Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why Do This?

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 na├»ve 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 America.  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.

Monday, March 12, 2012

One Baptist's Perspective

I have been a Baptist all my life.

My paternal grandfather, who went to be with the Lord in 1980, was a bi-vocational Baptist minister. Though he never had the opportunity for formal education, he was a dedicated Baptist who studied diligently on his own, knew Baptist polity well and was committed to the support of missions through the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention.

My parents had me in church as soon as they could. I grew up learning about Jesus from a distinct Baptist perspective. I made a profession of faith at a young age and was baptized. I was nurtured into the kingdom, so that this was the logical next step in a faith journey that had begun much earlier. I likewise heard God’s call to the ministry early on. I met my wonderful wife in the little church that my grandfather had established.  We were married in that same church a little over three years later.  I was ordained to the ministry there as well.

I served three different small Baptist congregations as pastor while I was a college student at Campbell University and a seminary student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1980s. As I examined the faith I had been taught as I grew up Baptist, it became my own faith. While my faith grew and expanded in ways far beyond what I learned in my childhood and youth, it was not a denial of an earlier faith but rather a maturation of it. In college, seminary, and subsequent graduate studies, I imbibed in early church history and patristic teaching, which gave me appreciation for the ancient theological reflection that led to what we know as classical orthodox Christianity. 

So my Baptist pedigree not only includes my Baptist nurture in childhood and youth; I have earned degrees from a Baptist university undergraduate religion program, a Baptist Seminary, the graduate school of a formerly Baptist University (Wake Forest), and the divinity school of still another Baptist university (Gardner-Webb). And if that isn’t enough, I have worked in church relations at still another Baptist university (Wingate)!

I say all that to establish where I am coming from as I contribute to the conversations on this Reflections from the Baptist Center blog. When I am asked about my theological stance, I have come to express it like this. My understanding of the historic Christian faith is consistent with those ancient confessions of faith commonly known as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. My Baptist understanding is consistent with the 1963 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message. Thus I am neither a fundamentalist nor a liberal, but a centrist committed to classical orthodox Christian teaching from a historic Baptist perspective.

These days, it seems that the center in Baptist life has fallen on hard times.

Last year I heard Len Sweet say in a lecture at Campbell University that in the "Gutenberg" world (people born before the invention of the cell phone in 1973), the poles were small and the center was large—a bell curve. But in the "Google" world (people born since the invention of the cell phone), things have become increasingly polarized. And as the center has shrunk, the bell curve has become the "well curve." While I agree that things have become increasingly polarized, I think there is still a large, though very quiet center. Those who are on the polar opposites tend to be very loud and persistent. 

Those of us in the centerwhether the issue is theological, ethical, practical, or political—tend to get attacked from both sides if we venture to express an opinion. If we do not toe the line of the extreme right, we are labeled as liberals. If we do not toe the line of the extreme left, we are branded as Pharisaical fundamentalists. Those on the left and right are so vocal and their demonization of the centrists so vehement that many in the center feel they have to identify with one or the other. After all, these seem to be the only two options, and they want to identify with what they consider the lesser of two evils. But as a wise professor once told me, "It doesn't matter whether you run off the right side of the road or the left—on either side, you're in the ditch!" I heard another wise professor say often that liberals and fundamentalists are twins, they just don't know it. Their assumptions and outcomes are different, but their methods and rationalistic approaches are nearly identical.

I'm not sure what the answer is at this point, but somehow those of us in the center must stand up and let our voices be heard, regardless of the attacks.

There is a better and more balanced way. The question is whether we will stand up in the center and passionately walk in that way—true to historic classical Christian faith and ethics and loving in our approach. Or as once I heard it described, "theologically committed, psychologically open."

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A place for conversation for those in the Baptist theological center

Several months ago I posted a blog whose response surprised me.  The blog was entitled "The Forgotten Baptist Center" and expressed some of my sense of isolation and frustration as a Baptist coming from the theological center.  After I posted the blog, I began to hear from other Baptist pastors from a wide diversity of locations across the country. It seemed that some of more dramatic/controversial statements from Baptist leaders posted by the Baptist Press and the Associated Baptist Press would spur another flurry of emails and Facebook messages. It became clear that there was a need for a forum where those in the Baptist center could connect and communicate. I am inviting several other pastors to join me as blog authors from the start. We will also be open to others joining us in sharing their thoughts and perspectives.  We will also keep the comments section open so you can offer your response to what others might post.

Please hear that the intention of this new blog site is not to be a dissent voice or to stir controversy.  Our intention is that it serve as a means where pastors and other Baptist can connect with others that share their theological hearts' and communicate with others that share their place in the Baptist family.  As a part of the introduction to this blog site I am reposting the blog that seemed to spark some of the initial conversation.  It is offered below.  I look forward to hearing from you. 

There are times I feel alone. I did not use to feel this way. I used to feel a part of a family with a wide tent, big enough to hold a wide diversity of folks who all called themselves Baptist. It seems that Baptist have followed our national political trend of polarization. Those on the right seem to keep drifting further right. There seems to be little room in their world for anyone that might disagree with anything they think. Their truths and opinions (often they do not seem to be able to tell the difference) are absolute. Those on the left are equally entrenched. It seems that it is not enough to be given the freedom to believe as they will – to practice their faith as they will. But, they are so sure that they are right that their truths and opinions (often they do not seem to be able to tell the difference) are absolute. Those on both sides will not be satisfied until everyone embraces their way of thinking – their way of interpreting Scripture – their way of dealing with the politics of nation – their way of living life. Those on the right were so demanding that they drove many of us out of the tent seeking a new home. Now those on the left are so insistent that their agenda is highlighted and featured in conferences that the tent that I moved to now seems progressively less comfortable, progressively less like “home.”

There is a part of me that yearns for the absolute certainty of those who live on my left and right. It is easier to live in the absolutes. You do not have to think as hard or work as hard because everything is clear cut. My problem is that I that I live at the center/center-right of the Baptist spectrum. I claim the strong faith statements of traditional Baptist theology. I also claim the reality that Paul proclaims in I Corinthians 13, For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. I want to live in the balance of a ministry of Word and deed. I am a faithful follower of Jesus that with equal passion taught and healed, preached and feed. I want to serve as a witness of a gospel that speaks both of law and grace, of justice and mercy. I want to be a Jesus person; both where that blesses and where that offends. It can be difficult to live in the theological center because it demands that I give great care to working through what the whole of the Bible says about an issue, and that I take the interpretation of the Bible seriously. I cannot allow my culture to so shape, from either perspective, what I read that I misread the Word of God. It means that my task is not driven by a poll of what one generation thinks about homosexuality, abortion, gun control, the death penalty, immigration, or a hundred other political and social hot buttons of the day; but rather what God has said to His people across the generations and across cultures. It means that when I come to preach and teach I come with the certainty of a God who was from the beginning and shall be forever; that God that is unshakable and is my refuge and strength. I teach and preach about a God that is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I teach and preach from a Bible that is the divinely inspired Word of God, not in part but in whole. But, I also bring the frailty and the fallibility of my own perspective – worldview – and faith walk.

As I talk to other pastors and church leaders from across the nation they tell me that I am not alone. They tell me that they too are theological centrists in Baptist life. They tell me that they have also felt alone and forgotten in the emerging Baptist landscape. They tell me that they felt out of place in one tent, and progressive equally out of place in another. They tell me that their answer has been to dive in and focus solely and wholly on their local church’s mission and ministry. They are at home in the local church context and disconnected from the institutions and organizations that shape the Baptist landscape. They are old and young; graduates of the six historic Baptist seminaries and from the newer ones that have emerged over the last twenty years. They are ministers and they are laity. They long to feel connected. They long to work side-by-side others. They long to find community that is not drawn left or right by the latest poll, the quest for financial survival or the latest political wave. They are weary of seminars that are agenda laden and publications that seem to echo single points of view. They are the forgotten center in Baptist life. I wonder where and how they might fit together and work together in the days ahead? Any thoughts?

Grace and Peace, Tom