By David Gushee
Follow David on Twitter: @dpgushee
My description and diagnosis of the lack of theological identity and clarity in the ex-SBC world seems to have struck a chord. I don’t hear any dissenting analysis, though perhaps it exists in some corner of the Internet I haven’t seen.
It seems appropriate to move forward to the logical next step. Description and diagnosis are easier than prescription and “cure,” if there is such. Here are a few miscellaneous suggestions for where we go from here.
1) Talk theologically, in public.
I call on post- or ex-SBC churches, seminaries, college religion departments, fellowships and other institutions to start talking theologically, in public. Pastors and education ministers could enter into sermon or Bible study series under the rubric, “This I Believe” or “Here We Stand.” Cooperative Baptist Fellowship gatherings could do the same, as could seminary or college lecture series or chapel addresses.
For focus, these talks could be organized to address themes such as salvation, the gospel, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the nature and interpretation of scripture, the purpose of the church, the work of the Holy Spirit, and so on. These would not have to be footnoted scholarly papers — just straight, clear, precise talk from pastor-theologians (or theologian-pastors). It would be enormously clarifying to hear one another declare our convictions on these matters.
2) Talk ethically, in public.
The same “This I/We Believe” approach could be taken on issues of Christian personal and social ethics. The same venues listed just above could host talks on themes such as the nature of Christian discipleship, the core moral demands of the Christian faith, our moral obligations to one another in Christian community, and particular issues old and new such as war, race, money, alcohol, gambling, greed, stewardship, creation care, abortion, end-of-life, healthcare, animal rights, sexuality, marriage and so on. Straight talk is needed on all these matters. Leaders need to lead, not hide. Speaking of ….
3) Recover a stronger concept of leadership.
In the backwash of the SBC fight, the ex-SBC world seemed to develop a certain allergic reaction to leadership. The very concept of “president” or “CEO” gave way to a world awash in facilitators and coordinators. No one wanted to seem authoritarian or dictatorial so everyone was deferential and consensual. Too often the result was indecisiveness and lack of clear direction. In the next generation, the ex-SBC institutions that survive will need to recover a concept of authoritative (not authoritarian) convictional leadership.
4) Invest in gifted young ministerial and academic leaders from college into the beginning of their careers.
The philanthropists, funders and institutions investing in our part of the Christian world already fund some scholarships, study programs and doctoral student initiatives. But so far it is not enough, or perhaps it is not focused tightly enough. Not to put too fine a point on it, but donor dollars need to be invested in the most promising leaders for the future, not just everyone who claims a certain religious pedigree. Seriously competitive scholarship processes at every level are needed. In particular, more funding, support and spiritual/intellectual community are needed for Baptist doctoral students into the early stages of their teaching careers, wherever they may pursue their degrees.
5) Raise publishing expectations in Baptist academia.
I mentioned in my last column that Baptist academicians are not publishing enough. I was reminded by one correspondent of the further problem that those Baptist academics who do publish often focus narrowly on academic publishing for fellow scholars, which limits our impact among the broader reading Christian public.
Baptist seminaries, divinity schools and religion departments need to hire people who show promise of writing, and they need to be given space to write via reasonable teaching loads. Writing that “counts” toward tenure should not be narrowly confined to peer-reviewed academic publications, because writings for the church matters, too.
It is a buyer’s market for those hiring in higher education right now. Sadly for new doctoral graduates, there is a glut of talent on the market. Every hire in every school needs to be strategic, building toward a stronger academic future. All hires do not have to be Baptists; I think we need some fresh winds to blow through our community. But enough need to be Baptist for us to retain meaningful Baptist identity.
6) Consider drafting a new faith and message statement.
Within five years, especially if we have embarked on meaningful theological and ethical conversations at every level, it would make sense for someone — presumably CBF national — to organize the drafting of a new faith and message statement. Being Baptists, this would not be a creed, but a statement of who we are theologically and ethically and the convictions we can collectively affirm. We have (obviously) rejected the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 statement of the Southern Baptist Convention. What is our alternative? Is it the 1963 statement? Surely we can draft a statement that speaks to our current context and in current voice.
7) Embrace and invest in 21st century Christian diversity.
Part of what has happened since 1963, and even since 1991 and the schism, is the gradual fading of white and male cultural dominance, and of the civil religion of the South that was related to that older lost world. Any religion relevant to mid-21st century America has to lean into a gender-egalitarian and racially and ethnically inclusive future, as well as to deepen its connections to the global Baptist and Christian family. Every effort to build a better future requires transformations in the power structures of our religious community — which, by the way, would take us much closer to the transformed world that Jesus enacted and proclaimed.