In moving this summer from Union University to Mercer University I transitioned from a school that moves in the orbit of the Southern Baptist Convention to an institution that moves in the orbit of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
And so far, the moon has not turned to blood.
It is time for all of us, both former and current Southern Baptists, to get over ourselves and our old fights. Let's move on. Let's ask what it means to be faithful Christians in a culture that is moving rapidly away from interest in the message that any of us Baptists are proclaiming.
I continue to find the answer in evangelical faith, rightly understood. According to sociologist Christian Smith, evangelicals “hold that the final, ultimate authority is the Bible,” “believe that Christ died for the salvation of all,” believe in the importance of sharing their faith with others, and believe in “engaged orthodoxy,” or bringing their faith to bear on the cultures in which they live.
By this definition I think that 90 percent of white Baptists in the South are evangelical Christians — as are, say, 95 percent of black Baptists. One of the anomalies of our denominational split is that the term still sounds exceeding strange to most moderate and some conservative ears.
The word was strange to me as well until I spent three pivotal years of my life (1990-1993) working with Ron Sider and his Evangelicals for Social Action in Philadelphia. Students of denominational history will know the significance of the dates.
Those three years in Philadelphia may have prevented me from abandoning Christian ministry amid the brutality of the denominational wars in the Southern Baptist Convention. And they provided me with a reference point for thinking about the Christian faith that has never left me. How often I have wished that I could download the content of those three years' experiences directly into the heads and hearts of my warring Baptist tribesmen. I would like to try a modest download right here.
Founded in the early 1970s, Evangelicals for Social Action originally focused on “combining evangelism and social action.” This related to the longstanding problem within evangelicalism of emphasizing witnessing and personal piety at the expense of moral and social concern and the mirroring problem in the mainline churches of emphasizing social concern at the expense of evangelism and personal piety. For all Southern Baptists, this message remains starkly relevant, and many on both sides have taken it up.
By the time I worked for ESA in the early 1990s the main problem within evangelicalism had shifted. The rise of conservative evangelical social engagement meant that many were indeed “combining evangelism with social action.” But the problem was the kind of social action they were embracing — a narrowly focused social agenda closely tied to conservative worldly politics and the Republican Party.
Evangelicals for Social Action was saying as early as the 1980s that a holistic, politically independent moral agenda that dealt with all moral issues addressed by Scripture must be the way forward. In an era in which many Christians were choosing either the church as locus of God's activity or a focus on the world (state, politics, culture and law), ESA always sought to combine activity in both arenas.
A particular strength of the faith I discovered in Philadelphia was its evangelical ecumenism. Baptists in the South seem to remain extraordinarily fixated on Baptist identity rather than this kind of international ecumenism. When will we discover the rest of the global Christian family?
ESA's kind of evangelicalism also helped me to find the balance between trusting God and working hard. Some emphasize trusting God and at times end up with a remarkable moral passivity.
Others emphasize working hard to make good things happen and can end up seeming rather desperate, as if Christ is not alive and at work in the world made by and for him.
The ingredients of healthy Christian existence in the world are not really all that mysterious. But we so often get it wrong. Start with a transformative commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and never stray. Rely on the inspired Scriptures for authority for faith and practice. Commit to the body of Christ, both congregational and universal. Attend to all aspects of the church's divine commission. In the moral arena, attend to all dimensions of biblical morality. Never stop trying to change the world and never stop trusting in God's providence.
In other words, be evangelical Christians.
David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University.