A Progressive Baptist Response to Roger Olson (and a word about heresy)

A Progressive Baptist Response to Roger Olson (and a word about heresy) March 3, 2015

Roger Olson, a professor at Truett Theological Seminary and a blogger at Patheos Evangelical recently wrote a piece titled, A Word from a Founder to All My “Moderate Baptist” Friends. His basic argument is that the founder of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), Cecil Sherman, was a theological conservative/moderate who would be upset with Baptists who pose as “moderates” but are actually “liberal.” (For some reason Olson refuses to identify Baptists like myself as “progressives,” which I  prefer, though I don’t mind being called a “liberal” – I make no claim to be a “moderate.”)

He quotes Sherman at length in a passage where Sherman insists that the faith passed down to the church must not be changed and should be defended. Olson says,

I cannot help but believe that if Cecil Sherman were alive today he would have some harsh words of correction for some influential moderate Baptists, including some within the CBF, about resisting repetition of the old (or new) liberal theology that reduces “the faith” to being nice and inclusive to the exclusion of correct belief. I’m sure he would place limits on “soul competency”—a Baptist idea that some use to excuse heresy. . . . there comes a time when it is appropriate to leave a church or denomination – when its leaders and movers and shakers have become heretical or apostate.

Who are these liberals (some of whom hide behind the label “moderate”) who should be corrected? Olson says, “When they agree with Marcus Borg’s theology, for example, they are liberal, not moderate.”

I responded in the Comment section by saying:

I have pastored a CBF church for over 12 years now. My brief assessment [of the CBF]: 1) It is a mini moderate Southern Baptist Convention (much like the SBC before the fundamentalist takeover). When it formed it had the opportunity to be different, but alas it is not. Regardless what anyone says it is, for all practical purposes it is a denomination, and hence, its claim to sameness. 2) Progressives/liberals like myself constitute a very small part of the CBF. Your quotation of Sherman is telling. CBF is predominately conservative to moderate theologically. However, to their credit, they allow room for progressives like me, though in reality, there are relatively few of us. They don’t have to worry. We are not going to do much harm. For example, CBF has a hiring and funding policy on record that is condemnatory and exclusive of LGBT persons and churches who affirm them. I have been told by reliable sources that the policy is not enforced. But it will probably remain in place forever. The leadership is even afraid to respond in any official manner (by letter or phone call) to inquiries about the possibility of changing it.

On your comment: “Indeed, there comes a time when it is appropriate to leave a church or denomination—when its leadership and movers and shakers have becomes heretical or apostate.” Please Roger, let it go. Language like “heretical” and “apostate” is killing us – literally.   Unless Christianity can move past that way of thinking we will continue to be more of the problem [with regard] to the divisions and polarization of people on this planet than a solution.

Olson responded:

Thank you for proving my point – that moderate Baptist circles are too inclusive.

Apparently Olson believes that progressive Baptists like myself, who would agree with Borg maybe 80 to 90 percent of the time, have no place within the CBF since we are “heretical” and “apostate.”

Olson then doubled-down on his view of heresy by writing a second post titled, “Another Great “Moderate Baptist” Leader on the Necessity of Doctrines,” here referencing E. Y. Mullins, an influential Southern Baptist leader in the first decades of the 20th century. Olson laments how “moderate Baptists have appealed to ‘soul competency’ to defend their right as Baptists to believe whatever they believe without any accountability to anyone but God,” thus giving them “license to remain Baptist and discard Christian orthodoxy altogether.” Evidently, accountability to one’s local church doesn’t count.

Olson writes,

I have known moderate Baptists who, with impunity, openly deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ontological deity of Jesus Christ (incarnation) and the Trinity (to say nothing of miracles in general). In my opinion, for whatever it is worth, such people are not true Baptists. They are not even true Christians [emphasis mine]. (With that I make no judgment about their salvation which is solely God’s business.) They ought to have the integrity to stop calling themselves Baptists and Christians and become Unitarians (if they feel the need to belong to any religious organization).

So then, any Baptist like myself who believes like Marcus Borg or denies the orthodox doctrines Olson considers essential, are not only “not true Baptists,” hell, we are “not even true Christians,” though he refuses to make a judgment about whether or not we actually end up in hell.

This is so sad it hardly needs any commentary. Such is the exclusionary, condemnatory nature of doctrine-centered, dogmatic Christianity which is largely rooted in the religious ego. This kind of religion is primarily about control.

While I have never paid much attention to those who have labeled me as “heretical” or “apostate,” these are words that should be eliminated from our common language and excised from our operative dictionaries. Charging a fellow Christian with heresy based on a system of belief is a form of judgment that is generated from one’s deepest fears, anxieties, insecurities, and often repressed animosity. It is an expression of life-diminishing, life-demeaning religion.    

If Christians are to contribute to the healing of our planet and the reconciliation of humankind, rather than adding to further division and polarization, then more of us must die to our religious egos and elevate love of neighbor and restorative justice over everything else.

What say ye, Dr. Olson? Isn’t it time to give it up?

Chuck, profile pictures 002Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective.

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13 responses to “A Progressive Baptist Response to Roger Olson (and a word about heresy)”

  1. I never cease to be amazed at the relativism of liberals like yourself. Doctrine doesn’t matter, holiness doesn’t matter, hell it doesn’t even matter if you believe in Jesus. Believe whatever you like, call yourself a Christian, and as long as you think you’re one, that’s what counts. This is the kind of irrational philosophical poison that is killing the West.

  2. I generally like Dr. Olson and enjoy much of what he writes (even if his moderated comment section is too often dismissive as you illustrate here and I have also experienced).

    However, I wholeheartedly agree with you about the tribalism Dr. Olson exhibits in these two posts. Ironically, his most recent post is about the sin of tribalism (which he claims to rise above). Perhaps the good doctor should taste his own medicine.

  3. Let’s face it: Control of the narrative is far more important to these people than seeking the actual truth from the Bible. They believe that has long been determined of course. So they cannot imagine why there would be any possible reason to change. This denies all forms of contemporary bible scholarship and refuses to acknowledge the many known flaws in biblical interpretation that have led to all sorts of abuses. And continue to do so. So of course this is the response. Citing anything that tests the waters to any degree to indict the lot is the methodology here. But of course we have none other than Jesus Christ to model ourselves after in challenging the stiff-necked rebukes of modern Pharisees. Who were also all about control of the narrative. Jesus called them hypocrites and a brood of vipers back then. He’d call them the same thing today. I’ll choose the side of Jesus, thank you very much. And continue to explore what faith really means rather than what it has been traditionally made out to be.

  4. What you love to call relativism is not relative at all. It’s called having a mind open to exploring where the bounds of real truth lie, rather than binding ourselves to a truth that does lie, but that fact we ignore.

  5. Dogmatism and absolutism is the poison that is killing our planet (not just the West). A healthy, compassionate relativism could just save it.

  6. I know I’m late, but I’m intrigued by this discussion. I would argue for dropping the term “moderate”, but only because I’m reminded of MLK’s rebuke of the white moderate in his Letter to a Birmingham Jail.

    Like you said in a comment section on BNG, CBF is a wide tent, which I’ve generally appreciated. I can’t help but think of the voices that are in this conversation are mostly men (I think there may have been one exception on BNG, but I can’t find the link). I’m wondering why this is the case, and what the absence of those voices say on the discussion itself. What do you think, Chuck?

  7. Kate, that is interesting isn’t it? I have commented and conversed on a number of BNG perspective pieces and news reports for some time now (occasionally submitting an original piece), and have noticed that absence myself. Maybe women have more sense than some of us men about these things and are more oriented toward actually doing than just talking. In most of the churches I have pastored the women seemed to do most of the work. I don’t know . . . what do you think? Maybe CBF’s appointment of Suzie Paynter was an intentional step to involve more women in areas of leadership – of course, that still doesn’t explain why the conversation at BNG seems to be dominated by men. / On the term “moderate” I agree. I never liked the term, and still don’t. Jesus was no “moderate” was he? The Gospel reading this past Sunday was the Johannine version of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple. A moderate would never do such a thing!

  8. My father, a graduate of Eastern Baptist Seminary, was an ordained American Baptist Convention minister and served as pastor to a church in Philadelphia, PA for many years. Upon retirement, he and my mother moved to a small town in south-central New Mexico. There was only one Baptist church in the town at that time, which was Southern Baptist Convention. When my father asked about joining their church as a member of the congregation, he was told that the only way he would be allowed to join would be for him to publically ask for forgiveness for having been a minister of a “heretical church”. He refused and started his own church, which still continues after his passing some years ago. Can we finally drop this word “heresy”?

  9. I have been in a dialogue with Roger Olson on his post, “The Sin of Tribalism.” I was curious how he could call us “liberals” heretics and and not true Christians, and then talk about others (but not himself) being guilty of tribalism. You can read the discussion at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2015/03/the-sin-of-tribalism/ I have here included my final remarks to Dr. Olson since he has not (and I suspect will not) post them there. As the sole moderator of his blog, he exercises tight control. I have had several comments never make it into the comment section. He has a habit of offering what I would call a condescending comment, but not allowing for response. After he instructed me to respond only in a certain way to his post, I responded with the following (which he has yet to post). The first part of my response addresses his condescending manner; the second part addresses the question he raised.

    “I’m not your student and I will respond any damn way I want. (Though sense you solely control the comment section I doubt if you will post this.) Your definition [of tribalism] is not definitive. There is no Olson dictionary of religious terms that is the standard. You needn’t worry about me reading your posts carefully, because I will not be reading any more of your posts. Do you realize how arrogant your “dismissive” comments sound? As a “liberal” Baptist I may not, in your opinion, be “a true Baptist” or “a true Christian,” but I try to interact and dialogue like one. You should try it. / No atheist would ever want to be a deacon of a church. And no church I know of or can even imagine would elect one. But if (which it never would) a church elected an atheist as a deacon, and that brother respected the beliefs/commitments of the congregation to Jesus’ Lordship, yes I would welcome his/her service.”

  10. Unbelievable — well, actually not. The SBC is even farther to the right today. Exactly, Richard. That’s been the point of many of my posts. If Christians don’t lose this notion of heresy, we will contribute more to the divisiveness and polarization of peoples on this planet, than be any kind of solution. And yet, we Christians, have been given the message of and made ambassadors of reconciliation. Such irony.

  11. Chuck, thanks for your response. I’ve submitted some opinions to BNG as well, but haven’t commented as much. For me, fear has a part to play. I fear if I say something that could be construed as controversial (even if it is minute), I may have trouble applying for positions in the future. I wonder if men have the same concern.

    I agree with you regarding “moderate.” I’m not sure who came up with the term, but I prefer “Goodwill Baptist.” It is something to aspire to, for sure!

  12. Does Olson really think that Jehovah’s Witness-like apostate hunting will suddenly shut liberals and progressives out? Oh please. I’m afraid he should renew his bloodpressure meds. They’re going nowhere.

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