When I turned on the computer this morning, there was the question. A friend-at-a-distance from many years back with whom I have reconnected on Facebook–FB is great for that very reason–laid the matter before me:
“Why are you Southern Baptist?”
It did not appear that she has an agenda and she didn’t sound angry. She sounded like she wanted my take on this matter.
What I said to her in the brief space which Facebook allows was something like: “I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. The Lord captured me there as a sophomore in college and did such wonderful things in my life in this family of churches, I’ve never looked back. Its emphasis on fellowship, the Word, and bringing people to Jesus does it for me.”
That’s pretty much what I said, but what I thought was, “It would take an hour to answer that adequately.”
Let’s see if I can do it in less than that.
I actually grew up prejudiced against Southern Baptists. My family called them “missionary Baptists” and would remark on how they believed “once saved, always saved” as though that were the equivalent of Mormon weirdness or Jehovah Witnesses’ date-setting.
That line was always followed with “they think you can get saved today and go out and get drunk tomorrow and still go to heaven.”
But as a sophomore in college, living for a brief time with my sister Patricia and her husband James Phelps, we visited churches in search of “the one that fits.”
No one was more surprised than I when it turned out to be the large West End Baptist Church on Tuscaloosa Avenue in Birmingham’s West End. When Trish and James stepped into the aisle to join, I went with them. A few days later, Marguerite Dempsey called from the church office to say, “You’ll be baptized next Sunday night.”
I’d been saved as a kid in our family’s Free Will Baptist Church near Nauvoo, but had never been baptized. So, I became Southern Baptist.
A good and long story summarized, over the next 3 years in that Birmingham church, I grew like a weed (does that expression work when we’re talking about spiritual growth?) and learned to love studying the Bible, fellowshiping with God’s people, and serving Him together. Church member Joel Davis and I shared an apartment, and God used him in a hundred ways to grow me. I married Margaret, received the call to preach, and was ordained.
Associate pastor Ron Palmer started talking with me about attending seminary, a new concept to this country boy. Ron phrased it like, “You don’t have any choice. You have to go to seminary.” And so I did.
Southern Baptists had our choice of six seminaries in those days and more now, I suppose we can say. Three of the seminaries within traveling distance were located in states (Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina) with more Baptists than people. I wanted to go where I could serve and make a difference. That was my thinking. That’s how it became New Orleans.
Funny how you make one small decision and everything in your life changes from then on. That’s how it was for me in bringing my young wife and small child to this city in 1964.
We joined a New Orleans church (Pontchartrain Baptist) and I soon began pastoring Paradis Baptist Church west of the city (now West St. Charles Baptist in Boutte, LA).
Not counting the three years I served on staff of the First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, for the next forty years I pastored SBC churches. Finally, from 2004 to 2009, I served the 135 SBC congregations of metro New Orleans in a position we call “Director of Missions.”
My Southern Baptist credentials are solid, I suppose. Two seminary degrees. A lifetime of serving SBC churches. Service on several boards and agencies of the denomination, including four years as a trustee of the International Mission Board. So many of the leaders of our denomination are longtime friends, some going all the way back to seminary.
But none of that is what keeps me in this convention.
The truth is we are an argumentative bunch. And history shows we’ve never been otherwise. I could tweak that and make it say “we are a deliberative group,” since we conduct mass business meetings at our annual denominational convocations, and it’s true. But “argumentative” is definitely the right word.
I used to take pride at the doctrinal diversity within our denomination. That is how it should be, I felt, because the teachings of the Scripture are no dead thing. Some friends who were less conservative than I brought good points of view to the table, I felt, as did those who were to the right of me.
Alas, some years back, two things happened.
The liberals decided to push out the conservatives and the conservatives decided to push back.
That is not what you expected me to say, was it.
But I was there. I saw it. The Baptists who considered themselves liberal developed such a superiority complex that disdained the likes of Adrian Rogers who could grow a great evangelistic church in a cotton field. Evangelism was not that important to them except for the big numbers it produced on the ledgers.
As a seminary student, I recall overhearing one of my New Testament professors in an unguarded moment scoffing at the “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet that God used to lead so many people to Christ.
The denomination was not content to be a safe place for theological diversity. Each fledgling wanted to push the other out of the nest.
No conservative was elected to anything of importance in the national convention. A small group of leaders informally decided who they would support for president the following year.
So, the conservatives finally woke up, got organized and pushed back. And won. That’s it in a sentence.
The moderate/liberal group called foul, of course. The very idea that “those fundamentalists” are doing what we have been doing!
These days when I hear someone from either end of the theological spectrum complaining over abuses from the other side, I suggest they go slowly there, that there are enough wrongs on each side to fill a catalog. No one came out of that fight unscathed and without stepping over the line, is my observation.
I hate that it happened. But it probably had to happen.
A young pastor friend in seminary in Kentucky wrote to tell me of the professors he had who did not believe in the literal physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He sat in the classrooms, he heard it for himself, this was not hearsay.
All of this is to answer an unvoiced statement by many: why are you still Southern Baptist after all the infighting of recent decades?
My answer is twofold: Baptist have always been a contentious people (not that this is good) and every denomination has its own challenges.
I believe the doctrine Southern Baptists teach.
We are, I firmly believe, more “generic” Christians than anything.
If you have been saved by the Lord Jesus Christ and love His Word, then we’re on the same team. We may differ over details here and there, but that’s all right. Critics from outside will dispute this, but the truth is there is still a good deal of diversity within our denomination. And I hope it stays that way.
Some are probably bound and determined to impose their Calvinism on the rest of the denomination, or–please don’t miss this–dead set on ousting the Calvinists from the denomination. One error is as bad as the other, if you ask me.
This denomination must be dynamic or it will be dead.
Personally, I’d like to have some good old-fashioned liberals in the denomination. And by that I mean (“quick, Joe, explain!”) people who do not agree with the party line on everything and bring a well-thought out but differing point of view to the table. The last thing we need is to insist that everyone in the room conform to one person’s interpretation of Scripture.
I hasten to say, however, that there are some non-negotiables. We are opposed to abortion and are strongly pro-family. We believe homosexuality to be wrong, wrong, wrong–although no more wrong than adultery, pedophilia, incest, and spousal abuse.
Some of the smartest and kindest people on the planet are Southern Baptists.
I love going to their churches and fellowshiping with them at various meetings and conventions.
Nothing, absolutely nothing about this, is to imply that all of this could not be said of other denominations. God has His people in many groupings.
As a younger pastor, I used to grimace at the “churches on every corner” feature of our Bible Belt landscape. But I got over that.
Churches have always–from the beginning–needed to meet in smaller groups. We do not need one massive Christian church for the several hundred thousand believers in one city. No matter how they organized, they would either pull into smaller clusters or they would cease to exist. So, for better or for worse, that’s what we have. And for the most part, they get along.
We are generic Christians. After a half-century as a Southern Baptist, that fact looms larger and larger in my mind. We do not believe we have a corner on orthodox Christianity.
We are disciples of Jesus Christ first and foremost. If you are also, no matter what the name on the church building you go to, we are on the same team.
Southern Baptists is part of our identity, how we define ourselves and our approach to worship, understanding doctrine, and doing ministry.