Four Days among Southern Baptists: A Lesson in Diversity

Thursday

I’ve spent the last few days on a Southern Baptist site, interacting with a pastor named Chris who was asking for advice about how to pursue his campaign to pass “marriage protection” legislation yet be viewed as compassionate, and not a bigot.  While there were moments when I thought I might actually be able to communicate with him, he was totally unable to engage in anything approaching an adult conversation. I was disappointed. He resorted to caricature, slogans, and buzzwords instead of engaging in a conversation that was on topic.

He said my exegesis and hermeneutic were wrong. He said he was unwilling to discuss Scripture with me because I had the wrong “view of Scripture” and an “unbiblical worldview.” My interpretation of Romans 1 and 2 were “blasphemous” because it said “homosexuality is okay.”

“To be frank I don’t want to understand that way of thinking for it is not of God.”

It’s been a while since someone has been so frustrating to interact with. I was disappointed that a pastor would be unable to have an adult, Bible-centered discussion with another Christian. It was easier for him to “compassionately” dismiss me as a man “desperate” to use the Bible to legitimize his son’s sexual orientation, easier to launch a rant than have an actual conversation.

I was working on a reply to this Southern Baptist pastor, trying to find the words that could get him to reflect on his inability to have an adult conversation with someone with whom he differs seriously, and how that inability restricted his ministry. He didn’t seem to understand the value the Bible itself places on insight and understand. Then I thought about my blog, and about the lesson I learned almost eighteen months ago that started me blogging in the first place.

The Pastor’s Occupational Hazard

I have observed that some pastors are unable to have reasoned conversations. Some don’t know how to talk with you. I attribute this in part to an occupational hazard related to a central clerical task: declaring God’s truth from the pulpit as his chief spokesman in the church. Some congregations don’t require careful reasoning, but prefer robust exhortations, bold preaching that is emotionally rousing and leaves them feeling guilty.

Pastors like this aren’t used to being called on their outbursts too often.  This habit of playing to your audience, of knowing what your congregation really gets off on, has brought North Carolina Pastor Sean Harris a degree of acclaim and notariety.

If you are puzzled and frustrated by some people’s inability to intelligently discuss certain issues like intelligent adults, part of the problem is the kind of religious talk they listen to the most: preaching.  On a few occasions, I have ventured into a conservative discussion thread and someone lays into me with a vengeance.  I’m sure a lot of them are just mimicking their pastors. Their pastors are unable to have an actual adult conversation, and their people are copying the only kind of religious discussion they have ever seen modeled. They only know how to only know how to issue forth pronouncements laced with buzzwords like “secular worldview,” “blasphemy,” “eisegesis,” “God’s law,” and “abomination.” Sad to say that in some places, if a man is holding an open Bible and uses these catch phrases, people know that he’s their kind of people.

Recent research suggests that analytical thinking is not conducive to the life of faith.

Go Where You’re Wanted

Two things happened a couple of months before I began this blog in November, 2010. In two different groups, one of them a fundamentalist website, it was made unmistakeably clear to me that my continued participation was not welcome. They were an emotional one-two-punch, the two rejections coming so close together.

After the website experience, I decided I was finished with venturing into the middle of “enemy camps.” That was the third such prolonged engagement engagement.  Each site was different, each having its own quality of debate and variety of participants. I don’t regret my participation, but I finally decided that I needed to focus in an area where my writing would be appreciated. Instead of these continual battles, I needed to write for an audience that might appreciate what I have to share.

The last thing that made me decide not to revisit the Southern Baptist group was reading an African-American pastor’s description of our likely options in the presidential election.  Of course Romney was a Mormon, but he called President Obama a “closet Muslim.” I thought to myself, “I don’t need to be here.”

A Biblical example of going where you’re wanted is Paul’s “Macedonian Vision” in Acts.

During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

When Jesus sent the disciples to share the gospel, he instructed them to not force their message on people who didn’t want to hear it. Jesus’ direction is repeated in all three synoptic gospels, and says, in effect, to not waste their breath.

If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.

Generally speaking, Jesus did not want us wasting our time tilling “rocky soil.” Better to go where we are wanted, where we can make a contribution in cooperation with our companions.  This is not meant to be a blanket statement. There will always be people who endeavor to reach out to unreceptive people, and their efforts, fueled by optimism and hope, should not be criticized.  No one is hopeless.  Nevertheless, these persistent, compassionate people should know that Jesus allowed and encouraged his friends not to exhaust themselves in such situations.

I happen to be the kind of person who wears himself out in unpromising situations. I’ve stayed far too long in churches where my giftings and convictions were unwelcome.  I’ve persisted in small groups where things just never came together. Heck, I believed in Santa Clause till I was ten years old, if that tells you anything. For some, hope springs eternal.

This word could easily be more for myself than others. Groups like Lutherans Concerned and the Reconciling Ministries Network are working for inclusion and justice in their congregations and denominations, and are making progress, though it may be slow and difficult.

I was surprised and impressed at the Gay Christian Network 2009 conference by the message brought by pentecostal preacher Sister Evelyn Schave. Basically, she said that if gays and lesbians were unwelcome in their home fellowships and subject to a continually oppressive message, that they should not feel obligated to remain in those churches.  For their own spiritual health, they need to find supportive fellowship.

Friday

Today I ventured back onto the Southern Baptist group to see what was going on. I was delighted to find that one of the Southern Baptist pastors posted a topic that seemed written especially for me. His question:

Are the issues of Homosexuality and Marriage really the most pressing issues facing the world today, or are they merely an excuse to address the sins of others while ignoring our own sins?

The question was definitely slanted in favor of the second option, so I replied.

Romans 1 includes twenty-six sins. The majority of them are habitually practiced by us Christians. These include: lust, fornication, idolatry, greed, envy, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, arrogance, boasting, being senseless, heartless, merciless, and ruthless. (Rom. 1:28-32) I would include outburses of rage and wrath.

As Christians, although we “know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, [we] not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”

This is why Paul warns us religious folk against judging others. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

Paul says we stubbornly insist on singling out certain sins, judging them as more worthy of focus and public action than our own. We focus on sins we are not tempted by and have no insight into.  “Because of [our] stubbornness and [our] unrepentant heart, [we] are storing up wrath against [ourselves] for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.”

Peter said: “It is time for judgment to begin with the household of God.”

The question posed by this pastor is proof that some SBC pastors are willing to question the main currents of thought in their denomination. He is similar to the sort of conservative that Lynette Cowper discussed: Conservatives can be reached, but only by those who respect their worldview and approach discussion with an understanding that the Bible doesn’t have to be dismissed before dialogue can begin.”

In another discussion thread, a young pastor made the following remark:

I think it is amazing that the new testament church did not have the new testament to explain the new covenant.

I took this opportunity to direct his attention to his mistaken idea of the New Testament.

Paul, the actual O.T. description of the New Covenant (or New Testament–the phrases have the identical meaning) appears in Jeremiah 31:31-33. The New Covenant differs from the Old Covenant in that the New is written on our hearts and minds, but not on stone or with pen and ink.

The New Covenant, or New Testament, is written directly on our hearts and minds.
When the early church fathers began labeling our 27 letters and gospels as “the New Testament,” they did so in complete disregard of the prophesied character of the New Covenant in Jeremiah.

The church went for roughly 300 years, THREE CENTURIES, with no official canon, and during that time experienced it’s era of greatest growth and vigor.
We were truly more healthy, vigorous, and growing without the canon and the interpretive bickering that resulted.  “Wow” is right! 

Jeremiah’s description of how the New Covenant differs from the Old Covenant is entirely quoted in Hebrews.  That “written on the heart and mind” understanding of the New Covenant appears in II Corinthians 3.

“You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant —not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 

In this discussion of Scripture I use the Bible itself to encourage the SBC pastors to see what the Bible says, or doesn’t say, about itself. As Lynette discussed, I try to not violate their worldview or their view of the Bible. I use the complexity of the Bible itself to get them to think about the book that is central to Christianity. Dan Savage does good work and understands his target audience, but I would not talk about “the bullshit in the Bible about gay people.”  We all speak to different audiences and have different goals.

I have over 1800 FB friends, including a number of conservative Christians, some of whom I know personally, and others not. When one of these voiced his belief in the tradition “definition” of marriage, I got this reply from someone else. “Hey Ronald Goetz, what are you doing being friends with gay bashing trolls? I will unfriend you now because friends don’t let friends hang out with gay bashers. Cya.”

It really does take diverse approaches and attitudes for any broad-based social movement to succeed.  In the anti-war movement, there were people willing to go to maximum security prisons for burning their draft cards. Others were willing to be tear-gassed and beaten by the police. There were people who walked in mass marches, while others were able to write letters or support anti-war candidates.

Diversity is everywhere, creating the same conflicts everywhere. All of us really are in this together.  Disagreement is okay.

___________________________________________

If this was interesting, you might want to check out the student-run Sexual Identity Forum at Baylor University, the Southern Baptist’s flagship school.

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About Ron Goetz

Author, Widower, Grandpa, Son.
This entry was posted in Devotional, Diversity, Southern Baptist. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Four Days among Southern Baptists: A Lesson in Diversity

  1. druidlens says:

    I think that if you roll in the mud with pigs you seldom come up smelling like a rose. Your expectations of dealing with these allegedly baptized Baptists are way too high considering they have no concept of, nor any respect for the Baptismal Covenant. At least as I know it as an Episcopalian….

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  2. xnlover says:

    Ron, I very much appreciate your reflections in general on this topic and the specific responses you gave to the Baptist pastors in particular. The thought occurred to me that we should never underestimate the power of fear to force people to reject our reasoning out of hand: fear of the eternal consequences of “getting it wrong,” yes, of course; but also fear of being ousted from their pulpits and shunned by their Southern Baptist colleagues, parishioners, and even friends and family members and having to turn, perhaps, to selling insurance or real estate to earn a living, while their family suffers the infamy of having a husband and father who has “gone astray” theologically and spiritually. You touched on part of the problem briefly, I think, when you referred to the fact that people in their churches like to hear “exhortations that leave them feeling guilty,” since I believe they are delivering such exhortations as much to themselves as they are to their parishioners. When their spiritual development is stuck in Fowler’s Stage 3 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fowler's_stages_of_faith_development), there is resistance to moving to stage 4, and if that movement is made, it will probably be on account of a crisis occurring within their lives rather than a crisis sparked by a web exchange with someone who is in stage 4, 5 or 6, such as yourself and many who follow your blog.

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    • Ron Goetz says:

      The several fears you mention are so pervasive, and so crippling. Thanks for highlighting that problem. Thanks also for bringing up Fowler’s description of faith development. I believe many fundamentalists do grow in spiritual maturity the way Fowler describes, but the fear of ostracism and selling life insurance restricts them.

      If anyone is not familiar with Fowler, I urge you to click on the wikipedia link and look into it.

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      • druidlens says:

        I guess I am not a fundamentalist. But that is because I became a Christian when I had a personal and very embarrassing confrontation with Jesus. Not at all what I expected. Then, after having hands laid on me by the Asst. Pastor of what I call the First Church of the Lightning Bolt in Tampa, FL, which abounds with lightning strikes, I decided to be as mainstream as possible ( and I failed ) by joining the Episcopal Church. But I am happy here and so is my wife, an ex-Presbyterian. She never pushed me to become Christian even though she embarrassed her ancestors by marrying a Jew. Br. Hal, OUM ( the Order of Urban Missioners in the Diocese of New York ).

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  3. Really nice piece; a number of interesting thoughts well presented. Thank you for your work on the front lines and especially for keeping your cool under duress. Some of us wouldn’t last five minutes in the places you have been.

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  4. Thanks, Ron, for sharing your conviction and journey in such an open way, written with clarity of thought and open heart! Steve Eulberg

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  5. I had to chuckle at your characterization of yourself as someone who wears himself out in unpromising situations, since I, too, am so afflicted. Just last night I nearly exhausted myself in a debate unrelated to spiritual matters, but important to me. There is nothing to be gained by discussing/debating/arguing with people who keep moving the target. Folks who do that aren’t really interested in opening their minds; they are interested only in being “right.” In fact, the person who was most offended by my reasoning stated that he was upset that I “didn’t give him credit” for the research he had done. Why me giving or withholding approval of his research had any meaning isn’t clear to me, since I’ve never encountered him online prior to last night!

    I wasted too many of my precious years on this planet trying to be accommodating and not offending others. This behavior stifled my own spiritual and emotional growth, and I’m grateful that age, experience, and the actions of the Spirit in my own life have relieved me of that burden. I’m aware that none of us can know the mind of God; that we can only interpret God’s will in light of our own experience and study; that when we close our minds to others’ experiences and studies, we are also closing our minds to God’s work in us.

    That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t venture into unfriendly territory, but simply that we should be willing to recognize when it’s time to shake the dust from our sandals and depart in the name of God.

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    • Ron Goetz says:

      Fortunately, many of us do have that persistence and hope for change in relationships. Without it, many social and personal relationships just wouldn’t last. If my wife didn’t persevere in unpromising situations, I’d probably be sleeping on a piece of cardboard behind a dumptster!

      Isn’t it great when we see the limitations of our old scripts and discover that we have more options that we thought? I don’t think it’s so much a question of balance as a matter of having a wider of selection of behaviors to choose from, and learning to not rely on the same identical tool for every situation.

      Here’s to your continued spiritual and emotional growth, Cheryle! You go girl!

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  6. lrfcowper says:

    Great article, Ron. After much conversation with my daughter, I’ve concluded that she needs to move on to a different congregation. Not that everyone at our church was unwelcoming, but there is enough of a current there that she has taken to avoiding worship and other events. The differences between a bit over a year ago–when people commented on how she was there every Sunday so much that they forgot she was in college–to now–when if she shows up once a month, it’s notable–are quite stark. So this morning, she and I are checking out a new church.

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    • Ron Goetz says:

      So how was the new church this morning, Lynette?

      Like

      • lrfcowper says:

        Nice. It was tiny compared to our current one, but surprisingly ethnically diverse for a small rural church. The people were friendly without being smothering or that sort of desperate behaviour you sometimes see. No one complained that we were sitting in their pew… 😉

        They actually used the same hymnals we had used before we switched to projector, so the songs were familiar (and some of them I haven’t gotten to sing in years). Women were very much involved in the service. Up on the stage, we had a lady in casual dress leading the singing, an elder in a tee shirt with some sort of graphic on it and khakis, and the minister in a suit and tie, so our range of clothing choices blended right in. The service was chattier and less slick– announcement time featured several folks in the pews bringing up prayer requests and praises, no one panicked when the organist accidentally turned off the organ and had to let it warm up for a minute before they could continue, the special music was a guy singing “The Long Black Train” a capella, there was a children’s lesson with all the kids gathered on the stage steps and it wasn’t a lecture but was a back and forth discussion.

        The minister spoke about fear vs. love and how often the cause of unloving behaviour is fear, but that true belief is loving and, therefore, unfearful, and how no one could claim to love God, but hate other people, which is a theme that’s been percolating through my thoughts for a week or so now.

        I even got complimented on my singing, and knowing the words to “The Bond of Love” without a hymnal, which we couldn’t use because we’d joined hands. It reminded me of our current church when I was a kid there. Heck, even the lights were the kind we had in the sanctuary when I was growing up. Kinda nostalgic.

        I understand that my current church with its size can’t really do a lot of what they were doing, but I had a feeling that it was all somehow more real– less glitz and more heart. Even my daughter’s gay atheist BFF liked it.

        So I have a feeling we’ll revisit. There are a couple other churches she was interested in visiting, but certainly nothing disqualified it.

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  7. Daniel Swartz says:

    Jesus extolls us to love one another. He did not extoll us to agree with one another. My disagreeing with another does not give me Christian permission to name call, insult or dehumanize the other. We are all children of a loving God.

    Our being called to love the Fred Phelps’ of the world does not mean that we have to agree with them or sanction their behaviors.

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    • Ron Goetz says:

      Yup. Love does not mean agreement. And we’re not called to express our disagreement in identical ways, either. It’s not possible, it’s not desirable, and it’ll never happen.

      I am grateful that I don’t live in a region of the country where the culture reinforces an authoritarian, coercive approach to life. I’d probably be angrier if all my friends and relatives were authoritarian and coercive.

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  8. bubleeshaark says:

    FirSt Corinthians 6:9-10

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