Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Forgotten Center in Baptist Life - Revised

There are times I feel alone. I did not use to feel this way. I used to feel a part of a family with a wide tent, big enough to hold a wide diversity of folks who all called themselves Baptist. It seems that Baptist have followed our national political trend of polarization. Those on the right seem to keep drifting further right. There seems to be little room in their world for anyone that might disagree with anything they think. Their truths and opinions (often they do not seem to be able to tell the difference) are absolute. Those on the left are equally entrenched. It seems that it is not enough to be given the freedom to believe as they will – to practice their faith as they will. But, they are so sure that they are right that their truths and opinions (often they do not seem to be able to tell the difference) are absolute. Those on both sides will not be satisfied until everyone embraces their way of thinking – their way of interpreting Scripture – their way of dealing with the politics of nation – their way of living life. Those on the right were so demanding that they drove many of us out of the tent seeking a new home. Now those on the left are so insistent that their agenda is highlighted and featured in conferences that the tent that I moved to now seems progressively less comfortable, progressively less like “home.”

There is a part of me that yearns for the absolute certainty of those who live on my left and right. It is easier to live in the absolutes. You do not have to think as hard or work as hard because everything is clear cut. My problem is that I that I live at the center/center-right of the Baptist spectrum. I claim the strong faith statements of traditional Baptist theology. I also claim the reality that Paul proclaims in I Corinthians 13, For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. I want to live in the balance of a ministry of Word and deed. I am a faithful follower of Jesus that with equal passion taught and healed, preached and feed. I want to serve as a witness of a gospel that speaks both of law and grace, of justice and mercy. I want to be a Jesus person; both where that blesses and where that offends. It can be difficult to live in the theological center because it demands that I give great care to working through what the whole of the Bible says about an issue, and that I take the interpretation of the Bible seriously. I cannot allow my culture to so shape, from either perspective, what I read that I misread the Word of God. It means that my task is not driven by a poll of what one generation thinks about homosexuality, abortion, gun control, the death penalty, immigration, or a hundred other political and social hot buttons of the day; but rather what God has said to His people across the generations and across cultures. It means that when I come to preach and teach I come with the certainty of a God who was from the beginning and shall be forever; that God that is unshakable and is my refuge and strength. I teach and preach about a God that is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I teach and preach from a Bible that is the divinely inspired Word of God, not in part but in whole. But, I also bring the frailty and the fallibility of my own perspective – worldview – and faith walk.

As I talk to other pastors and church leaders from across the nation they tell me that I am not alone. They tell me that they too are theological centrists in Baptist life. They tell me that they have also felt alone and forgotten in the emerging Baptist landscape. They tell me that they felt out of place in one tent, and progressive equally out of place in another. They tell me that their answer has been to dive in and focus solely and wholly on their local church’s mission and ministry. They are at home in the local church context and disconnected from the institutions and organizations that shape the Baptist landscape. They are old and young; graduates of the six historic Baptist seminaries and from the newer ones that have emerged over the last twenty years. They are ministers and they are laity. They long to feel connected. They long to work side-by-side others. They long to find community that is not drawn left or right by the latest poll, the quest for financial survival or the latest political wave. They are weary of seminars that are agenda laden and publications that seem to echo single points of view. They are the forgotten center in Baptist life. I wonder where and how they might fit together and work together in the days ahead? Any thoughts?

Grace and Peace, Tom


Gene Stewart said...

This is the problem with belonging to any organization. There will never be one that totaly matches my own beliefs, preferences, and desires. I have to be careful which one I choose, and be alert to changes that may urge me to depart.

Mark Gaskins said...

Tom, I resonate with what you have expressed here.

Last year I heard Len Sweet say in a lecture at Campbell University that in the "Gutenberg" world (people born before the invention of the cell phone in 1973), the poles were small and the center was large--a bell curve. But in the "Google" world (people born since the invention of the cell phone), things have become increasingly polarized. And as the center has shrunk, the bell curve has become the "well curve." While I agree that things have become increasingly polarized, I think there is still a large, though very quiet center. Those who are on the polar opposites tend to be very loud and persistent. Those of us in the center--whether the issue is theological, ethical, practical, or political--tend to get attacked from BOTH sides if we venture to express an opinion. If we do not toe the line of the extreme right, we are labeled as liberals. If we do not toe the line of the extreme left, we are branded as Pharisaical fundamentalists. Those on the left and right are so vocal and their attacks on and demonization of the centrists so vehement that many in the center feel they have to identify with one or the other. After all, these seem to be the only two options, and they want to identify with what they consider the lesser of two evils. But as a wise professor once told me, "It doesn't matter whether you run off the right side of the road or the left--on either side, you're in the ditch!"

I'm not sure what the answer is at this point, but somehow those of us in the center must stand up and let our voices be heard, regardless of the attacks. I heard another wise professor say often that liberals and fundamentalists are twins, they just don't know it. Their assumptions and outcomes are different, but their methods and rationalistic approaches are nearly identical.

There is a better and more balanced way. The question is whether we will stand up in the center and passionately walk in that way--true to historic classical Christian faith and ethics and loving in our approach, or as I heard it once described, "theologically committed, psychologically open."

Tom Ogburn said...

I think one of the issues is that the right and the right offer a world of absolutes. It does not demand one think, only fall in line. In a series of recent conversations I was fascinated to hear people talk about the fact that they listen to the news channels that they "agree with." The news seems to have become more commentary than the presentation of facts/information. More and more people seem to drift to those who affirm what they already believe, rather than take the time and energy to take in information and make value judgments based on what is right or true. In our Baptist context it is easier to go with the flow in fear of being left out, rather than to stand up and speak out.

Martin Knox said...


You have described what many of us feel. You have put into words feelings I have not really struggled to put into words, but you did so very well. The challenge is how to effectively live in our world today when you believe the center really should be the biggest section. How can we foster a spirit that allows us to hear and learn from people on both ends? How can we follow the Spirit to do what is best for the whole when so many only want to do what is best for their part? How do we find one another so that we may encourage each other in this journey? So much more to consider, but worth considering!


Linda Hicks said...

Very good thoughts here. I don't know that centrists need to be as noisy as the right or left, but, as I see it, the spine runs right down the center of the body. Perhaps we centrists need to grow one.

R. Wayne Stacy said...

You're not alone, Tom, just lonely. If you don't do "group think," then the "group" rejects you. There are worse things, you know.