A pastor recently stood at the stage of the American Baptist Biennial meeting in Kansas City. He stood up during the business meeting to say something he had on his chest. On his reading of that day and our present moment in our lives together, our denominational beliefs were insufficient.
“We believe that the Bible, composed of the Old and New Testaments, is the divinely inspired Word of God, the final written authority and trustworthy for faith and practice. It is to be interpreted responsibly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit within the community of faith. The primary purpose of the Bible is to point to Jesus Christ, the living Lord of the Church.”
This is the statement in the Bylaws of the American Baptist Churches, USA. The pastor who stood up at this meeting thought them insufficient. I do not recall the language proposed by that pastor, but I do remember it spoke of infallibility and inerrancy. It spoke of the original languages as being completely without error. It was a proposal straight out of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the early twentieth century.
Many of my colleagues, more steeped in specifically American Baptist life than I am, were stumped. “I thought we’d dealt with this issue in the 1920s!” was their exclamation. A few of them took issue with the speaker’s suggestion that he was “American Baptist in the womb,” given that American Baptist polity has long held that one is not born a Baptist, but rather becomes one by their own free choice as a result of their own freely pursued investigation into the nature of humanity, the nature of salvation, and the nature of our obligations towards each other and towards God in light of that salvation. And a few of them took to the stands to speak against that pastor. They carried the day, and the motion defeated.
I say I am not steeped in specifically American Baptist life, because I’m not. Though ABCUSA is my new religious home, I grew up in the Alliance of Baptists and the churches that parted with (or were parted from) the Sothern Baptist Convention in the late 80s and throughout the 90s.
Many of my new ABC colleagues believe that what happened in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s and 1980s, when fundamentalists took over the denomination, could never happen again. But let us be clear: in 1970, when many exclaimed, “I thought we’d dealt with these issues in the 1920s!” when many snorted derisively at the attempt of fundamentalists to violate what appeared to be long-standing Baptists principles, those forces did not win. They did not carry the day. They were defeated. The SBC became thoroughly fundamentalist, in no small part because many of the people who believed differently did not sense the threat until it was too late.
The SBC fight was about many things, but perhaps most realistically, it was a fight over the ordination of women to ministry. While much of the language was about biblical authority on its face, nothing got you kicked out of disfellowshipped faster than ordaining a woman or hiring one to work as your pastor. And it was a fight precisely at the same time women were broadly advancing in our society, and in the church.
The same weekend as biennial, the Supreme Court ruled that gays and lesbians are deserving of full marriage rights in all jurisdictions in America. As a gay man, I celebrate the decision. As a Baptist, I quailed when I heard this motion. The same language as was used to disfellowship my sisters and brothers in the 70s now stirs its head right at the moment when my own ordination is on the line. These are our fears. This is our reality.
While I write these words as a warning to those who would regard the vote in Kansas City as a fait accompli and who feel there is nothing left to worry about – there is, and we must be alert to the need to remain vigilant – I want to share the powerful experience I had at Kansas City.
Our business meeting, where all the foregoing events took place, was followed by worship. It was a Sunday, and we took communion together. As I ate the bread, and as I drank of the cup, I realized that somewhere in this same crowd was the pastor who had presented the motion. I do not need to speak with a preacherly language to underscore how radical and how true this is for us Baptists: I simply need to say that it occurred. As we broke bread together, our hearts joined together. I felt overwhelming love for the man whose motion was just defeated, the man whose motion I earnestly wanted to see defeated, and an overwhelming awareness that he, too, is a brother and a beloved, a child of the living God, a Christian to whom I am called to swear nothing but the utmost of charity and forgiveness, a soul who I am called to see as kin to me.
And secondly, this is exactly why I love the ABCUSA’s statement on the Bible, quoted above: because it allows me to be in fellowship with this beloved brother, to love him and learn from him, to be his and have him be mine, and share the worship of our God together. Because our statement lets him believe every word of his proposal: that the Bible is inerrent and infallible in its original language, that it is the sole source of teaching for faith and practice, that nothing else is needful for salvation. Not only is he allowed to believe that, but he is allowed to teach it and proclaim it, he is allowed to lead his flock and plant churches. He is allowed to proclaim the truth he knows to the world, to be the light on the hill he wants to be.
And I am allowed to feel and sense and breathe the Bible differently, to let its witness suffuse me even as I recognize the human fingerprints on its cover and within its pages. I am allowed to see it as a document that breathes and sings and weeps with the witness of a whole cloud of witnesses, to see it as the inspired collection of an entire people – a people sometimes prideful, often sinful, always seeking – as they responded to and wrote down their sense of how God acted in their lives. I can witness this and know it, pray with it and study it, and every day commit myself more generously and more passionately to discover the wisdom that exists when people tread a pathway of faith before me, and leave me a record to show me the way.
This is what it means to be a Baptist: to be free to make these choices. To be free to make these proclamations. To be set free, indeed, by the God who is at last Free, that we might serve Her again in Spirit and in Truth, and do so all the more joyously for having realized it ourselves. And the benefit, the joy, the power of that freedom is that we can do more than break bread with our friends. We can do it with our enemies. And hopefully, in time, we’ll find they weren’t so bad after all.