Saturday, February 25, 2012

Baptist with a Small ”b”

For nearly 65 years now I have been a member of a Baptist church. When I was baptized in April 1947 at the age of eight, on the basis of a profession of faith that remains foundational for my life, I became a Baptist church member and have been a member of a local Baptist church from that day to the present.
My Baptist roots run deep: my parents and grandparents were all Baptists. In addition, I have four academic degrees for three Baptist schools and was supported financially by Southern Baptists for 38 years.
Nevertheless, since last fall June and I have been attending a Mennonite church, and although we have not yet formally become members there we are moving in that direction. There are several facets to this change of denominational affiliation that I won’t try to explain here.
In another sense, though, becoming a Mennonite does not mean completely separating from our roots, for as theologian James McClendon has emphasized, there is a strong tradition that can be labeled baptist (with a lower case “b”).
James William McClendon Jr. (1924–2000) was an ordained Southern Baptist minister who taught in a number of schools, the last being Fuller Theological Seminary. His magnum opus was the three-part Systematic Theology: Ethics (1986), Doctrine (1994), and Witness (2000). It is in the first chapter of the former that McClendon writes about the meaning of baptist with a small b.
When in the preface of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism (2007) I criticized the Southern Baptist Convention from which I felt estranged, I stated that “I certainly have no intention of jettisoning my identity as a baptist, with a small b” (p. v; McClendon is cited in a footnote at that point.) And that is still true.
The baptist tradition is traced back, specifically, to January 1525, more than 80 years before the formation of the first Baptist church in 1609. Its fundamental (and distinctive) beliefs were expressed in the Schleitheim Confession adopted 485 years ago yesterday, on February 24, 1527.*
The first article of that 1527 Confession is common to Baptists and baptists; it is about believers’ baptism and the rejection of infant baptism. My impression is that for most churches in the Anabaptist (baptist) tradition, except for the very strict groups such as the Amish, there is little emphasis now on the second article, which is about the ban (shunning deviant members). 

It is the sixth article, though, that has been a major impetus in moving me from a Baptist church to a baptist church. That article is about rejection of the sword, which through the years has meant commitment to pacifism and rejection of violence. The latter includes, among other things, renouncing capital punishment as well as war.

In spite of there being a North America Baptist Peace Fellowship, which in many ways is more baptist than Baptist, through the years pacifism has not been the position of most Baptists. But I decided while still in high school that pacifism is the position I should espouse because of being a follower of Christ.

It is a good feeling now, after all these years, to be going to a church where pacifism is the norm instead of something considered suspect, if not outright wrongheaded. 
*The main author of the Schleitheim Confession was Michael Sattler, whom I mention in my 3/20/11 blog posting.


  1. Well, congratulations to both you and June. Despite any possible disagreement or agreement anyone might have with your move, no one can do other than admire the deliberateness about both your search and your eventual choice of communities of faith. As for passivism, it's probably an acquired intellectual taste: something many accept as intellectually to be true, but cannot see a way pragmatically to live it out. A difficult quandry within which to live, to be sure, ultimately I suppose one simply "gives over" to it as a kind of faith commitment to mystery. Of course, I also suppose that if such commitment to mystery is the strength of such conviction, experience has also taught that commitment to mystery has its hidden weaknesses, too. And so, you live in the balance between faith's simultaneous strengths and weaknesses.

    I have just been reflecting on the Qumran community of Jews, who, as many suppose, left Jerusalem in protest over the new Jerusalem priesthood established by the Hasmoneans after 164. It was a group of Jews, sectarians, who sought to live out their liturgical convictions and sense of authority as they thought God was leading them to do. And what a different course they plotted, that is, different from the branch of Jerusalem, Temple Judaism thought by many to be "official." But, in the end, who was right: the Qumran covenenters or those who remained in Jerusalem? As Qohelet intones, "who knows"?

  2. Thinking Friend Michael Willett Newheart sent an e-mail (which I post with his permission) with the following comments about the last paragraph of today's posting:

    "My thoughts EXACTLY! In seminary--that is, of course, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary--I was part of a peace group and a contemplative prayer group. Even in the late 70s and early 80s I felt like something of an anomaly among Baptists. Now, though, I am a Quaker, that is, a member of the Religious Society of Friends, where peacemaking and contemplative prayer are in the center of what we do. An alien no more!"

  3. Godspeed, my friend. I understand the decision entirely, also the struggle and the angst. It's interesting how my own exit from the Baptist world occurred. During college, I had been a "ministerial" student preaching in churches and all that sort of thing, but when I was finishing up, I felt a bit like a lost soul, especially since my own fundamentalism/evangelicalism had largely crumbled, and I didn't know what to put in its place. I decided to go on to seminary anyway, thinking it might be a good place to "get my head together." There was a UCC seminary in my hometown, and I compared its faculty with the faculty of Midwestern Baptist (KC) and Southern Baptist (Louisville). Without exception, every single one of the full-time Baptist faculty members had obtained their highest degrees from Baptist schools (also U.S. schools, as I recall with some uncertainty), whereas the faculty at the UCC seminary had gotten theirs from various traditions all over the world. I decided that the broader, potentially richer context would be better for someone exploring faith and life. Of course, I figured I was probably finished career-wise as a Baptist when I chose a non-Baptist seminary. I was still ordained as a Baptist and never formally cut my ties, though I'm sure my Baptist congregation has long since removed me from the rolls.

    With regard to the pacifism, I'm not the legalistic pacifist I once was, but I'm fully convinced that Jesus taught an ethic that is implicitly and explicitly pacifist. I don't quite understand how literalists can argue otherwise.

    May you and June be deeply blessed as you continue to live out your missions in life. And welcome to exile! :-)

  4. Leroy, my journey is very similar, coming from a Presbyterian background. I think the congregation makes all the difference. More later.

    1. I, too, like the norms of "my group" to coincide with my own personal norms. It is more comfortable that way. But to the extent that our whole society is doing this — self-segregating into like-minded enclaves — we are helping to polarize society. Jonathan Haidt was interviewed by Bill Moyers recently ( and explains his theory of moral psychology. I am looking forward to his book in March: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (

      Haidt is mainly diagnosing the "purification" of our two major political parties into non-overlapping ideological camps. Perhaps the same could be said of our religious denominations. In the past, there may have been a level of diversity in our congregations on theological, socio-economic, and political issues. Now, we have more homogeneity, I think.

      All the more reason, I say, we need new structures, like David Nelson's Vital Conversations, where we can interact and get to know of people with different norms, and they can get to know us.

    2. I don't think that's quite correct for the mainline churches, Phil. It remains to be seen what will happen as mainline churches continue to split over cultural issues. However, the polarization/purity thesis would not be correct for the mainline churches--Presbyterian, UCC, Methodist, Episcopalian, some Lutheran. These denominations in their modern form are quite diverse theologically, not insisting on any doctrinal, ritual, or moral party line or purity. In fact, one will hear things like, "You can believe anything and be a member of the UCC." In the individualist and congregational system of the UCC, for example, there are congregations thoroughly fundamentalistic, some unitarian-universalist for all practical purposes, and the rest somewhere in between.

  5. Amazing how personal journeys are, and we each seem to have them. Indeed we find divergent ways found in the Church from the beginning. (Phillipians 1:15, Acts 15). And yet there was in those times a push toward a unity of the Spirit as Christ verbalized (John 17). There was somewhat a unity/mystery of the faith (Ephesians 4), although divergence (originally diversity) began to push the accepted boundaries, and schisms and splits began to take place, with no real pursuit of the unity of the Spirit (or of the faith) and "personal" belief and finding of "like-minded" became predominant. So sad. I have seen a couple of movements to regain the unity of the Spirit (not just a pursuit of the least-common-denominator). These have led me to pursue unity of the Spirit within this mess where the Church now lives.

    Sadly, having long since left the baptists, "I" have found "my personal" sojourn, along with several others of my youth, around traditional orthodoxy, but with arms open for those truly in pursuit of the unity of the Spirit, and the one holy, catholic Church, of Jesus Christ in all its diversity.

    But was Luther wrong in pursing his conscience (and thus schism), and Pope Benedict in reaffirming there is only one, holy, apostolic and Catholic Church? Frank Schaeffer, when he was here, gave me pause to ponder and contemplate these some. A Kingdom not of this World as Christ saw, or a Kingdom divided which cannot stand?? Thus a sojourn.

  6. All religious organizations are human institutions. Such unity as we have is born of the fact that each person has his or her mountaintop experiences with God. Each person seeks others with whom to share and understand these experiences. We seek out the human institutions which best match up to our personal experience and understanding. We tend to find those who have somewhat similar viewpoints. Yet each viewpoint is as individual, and yet as universal, as a sunrise.

    Like knights on a quest, we each set out to answer the call of God. This takes us on different paths. We have different adventures. Yet, we celebrate when we come together. We are all pilgrims on the journey. We each respect the journey. This is our universal faith. The fallacy of the Roman Catholic faith, and of others that aspire to replace it, it the confusion of the concrete human institution with the universal experience.

    So I wish Leroy and June well as they contemplate becoming Mennonites. The world needs effective peacemakers, and if this is where they believe they can most effectively serve the Lord, then they should be there. I am a minimalist, not a pacifist, so I am trying something different. And, for that matter, I was not raised a Baptist, so I can be different in being a Baptist in a way that Leroy and June never could. Go and try it. A fresh start!

  7. I appreciate the clarity of thinking you add, Craig.

  8. Your posting on the Third Way, with all its comments (3-20/11), would be worth re-posting in this year which will only build in political acrimony, far from Christ.

  9. My work schedule was very heavy when the associated email arrived. I just discovered it while cleaning house.

    I really began to notice , especially at SBTS (MA - Social Work, '79), the anger in those who proudly labelled themselves FUNDAMENTALIST (It was spoken with vehemence much of the time.). I also noted the kneejerk judgmentalism toward anyone, with or without evidence, that they thought stood in their way - of cleansing the SBC of liberalism. It didn't take me long to realize that their attitudes are never listed among the Fruit of the Spirit lists in Corinthians/Colossians.

    My "favorite" story along those lines was a self-appointed spy/challenger in my Systematic Theology class with Dale Moody. After his challenge - followed by being buried in contrary Bible passages by Dr. Moody - he, quite literally, turned purple with rage and screamed "That may be in the Bible, but it ain't BABDIST!!!!!" and stormed out... There was mixed laughter, and consternation, among us students. My thought at the time was "Well, so much for the still small voice [of God's truth]!

    Of course the cause celebre of the Fundamentalists was the lowering baptism rate in SBC churches. (They conveniently ignored the simple fact that the drop exactly followed the demographics of the U.S. population among those age groups where most conversions occur. They were also used to the fear-factor that drove many people to church during the hotter years of the Cold War.) Considering that history, I find a comment/concern uttered by Alber Mohler (President of SBTS) a couple of years ago very instructive. He remarked on the baptism figures as their initial motivation. His concern (Way too late in my opinion.) was that the SBC baptism rate was still falling - well into the 21st Century. He expressed concern that maybe, just maybe, they had been wrong all along. (!!) I haven't discovered any more coming from that, seeming, epiphany/revelation.

    I find the history of mysticism instructive at this point. The mystics of all the Great Traditions - who raise grave suspicions among the guardians of those traditions - all attest to, essentially, the same mystical experience. (Def: Direct contact with some Higher Power) This goes for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Native Americans, etc. A few years ago, at a meeting of many of them, they agreed on a basic term for this: Whoever/whatever is "out there" is a Unity-powered-by-Love.

    The connection to our portion of the perennial playing out of the Fundamentalist/Modernist conflict came to me about a year after I discovered the mystics' experience. There is a human counterfeit, or we could called it the Enemy's counterfeit: Forced/enforced uniformity-powered-by-fear. And, of course, much human fear shows up as tribalism or US vs. THEM.

    But Jesus said "Perfect love drives out all fear." I think He just told us how to recognize the Enemy's work - both in and through us...

    Hope this helps!