No news here… I’m a Baptist, moderate in flavor, slightly left of moderate in my theology. We moderate Baptists are a young branch of the Baptist church – less than 30 years old, and we have a history, probably more reactionary than we’d like to admit.
In the late 1980s, there was the “fundamentalist take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention.” At the time, the majority of white Baptist churches in the south were Southern Baptist – conservative, faithful, evangelistic. We cared about the saving of souls, sharing Jesus, our beloved Broadman Hymnal (can I get an Amen?), and each other. Our church was missional both in beliefs and actions. It’s a tradition I could be proud of, and I’m happy to claim my home church as the builder of my foundation as a Christian and a minister.
When the fundamentalists took over the Baptist church, things got uncomfortable for us. “Good Baptists” had to believe things that we didn’t necessarily believe and interpret scripture in a way that no longer used Jesus Christ as the criterion by which scripture should be interpreted. The Bible went from being a holy book of Spirit-breathed scripture that guides, inspires, and teaches and became itself an object of worship – an idol [though every far-right Baptist would have denied that reality with his dying breath (Women’s opinions didn’t matter; we were to be “quietly submissive” as it says in the Bible – though nowhere does the Bible actually say that.)].
The evangelism that was such a strong hallmark of the Southern Baptist Church of old now took on a sinister, judgmental, condemning tone. “You’re a sinner and need to get right with God!” Gay, divorced, adulterer, thief, atheist, convict, person of another faith group, drunk, drug addict, feminist, liberal theologian… Whatever your “sin,” you needed to get on your knees and beg God to forgive you of your sins, turn from your evil ways, and ask Jay-sus to come into your heart, or you’re going to hay-ell. (It loses its impact if you don’t say it with two syllables and a deep southern drawl.) Throw in an abundance of Bible thumpin’, and you get the idea. This approach really overlooked the reality that we’re all sinners, and Jesus says not to judge. It also – no surprise – turned a lot of people off from church.
From this arose a new kind of Baptist in reaction to the fundamentalist take-over, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was born in 1990. The CBF went back to our Baptist roots, ordaining women who were called to the ministry and refocusing on both foreign and domestic missions. In that first decade, decade-and-a-half, I remember a lot of relief work in response to natural disasters around the globe. The CBF did and still does amazing things, but we didn’t jump on the evangelism very well. You see, the far-rights evangelized, and their brand of evangelism was rife with condemnation. We didn’t want to be associated with that at all, so we just didn’t do it.
On the other end of the spectrum in the world of Baptists, we have the American Baptist Church, generally quite liberal and passionate for social justice. The South has some ABCs, though they’re more numerous in the North and West. The churches which chose to embrace the more moderate views of the CBF were still pretty conservative at heart; I, myself, belonged to three churches that supported both the SBC and the CBF. It took a while for churches to transition fully. Because of these more conservative roots, the CBF churches weren’t entirely comfortable swinging to the more radical viewpoints that undergird a passion for social justice.
The conservative Baptists stand for something – the winning of souls for the Lord. The liberal Baptists stand for mercy for the disenfranchised and “least of these.” Although these two groups exercise their Baptistness is very different ways, they at least stand for something. The moderate Baptists didn’t seize hold of evangelism, nor did we seize hold of social justice, so we’re here in the middle, standing for nothing. Sure, we want to see people make their professions of faith and be baptized, and we can participate in ministries for the homeless, but don’t ask us – please don’t ask us! – to step out and share our faith with people. And, please, take our money to donate to this homeless ministry so we don’t have to get our hands dirty in relating to them on a personal level.
Cheap grace, anyone? We are so content to sit back on our blessed assurances and take in all the awesome grace that God dishes out to us. After all, we deserve it, right? I mean, we did earn it with that check we wrote to the homeless ministry and how loudly we said, “Amen!” when the pastor asked who celebrated that new decision for the Lord. We can’t earn grace, because grace by its very definition cannot be earned. So as we’re not sharing with people how our relationship with this Jesus dude has changed our lives, and as we’re not on the front lines helping people escape abject poverty and fighting for change, this grace is coming into us, but we’re not sharing it with others. We’re also not responding to it in a matter of humility or gratitude. In this way, we’re cheapening the grace of God.
I am calling on all my Baptist sisters and brothers to join me in standing for something. Let’s stand for the winning of souls, sharing our faith stories and how God’s love interrupted and changed our lives. And let’s fight for justice and mercy, desiring to effect change in people’s lives through various socio-political systems and through the amazing grace that God gives. Only in doing this can we rightly pray, “Thy Kingdom come… on Earth as it is in Heaven.”