Can Baptist congregations still be courageous enough to respect, honor and validate the personal and moral choice of members who challenge the Christian mainstream by exercising a renewal of our commitment to the liberty of conscience?
Some bishops, as illustrated by Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., were more moderate and flexible in their approach, opening the door to a variety of applications. Others, as illustrated by Bishop Ronald W. Gainer of the Diocese of Lexington, Ky., were more specific and admonished parishioners to understand the gravity of the abortion issue and how it trumps all other concerns in directing a person’s vote.
This discussion, now taking place among our Catholic friends, has me thinking about my group, the Baptists, and our concern about matters of conscience. Historically, it has been our treasured domain, interchanging the concepts of soul liberty, soul freedom and the liberty of conscience.
While early Baptists found authority in scripture and mostly agreed together in principle with many doctrines of the Reformation, they also knew that Christians could disagree and interpret certain passages differently. They said they trusted each other as a matter of conscience. But did they really, or was their unity actually forged by agreed practice in a local and often homogenous community?
The complex and crowded world of the 21st century is today’s verdict on the Baptist commitment to liberty of conscience. Widely divergent perspectives now intersect our neighborhoods, city councils, school boards and yes, even our own individual congregations. One response has been to narrow the boundaries of conscience, telling others how to live, who to love, what to do and, in some cases, who to vote for, who to ordain and who to hire.
What about the rest? Can Baptist congregations still be courageous enough to respect, honor and validate the personal and moral choice of members who challenge the Christian mainstream by exercising a renewal of our commitment to the liberty of conscience?
Instead of pat answers, I believe these congregations are better served by struggling with substantive questions. My short list includes: Is this fair? Who is harmed? Who decides? What brings reconciliation and healing? Where is the Spirit of Christ found?
Living with these questions invites a struggle that resists a rush to judgment. It exposes fears and prejudices prompting lively and even heated discussions. It is also the best way to constantly form our conscience and grow our love.
I am grateful to those early Baptists who fought for this freedom. I just hope I’m courageous enough to live up to it.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.
Mark Johnson is senior pastor of Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky.