By Barry Howard
Recently, as I was preparing the eulogy for our pastor emeritus at First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Fla., I came across a copy of an article from the Dallas Morning News dated December 1992. The column was titled, “James Pleitz: Voice for Baptist Moderates,” and featured an interview with Dr. Pleitz about the Baptist turmoil at the time and how he lived out his Baptist convictions.
Interestingly, I doubt Dr. Pleitz ever referred to himself as a “moderate.” It was a tag given to differentiate him from another group of Baptists who were coming into leadership by the busload.
Dr. Jim Pleitz was one of many great pastors who for years represented what was best about Baptists. He supported the Cooperative Program, preached the Bible and loved the people. He was both encouraging and evangelistic. He was loyal to the convention, serving as an officer on the local, state and national levels.
For his day, Pleitz was proactive and progressive. In 1967 when he served as president of the SBC Pastors Conference, he invited the first woman, Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale, to speak. He baptized the first African-American member into First Baptist Church of Pensacola. He led the Pensacola Ministerial Association to invite African-American ministers into membership right in the middle of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.
No one would have ever accused Dr. Pleitz of being a liberal. But most would not have called him a “moderate” either, at least not until there was a need to distinguish him from others who politicked and theologized in a different way.
For many years I have tried to avoid unnecessary adjectives, contending that “Isn’t it enough to be Christian or to be Baptist?” However, I’ve come to realize that we live in a world of adjectives and these modifiers provide clarification and reinforce identity. For example, it’s not just football but it’s SEC football. It’s not just baseball but it’s National League baseball. It’s not just coffee but it’s Starbucks Coffee.
When referring to Baptists, why employ the term, “moderate?” Growing up in Alabama, I heard a lot of adjectives placed before the name “Baptist,” including “missionary,” “freewill,” “primitive,” “hard-shell,” “seventh-day” and “independent.” But I had never heard the term “moderate” used in connection with Baptists until the 1980s.
Noted Baptist historian, Bill Leonard, remembers, “The term moderate Baptist seems to have been developed out of the so called SBC ‘controversy’ roughly 1979-1990, when ‘conservatives’ and ‘moderates’ confronted each other annually in an effort to ‘save’ or ‘reclaim’ the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptist Press seems to have coined the terms as a way of avoiding the old fundamentalist/modernist labels.”
In much of its early usage in the press, “moderate” was a shortened version of moderate conservative, a term differentiating this flavor of Baptist from the ultra-conservative or fundamental-conservative flavor of Baptist.
Coincidentally, I accepted my first church staff position in 1979. As I think back on the many definitions and descriptions I have heard across the past 32 years, and as I reflect on what I see, moderate Baptists are pretty diverse and the tent of that diversity is pretty large. Because of that diversity, it is difficult to create a statement that says, “This is what all moderate Baptists believe.”
Fisher Humphreys recently illustrated the difficulty of arriving at a concrete definition with this illustration: “We are like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who famously said of another subject that he couldn’t define it but he knew it when he saw it.”
Perhaps that is our dilemma. As a group, moderate Baptists are difficult to define. But we seem to know one when we see one. Here are a few traits I see as generally characteristic of the faith and practice of “moderate Baptists”:
— Affirms the inspiration of scripture but often avoids using the term “inerrancy.”
— Embraces historic Baptist principles such as the priesthood of the believer, the autonomy of the local church and the separation of church and state.
— Emphasizes a voluntary and personal decision for conversion and appreciates the variety of exemplary salvation stories in the Bible and in life.
— Articulates faith and doctrine by way of confessional statements as opposed to creeds.
— Participates in ecumenical networks and engages in interfaith dialogue.
— Cooperates with multiple missional partners.
— Practices baptism by immersion with some accepting other modes of baptism for membership.
— Interprets Scripture in light of the diverse literary genres represented in the canon.
— Generally open to both men and women in church leadership and vocational ministry, with many proactively endorsing inclusivity.
— Generally welcoming of all persons. For example many are welcoming of gays and lesbians. Some moderates are both welcoming and affirming.
For now, Baptists with these convictions are labeled as moderates, a term with both positive and negative connotations. Maybe that adjective fits. Or, maybe it is time for a new adjective that describes similar-minded Baptists based on who they are as opposed to who they are not.
Whichever modifier is used, my hope for the future of these Baptists is that the tent grows even larger and more inclusive, and that the matrix of partnerships emerges into a network that outgrows, out loves and outlives the paradigms of the past.