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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