Another ‘other’ Baptist story

church 24891 3The very last Baptist congregation that I called home, on my road to the ancient church of the East, was Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., which hails itself as an “ecumenical church” in the “Baptist tradition.”

If you know anything about “moderate Baptists” in the Bible Belt, you know that Myers Park is as far left as one can go and still be in a church with Baptist in the name.

It’s the kind of church with Episcopal-style doors on the pews, semi-Presbyterian hymnals in the pews, clergy in academic robes and absolutely no doctrinal absolutes, other than the freedom of the individual soul to make its peace with Whoever or Whatever is up there (maybe) in the Heavens. It’s the kind of church that all but gave up on the Southern Baptist Convention, to halfway dance with the American Baptists, long before that was the kind of mini-trend that would make headlines.

In other words, I know a thing or two — here’s a confession — about the “other Baptists” and what they believe and why they believe it.

The Divine Mrs. MZ recently noted a fine Associated Press report about these “other” Baptists, and I thought I would revisit this subject, because I am convinced that they could play a crucial role in the development of a more diverse religious left in the next few years. I mean, at the very least, we are going to get to see Bill Clinton — a liberal Baptist’s Baptist if there ever was one — walking out of more churches holding his Bible. And Jimmy Carter is still making news, too.

However, this is tricky business. Are these other Baptists “evangelicals” in any sense of that vague word? What do they believe? Are they, in effect, merely oldline Protestants who like good preaching? Is there any unity over there? Well, The Dallas Morning News ran another report on these folks offered by Religion News Service. Here is part of this second report on the attempts to promote unity on the Baptist left.

Baptists from a range of fellowships and denominations came together for worship and rallies and to say — at least symbolically — that splits and divisions from the past will not prevent them from joining hands on issues such as missions and religious freedom. They often disagree with more conservative Southern Baptists, but they want people to know they are Baptist, too — just a different kind.

… Now, Baptists who agree on issues such as reducing poverty and hunger and respecting religious diversity are seeking ways to actively find common ground.

And, at the end, we are told that American Baptists, Cooperative Baptists (that would be the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship piece of the Southern Baptist universe), Progressive Baptists and others have also

… affirmed their plans for a larger gathering planned for next January in Atlanta. With the encouragement of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both Baptists, there will be a “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant.” Predominantly white and historically African-American Baptist groups will emphasize their commitment to feeding the hungry, promoting peace, and caring for the sick and marginalized.

In other words, these Baptists are against poverty, in favor of religious diversity, pro-peace, etc. etc. This, of course, means that their Baptist sisters and brothers to the right are not all of these things. This may or may not be true, but there is no way that this is enough information about this new “moderate” coalition.

What about the major social issues that — like it or not — tend to cause divisions today? Would journalists dare write about the Southern Baptist Convention without mentioning what it believes on controversial issues, without covering its internal divisions?

So, in order to be better informed, try this. Do a Google search for the terms “American Baptists” and, oh, “homosexuality.” Or check out the Rainbow Baptists. Poke around, because there are interesting stories out there on the Baptist left. Lots of them.

In other words, these “other” Baptists are a complex and, at times, divided bunch. They deserve serious coverage — which means listening to their allies and their critics. This particular story barely scratched the surface.

UPDATE: Here is some timely additional information from RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom, writing in with a comment:

To answer one of your points, that the RNS article did not address that the “other baptists” are a “divided bunch,” it’s important to note that the Dallas Morning News article you cited left out two paragraphs from the bottom of the original RNS story. From the original RNS feed:

Walt White, a member of the American Baptist Churches’ global consultants team, said the worship service gave a refreshing perspective on Baptists who even argue among themselves over abortion, homosexuality and how much to work with non-Baptist groups.

“So often recently, Baptists have been known for what they’re against,” he said. “I would much rather we be known for what we’re for than for what we’re against.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com Alice C. Linsley

    When I was a child my Baptist Daddy used to say that you could be sure to hear the Gospel from a Baptist pulpit. Today that isn’t true. But I think he saw this coming before he died 19 years ago because he warned his 3 daughters that the days had come when people’s ears would itch and few would tolerate the preaching of the Gospel.

  • http://www.thebigdaddyweave.com Aaron Weaver

    Terry,

    In addition to being student at the Dawson Institute at your alma mater, I’m one of the few “moderate” Baptists who blog regularly. I also help out with a blog dedicated to the New Baptist Covenant (newbaptistcovenant.blogspot.com)

    As you know, Baptists are a funny-breed. Some can honestly claim the “evangelical” label but many can’t. The groups participating in the upcoming Celebration are quite diverse – African-American Baptists, American Baptists, Canadian Baptists, Texas Baptists, CBF Baptists, etc..

    We’re diverse both theologically and politically. For example, Texas Baptists don’t exactly walk hand-in-hand with the Democratic party. And while Bill Clinton is a fan favorite of many African-American Baptists – they tend to be much more conservative theologically than many of their Baptist brothers and sisters in the North (ABC-USA).

  • Richard Pierard

    This piece is really so bad that I am not sure I even want to waste my time reading your posts any longer. I am a Baptist myself, living in North Carolina, and I have worshiped at Myers Park a few times when I have been in Charlotte. I think your caricature of a fine church and the cheap shots you make against us moderates are quite uncalled for. If you have found your way back to Constantinople, that is your business and prerogative and as a firm believer in religious liberty I support your right to do so. But you seem to have little appreciation of how much harm the Southern Baptist fundamentalists have done to the life and witness of our Baptist community. Do you have any idea of the lives ruined, ministries destroyed, and spirits of good people broken by the actions of these mean-spirited, ego-driven people? Instead of blithely throwing around the scare word “liberal” and venting your obsession with homosexuality, you ought to really try to understand the feelings of us who regard ourselves as “moderates.” If you would consider the misuse of “evangelical” by the fundamentalists running the SBC, you might begin to grasp why a lot of good folks are gun shy about the term. I am not, nor have I ever been a Southern Baptist [to use the wording of that stock question of the House Un-American Activities Committee, may it not rest in peace], but I do empathize with my brothers and sisters in that community who have been deeply hurt in the political struggles of the fundamentalist takeover. Instead of implicitly assuming that we moderate Baptists are little than dunked liberal Episcopalians, you ought to try to understand our concerns. Perhaps that is asking too much of the GetReligion management.

  • Martha

    Wow, Richard, talk about spectacularly missing the point. This was not a cheap shot about you lot, it was about how the press does not realise that in the Baptist denomination (as in many others) there is a spectrum of theological rigidity and that the Southern Baptists are not the sole representatives of the genus.

    To leap from that to the conclusion that by describing your particular – well, what is your particular grouping, exactly? One church, one parish, one of the many fissiparous offshoots of American Protestantism, one what? Whatever it is, by describing it as being on the liberal side of the spectrum, that this is somehow an attack – where do you get that impression?

    Unless you think that the very term ‘liberal’ is, in itself, an insult – and why would that be?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    READERS:

    As I said, the landscape of the “moderate” Baptist world is very complex and worthy of coverage, drawing from both the informed critics and supporters of these organizations. There is much anger in the wreckage of the long, long Southern Baptist civil war — on both sides. All of this deserves careful and balanced coverage.

    Richard: Suffice it to say that I grew up in the heart of the moderate Baptist land of Texas and speak the language fluently, even if you doubt that. I have great, great respect for many Baptists on both side of the battle lines.

  • Anne

    The left-leaning author of the AP piece was eager to cover the “other” baptists because she can identify with their worldly views. The “other” baptists know the social-gospel, but not necessarily the true gospel. (They also enjoy implying that SBC baptists do not care about the downtrodden, women, homosexuals, etc.). The “other” baptists really have no common thread, other than the Baptist name and the social gospel. Oh, they also all like to pick and choose which parts of the Bible apply in today’s world.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    ANNE:

    How are you defining “social gospel”? Be careful that you don’t rip the body away from the soul. There is no conflict between Christian doctrines on salvation and a burning desire to seek social justice. See Wesley, Wilberforce, etc.

  • Kevin Eckstrom

    To answer one of your points, that the RNS article did not address that the “other baptists” are a “divided bunch,” it’s important to note that the Dallas Morning News article you cited left out two paragraphs from the bottom of the original RNS story:

    From the original RNS feed:

    Walt White, a member of the American Baptist Churches’ global consultants team, said the worship service gave a refreshing perspective on Baptists who even argue among themselves over abortion, homosexuality and how much to work with non-Baptist groups.
    “So often recently, Baptists have been known for what they’re against,” he said. “I would much rather we be known for what we’re for than for what we’re against.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Kevin:

    Thank you for the additional info.

    Duly noted. I will pull that info out front.

  • Anne

    Tmatt – You are right about Wilberforce and Wesley, but keep in mind that their desire for justice was credited to their belief that the Bible (Jesus) demand that we love our neighbor. They gave due credit to Christ as their motivating purpose in life, with a desire to share Christ with others. The recent movie on Wilberforce tragically downplayed his Christianity as his motivating desire for justice. (Wouldn’t want to offend any non-Christians, would we?)

  • joseph

    Until recently millions of people held Jimmy Carter up as an example of what a Christian should be. I read his book Living Faith and looked up to him as a model Christian. But now he has joined the bigoted anti-Israel community. He has destroyed the great respect that many of us have built up over the years. After reading his book Peace Not Apartheid Jimmy Carter has shown his true immoral and bigoted colors. His latest comment that Israel’s refusal to support the neo-Nazi group Hamas is “criminal” demonstrates what an indecent man Jimmy Carter really is. What a shame.

  • Davis Hall

    Watch out for the “Toll Houses” along the way to Heaven as you “swim the Bosporus.” Good luck and please remember, always have love for the one that “brought you to the dance.”ie. your first faith, the Baptists.


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