Giving the Saints the Right to Vote
Several weeks ago, I burned a bridge in my head
and in my heart. I made a decision that only sounds simple. I have decided that
I will never join another Southern Baptist church.
Being a Southern Baptist has always been a major part — perhaps the major
part — of my sense of identity. I am a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid. I am a
graduate of the world’s largest Southern Baptist university. I was ordained a
deacon in a Southern Baptist church while in my mid-20s.
Not long ago, I returned to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. While walking
around the campus, I felt like I might as well have been at Brigham Young
In the years since I left Waco, I have changed and Baylor has changed. I
expected that. But, during my short visit, another set of feelings washed over
me. By Southern Baptist standards, Baylor is an open — and to use an SBC buzz
word — “moderate” campus.
What I was feelings was stronger than the musings of a disenchanted graduate
wishing for a return to the good old days. I realized that if I was rejecting
Baylor, and Baylor rejecting me, then I was much further out of the mainstream
of Southern Baptist life than I had ever dreamed. I asked myself, “If
Baylor is left of center in the SBC, where does that leave me?”
I began to try to fit my thoughts and feelings into some kind of mental and
What was I really feeling? What is — what will always be — most important
to me as a Christian? At some point could my struggles against the majority in
the Southern Baptist Convention hinder me, or warp me, as a Christian?
First of all, I have decided that there are a number of religious and social
causes that will always be important to me: the equality of women and men,
civil rights, hunger in the United States and abroad, the environment, a
concept of economics that does not worship capitalism as a god, a view of
church-state relations that accepts religious liberty as a given, a bilateral
freeze on nuclear weapons, free speech. I am on the opposite side of the front
from the vast majority of Southern Baptists on these issues.
I love the arts and feel uncomfortable in a denomination that distrusts
artistic people because their messages are often subtle.
In the past decade, I have been influenced the most by great Christian
writers such as C.S. Lewis, Garry Wills, Martin E. Marty, Frederich Buechner,
Andrew M. Greeley, Madeleine L’Engle, J.R.R. Tolkein, Charles Williams and
Dorothy Day. There are no Southern Baptists in that list.
Many of the Baptists I most admire are people who were, or are, happy being
renegades. Many are no ex-Baptists.
I am tired of being in a proud, defiant, rejected minority of people who
believe they are the “only true Baptists left.” I want to be in a
church in which I fit in, in which I can focus on the positive.
And maybe I’m not even a “true Baptist.”
I am wedded for life to liturgical worship — both in music and in the
liturgy, itself. I see worship as praise to God and a source of spiritual
strength that leads to personal evangelism, behavior based on a Christian
concept of living unselfishly for others and the creation of that strange web
of lives that we call the church.
Spiritual pep rallies turn me off. I get angry when I hear the kind of
pulpit evangelism that crushes personalities and emotions under a steamroller
of jargon. Emotion plays a valid role in faith and in conversion, but does it
always have to be linked to simplistic, high-volume sermons? I don’t think
I also have to admit that I am no longer happiest when worshipping in
“moderate” Southern Baptist churches, where religious symbolism and
centuries of church tradition are kind of hinted at during festive parts of the
church year — just touched lightly, like a frying pan that is too hot to
really grab and hold.
On top of that, I have begun to doubt the radical individualism that is at
the heart of Baptist thought — fundamentalist, conservative and moderate. I do
not love freedom for its own sake. Knowing that I can believe whatever I want
to believe and not be kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention is no
longer enough for me.
Let me be clear. The concept of the “priesthood of every believer”
is very important to me. However, I have decided that Baptists’ historical fear
of church tradition and creeds has had at least one bad side effect. Since
Baptists have few, if any, accepted or articulated tenets, there are few
traditions to discuss, interpret and defend.
When SBC moderates protested efforts to promote mandated prayers in public
schools or to slap controls on seminaries, there were few — if any — defenses
to fall back on.
“Southern Baptists have always believed like I believe,” rings
hollow. Moderates were on the same thin ice that the fundamentalists were on
when they claimed that the “majority of Southern Baptists have always
believed in the inerrancy of the Bible.”
What authority do those statements have?
Southern Baptists are left with a kind of informal, sociological creed.
This creed of “what is or isn’t done” can become a kind of baptism
of the lowest common denominator. Southern Baptist church tradition is usually
whatever is popular at the moment in the nation’s biggest SBC churches.
“The Church” ends up being viewed in terms of American,
upper-middle-class, usually white suburban norms. With very few exceptions, the
members of the SBC’s denominational “cloud of witnesses” have been
informally canonized in post-1950s America.
In a denomination based on a casual form of majority rule, the saints do not
have the right to vote.
Thus, Southern Baptist life has become dominated by the latest charts on
statistical growth. A simple truth has emerged: it is impossible to out-baptize
huge churches based on a glossed- over view of the recent past that puts the
Good News in the hands of an authoritarian minister who claims God has told him
how to solve all of his church members’ problems.
“But,” I hear myself saying again and again, “I have been a
member of SBC churches that were not like that!” And that is true.
Individual congregations can do many wonderful things. They can also be cut off
from the flow of Baptist life.
Many moderate Baptists have encouraged me to stand and fight for change. The
few liberal Baptists I know have told me not to care so much about what the
denomination does. Baptist congregations are absolutely free, they stress.
“Forget what those yahoos do at the national convention,” they
I know that in the future, some SBC congregations and individuals will
choose to remain free and will be happy doing so. However, with the continuing
rapid growth of the SBC in the more conservative parts of the Southwest, I am
convinced that the swing to the right that started in the Houston and St. Louis
conventions will continue and have lasting effects on the national, state and
maybe even associational levels.
If I am going to be in a church that has a creed, I would rather have the
Nicene Creed than one written in Del City, Okla.
Also, I have to be honest and admit that I do not believe in the inerrancy
of the Bible, at least as that term is defined by today’s Southern Baptist
leaders. The Bible is a book that is both human and divine, carrying a message
that is both inspired and authoritative. But the words in the Bible are not the
Word. Jesus Christ is the incarnation, not the Bible. The words of the Bible
are like waves moving out from that event — tied to it, part of it, but not to
be confused with the event itself.
So I have grown tired of the current infighting in the SBC.
Sometimes, no, most of the time, I feel as if the Southern Baptist
Convention has cut itself off from the rest of Christ’s Church. Year after
year, SBC leaders make thinly-veiled (or in the case of Bailey Smith, obvious)
attacks on the worship and traditions of other denominations. There is no sense
of humility in these attacks. There is no sense that if the SBC can teach other
churches lessons on evangelism and church growth, then perhaps other churches
can teach the SBC about social justice, prayer or beauty in worship.
I feel it is time to move to a church I can celebrate. I know I cannot
expect to find a perfect tradition or denomination. I don’t think that I’m
Still, I feel the need to move on. It is my response to a Christ that I
believe wants me to get on with the business of worship, service and witness. I
am very, very tired of fighting.
The author, a life-long Southern Baptist, requested anonymity for the sake
A 1995 POSTLUDE: For online friends
This article was written in spring of 1983, about the time that my wife,
Debra, and I left the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., one of the
few Baptist congregations in the world that can accurately be called
“liberal,” and began attending St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. We left
Myers Baptist Baptist, in large part, due to a conflict over the church’s
proclamation of universalism.
It really took me back, typing this text into my computer this morning. Many
sections are stunningly ironic, in light of recent years in the Episcopal
Church. “I am very, very tired of fighting,” indeed.
I have chosen to change two references in this article, for the sake of
In the original text, the list of social causes in the ninth paragraph began
with the word “feminism.” Why did I change this? At that time, I had
no idea about the various schools of feminism — gender vs. economic vs.
whatever. At no point in my life could I have been considered a gender feminist
and the same is true of Debra. By the way, it was in 1980 or so that my views
on abortion began to change, as I was exposed to the views of conservative
liturgical Christians and to the views of the pro-life left.
Also, note this sentence near the end: “I have to be honest and admit
that I do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, at least as that term is
defined by today’s Southern Baptist leaders.” The second half of this
sentence is new.
Why? At the time I wrote this article, I had only heard the term
“biblical inerrancy” defined by leaders on the right and left wings
of SBC life, in clashes that focused on issues of history and science. Since
then, I have been exposed to the views of many others — such as Dr. Kenneth
Kantzer, or the Anglican theologian J.I. Packer — who use different
definitions of biblical inerrancy that stress doctrine and context. I felt I
must clarify this sentence, since I didn’t know enough about what I was talking
about, at that time.
One final note: It is very ironic that my upbringing in Southern Baptist
life had left me cut off from mainstream evangelical life and thought, as well
as that in historic churches. In the past, Southern Baptists have been pretty
much a kingdom unto themselves — cut off from everyone. This is changing. In
the years since writing this, I have found numerous evangelical writers whose
names I would quickly add to the list of those who have most influenced me.
Still, C.S. Lewis would lead the list.