The first clue should have been when the Internet trolls didn’t immediately show up and condemn me as a liberal heretic. And then when some normally affirming voices fell curiously silent, it became obvious something was amiss.
This response—or lack of it—was to my recent BNG commentary on the dangers of trading a traditional church for a trendy contemporary church and discovering you’ve also bought in to bad theology.
And just for the record, let me say one more time what I said before: Not all contemporary worship has bad theology, and not all traditional worship has good theology. In fact, the point of the column was that we shouldn’t choose churches based primarily on worship styles or trendiness; the underlying theology matters.
This column clearly hit a nerve. It was read and shared by a large number of folks, prompting affirmation, criticism and misunderstanding. To all the affirmers, thank you. To all the critics and confused, let’s talk some more.
Aside from the issue of whether kids should dictate where families go to church (the subject of a separate upcoming column), the most frequent concern expressed about my position is that it came across as judgmental. To say that not all Christian churches demonstrate “good” theology is to make value judgments, and that is unsettling to many of us moderate or progressive Baptists. We pride ourselves on being open-minded, big-tent people. To lay down lines between “good” and “bad” theology seems a lot like the way we found ourselves on the outside looking in at the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, one good friend told me of someone who read my column and replied, “Paul Pressler could have written that.” Ouch.
But being an open-minded person myself, I get how someone could say that. And here is where moderate Baptists continue to struggle in finding our way, as our critics on the right are quick to point out: What are the reasonable boundaries to orthodox Christianity?
As a baseline, we want to say that anyone who affirms Jesus Christ is Lord is OK with us. Whether you believe in a literal reading of Genesis or you believe in a metaphorical reading of those ancient texts, if you affirm Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah, we’re ultimately on the same team. While that is true from an eternal perspective, it might still create challenges in the here and now.
The spectrum of American Christianity—even American evangelical Protestantism—is so much broader than most casual observers realize. Six-day creationists have a hard time abiding Christians who affirm evolution, and vice versa. Both identify as Christians, and yet each side reads the Bible through vastly different lenses. In a sense, they read two different books even though the words on the page are the same.
It is not uncommon for biblical inerrantists to make definitive statements about what is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Often these public statements make pastors like me cringe because they are so narrow or so arrogant—and so opposite of my own theology. And yet, how should I point out the perceived error of their arguments without sounding strident myself?
A progressive-minded friend who fell in the camp of those who found my previous column too judgmental offered two ideas in response: (1) Simply acknowledging that these are indeed tough questions is a good start, and (2) The focus must fall on how we discuss our different viewpoints.
He explained: “I doubt Christ would be too concerned about the customs or practices that so bother us. But I bet he would rejoice in the fact that we handled the discussion with a Christ-like attitude of inclusion and civility. And the hallmark of civility is a respect for different and alternative beliefs, practices and customs—yes, even those that make us uncomfortable.”
There’s a banner hanging outside our church building that we offer “a safe place to wrestle with life’s questions.” I want that to be a true statement, and yet one of the big questions I wrestle with is how to respond to those who don’t want to wrestle with life’s questions at all.