Confessions of an Ecumenical, Eclectic, Baptist Christian

Confessions of an Ecumenical, Eclectic, Baptist Christian January 16, 2013

Confessions of an Ecumenical, Eclectic, Baptist Christian

Roger E. Olson

            I can’t claim the Baptist pedigree of the man who proudly identified himself as “Baptist born, Baptist bred, and when I’m gone I’ll be Baptist dead.” Unlike him, and unlike many of my colleagues past and present, I didn’t grow up Baptist. I’m a convert. There are advantages to being a convert. For one thing, it’s harder to take being Baptist for granted. You see, I chose it. Perhaps a Calvinist Baptist would say it chose me, but as an Arminian Baptist I think I chose it.

When I first became Baptist I was living in a religious ecology, as sociologists call it, that was somewhat hostile to Baptists. I grew up in the Upper Midwest where Baptists are a minority. In Minnesota less than three percent identify as Baptist. But that didn’t bother me; in fact, I felt kind of special. I felt sorry for Catholics and Lutherans who didn’t stand out. After all, according to Dr. Seuss, our job isn’t to fit in but to stand out. That’s especially true, I take it, of authentic Christians. Wherever they are, Christians should stand out.

Then I moved to Texas the first time and noticed that here, as in much of the South, being Baptist can be a kind of default religious identity. That is, many people truly are “Baptist born and Baptist bred” and don’t stand out from the surrounding culture. I was struck by how easy it is to be Baptist in Texas and the South. And I was shocked when I met people who seemed to be Baptist first and Christian second.

If I sound critical, I’m only agreeing with my solidly Baptist professor of theology at Rice University, John Newport, who decried these facts of Baptist life in Texas and the South. Dr. Newport was about as Texas Baptist as you can get. Much to my chagrin he left Rice to be provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. In seminars at Rice, however, he frequently commented on the odd combination of sectarianism and cultural accommodation among Texas Baptists and Southern Baptists in general.

In other words, at least to outsiders and to some insiders like Dr. Newport, Baptist life in the South is marked by a paradox. On the one hand, many Baptists, perhaps the majority, tend to think they are the only “real Christians.” And Southern Baptists tend to think they are the only “real Baptists” of the twenty-six varieties of Baptists in the United States. On the other hand, many Baptists, often the same ones, tend to think they are creators and owners of the culture—except where it’s departed from the tried and true ways of the past when Baptists “really” ran it.

There’s an old story about Saint Peter giving newcomers a tour of heaven. When they came to a particular neighborhood of the heavenly city, the apostle and gatekeeper put his finger to his lips and asked the newcomers to be quiet as they walked by it. One of them asked why. Saint Peter is alleged to have said “This is where the Baptists live. They think they’re the only ones here.”

Of course, that’s a caricature. But often non-Baptists get the impression from some of us that we think the Kingdom of God belongs to us in some special way. They think it’s ironic, of course, because they ask “which Baptists” are so special to God? After all, there are at least twenty-six distinct denominations of Baptists in the U.S. alone. And some of them won’t have anything to do with even other Baptists. Before becoming a Baptist most of the Baptists I knew belonged to a large Baptist denomination in the Upper Midwest called the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Because their church signs had the letters “GARBC” on them, we called them “Garbage Baptists.” Although that wasn’t nice, they kind of brought it on themselves by doing things like picketing Billy Graham evangelistic crusades. Many of them considered Billy Graham and his associate evangelists “liberals.” (Of course, that was then, perhaps not now.)

So, by now you might be wondering why I’m a Baptist! Why did I choose to identify with a Christian tradition so many non-Baptists misunderstand or find good reasons to ridicule and criticize?

Well, first, you need to know, I grew up Pentecostal, so I was used to it. And I was actually proud of it. Before being Pentecostal was popular, we were persecuted. I remember being teased about being a “Holy Roller” when I was a student—sometimes by Baptist schoolmates. We reveled in persecution because it made us feel special. We stood out and that’s what authentic Christians should do. Becoming a Baptist and being misunderstood, then, wasn’t new to me. In fact, one of the reasons I became Baptist when I couldn’t be Pentecostal anymore was because, in that religious ecology, both were widely misunderstood and sometimes persecuted.

But I chose carefully what kind of Baptist I became. I had at least twenty-six choices. Eventually, over the almost forty years I’ve been a Baptist, I’ve belonged to or affiliated with six Baptist groups—American Baptist, Southern Baptist, North American Baptist, Baptist General Conference, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and Baptist General Convention of Texas. And I’ve enjoyed all of them and learned much from each group.

Yes, we Baptists have our faults, but I’d say our strengths outnumber them. I have never apologized for being Baptist. I’ve apologized for the behaviors of some Baptists but never for the Baptist tradition itself. If asked why I am a Baptist, I’d answer with Walter Rauschenbusch who, in his famous essay “Why I Am a Baptist” wrote the following:

“The Christian faith as Baptists hold it, sets spiritual experience boldly to the front as the one great thing in religion. It aims at experimental [experiential] religion. We are an evangelistic body. We summon all men to conscious repentance from sin, to conscious prayer for forgiveness. We ask a man “Have you put your faith in Christ? Have you submitted your will to His will? Have you received the inward assurance that your sins are forgiven and that you are at peace with God? Have you made experience of God?” If anyone desires to enter our churches we ask for evidence of such experience and we ask for nothing else. We do not ask him to recite a creed or catechism. The more simple and heartfelt the testimony is, the better we like it. If it is glib or wordy, we distrust it. Experience is our sole requisite for receiving baptism; it is fundamental to our church life.”

Rauschenbusch goes on in his essay to talk about the importance of correct doctrine, especially for ministers, but his emphasis throughout is on experiential Christianity, including practical discipleship, daily walk with Christ, ethical Christian living, especially in the social sphere, as important to Baptists.

Those are the reasons I became a Baptist. And they remain my reasons for being Baptist.

The focus of my talk this morning, however, isn’t about the glories of being Baptist. We get enough of that here and in many of our home churches and the colleges or universities many of us attended. What I want to tell you is how my Christian life as a Baptist has been enriched by Christians of other traditions.

One thing that concerns me about many Baptists I meet in Texas and the South generally is a tendency to think the Baptist form of life is complete and cannot be enriched by others. Here, however, we have three required courses entitled “Christian Texts and Traditions.” Our curriculum reflects our conviction that every Christian tradition has something to contribute to us even if we still believe being Baptist is best.

I proudly identify myself as an “eclectic” and “ecumenical” Baptist. By that I mean that my Baptist faith soaks in and is enriched by distinctives of other Christian traditions. That shouldn’t shock anyone who knows Baptist history. The earliest Baptists were influenced by Mennonites and Congregationalist Puritans. History tells us that in the eighteenth century many Baptist congregations in Great Britain and America were awakened by the Wesleyan revivals and by the preaching of George Whitefield—a Calvinist Methodist. Over the centuries all Baptist groups and individuals have been influenced by other traditions. However, we Baptists still often live by the myth of Baptist completeness which, unfortunately, often leads to complacency.

When I first came to this seminary in 1999 I was surprised and delighted to see a Catholic priest from a nearby parish “hanging out” among us. Father Timothy earned his doctoral degree at the Angelicum, a university in Rome, where he wrote a dissertation comparing Baptist and Catholic styles of leadership. Father Timothy even spoke in chapel at least once. And he spoke in many classes and still visits my sections of Christian Texts and Traditions 2 to answer questions about Catholic theology.

Over the years, I’ve been enriched personally, theologically and spiritually by many Catholic priests and theologians. When I was still Pentecostal charismatic Catholics taught us much about God’s presence throughout Christian history and about contemplative charismatic worship. We learned from them that true worship and devotional life doesn’t have to be noisy.

One of my earliest ecumenical experiences was when I was in eighth grade. A teacher assigned us to interview a community leader and write a paper about him or her based on it. Much to my parents’ surprise I chose the Catholic bishop. I knew where he lived—across the street from the cathedral not very far from our house. After a few phone calls I got an appointment with him on a Saturday morning and pedaled my bicycle to his mansion. Needless to say, I was nervous. After all, I had been taught (this was before the Catholic charismatic movement reached us in South Dakota) that Catholics were pagans who worshiped food. But I had Catholic friends at school and didn’t really believe that. The bishop was extremely gracious to me and gave me an hour during which he answered all of my questions. From then on I could never think the same about Catholics.

During my seminary years I rubbed shoulders with a few Catholic students who were studying to become deacons in their church. I was surprised to learn that the Catholic Church allowed them to study toward that office in a Baptist seminary. Then, during my doctoral studies I participated in Protestant-Catholic dialogues. I also read Catholic theologians such as Rahner, Küng, von Balthasar, Kasper and Tracy. I met Küng and chauffeured him around Houston for two days.

I have never been attracted to joining the Catholic Church, but I have learned much from my Catholic friends, acquaintances and theologians. To those who try to lure me that direction, I reply that I grew up Pentecostal and Baptist is as “high church” as I’m ever going to be. However, from Catholics I have learned much about the value of tradition. Baptists tend to be allergic to “tradition.” We like to think our form of Christian life is simply the New Testament church restored. Well, Pentecostals and Churches of Christ think the same about their forms of life. However, of course, we all have our own traditions. What Catholics have taught me is the difference between the “Great Tradition” of Christian belief and life and “traditions” that denominations have developed.  I have gained from them a greater appreciation of the Great Tradition including the church fathers, monks, medieval theologians, contemplatives and mystics, and, yes, liberation theology which is largely a Catholic phenomenon.

The first girl I ever kissed was Greek Orthodox. So that influence affected me early and profoundly. I didn’t learn much about the Eastern Orthodox form of life or its theology from her, however. When I was in high school, again, probably much to my parents’ consternation, I read The Way of the Pilgrim and learned to pray the “Jesus Prayer.” That came to me through a strange medium. I absolutely hated the book Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, which we were required to read in high school, but I found other books by Salinger that I liked including Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. The Way of the Pilgrim and the Jesus prayer figured prominently in those books and I was led to them by reading them.

During my doctoral studies at Rice University my historical theology professor was an Eastern Orthodox theologian. From him I learned much about Orthodox church fathers such as Chrysostom, Maximus and John of Damascus and came to reject the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed. Throughout my three years in residence at Rice, I served as youth pastor and Christian education director at a Presbyterian church where I often led part of the worship. It often fell to me to lead the congregation in reciting the Apostles Creed and occasionally the Nicene Creed. When we came to the words “and the Son”—referring to the procession of the Holy Spirit—I pretended to have to cough a little and skipped it.

Over the my thirty years of teaching theology at three Christian universities I have taken many classes to Eastern Orthodox churches for divine liturgy and invited many Orthodox priests to my classes. I have read Orthodox theologians such as Florovsky, Lossky and Zizioulas. A few years ago my article on the Orthodox doctrine of theosis, deification, was published in the journal Theology Today. That is perhaps the single main contribution of Orthodoxy to my Baptist faith. Orthodox Christians ask Protestants “Why just be forgiven when you can be transformed?” Indeed, why? From them I learned that God wants to share his own divine life with us, making us partial partakers of God’s own immortal life and divine nature. We all believe that will happen in heaven. The Orthodox believe it can start now. And why not?

I mentioned that I served for three years on staff of a Presbyterian church. Well before that I was already learning from Presbyterians. When I was a kid we often visited my aunt and uncle who owned a farm in northeastern South Dakota. My Aunt Jeannette, my dad’s oldest sister, was a Presbyterian elder and she and my dad, who was a Pentecostal preacher, held long discussions, sometimes debates, about theology. Those were interesting discussions that I listened to with real interest. I’m sure my aunt never heard of Karl Barth, but she was a committed Calvinist who believed God had elected everyone to be saved.

Now everyone knows I’m not a Calvinist, but I’ve learned much from Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians. Every year that I have taught theology I’ve invited them to come to my classes to speak about the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty and especially election. I’ve read Reformed theologians such as Barth, Brunner, Berkouwer, Berkhof, Boettner and Bloesch. (Not all Reformed theologians’ names begin with “B.”) From them and my Reformed speakers I’ve learned to appreciate the sacramental life. We Baptists are often too allergic to sacramentalism, but we fail to understand it and often revel in being anti-sacramental. But etymologically “sacrament” comes from a Latin word that means “act of commitment.” Surely baptism and the Lord’ Supper are that to us! But even more importantly, we need to recover a sense of the real presence of Christ through the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. I say the Lord’s Supper is a special means of grace although not a means of special grace. There is a long and rich history of Baptist sacramentalism and Presbyterian and Reformed Christians can help us recover it.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing for transubstantiation or even consubstantiation. I don’t believe we “eat” Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, surely it is more than a “mere symbol” or “just a memorial meal.” It is a symbol and a memorial meal, but we err when we add “mere” and “just” to those terms. Christ can be spiritually present in symbols and memorials and has promised to be with us in special ways in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I have learned to appreciate and embrace a higher view of Christ’s presence in the sacraments from my Reformed and Presbyterian friends and theologians.

Every summer when I was a child my parents took my brother and me, with them, to the West Des Moines Nazarene Camp Meeting which was then one of the the largest annual “Holiness” gatherings in the world. About a thousand people gathered under and around an open sided “tabernacle” with saw dust on the ground beneath our feet—for several nights in a row. Leading Holiness preachers held the congregation spellbound from the pulpit and famous gospel singing groups premiered the latest gospel songs. After the preaching people rushed the altars to get saved and sanctified.

My grandparents were Norwegian and Danish immigrants. In what they called “the old countries” they were Lutheran, but when they reached the prairies of Eastern South Dakota there were no Lutheran churches in walking distance. The closest church to their farms was a Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) mission that had taken over a little white clapboard Danish Lutheran church. There they got “saved” and “sanctified.” Well, remembering my grandfather pretty well, I’m not so sure about the sanctified part. The Church of God is a holiness denomination, like Nazarene. Like Wesley and the older Methodists, they believe in “entire sanctification.”

We Baptists tend to emphasize conversion to the neglect, I fear, of sanctification. While I don’t believe in “sinless perfection,” I do think it’s an impossible ideal worth striving for—with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course. Baptists tend to fall into a kind of Christian moralism after conversion; we’re saved by grace and then we struggle to maintain our relationship with God by “learning and serving.” But too often we miss the joy of Christian living that Holiness and Pentecostal Christians know. We fear emotional spiritual experiences so much that we reduce our spiritual lives and worship to routines and good works.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas talks about the only evidence for the truth of Christianity being that God is “busy” among us. How do we know when God is busy among us? I would say it’s when our worship and spiritual lives are filled with joy and when God is active in answering prayers, saving the lost, healing the sick, feeding the poor and housing the homeless, breaking down our pride in self-sufficiency and giving us reasons to testify that God is alive and near.

I think we Baptists, perhaps especially those of us who call ourselves “moderates,” are so afraid of appearing fanatical, that we eschew emotion and miracles and visible spiritual experiences. From Holiness and Pentecostal Christians we can learn that it’s okay, even beautiful, to express ourselves emotionally in response to God’s grace and tell our stories of God’s miraculous interventions in our lives.

My Baptist faith has been enriched by some Christian traditions and communities you might not expect. I didn’t expect it. I’ve participated in and even led some dialogues between evangelical Christians and liberal Christians. From liberals like Paul Tillich I’ve learned much about the importance of paying attention to culture and philosophy and making the Christian faith intelligible to modern people.

Every year during my fifteen years teaching theology at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota I invited a fundamentalist theologian from a local fundamentalist Baptist seminary to speak to my classes about fundamentalism. While I had trouble appreciating his emphasis on separatism, which included not inviting me to speak to any of his classes, I learned from him and I’ve learned from other fundamentalists to appreciate concern for doctrinal correctness, biblical orthodoxy.

What I have discovered in my interactions with other Christians is that all truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found, and that no Christian group has a monopoly on truth or spiritual life. I’ve observed that too many Baptists define being Baptist by what they are not. We’re not like Catholics; we’re not like Churches of Christ; we’re not like Pentecostals; we’re not like Methodists. I have come to believe every Christian tradition has something of value to add to us—even if only to remind us of some aspect of our own tradition we’ve forgotten or neglected.

From Anabaptists and Mennonites we can learn about making peace and being ambassadors of Christ’s peace to a world saturated with violence. From Episcopalians we can learn about the importance of tolerance in a world of competing tribes secular and religious. From Lutherans we can learn to relax in God’s grace and remember that faith alone saves and keeps us in God’s favor. From the Salvation Army we can learn the importance of ministry among the poor. From Quakers, Friends, we can learn the value of silence in worship. From the so-called “emerging church” movement we can learn about relevance to urban cultures. From the Amish we can learn that true Christianity resists over accommodation to modern culture.

Yes, I am proud to be a Baptist. If I put bumper stickers on my car, which I don’t, the first one would say “Baptist is Beautiful”—to counter the false impressions created by Baptists who picket soldiers’ funerals. And one beautiful thing about being Baptist is the freedom to learn from other Christian traditions and be enriched by them. May you find it so as well.

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  • Presby Terian

    Küng is only nominally Catholic.

    • rogereolson

      Well, the pope considers him a Catholic. He’s never been excommunicated. He’s only be declared not a Catholic theologian.

  • Having an ecumenical bent, and having grown up Southern Baptist, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. You mentioned Baptist being the default position in the South – quite true. A story from one of my friends illustrates this. My friend, Jerry, was in England and wanted to go to a Baptist church while he was there. He asked some people in London I they knew of a Baptist church in the vicinity. “Oh yes,” one of the locals replied, “I believe you’ll find a non-conformist congregation over on …” (and he gave a street location). Jerry told me he was a little taken aback, thinking, “I’m not a non-conformist, I’m a Baptist!”

    Here is one of my ecumenical observations: as a Catholic convert, I am very much aware of the fact that Catholics just do not have the robust congregational singing that you find among Baptists and other Protestant groups. After a time of becoming accustomed to Catholic liturgy, it occurred to me that when I was a Baptist, congregational singing was a tangible, experiential way of affirming not only God’s presence but also our unity as the body of Christ. As we sang, we demonstrated and experienced the harmony and unity that the gospel speaks of. It was one way to affirm that we are the body of Christ and we felt it in a real way as our voices joined together. With Catholics, that unity is understood in a real and experiential way as they partake of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, they are physically affirming their identity with and unity in the body of Christ. When I realized that, it didn’t bother me so much that the people were not enthusiastically joining their voices in robust harmony of song. Catholics and Baptist just have different ways of affirming harmony with Christ.

  • Jack Harper

    Professor, thanks so much for being real and open to other modes of worship. As a transitional Pentecostal: one who is gradually becoming disillusioned with some doctrinal aspects, I have also experienced God’s presence in Catholic settings and was chairman of Christian Businessman Committee, which is predominately Baptist in membership. The cool thing about CBMC, is that Pentecostals and Baptist and other denominations come together and lay down their differences: not by compromise, but by brotherly love to be representatives of Christ love in our communities. Anyway I agree that being open to other segments of the church can be very enriching. I have noticed that ecumenicism seems to be more prevalent among Pentecostal, charismatic circles, do you think this is their attempt to be acceptable in the more mainline church?

    • rogereolson

      The charismatic movement began as ecumenical and true charismatics have always been somewhat ecumenical. Unfortunately, the term has been hijacked by others who are not at all ecumenical. My experience of Pentecostals is that some of them are ecumenical toward what they perceive to be fellow evangelicals but tend to shun fellowship with non-evangelical Christians. Of course, these are broad generalizations based on experience and observation. I freely admit there are many exceptions to them.

  • Roger, I just reposted this to my Facebook page. It is sweet and wonderfully ecumenical in all the right ways. While I left my Baptist affiliation more than a decade ago I never really left the heart and soul of being a Baptist as you define it here. I will defend the Baptists at ever turn and the distinctive Baptist tenets remain dear to my heart. We are one in our spirit and love my friend. God bless you my dear brother. Keep up the great work that you do to point us all to the One Christ and thus to his One Church and Mission.

  • This was a wonderful read. Thank you for your story. You know, growing up I never really got the difference between us (Church of Christ) and the Baptists. All I knew was that the Baptists were known the flood the restaurants after church (apparently they had a long history of this, going back centuries as far as I was concerned) and our goal every Sunday was to beat the DBs (damn Baptists) to lunch!

    • rogereolson

      Wow, I never heard that one before (“DB”). I guess that makes me “double damned” because I’m a Baptist and a Yankee (which is only half a word in some parts of the South). 🙂

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Thanks, Roger, for these reflections. I much enjoyed reading them, laughing at several points because I could see myself in your comments and also parallels with my own experience.

    I grew up one of those “Garbage Baptists” (GARBC) in Illinois. Yes, my parents did think Billy Graham was a “liberal”–too many folks were welcome under his “big tent.” And, yes, we looked with some disdain on those “Holy Rollers,” who we were sure would lose their conviction once the music stopped. We were an odd mix of Arminians and Calvinists–I heard many conversations growing up on the questions, “How many points of Calvinism do you believe?” We were fundamentalist and separatist–and were convinced by our smallness in numbers that we must be the “faithful remnant.” (Later in life I wondered whether the youth over in the Specific Association of Irregular Baptist Churches were having more fun than we were allowed to have 😉 )

    After leaving the church for several years in college, I was wooed back by the caring friendship and patient prayers of Catholics at Notre Dame (where I did my graduate studies in philosophy)–so, in a way, I owe my life as a Christian to ecumenical exchange. But I didn’t become Catholic–couldn’t cross that threshold. Instead, by way of other friends, I chose to join up with the Ana-Baptists and became Mennonite, where I remain (and, yes, being a non-Calvinist, I would say I chose my people!). Still, grateful for the grace I received by way of Catholic friends, I am personally committed to ecumenical work, which I engage in through the Mennonite-Catholic Bridgefolk organization based at Saint John’s Abbey. And from many years of participating in Catholic prayer and worship, I have come to appreciate the sacramentality of the Christian life and lament its lack in the Anabaptist church.

    Like you, through reading Eastern Orthodox writers (as well as Luke Timothy Johnson’s excellent book, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters), I have come to at least distrust the filioque in the Nicene Creed and simply let it drop whenever I have occasion to recite it liturgically. And I also have come to adopt the idea of theosis as our destiny in Christ through the power of the Spirit–indeed, why not?! Why let hope be too small?!

    In light of all this, I like to refer to myself as an “ACE” Christian–Anabaptist, Catholic, Evangelical/Ecumenical (and, I could add, Eclectic!).

    Peace to you, brother.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Great post, Roger. I really liked this part:
    “How do we know when God is busy among us? I would say it’s when our worship and spiritual lives are filled with joy and when God is active in answering prayers, saving the lost, healing the sick, feeding the poor and housing the homeless, breaking down our pride in self-sufficiency and giving us reasons to testify that God is alive and near.”
    May God work in us and do this among us.

  • Jon Altman

    To paraphrase Garrison Keillor : “In Mississippi everyone is Baptist. The Methodists are Baptist. The Presbyterians are Baptist.
    The Catholics are Baptist. Even the atheists are Baptist, because it is a Baptist God they do not believe in.”
    Garrison, of course, substituted “Minnesota” and “Lutheran.”

  • Norman


    Really enjoy your reminiscing. You could have changed the line from Baptist to church of Christ and much of your story would have fit my Oklahoma history 30 to 50 years ago as well. However we in the cofC considered that since we were the minority in Ok compared to the Baptist that we must be the chosen remnant few being spoken of in NT scripture. 😉

    It took many little steps for me to gradually work my way into a more ecumenical concept of the church. Perhaps one of the biggest was becoming involved in BSF here in Houston many years ago where I actually had to sit down in fellowship study with others of different ilk’s.

    That ecumenical understanding was severely challenged when my daughter decided she didn’t want to attend either my alma mater Oklahoma Christian or Abilene Christian where many family members had historically chosen. Instead she decided Baylor met her credential’s better and I reluctantly gave in. I must say I had difficulty with a couple of her profs in biblical studies at Baylor because she came home telling me how one teacher who was visiting from Rice (I believe) taught that the Exodus event didn’t have any historical evidence from the standpoint of books she was asked to read. Long story short is that it opened my eyes to be more receptive theologically because I took her books when she was finished and read them for myself. It is amazing how we can learn from others when we actually allow ourselves to be exposed to other ideas.

    However it looks like Baylor’s new President has been plucked from our cofC ranks and so it goes both ways.

    Roger, since you have an ORU background you might appreciate that an older sister of mine went to work in the hospital as an RN when her family moved to Tulsa 30 years ago. Well-being cofC she was exposed for the first time to the gifts of the spirit in a way we never experienced and I can distinctly remember her telling my wife and I about her thoughts. It awakened us up to another perspective that was foreign and took us down another path. Typically we change our concepts as we encounter people and issues in a trusting environment and not in an antagonistic debating one.

    Thanks again for demonstrating the commonality so many of us share without realizing it.


  • John Metz

    Roger, thanks for this very enjoyable post. It demonstrates a broadness of spirit that is far too rare these days (as you have pointed out many times). Evidently your readers are among those that share this virtue! Their comments were, for the most part, reflective of your post.
    Never having been a Baptist of any stripe, I have always held a respect for Baptists in several aspects such as a devotion to the Bible and evangelism. Our office library is full of Christian books written by brothers and sisters from many divergent backgrounds. We all have a lot to learn from each other, even in disagreement.
    Your brief comments on deification are appreciated.
    I was also happy to see a response to this post from my friend John Armstrong.

  • Laura


    I very much appreciate the content and tone of this post. My experience in many different denominations (including a Baptist one in Australia, where I taught for a few years) really taught me that each expression of Christian faith has something to offer the Body of Christ, and each has its problems, blind spots, etc. The Renovare organization has also been instrumental in my growing appreciation of the various “steams” of the Christian life, also.

    • Laura

      That should be “streams” in my post above.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Roger and all,
    It’s very encouraging to see how many think and believe along these lines. I wonder how big this tribe is. Hopefully very large and growing.

  • Keith Rowley

    I wonder where those of us who have rejected embracing a denominational identity fit into this question of religious identity.

    I am a follower of Jesus. (I have not rejected the title Christian but am ambivalent about it.)

    I grew up Charasmatic, attended a Quaker University, worked in a Methodist Church, and now attend a Nazareen church. But I would not call myself any of those things. “Follower of Jesus” and “One in Whome Christ Dwells” is what I would identify myself as.

  • Francis Kelly

    Some great points made. Pity though a few are not based on scripture such as accommodating Catholicism which teaches the Pope and not Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. Yes I agree on the other points such as making the baptism of the Holy Spirit AND premillenialism fundamental doctrines when it is not to be found in the bible. In saying that however as a non doctrinally enforcing Pentecostal,non ecumenical ( don’t fellowship with those who are of ‘another spirit’ and ‘another Jesus’), Calvinist, Seventh day Sabbath keeping, Jesus is the Son of God but is he GOD the Father ( ‘persons’ is not scriptural) teaching and commandment keeping ( remember the ten?) possiblybiblical feast keeping as the others are of pagan origin ammileniall, one resurrection, I can honestly say let every man be fully convinced in his own mind and study to show yourself a workman rightly dividing the word of truth!

  • Rus Hooper

    I find great resonance with your ecumenical description here, learning from other Christians. I only wish that my experience of “Baptists” aligned with your description. Hoping for a better future in that way.

    • rogereolson

      You must have been hanging around the wrong Baptists! 🙂 Seek out American Baptists (ABCUSA) and you’ll find great ecumenical interest.

  • Ben

    Dr. Olson,

    Ironically, for an Arminian, this post was very Augustinian in it’s “confessional” nature, i.e., seeing the hand of God in common events, and so forth (pun intended). However, I do have some questions for you:
    1) Why the need to have a label? Why the need to affiliate with a particular denomination? I don’t ask this facetiously. I, too, have a desire to be able to say, “I’m a ______________ Christian.” Generally, I leave out an adjective since I live in the Middle East and it wouldn’t make any sense anyway.
    2) Surely you believe that there are some distinctive truth claims that Baptists as a whole make that are more valid than other truth claims made by other denominations. What are these core truths for you?
    3) At the basis of your denominational decision making, do you go with a “leading of the Spirit” and/or “according to your conscience” epistemology? At some point, is it beyond who’s right and who’s wrong and just a matter of taste, culture, and comfort?
    4) What do you see as the future of denominationalism in America?

    • rogereolson

      Those are great questions, but answering them helpfully would take too long. Let me begin by answering a question you didn’t ask but implied. In my view, Arminians are Augustinian in that we agree that evil is the absence of the good and that nothing can happen without God’s permission (providence). We just prefer the early Augustine (free will) to the later Augustine (unconditional predestination). Here in America, anyway, it’s very difficult to be a church professional without a strong denominational identity. As much as people say “We don’t go by labels,” they do. One reason I’m a Baptist (moderate as opposed to fundamentalist) is that it gives me great freedom to decide for myself what beliefs belong in the three categories. I think the best way to proceed is to discern the meaning of Scripture with the help of tradition, reason and experience (spiritual discernment). I can’t believe something in theology/doctrine that goes against what I think Scripture teaches. I think the future of denominationalism in America is dim. I expressed my sadness about that in a recent post.