‘Hello. My name is Joe, and I’m a Baptist’

Jul 1, 2009 at 5:00 am

Being Baptist these days is tough, not only because this diverse group is generally painted with a single brush of public opinion, but also because being Baptist is addictive.

How else to explain my visit to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention just to snoop around a bit?

Several years ago my congregation separated itself from this particular national body of Baptists. Too many Disney boycotts and disavowals of science, too much suppression of women and partisan politics (my friend calls the SBC “the Republican Party at prayer”). And yet, like a car crash rubber-necker, I found myself wandering into the fray of people, mostly older men, gathered to conduct their business.

They came to my city, I argued to myself; it was only a short drive.

The rationalization of an addict? Those of us raised Southern Baptist continue to engage, even when we’ve left the SBC. Our relationship to this group we no longer claim is dysfunctional and enmeshed.

Perhaps it’s because, like siblings, we have the same name and it bugs us that we’re so very different and yet painted with the common brush.

SBC beliefs about the Bible, how to read it, how to frame it, the way it points, what it means to please God, on and on, are amazingly narrow and exclusive. For SBC leaders, that this creates a chasm between them and others is a sign they’re on the right track. “There’s a way that seems right unto man,” they quote from Proverbs, “but the end thereof is destruction.” Their interpretation: Tow the pre-approved party line even if you’re drawn to a new insight, or you’ll end up on the road to hell.

I acknowledge that my theology has become more progressive over the years, but not nearly as much as the SBC has narrowed its definition of who could play on its team. Suddenly churches like mine, which built Baptist seminaries, children’s homes and hospitals, found themselves outside the fold. Our alleged “liberal” way of thinking was the cause for denominational decline, they said.

So they kicked us out, or at least excluded us.

A funny thing, though: They’re still in decline. They’ve discovered they can’t fight demographics, though they try. The “full quiver” message (a claim that the Bible requires us to have as many children as possible) is one strategy concocted by SBC leaders to stem their churches’ declines. It’s not working.

So why do I care? Why did I take an hour out of my day to visit the SBC? Why not simply let them go their way?

Maybe I really do need to address my co-dependency.

As I entered the convention hall I learned that the SBC had voted to “disfellowship” a Fort Worth congregation because it hadn’t taken a strong enough stand against homosexuality. The church had tried compromising — rather than include gay couples in their pictorial directory they opted not to include families at all, rather to only photograph Sunday school classes. Not good enough, said the SBC — you must condemn homosexuality.

I immediately sat down to compose a motion to offer to the SBC: In light of today’s action to disfellowship the Fort Worth church, I move that the SBC embark on a more thorough investigation to ferret out churches, like my own, that welcome into membership all baptized followers of Jesus.

It struck me that most in the room would not recognize the irony of the motion. Southern Baptists seem deaf to irony. Why else would they have as this year’s theme “Actions speak louder than words”?

Then something reminded me that this was no longer my fight. It was time to “shake the dust off my feet,” as Jesus instructed, and move on. As my poet friend Duane says, “I think you’d better let it go.”

The good news: There are plenty of other Baptists all around the world who bear the beauty and mystery of Jesus, do justice, celebrate science, promote peace, welcome truth no matter its source, champion religious liberty for all, and cause me to say with gratitude, “Hello. My name is Joe, and I’m a Baptist.”


Joe Phelps is Pastor of Highland Baptist Church. Contact him at www.hbclouisville.org