“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self condemned.” Titus 3:9-11
Before anyone has a chance to think otherwise, that’s a passage that I use to measure myself, and by which I judge myself, not anyone else.
As I mentioned in the previous article, when we moved to Houston, I wasn’t particularly interested in finding a church, but my wife pushed that search, and we chose a church that was as different from the one we left in Kentucky as we could find. It was a moderate Baptist church, but it was also a great place to heal from the bitterness that I was feeling, partly because there were a number of people attending there who had been through similar experiences and were in a similar situation, including some who had attended and graduated from seminary before making a career change and getting additional education.
It was difficult to detect doctrinal and theological differences, especially on the local church level, and in the class and various groups where we landed. There was a lot of sympathy for what we had been through, and a lot of understanding displayed of the situation as it existed, but in the sermons and Bible lessons, nothing surfaced that was anything close to what I expected. Perhaps the biggest difference was the attitude exhibited about the role of women in ministry and service. The church had women deacons, but that was more the result of their view of the diaconate as a servant body rather than one with any kind of governing authority. It appeared to be sympathetic to the idea that women could be “ordained” ministers, but the only women on the church staff, right up to the time that we moved on, served in age group capacities. Though it wouldn’t be couched in the same terms, I would have to say that a clear majority of the membership of that particular church believed in a practical, technical definition of inerrancy.
Old habits die hard, and so, after a short while, I participated in some of the extra-church activities related to the congregation’s denominational connections, primarily CBF general assemblies. I volunteered to help during the Houston meeting, and attended several other gatherings. I couldn’t participate in BGCT meetings at that time because of being employed in a Monday-Friday job, though I did attend the evangelism conference.
But through those connections, and a genuine interest on my part to learn the “moderate” side of Baptist life, and express that part of my faith that desired some kind of denominational identity, I did discover some differences, and some similarities, between moderate Baptists and “fundamentalist” Baptists. The events which shaped the decisions I’ve made over the last five or six years are too lengthy to discuss, but the outcome is both obvious and fairly simple.
In terms of doctrine and theology, the most notable difference I observed is not so much in the language that is used to describe the Bible, but in the practical interpretation and application of it. Conservatives and fundamentalists speak of “inerrancy” and “infallibility,” while moderates prefer terms like “sacred text” and “sacred stories.” And I would argue that there are many self-described moderate Baptists who, in their interpretation and application of scripture, do not differ from conservatives or fundamentalists. But there are some who do. The most notable difference is the approach to the context. Conservatives and fundamentalists interpret the scripture in its historical context, from a literal perspective, as it was received by the original audience, and apply it from that perspective. Many moderates interpret the scripture in its historical context, but accept the influences of history and church tradition, as well as the current cultural perspective, and weight the application based on how it has been affected by those elements. For example, because cultural roles for men and women have changed, the scripture can no longer accurately speak to their roles in either the family or the church. Therefore, scripture which speaks about women being “submissive” to their husbands can be ignored, or re-interpreted. And that’s precisely where I part company with some moderate Baptists.
There are also differences between the two groups in the way they handle people and issues within their denominational structures. Both place a very high value on what I call the “Baptist pedigree,” that informal status accorded to some people in service because of who they are,, who they know, or how much money they flaunt. On either side of the aisle, there is a complicated, informal structure of personal kingdoms which are constantly in conflict as they bump into each other and jockey for position. Fundamentalists and conservatives prefer the sudden kick in the teeth, punch in the mouth approach to dealing with what they don’t like, or with those who “get out of line.” Moderates are more polite, and they will smile while complimenting you to your face while they are inserting the knife in your back, twisting it, and then pulling it out as subtly as possible, but with the intent of creating the most pain and damage in the process. I’ve now been on the receiving end of both of those approaches, from people of both persuasions. What I have learned from it is that people will let you down, but God never will.
I’ve also learned that things are not always as they might appear. The tolerance and acceptance of almost every other kind of Biblical interpretation or faith expression that is part of the image projected by most groups of moderate Baptists does not extend to those of the fundamentalist persuasion. For me, that nullifies their whole image of tolerance and diversity. The misconceptions and perceptions that they pass along about conservatives and fundamentalists are misleading and inaccurate, and fall in the same category of the things they accuse fundamentalists of being and doing.
Another blogger, commenting about the fact that I would no longer be presenting motions to amend the bylaws at the BGCT meeting this year, stated that I would probably be more comfortable doctrinally in the SBTC. I didn’t fail to notice the tone of both the article, or that particular statement. As far as it goes, it is correct. The tone, implying that when someone accepts what we have come to call a conservative approach to the Bible and its interpretation, they are no longer credible, from some ivory tower academic perspective, is as wrong as it could be. I haven’t been travelling in a circle, I’ve just discovered that I grew right on top of my roots.
All I want to do now is serve God’s kingdom through his church, and live up to the expectations of the scripture verse I quoted at the beginning of this article.