The ‘ex-SBC’ trilogy: A response to my respondents

On the “ex-SBC”: The columnist responds to his many respondents related to his trilogy of articles on moderate Baptists. 

David Gushee

Follow David on twitter: @dpgushee

We have a beloved expression in our family: “stirrin’ up the pot.” This phrase emerged from the mouth of our mischievous son when he was about 11. It referred to his occasional forays in introducing a subject for family discussion that he knew would be controversial.

Several weeks ago I did some stirrin’ up the pot related to what I described in a series of three articles (here, here, and here) as a lack of theological clarity and identity in the post- or ex-SBC world. These have elicited a not always happy but certainly respectful and quite robust response by email, column and carrier pigeon. On this site alone, I have spotted full-length reflections by friends old and new Mark Wingfield, Marv Knox, Alan Bean, Trey Lyon, Mike Smith and most recently, Bill Leonard. It seems like it’s time to respond to a few threads in this rich family conversation. 

Stirrin’ up the pot circa 1978

Maybe it’s the Northerner in me — certainly my Northern parents never shied from stirrin’ up the pot. I know I carried the stirrin’ up the pot gene into my very first (Southern) Baptist church experience, way back in the groovy mid-’70s. When I was made youth group president six weeks after my conversion, my first act was to propose a church-sponsored dance. Despite careful lobbying on my part, the matter was referred to a committee, which is apparently still studying it.

Later that year, at the Royal Ambassadors (RA) recognition banquet, I was asked to give a few remarks about the significant value of the RA program in the life of young Christian men. The fact was that we did absolutely nothing in the RAs other than some very fine athletic contests with neighboring churches on Saturdays. 

And so I innocently proposed, in front of the whole church, that because the RA program really didn’t do anything, it should be merged into the much more active Acteen program. This proposal was not well-received. Perhaps it was because I had not quite worked out what to do about the whole Queen with Scepter thing.

That church showed me grace despite my pot-stirring. Thanks to readers who have showed me grace this time around. I would like to make a few brief responses in response to my respondents.

When we grow up: I take it back

Responding especially to Bill Leonard, but others as well, I regret using the phrase “when we grow up.” This pithy title was intended to speak to the relative youth of all post-SBC institutions, not to the relative maturity of its people. All new post-SBC bodies are younger than 30 years old. This makes them very young in the context of a 2,000-year-old church. But I withdraw the phrase, because it sounded pejorative, without intent to offend.

Don’t forget the other Baptists

I was reminded in correspondence that my experience with the non-Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-aligned parts of the post-SBC world, such as the Alliance of Baptists, is extremely limited. I should have made that clearer. I would like to get to know you better, Alliance! But my comments in those three columns cannot be said to speak to who you are and have become. 

Ex-SBC means …

My use of term “ex-SBC” was meant to be journalistically brief, not fully descriptive. It has triggered some interesting clarifications and commentary. Mark Wingfield pointed out that many of our churches remain dually aligned, and are therefore not really, or not fully, ex-SBC. Huge generational differences abound, as Alan Bean pointed out in his recent blog post. (We need all our voices, all our generations. I never suggested it was time for the older generation to move on. I instead briefly pointed to the reality of generational transition.) I intended by the term ex-SBC something like: “That tribe of Baptists, mainly located in the Mid-Atlantic, Southern and Southwestern United States, who once had been Southern Baptist, but sometime during or after the traumatic denominational controversy of 1979-1991 left or were forced out of the SBC and its institutions or otherwise came to define their personal, ecclesial and/or institutional identity as other than Southern Baptist; as well as their children and grandchildren, and later newcomers, who were raised in or came to identify with the family and faith communities that resulted.” “Ex-SBC” was necessary shorthand to name this complex tribe, which is my tribe too.

A new statement of faith?

Many have fixed with derision, disdain or dismay on my suggestion that sometime in the future we maybe just might consider drafting, in our own distinctively democratic and egalitarian way, some kind of profession of shared beliefs. There has been a bit more enthusiasm for the suggestion that we need to begin challenging ourselves to offer more substantive theological and ethical conversation in churches and other gathering places. Alan Bean’s recent blog post offers a provocative interpretation of why this does not happen sufficiently among us. 

I certainly want to clarify that I never imagined or suggested any coercive or regulative use for such a profession of shared beliefs. I never imagined nor suggested signing statements and creedal tests. I just thought it might be nice to talk together in some kind of organized way and find out what we actually believe and practice, what our stories are, what we have in common and where we differ and can learn from each other. It might even be inspiring to zero in on the vital heartbeat, the center of our shared way of living and believing, and to celebrate it as we discover it. As someone who far too frequently has been labeled a heretic by somebody, I care about our vital center, not about boundary-guarding or heresy-hunting. 

Are those who object to any consideration of such a voluntary delineation by our tribe of substantive shared beliefs for the 21st century saying that all prior Baptist efforts to offer, say, a “Baptist faith and message” statement, were inappropriate? Would a future effort necessarily be doomed to recapitulate fights over ancient, now irrelevant, doctrinal disputes, or inevitably be weaponized to harm outliers? 

Toward theological and ethical substance

Upon reflection, it is as a parent and an educator that I feel most burdened, and the heart of the problem is not whether we have a faith and message statement. The real issue is whether we are educating Christians in general, ministerial students in particular, with enough theological substance to function as Christians and as leaders. I wonder whether we are sending out people who have much to offer in the pulpit, or the counseling room, or while sitting with the teenager at Panera.

When our young ministers are asked, “So what about other religions? Do all roads lead just as well to God?” And “How exactly does Jesus dying on a cross 2,000 years ago help me?” And “My Dad is leaving my Mom and it’s tearing our whole family apart; what does God think about that?” Are they equipped to answer these questions? I fear our reticence to be clear and concrete in our theology and ethics is leaving churches, ministers and families speechless before the most important perennial and contemporary questions. And this is definitely not okay, for reasons I sought to outline in my articles.

I am glad to be a member of this particular tribe of the Christian family. I am glad it is not the only part of the Christian community with which I connect and identify. But this is home. And I am glad we are having this conversation together.

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