It’s been a gripe of mine for some years now that our kind of Baptists have to explain and defend and qualify who we are to nearly everyone else: “Well, we’re not that kind of Baptist!”
This in a day when many of those churches who have given the name “Baptist” a black eye have decided to remove the B word from their name and church sign – leaving us who remain to suffer the indignities of being narrow-minded and judgmental, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-immigrant, pro-torture, self-righteous Bible thumpers – since that’s pretty uniformly what the word means to people on the street.
Every year or so, one of my church’s leaders, as a response to the most recent well-publicized “Baptist” soundbite and the latest embarrassment to real Baptists everywhere, says, “We should really talk about this ‘Baptist’ name. It’s doing us a lot of harm.”
Yes, but the issue is bigger than denominational identity.
More than 20 years ago a friend of mine, who had spent most of his career serving in “foreign missions” (as they called it those days) for the Southern Baptist Convention, said to me that he rarely called himself a Christian anymore; he preferred the term “Christ-follower.” Through his many relationships with Christians and leaders from the other major world religions, literally around the world, he had learned that “the word ‘Christian’ has become a political word.”
“It’s difficult for me to imagine the Left and the Right of American Christianity ever meaningfully reconciling.”
So, what does the word “Christian” even mean, if a Southern Baptist missionary can no longer use it?
The more time I spend as a Baptist Christian pastor in a world divided by angry religious differences, the more I wonder if “we” and “they” are actually part of the same religion.
The words and pronouncements I hear from many Christians in no way represent my theology (nor mine theirs). We clearly have different beliefs about our shared Book. Our approach to science-and-religion is incompatible. We have contradictory views of humanity and sexuality.
Regarding the role of the Church, we want to talk about what “evangelism” means and should entail; on “social justice” they will never talk at all! Interfaith relations means to them an opportunity for conversion; to us, it means the beauty of diversity and growth through dialogue. Nearly all of our common words have different meanings: creation, sin, salvation, redemption, heaven, hell….
The historical Jesus and the Christ of faith often represent different, often opposing, theological convictions. Even our basic concepts of God are frequently irreconcilable.
I don’t think I am overstating the case. When I listen to many Christians speak, more and more I respond with the thought, “Is it honestly fair to call what they believe and what I believe the same religion?”
I believe in reconciliation. I believe Christ’s life was a testimony to “breaking down every dividing wall between us,” as our scripture says. I also know some sectarian divisions cannot be healed. Maybe they should not be. In my active relationships with Muslim and Jews, Unitarians and Baha’is, we are able to work together despite our differences (and without the animosity that exists between some Christian groups).
“So broken is our fellowship, so divergent our views, perhaps the name ‘Christian’ has ceased to mean anything helpful to the cause of Christ.”
Maybe, because we don’t pretend to hold the same views, we can appreciate our differences more, and more easily agree to work for a common good.
In her groundbreaking 2008 book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle makes the case that every 500 years there is a major revolution in the Church. There was the Christian emergence from Judaism, the creation of orthodoxy, the great schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation. It’s been another 500 years, and we’re in the midst of a volatile “culture war.” The crosshairs are on the Christian Church. What will come of us?
Is it time?
Would it be easier for “us” and “them” to get along if we officially named our differences and amicably parted ways? It’s difficult for me to imagine the Left and the Right of American Christianity ever meaningfully reconciling. Maybe, like Paul and Barnabas, there comes a time when we must face the reality that we can do more and better things if we are not fighting each other for control of the name “Christian.”
As to the process and procedure, I don’t know who would “leave” or what it would mean to “stay.” As to the name, I have no idea who would become what. But, within the Christian Church and (especially) outside the Church, so broken is our fellowship, so divergent our views, perhaps the name “Christian” has ceased to mean anything helpful to the cause of Christ.
For the sake of Christ, the harmony of his church and the peace of our world, even if it meant someone abandoning the name “Christian,” maybe it’s time we had the conversation.