A Baptist shame

After years of living through Baptist controversies I determined to address issues -- not individuals -- in public debates. I’ve kept that covenant for two decades. But not tonight.

By Bill Leonard

Tonight I am ashamed to be a Baptist. Born into Baptist “cradle role” in the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Texas, and baptized on profession of faith in that congregation when I was 8 years old, I’ve been a born-again Baptist for over five decades.

I grew up in churches associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but as a child often went with my grandmother to the Fundamental Baptist Church in Decatur with its neon anchor out front flashing “Jesus Saves” 24/7.

My grandmother was a grace-filled member of that Independent Baptist congregation that drew a straight line from themselves to Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan and to 20th century fundamentalism -- inerrant Bible, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection and literal second coming.

Independent Baptists got saved hard, preached hard and fought sin hard with leaders like Fort Worth’s J. Frank Norris, Chattanooga’s Lee Robertson, Springfield’s Noel Smith, and Lynchburg’s Jerry Falwell.

I’ve written about them across the years, and often thought I might publish a history of the Independent Baptist movement. Not anymore.

Tonight I watched excerpts from a sermon preached by Charles Worley, pastor of Providence Road Baptist Church, an Independent Baptist congregation in Maiden, N.C., the state where my family and I live.

North Carolina remains a church/state battleground over Amendment One, an addition to the state constitution that declares that marriage is between one man and one woman. On May 8, 2012, the amendment passed by over 60 percent majority.

Yet for reasons that mystify, this Independent Baptist preacher’s remarks go far beyond the amendment, President Obama’s recent announcement on such issues, voting one’s conscience or even differences of opinion that divide Christian brothers and sisters.

Pastor Worley said things that are repugnant in any Christian pulpit, that shame the name Baptist and undercut the gospel itself. Although I’ve sometime been embarrassed to be a Baptist, until now I’ve never really been ashamed.

I remain haunted by the courage of those early Baptists who, for reasons I cannot fully comprehend, looked beyond their historical context to the vision of a believers’ church, uncoerced faith, freedom of conscience and transformation through Christ.

But tonight I am ashamed, because I heard a Baptist pastor say things so abhorrent to the gospel of Jesus that I could not keep conscience with my Baptist forebears and remain silent. In what appears to be a May 13 sermon, Charles Worley declared: "Build a great, big, large fence -- 150 or 100 mile long -- put all the lesbians in there," Then he continues: "Do the same thing for the queers and the homosexuals and have that fence electrified so they can't get out. Feed them, and you know what, in a few years, they'll die out. Do you know why? They can't reproduce!"

I’ve listened to those statements multiple times, each time hoping that I’m not hearing what I think I’m hearing. But I am.

That a person who serves a congregation calling itself Baptist would utilize such brutal words is not simply an affront to the men and women he wishes death upon, but to all who “name the name of Christ.” So dastardly are those words and the sentiment behind them that those of us who value the Baptist tradition must demand repentance of this fallen Christian brother.

Indeed, repentance is the only way back. And anyone who stands with him in those words must also repent. Whatever one believes about culture-war controversies, to use the language of violence and death as this pastor did is a repudiation of the good news of Jesus. It is a false witness to the Jesus Way in the world.

In 1980, a Baptist evangelist declared on national television that, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” a remark that in many ways advanced this type of homiletical diatribe into the American public square.

E. Glenn Hinson, then my colleague at the Baptist seminary in Louisville and one of the most Christ-like human beings I have ever known, said of that statement, “Such is the stuff of which holocausts are made.”

Hinson’s statement sparked great controversy inside and outside the seminary. His words were true then, and perhaps even truer now. Such concentration-camp language is shameful, whether used in 1930s Europe or 2012 North Carolina.

After years of living through Baptist controversies I determined to address issues -- not individuals -- in public debates. I’ve kept that covenant for at least two decades. But not tonight.

Tonight I’m disgusted with and praying for Pastor Worley, clinging to Paul’s words to Corinth offered in contrast to “another gospel” he found rampant there: “We recommend ourselves by the innocence of our behavior, our grasp of truth, our patience and kindliness; by gifts of the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by declaring the truth, by the power of God” (2 Cor. 6:6-7).

Tonight I am ashamed to be a Baptist. Maybe the grace of Jesus and my Independent Baptist grandmother will find me by morning. Maybe that grace will somehow find a repentant Baptist preacher in Maiden, N.C. One can only hope.

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