One-sided look at controversial Baptist flock in Charlotte

It has been quite some time since I have used an old GetReligion term (Cheers!), so I think it might help for me to pause and explain the “tmatt trio” to new readers.

Back when I was on the religion beat full-time, I developed a series of three doctrinal questions that helped me scope out the dividing lines inside the battles that were shaking so many Christian denominations and ministries. You see, they all seemed to be arguing about the same issues over and over (James Davison Hunter, your ears should be burning), no matter what doctrinal heritage they were claiming to honor.

Yes, there are small-o orthodox and progressive answers to these questions, but that is beside the point. The goal of the questions, for me as a journalist, was to listen carefully to how people answered, or attempted not to answer, these basic doctrinal questions. The trio never failed to yield interesting answers and evasions that helped me, as a reporter, learn more about where people were actually coming, in terms of ancient doctrines (as opposed to mere contemporary politics).

So, here are the three questions:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Of course, there are churches that would not use the term “sacrament” in connection with marriage. Thus, I would tweak the wording on that question from time to time. Obviously, you need totally different questions when dealing with other faiths. The key is that you ask doctrinal, not political, questions.

Now, I have a personal confession to make. I first formulated these questions in the early 1980s, while working at The Charlotte News and then The Charlotte Observer. They grew out of my experiences as a member of the final Baptist congregation that I ever called home.

To be specific, if was the congregation discussed in this recent (alas, it has been in the tmatt guilt file for some time now) story in the Observer. Every reporter knows that clergy come and go all the time. In this case, the editors decided that a ministerial exit was news.

With tears and applause, hugs and handshakes, Myers Park Baptist Church said goodbye Sunday to a longtime senior minister who announced last week that he needed to walk away from the stresses of pastoring a 2,200-member congregation.

The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, who recently sought treatment at a Maryland facility for anxiety and depression, also bid his “beloved community” farewell with a final sermon that cast his resignation and the 70-year-old church’s upcoming search for a new leader as opportunities for each to start a new day.

“God is giving to me a new dawn, and God is giving to you, the congregation, a new dawn,” the black-robed Shoemaker said after climbing the stairs to the church’s pulpit one last time. “God is a God of new beginnings.”

Shoemaker, who also had admitted “self-medicating with alcohol,” wants to devote his attention to an intensive 90-day, out-patient recovery program and then pursue a career of teaching and writing.

Now, it helps to understand that Myers Park Baptist is a very controversial church and that has been the case for decades. On one level, this rather high-church, liturgical congregation is known for taking, as the story notes, “liberal stands” on the usual social and cultural issues. The congregation took early public stands in favor of gay rights, for example, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the story, the content of these “liberal stands” is hinted at in this paragraph:

In 2007, Myers Park Baptist — affiliated with the American Baptist Association, not the conservative Southern Baptist Convention — got kicked out of the state Baptist Convention for welcoming gays and lesbians. The church has formed partnerships with Temple Beth El and Masjid Ash Shaheed — Jewish and Muslim congregations. And its high-profile roster of outside speakers has included some — retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and scholars from the Jesus Seminar — who questioned basic tenets of Christianity.

Of course, there are many congregations that welcome gays and lesbians as members and even as leaders, so long as these individuals uphold the teachings of the traditional Christianity. What we have here is another one of those cases in which “welcome” is used in a rather vague manner to signal actual changes in doctrinal content.

However, the story really needed to flesh out — at least in a sentence or so — the content of that reference to the church welcoming and, yes, endorsing those who question “basic tenets of Christianity.”

So you can see the shape of the trio questions coming into shape, right?

For me the crucial moment came on the personal level. During a Myers Park retreat, I had a long and revealing private — off the record, in other words — conversation with a member of the church’s board of deacons, a professor at a nearby Southern Baptist university. We ended up discussing the doctrine of the Resurrection. I affirmed that I believed that the Resurrection was a mysterious, but real, event, one that took place in real time. In other words, I affirmed the Nicene Creed and the teachings of the ancient church.

This Myers Park Baptist leader, in 1982, responded with words to this effect concerning the Resurrection of Jesus: How can an intelligent person affirm something as stupid as that?

Now, whatever one thinks of the doctrine in question, that is a very interesting answer. I was young and, yes, quite naive and what I realized was that, as a reporter, I needed to start asking much more basic questions when interviewing leaders of mainstream religious groups. I needed to stop assuming that I understood where people were coming from, in terms of basic beliefs.

Now, read the whole Observer story about Myers Park Baptist and look for content representing any of the church’s many local critics. Also, look for specifics about the stands the church has taken, other than the hint about gay rights.

Now, think in terms of basic journalism. If the leader of a prominent, controversial fundamentalist church stepped down in a time of personal crisis, I would certainly expect the local newspaper to interview people in the community who were critical of his ministry, as well as those who affirmed it.

In other words, journalists would recognize that this church and its leader were controversial for a reason, or several reasons, and that these debates included voices coming from multiple points of view. Where are those voices in this news report? Or was the goal public relations?

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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.

  • Cliff G

    I was struck by the article’s statement that Myers Park is part of the American Baptist Association. The ABA (also known as “Landmark Missionary Baptists”) is a very conservative group of independent Baptist churches. Myers Park is part of the American Baptist Churches USA, a moderate-to-liberal denomination formerly known as the American Baptist Convention.

  • ceemac

    Tmatt, giving the date of your conversation and the title of the person amounts to putting that conversation ” on the record” doesn’t it? It would take someone with acces to congregational records less than 5 minutes to find the name?

  • tmatt

    ceemac:

    Well, there would be no public records of the membership of the deacon board at that point. I guess a member of the church leadership who wanted to look that up, somehow, might be able to do so.

    But thanks for your comment. I have tweaked the reference.

    • ceemac

      Tmatt,

      Sorry, I am a Presbyterian. I was assuming that there would be minutes, directories, annual reports or even old bulletins. All decently and orderly filed away. Not exactly public documents but not really private either.

  • tmatt

    Cliff G:

    Dead on right. I didn’t even notice that — a total error of fact.

  • Cathy G

    I’m glad that the discussion of the circumstances of the “ministerial exit” was news here, as it draws attention to the idea that someone off to rehab or with a history of substance abuse probably shouldn’t be engaged in ministry. I find it similarly interesting that most coverage of San Francisco RC Archbishop Cordelione focuses intently on his doctrinal statements about same-sex marriage without disclosing that he was recently arrested for DUI.

    • James Stagg

      You could detail the DUI “arrest”, Cathy. That would insulate you from the idea you plucked this out of the ionosphere, so to speak. As far as ANY news reports have stated (or in your case, insinuated), the good Archbishop has NO RECORD of substance abuse……as opposed to the oblique references in the noted article.

  • Cathy G

    Ionosphere? Let me Google it for you. http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local/san_francisco&id=8788117
    I think that when you are arrested for DUI, you DO indeed have a record. And putting your own life and the lives of others in danger isn’t just something you can get an indulgence for. It calls into question pretty much everything you have to say.


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