Writing anything exposes one to misunderstanding or criticism from someone. Writing anything about standing in the center of politics, theological debates, or ethical issues exposes one to misunderstanding and criticism from nearly everyone in our highly polarized society. Writing from or about what we believe to be the center of Baptist life is even more risky, because there are so many kinds of Baptists and so little agreement on what constitutes, either historically or Biblically, the “Baptist center.”
So why on earth would one even try? First, I am simply weary of the divisiveness and incivility that has been bred into our society. The harsh rants of the Rush Limbaughs and Bill Mahers have caused tone deafness in us. I believe many Baptists, wittingly or unwittingly, have borrowed the tone and tenor of such rhetoric in our theological debates. There is a vacuum of moderating voices in this culture of screeching and screaming.
Yes, we Baptists have historically been a stubborn and feisty bunch of people. My seminary reading of Walter Shurden’s Not a Silent People was formative in helping me understand that. Who can forget chapter headings like, “Here Come the Battling Baptists”? Controversy and disagreement have played a pivotal role in the shaping of the Baptist landscape.
Further, on a personal level, I remember a time when a Pastor he loved like a brother ruled my grandfather out of order in a church business meeting. Further, to my own shame and discredit, I confess to moments when I have been less than charitable. Still, I cannot recall a time when our differences of opinion have resulted in the sort of mean spirited and highly partisan bickering that has characterized us for the last several years. There is hardly any contrast in tone between debates within the theological and political realms in American culture.
Secondly, I am just naïve enough to believe that there are many silent voices in the middle, yearning for someone to speak up and say, “Enough already!” Some of us do not believe that everything must be black or white, red or blue, right or left, legalistic or libertine, absolute or relative, acute or obtuse, liberal or fundamentalist. I believe that the loud, sometimes obnoxious, and usually strident voices from either fringe in Baptist circles need to know that they are shouting over the heads of many of us who are anxious to get along and restore a modicum of civility to public discourse. It is past time for the center to speak. Have we been a silent people?
In the third place, I believe most of us, even those on the fringes, agree on much more of the gospel than we disagree over. Certainly, there are nuances of understanding, interpretation, and application of gospel truths. Nevertheless, I dare to believe that most of us still believe in the authority of the Scriptures, the mystery of the Trinity, the truth of sin, the power of the resurrection, and the need for redemption that come only through trust in Jesus who is the Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Finally, I am convinced that this is precisely where Jesus would have me, and I even dare say “We,” to stand. Do you remember the occasion in the gospel narrative when the disciples encountered others who were not of their tribe casting out demons in Jesus’ name? Jesus rebuked his disciples for their zealous and eager desire to use their newfound power to call down fire and brimstone on those heathens. “Whoever,” said, Jesus, “is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40, NRSV) Not only this, but we must not ignore the enjoinder of I John 3:11 that we should love one another, or that such love is the proof that we actually know God and abide in Him (I John 4:6-16).
So, I am electing to expose myself to potential detractors from both sides of a great divide in contemporary Baptist life in
. I do so with the great hope that the sleeping voices of a silent majority will awake and that at least within this sphere of Christian life known as the Baptist family we might turn our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. I trust that if yours has been one of the silent voices of the mighty middle, that you might consider joining this conversation and help us show the world that the third way between extremes is an honorable place. America