When I originally wrote this post, I had no idea what kind of response it would generate. A few people left comments, but the counter on my dashboard continues to register daily hits, mostly from word searches on the internet. I also get emails, sometimes two or three a day, to which I try to respond, if I have time. The responses vary from accolades from those who agree and with whom the post resonates with their own faith experience to those who are quick to jump to judgement and declare that anyone who could dance couldn’t be a Christian, to those who are struggling with the legalism that has been translated into their life as “faith,” but can’t seem to escape.
Although I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, it was in Arizona, outside of the culture and influence of the “Deep South.” From a Southern Baptist perspective, our small church was probably unique. It was the only Southern Baptist congregation in a community of 12,000 people, which is not something you find in the South. Any community in Arizona is a blend of people from various parts of the US and around the world, and this one, close to a military base, was quite diverse. Likewise, at least half of the congregation was made up of people who were from different Christian denominational backgrounds, and who had been raised outside of dear old Dixieland. My presence there from the time I was old enough to remember was due to the fact that my parents wanted me in church, but because they were from different backgrounds themselves, couldn’t agree on which one to attend together. So they didn’t go anywhere, but allowed me to be picked up by my Sunday School teacher, a nice lady who was raised in the boot heel of Missouri.
I didn’t discover that Baptists, by principle, didn’t dance until I was a junior in high school. By that time, I had been a regular at just about every school dance that had been held since I was in 7th grade. Most events were “record dances” where everyone brought their 45’s of Credence Clearwater Revival, Tommy James and the Shondells, Merilee Rush and the Turnabouts, stuff like that. A few had a live band. I always thought they were great fun, and they were always well supervised. I even went to a class once a month for a while to learn how to dance better.
When I was a junior in high school, our church called its first full time pastor and he came with five kids, including a daughter in the same grade. It wasn’t long before I was dating my first “steady” girlfriend. My prom date dilemma had been solved, or so I thought. That’s when I ran into the Baptist rule against dancing. I remember how I felt when I was informed that dancing was a sin. Stunned at first, I will never forget walking away from that conversation feeling that I had been judged to the tips of my toes. When I asked what was sinful about dancing, I was told that it caused “lust”, and created an atmosphere that promoted sinful thoughts. O.K. They hadn’t been to the school dances I had attended, obviously. Still, there was nothing in the world that was going to convince her parents it would be O.K. for her to go to the prom with me. I rented a tux, went by myself, had a good time, and endured several weeks of cold stares and at least one sermon into which the sinfulness of dancing was included as part of an attitude of rebellion.
I wasn’t aware of the sin of alcoholic beverages, either. My parents were not alcoholics by any means, and I never saw either of them get drunk, but they did occasionally drink beer and wine. Every New Year’s Eve they went to a small party at a ranch that some friends of ours owned. There were always a few kids there my age, and after I was in high school, I got to go. Right before midnight, everyone got a glass of champaign, including the older kids, and we toasted and drank to the new year. Then we prayed, since our friends were Presbyterian.
When my parents finally decided to become members of the Southern Baptist church I had been attending for years, a few things changed around our house. The beer and wine disappeared. We stopped going to the ranch for New Year’s eve and instead went to “Watchnight” at the church. My mother struggled through several years of trying to quit smoking, and finally succeeded, at least publicly. Mom stopped playing bingo at the parish hall. Decks of cards disappeared from our home.
In one of my first Bible classes at the Baptist college I chose to attend, the professor asked the students to write down some of the things we thought might be considered Baptist distinctives. I wrote, “we don’t dance, we don’t drink, we don’t smoke and we don’t play cards.”
If that is the substance of what is distinctive about us, we are in trouble.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1
Sin is rebellion against, and separation from God. It acts itself out in behavior and activity which show that your spirit is rebellious, and sometimes, those actions involve the kinds of things we do when we put ourselves in a place where we can rebel against God. Getting drunk to escape the world for a few hours might fall into that category. Sipping champaign at a New Year’s celebration, or wine at dinner or a party, does not. You can dance in a place where the atmosphere is geared to deliberately create lust, but that does not always have to be the case every time you dance. I still have fun dancing, and now that I have a permanent partner, there isn’t a lot of stress or worry about who will go with me. My conscience is clear. And there have been times when going dancing has kept the door open to relationships that have opened the door for an occasional discussion that has led to sharing of faith.
“I wasn’t surprised to learn that you were Christians,” a friend of ours once told us, “But I sure was shocked to learn you were Baptists.”
I hope that the substance of my faith is much more seen by what I do because I am a Christian, than by what I avoid. I may also be distinguished by the fact that I remain a dancing Baptist.