Two intertwining gifts are emerging in a North American church scene in which every major denomination is in decline.
First, there is a renewed desire for roots, to evaluate histories and to see what it was about being Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist that mattered in the first place.
And second, there is a renewed interest in looking up from our trenches and finding friends nearby.
The task of Christian ethics, in one way or another, has always been of this character: drawing from deep and particular places, combined with drawing other resources into one’s own orbit.
For offering a Christian ethic is done always not for parochial concerns, that we would pragmatically fix the problem staring us in the face, but that in our moral living, we would be joined together with the fullness of Christ’s body.
Christian ethics cannot be divorced from ecclesiology in this way: We live as Christ’s witnesses in the world, to the way of Christ, which always passes through the unity of Christ’s body.
It surprises no one more than me – a trained theologian and ethicist from three Baptist schools – to be starting a new program that embodies this truth.
In Fall 2020, I’ll be starting as the director of Baptist studies in the Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology, teaching Baptist students preparing for ministry about Baptist history, theology and polity, all housed in a Church of Christ university.
Students will be able to learn in an ecumenical context, while yet being trained in the riches of their own tradition, drawing from particular places and finding like-minded traditions nearby as companions.
James McClendon, a 20th century Baptist theologian, described this as the “baptist vision” (small b), this finding and seeking together in communities of the baptized, oriented toward the world, and listening for what the Spirit is calling forth from the storehouse of Scripture.
It is a listening to the riches of the Spirit from the past and allowing those to be guides for us in the present.
It is recognizing the Spirit of Christ is one that is pulling together the broken body into one body, with Christ as the head.
This dual placement of Christian ethics – responding both particularly and ecumenically – will be more and more important for Christians to learn in the future.
The option is not to be denominational or not, I think; the joke about non-denominational churches being a denomination, with a hermeneutic, polity and history, holds true.
We all have histories, which we live within and theological imaginations we cannot un-inherit.
Rather, we should seek to draw out the good that is particular to our pasts and bring that forward to share with others so our common witness to Christ’s work might be enriched.
This dual placement also means that Christian ethics – as it draws both particularly and ecumenically – listens not only to the world it is comfortable with, but also to the world that ever surrounds the church.
The church lives in all cultures, in all parts of God’s creation and draws all questions about the moral life into it.
Because Christian ethics is ecumenical in scope, it can never say, “This does not affect us,” but is rather called to bear witness to Christ’s reconciliation into all things.
The future is bright, both for Baptist theological education and ethics. But the future will not be one of retrenchment, of pretending that any question or issue can be dealt with apart from our friends.
And now is the time for friends. Baptists in Texas are lucky to have this new friendship with Abilene Christian University.
Myles Werntz, starting in Fall 2020, will be Director of Baptist Studies in the Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology, having served previously as the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. He is the author of “Bodies of Peace: Ecclesiology, Nonviolence, Witness,” and the co-editor of four other volumes.