baptists understood and embraced the burden of being a minority, becoming champions of all people who suffered under the hammer of a domineering majority.
This recent dispute among Baptists is in many ways a replay of the debate among the people of Christ’s day: Is this suffering servant, Jesus, the real Messiah or should we wait until someone more like King David comes along? It is important as Baptists have become numerous and influential, that we remain true to the example of Christ who showed us the power of being a servant.
I think the ethical implications of the gospel must remain an important part of our message and ministry as Baptist Christians. Such a focus will remind us constantly of the weak and the oppressed and of our obligation as followers of Jesus to go to them first.
As for moderate Baptists, I think it’s important that we listen to each other—and to other Baptists from around the world. With the exception of North America, most Baptists live as a minority in their countries. Their example and their friendship can remind us of our dependency upon God as well as our need for one another.
David Wilkinson is a well-known Baptist journalist currently writing news stories and features for EthicsDaily.com.
David Wilkinson is Executive Director and Publisher at Baptist News Global.