‘All my ex’s...’

Who says moderate Baptists haven’t grown up?

By Bill Leonard

As an “ex-SBCer” I’m hesitant to write about the situation among Baptists in the second decade of the 21st century. According to my friend David Gushee, as an ex-SBCer I should actually be retired, or, as one respondent commented, “just about gone,” so best to keep silent about the future.

Well, I may be “gone,” but I’m not retired, so I’ll venture ahead. Dr. Gushee (Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, senior columnist for ABPnews/Herald, theologian-in-residence for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship), recently published a trinity of essays that have sparked valuable dialogue as to CBF identity in general and “ex-Southern Baptist” baggage in particular.

His varied commentaries are worth considering and his invitation to dialogue carries his comments beyond a mere prescription to be accepted or dismissed. I’m not ready to do either but prefer to reflect on them with my own set of interrogatives, born of David’s bold declarations. (Thanks, David.)

1. “Ex-SBCers?” “Social Evangelicals?” “Mainline Protestants?” Aren’t we Baptists more complex than singular labels? I know a lot of “ex-SBCers” who drink deeply from many if not all of the ideological wells Dr. Gushee identifies. Many CBF-types come from churches with Southern Baptist Convention roots, support women’s ordination, address justice issues (who decides which of them is “orthodox?”), worship like Mainline and/or Evangelical Protestants and are touched by Shane Claiborne’s radical gospel.

They are complex folks who defy labels. Many work tirelessly on racial and interfaith relationships in their respective communities, categories Dr. Gushee largely overlooks. None of us are simply one kind of Christian/Baptist. If labels are necessary, could we try “former Southern Baptists?” “Ex-SBC” sounds so pejorative, like we just got out of prison.

2. Speaking of pejorative, who says we haven’t “grown up?” Thirty-odd years after the “Baptist Battles” exploded onto the religious landscape somewhere between the Scopes “Monkey” Trial and Postmodernism, thousands of former Southern Baptists have moved on to new movements, churches and denominations. They let the SBC go long ago.

Alliance and CBF-related Baptists didn’t found retro-denominations but recognized that denominations were no longer the only organizational game in town. Instead, they retrieved an older form of Baptist identity — the society-method — offering various decentralized options for persons engaging in ministries that captured their energy and calling. They facilitated new theological institutions that have come of age, often in “worldly” universities that benefit from their presence and perspectives. I participated in such an endeavor at Wake Forest University, and think we’ve “grown up” considerably in theology and praxis 15 years later. And ask folks in Haiti, Romania or tornado-ravaged Alabama if CBF still has to “grow up,” or whether its varied ministries helped as effectively as any old-guard Baptist denomination.

Fact is CBF has grown up considerably in its 20-odd years, thanks to early generations of “ex-SBCers” and a new generation of clergy/laity postmoderns extending those energies toward the future. Perhaps CBF came of age awhile back. Dr. Gushee’s assessment seems a decade or so late.

3. Does CBF really need to “consider a new faith and message statement” (confession of faith) to clarify Baptistness? Dr. Gushee believes so, and that may make him the best “ex-SBCer” of all.

Questions abound. Which dogmas of salvation might that confession affirm, the Calvinism of Particular Baptists or the Arminianism of General Baptists? Is personal regeneration, the defining experience of the Baptist believers’ church, infused into the heart before repentance and faith (the Calvinist preference), or when free-will-initiated prevenient (enabling) grace “cooperates” with God’s salvific action to make redemption happen? Such contradictory “plans of salvation” are both anchored in historic Baptist identity. Which would a new faith/message confession require?

Would it describe Jesus with the ancient words of the Nicene Creed — “God from God, Light from Light, True God of True God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father” — or the more ancient “doctrine of Christ” which the Six Principle Baptists found in Hebrews 6: 1-2: “Repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”

4. How might such a confession be utilized? Subscribed to by all CBF-related churches, whose members vote in CBF business sessions, or that paint “CBF” on the church sign? Would all CBF staffers have to sign such a document? Would Baptist faculty at “partner schools” have to affirm its dictums in some formal way? Would workshop leaders at annual CBF meetings have to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” the confession of faith? We “ex-SBCers” know the drill.

5. What if CBF instead simply sought to live out its superb “guiding principles” that include multiple statements of faith including “a passion for the Great Commission of Jesus Christ and a commitment to Baptist principles of faith and practice?” (Gushee neglected to mention the existence of those principles. See Lumpkin/Leonard, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 506-508.)

Should a confession be required, I’d suggest CBF follow one SBC example and wait 80 years till it gets one; then consider adopting the 1611 “Declaration at Amsterdam” composed by that little band of dissenters who started the whole thing, an unashamed statement of who they were and who we still are: “That the church of Christ is a company of faithful people separated from the world by the word & Spirit of God being knit unto the lord, & one unto another, by baptism. Upon their own confession of faith and sin.”

Grownups from the beginning.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.