By now you've probably heard about this story:
WAYNESVILLE, N.C. — Nine members of a local church had their membership revoked and 40 others left in protest after tension over political views recently came to a head, church members say.
About 20 members of the 400-member East Waynesville Baptist Church voted the nine members out at a recent deacon meeting, which turned into an impromptu business meeting, according to congregants.
Chan Chandler, pastor of East Waynesville Baptist, had been exhorting his congregation since October to support his political views or leave, said Selma Morris, a 30-year member of the church.
“He preached a sermon on abortion and homosexuality, then said if anyone there was planning on voting for John Kerry, they should leave,” she said.
The North Carolina pastor who reportedly excommunicated nine people for their political beliefs now says it was all a "great misunderstanding," as a member of his congregation calls him "a wonderful, good old country boy."
The Rev. Chandler didn't actually "excommunicate" anybody, of course. Baptist pastors don't have that kind of power, and even if they did, we Baptists, by definition, would be immune to it. Chandler is a wanna-be theocrat and a horse's ass, but to really appreciate how much of a horse's ass, you have to appreciate how unthinkably un-Baptist his foolish attempt at congregational excommunication was.
Below the jump is a FAQ of sorts on Baptists and excommunication.
Q: What's the official policy of the Baptist Church on excommunication?
A: There is no official policy of the Baptist Church because there is no "Baptist Church," only Baptist churches. No hierarchy, no bishops, no creed. We can speak generally of Baptist polity, but that's still almost an oxymoron — like the "official" symbol for anarchy. Baptist polity derives from soul liberty, which is the central and essential Baptist distinctive.
Q: OK, then, what does Baptist polity say about excommunication?
A: Baptists can't be excommunicated because they were never "communicated" to begin with. Excommunication is primarily about the denial of the sacraments of the church, and therefore the denial of access to divine grace. Baptists don't have sacraments, so it is impossible to withhold them. And as for access to divine grace, that's between you and God.
Q: But don't Baptists take the sacrament of communion?
A: Baptists celebrate the Lord's Supper, but this is an "ordinance," not a sacrament. (The distinction here has to do with how God's grace is mediated to humanity.)
Q: OK, so couldn't Baptists exordinate, er, disordinance-ify … withhold the ordinance as a form of excommunication?
A: For Baptists, communion is an open table — a remembrance of the Lord's Supper open to all believers. Whether or not this includes you is, again, between you and God. Anybody who is not God doesn't have the prerogative of denying your soul liberty by making that decision for you. So if a congregation were to begin denying the ordinance of communion to particular believers because it didn't like what they believed it would, at that point, no longer really be a Baptist congregation.
A: Neither. We tend to believe in small plastic cups of Welch's Concord grape juice once a month. Mystery and majestic reverence aren't really our strong suits.
Q: You keep talking about this "soul liberty" as the essence of what it means to be a Baptist. But isn't the essence of the Baptist tradition, you know, baptism?
A: What sets Baptists apart is not that they are baptized — all Christians practice baptism in one form or another. Nor is it the form of baptism (we prefer old-school, take-me-to-the-river-style immersion, but it's not an article of faith). The distinct thing is that Baptists choose baptism, and thus are only baptized when they're old enough to make that choice on their own. The significance of this is that it means that membership in the church is a matter of individual choice — soul liberty again. This also has political significance as an expression of individual freedom and the separation of church and state. This political aspect was a rather big deal a few centuries back. The separation of church and state is the one and only contribution Baptists have made to Christian political thought — but it's a pretty good contribution.
Q: So if "soul liberty" means that I can't tell you what you should or shouldn't believe, does that mean Baptists can never disagree?
A: No. It means that Baptists can always disagree. And we usually do.
Q: So you seem to be saying that Baptists are dogmatically anti-dogma, that you can tolerate anything except intolerance — isn't that a contradiction?
A: Can God make a rock so heavy that he can't lift it?
Q: That's a stupid question. Is that supposed to be clever? It's not even a real question, just a false-paradox, a sophomoric piece of deliberately misleading semantic nonsense.
Q: If "soul liberty" is the essence of what it means to be Baptist, then how do you explain the Southern Baptist Convention?
A: The Southern Baptist Convention is none of the above. For the past 20 years or so it has been evolving from a convention into a denomination. They have, in function if not in name, bishops and archbishops. They have inquisitors. Eventually, and sooner rather than later, they will have their own pope. They regard the separation of church and state as a "myth." They don't allow disagreement. They strictly enforce adherence to creed-ish "statements of faith." In short, they're about as Baptist as Cotton Mather.
Q: So if the pastor of East Waynesville Baptist Church didn't "excommunicate" the congregation's nine Democrats, what actually happened there?
A: In addition to the church invisible, the gathering of the saints there in East Waynesville, there is also the church material. There is a legal entity incorporated under the name "East Waynesville Baptist Church." This entity owns the building, pays the utility bills and makes sure the lawn gets mowed. As a tax-deductible nonprofit, this entity also has bylaws, which Pastor Billy Bob Torquemada has almost certainly violated by trying to kick out members based on how they vote in civil elections. That's why the supposedly ousted church members now have a lawyer representing their case. That's also why the pastor is now backtracking and saying it was all just a misunderstanding.