For the greater portion of my professional life, I have felt more at home outside of my denomination than within it. I guess it can be expected when you’re from a divided family.
During the Baptist divorce of the 1980s, I chose to live with the more egalitarian and nurturing parent, rather than the more oppressively authoritarian partner. While thankful for the freedom and peace, I was still sad for the separation.
And I was embarrassed and ashamed when those without the leveling influence of a kinder corrective turned their newfound power into a rhetoric aimed against all they self-righteously judged as heretical.
They forced out sincere biblical scholars from meaningful careers for not affirming inerrancy. Gifted women ministers witnessed the door of opportunity slammed in their faces and even heard it lock from the inside. Boycotts became more popular than prayer meetings as this group grew intoxicated with their success.
In many ways, denominational life was equally difficult for those on the other side. We knew we were different, but we had difficulty figuring out that difference without using the old and more comfortable vocabulary. We appeared squeamish when needing to confront the exaggerations and excesses of our more powerful ex-partner. We stumbled in our desire of fairness to all. And we never could resist the fascination of what “they” were up to doing next.
For Baptists meeting next week in Atlanta, a new day beckons. The conversation is changing, and the family is adapting. In that opportunity, I hope and pray for these dynamics:
–Respect Difference. This meeting promises to be interdenominational, interracial and interactive. Former SBC Baptists will finally break out of their predominately white southern boxes. This demands true dialogue, where we seek to hear one another as much as we desire to be heard.
–Transcend Politics. As I mentioned in an earlier column, this meeting cannot avoid politics, but I hope it will articulate a perspective that cannot easily be captivated or identified with either the Republicans or Democrats. May the collective voice of this meeting call both parties to a greater expression of an ethical standard that reflects the deeper and more persistent themes of the very Biblical traditional we honor: concern for the needy, the stranger and the marginalized are exactly these sorts of priorities.
–Discover a New Spirituality. Balancing such openness with a strong advocacy will require a gift of the Spirit. Courage is not a human trait, but an empowering presence of something greater and better demanding our best and motivating our surrender. When we lost the piety of sanctimonious traditionalism, we never found a compelling alternative.
Worshiping and working alongside our brothers and sisters of race and struggle can provide that difference. Let’s give up our stiff and stodgy styles. Let’s abandon our false status as the disposed member. Let’s quit wondering and start doing. Let’s embrace this new day with an unashamed faith and an unclaimed potential.
I know I’m hoping for a lot. But I think this is why I became a Christian in the first place.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.
Mark Johnson is senior pastor of Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky.