By Mike Smith
My friend Marv Knox recently wrote a wise column in which he urged Baptists to move on from past bitterness through repentance and forgiveness. As Knox noted, others such as David Gushee and Mark Wingfield have recently written on our need to step into the future as the moderate Baptist movement or in the local congregation. I’ve found the commentary and suggestions of each writer useful.
I have moved on, and I’m glad I did. At some point a few years ago, I realized I cared more about following Jesus than about winning arguments or holding old grudges. Somewhere along the way, I almost unconsciously chose to free myself from the heavy baggage of anger, recrimination, fears and regret that I carried over from the Baptist wars.
Marv Knox’s analogy to a divorced couple who have built new lives is apt. For me, though, it feels more like what World War II veterans have told me it felt like when they laid down their negative feelings toward their wartime enemies and decided to get on with life. To a person, such friends say that when they did so they started to live again.
I now pastor what I call a full theological spectrum church. Ask any three of our members about their position on a given issue, and you may get four different answers! Even so, it’s a moderate Baptist church, alright. It’s been one for decades. We ordain women as deacons and ministers, partner with a large range of entities to minister to human need, pay attention to Christian history and the Revised Common Lectionary, and dare to connect in various ways with all kinds of persons. Our congregation accepts the right and responsibility to define its character and mission in light of Scripture, the leadership of Holy Spirit and our ongoing conversation with one another and the world around us.
We’ve moved on, for the most part, from the divisions that continue to plague American Christianity. In part, we’ve done so by committing to only a few yet powerful intentions. Others might summarize the commitments differently, but I usually phrase them this way. First, we are committed to Jesus as Savior and Lord. Second, we are committed to placing our gifts, skills and very lives at the disposal of Jesus in worship and ministry. Third, we are committed to practicing love (agape) in all our dealings with one another and the world at large.
Such commitments do not deliver us from the hard work of discernment and decision-making. In fact, they involve us in never-ending efforts to find our way forward in the company of Christ and one another. The three commitments, though, blend theology and ethics to keep us focused on the practice of our faith. Such commitments not only help us “move on,” they keep us moving forward in ever-expanding circles of friendship and service.
My hunch is that large numbers of moderate Baptist churches, clergy and laity can honestly say they’ve moved on, though each one’s manner of doing so may be unique to the person and setting. I suspect we sometimes feel as if we’ve not moved on simply because we do not know one another’s stories. If the moderate Baptist movement wants to help congregations and individuals move into the future, I suggest we invest considerable energy in learning and sharing the diverse stories of those who have done so.