Thursday 28 June 2007

Encounters with tradition (5): becoming a global Baptist

A guest-post by Michael Westmoreland-White

I was not raised Baptist. I grew up in a family of active United Methodist Christians. Some of the strengths of that tradition are with me still: a stress on faith as an act of free will, a focus on piety of the heart, and strong emphasis on both personal and social sanctification – although I have never accepted any form of perfectionism or “entire sanctification,” not even Wesley’s “perfection of love.” But I quit catechism classes at age 12 and was never confirmed.

In my late teens, God used African-American Christians, primarily Black Baptists, as the human agents in my conversion. But before I could find a church home and be formed in the practices and virtues of Christian discipleship, I joined the US Army. A friend who was opposed to my joining the military challenged me to memorize the Sermon on the Mount during Basic Training. I did, and it led to much cognitive dissonance, but I compartmentalized my doubts and was soon deployed to Heidelberg, Germany. I didn’t want to go to the base chapel and looked around for a church to attend. There is a Baptist congregation in Heidelberg and, at least in those days, it offered services in both German and English with the same sermon. I went to both because I was hoping to improve my German.

The pastor introduced me to Christian pacifism. Pacifism is not rare among German Baptists; it is a significant minority position there. I became convinced of this view and sought a conscientious objection discharge from the army. So my initial initiations into Baptist life were through the African-American Baptist tradition in the US – an Exodus-shaped faith forged from the fusion of African religious views, the experience of slavery and its aftermath, and revivalism – and the German Baptist tradition which is broadly Reformed and deeply Pietist.

Returning to the States, I joined a local Southern Baptist congregation, not knowing the differences among Baptists. At the same time, I was cementing my pacifism by reading John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and the collected sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. I quickly found out that pacifism was far rarer among Southern Baptists. Southern Baptists themselves are a blend of several strands of tradition, but I did not know that.

I would probably have stayed with the Southern Baptists if not for two overlapping experiences: seminary and “The Controversy,” i.e., the internal feud among Southern Baptists c.1979-c.1994. Depending on which “side” one is on, this conflict is either referred to in triumphal terms as “the Conservative Resurgence,” or denounced in horrified tones as “the Fundamentalist Takeover.” I have mostly been in the latter camp. Shortly after I responded to a perceived call of God to study for the gospel ministry (at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY), I discovered that Southern Baptists had been undergoing an internal power-and-identity struggle for several years. I had experienced Southern Baptist life as broadly evangelical, but not fundamentalist. For instance, the pastors I had known had never mentioned the word “inerrancy.” I had been taught that Baptists held Scripture to be authoritative with Christ as hermeneutical norm, and no one had ever mentioned any form of scientific or historical inerrancy. Now, I found that the institutions of the SBC were being taken over by those who stressed inerrancy (and defined it very much like the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy), were hostile to critical biblical studies, opposed male-female equality and the ordination of women, and were mostly aligned with conservative Republican politics. Later, opposition to legal abortions (with which I had some sympathy) and to either equal inclusion of GLBT folk in church life or civil liberties for GLBT folk would be added.

None of this sat well with me. It was alien to my experiences as a Baptist Christian in both Germany and the US. I decided that if the “conservatives” were right about who Baptists were supposed to be, I would be something else. So I began a deep search into historical records in the seminary library. I knew that Baptists had begun in the 17th century in England out of Puritan origins. I found that we also had minor influences from Dutch Mennonites – a branch of the Anabaptists. The Anabaptist emphasis on active discipleship, nonviolence, religious liberty, simple living, and disciplined, covenant community resonated with me. I nearly became a Mennonite, but I also discovered that some Anabaptists had cultivated a “withdrawal ethic,” and the Puritan emphasis on the “cultural mandate” had kept Baptists from following suit. So I remained a Baptist (leaving the Southern Baptist Convention for the Alliance of Baptists), but of an Anabaptist type.

Since that time, I have been employed at two Catholic universities, a Catholic seminary, a multi-denominational evangelical seminary, and in an ecumenical (but Mennonite-dominant) peace organization. Each of these contexts has caused me to re-appropriate my Baptist tradition. I have learned to compensate for weaknesses by drawing on others’ strengths, but have also deepened my appreciation for Baptist strengths in the face of others’ weaknesses.

For the past 15 years or so, I have been trying to experience and learn about Baptist life all over the globe. I have grown tired of descriptions of Baptist identity that draw only from Southern Baptist or only from North American or British categories. I want to learn about Baptist life from all these sisters and brothers, too. I want my Baptist identity to be a global one, not a parochial one imposed on the rest of the world.

I am a Baptist as part of the larger Believers Church tradition, that collection of denominational groups which always rejects legal establishment, which must be joined individually by personal faith and believers’ baptism, and which stresses active discipleship and gathered churches of visible saints. Such groups, which James Wm. McClendon named “small-b baptists,” include Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish, the Stone-Campbell movement, the Church of God (Holiness), most Pentecostal groups, many of the indigenous churches in Asia and Africa, Nazarenes, the Church of the Brethren and other “Dunker” groups, Plymouth Brethren, and so on. I am a Baptist, but it is even more important to me that I am “baptist.”

I am enriched daily by folks from other traditions within Christianity. But I am a Baptist because this is the limb of the Body of Christ where I feel called to live and serve. Being Baptist seems to me, despite some contrary publicity, to be one good way of being Christian.


derek said...

Thanks for this michael. I have to say that you'll be disapointed by what the Stone Campbell has become here in the midwestern US: a form of strong evangelicalism.

Anyways, thanks for you honest thoughts. I appreciate learning how people deal with transitions in faith/church life. It is good food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post, Michael. It's encouraging to see that the Baptist tradition is so broad and diverse.

Anonymous said...

Great odyssey - and still in via! Thanks, Michael.

Anonymous said...

O, yeah, Kim. I'll be in via, on my Pilgrim's Progress long past the present Slough of Despond. I'm fortunate to be a good Interpreters' House just now, though.

Thanks, all. And thanks to Ben for posting my lengthy contribution to a great series.

Anonymous said...

Oh, btw, that's a great picture, but being an urbanite, no church I've ever belonged to looked like that. My current church home, Jeff Street Baptist Community @ Liberty, is housed in a refurbished former tool and die factory in one of the poorest sections of downtown Louisville. From the outside, despite large signs, it doesn't much look like a church! :-)

Gyan said...

So Pacifism but abortion not so bad?
Some contradiction?.

Anonymous said...

Were you rebaptized? I assume you couldn't join a Baptist church on the strength of your Methodist infant baptism. How did you feel about that? How did your United Methodist family feel about it?

P.S. You sound like a Mennonite to me (and I was raised one).

Anonymous said...

I was baptized as an adult in 1983. I don't say re-baptized for the same reason that the 16th C. radicals rejected the term "Anabaptist,"--because I don't recognize my infant christening as a baptism.

Yes, Denny Weaver, Mark Theissen Nation, John Stoner, and others have teased me from time-to-time that I am more Mennonite in theology than many Mennonites. Still, I can't sing a capella in 4 part harmony and have other influences that would mark me off from "ethnic Mennonites," at least.

Gyan, I didn't say that "abortion was not so bad." If you read that statement (and I was already longer than Ben wanted) I said that I was sympathetic to the opposition to abortion on demand. I have been "caught in the middle" on that debate and have discussed it in more detail on my blog. All I was doing in that post was listing the "checklist" (which is still growing) that the fundamentalist leaders of the New SBC were demanding of everyone. And abortion opposition was added, as I said.

Guy Davies said...

Interesting story, MW-W. But I would see the resurgance of evangelicalism among the Southern Baptists as a reason for rejoicing rather than regret!

Tripp said...

Great story. As a fellow ex-SBCer I resonated with a good bit of it. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story Michael. I often find that such biographical accounts help us think more creatively about our theological ‘positions’. Reading about your theological convictions framed in your own narrative is very interesting. On another theme--as someone who grew up in the Mennonite community and returned to it after a brief foray into the Evangelical world, I’m delighted to read about someone who takes seriously the possibility of a family of traditions that might be called the ‘believers church.’ From my perspective there is much that might be done to explore the relationships of the various traditions falling within this family. Donald Durnbaugh and John Howard Yoder have begun this work but there is potential for much more.

Robert Cornwall said...


Thanks for sharing your faith journey with us! To Derek, concerning the Stone-Campbell Movement -- it depends on what branch you're talking about. The Disciples have their evangelicals, as most Mainline churches do, but the denomination is not in the conservative evangelical camp. The Churches of Christ, though conservative, don't fit into that camp either -- but you are quite correct regarding the so-called middle group, the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (North American Christian Convention).

And at least for awhile the Campbells did affiliate with the Baptists and the Disciples contemplated union with the American Baptists in the 1950s!

Anonymous said...

Guy, I would argue that the SBC never left evangelical theology (you could never have found enough real liberals to fill a living room, no matter what the fundamentalists said) and that what they have now is scholastic fundamentalism.

However, when Ben first approached me about this, I wanted to be clear that because "Baptist" names a rather large tradition (and "baptist" an even larger one), that MY reasons for being Baptist would be different from yours, which would be different from Mike Bird's, which would be different than Jim West's, which would be different than Sean Winter's--to use some prominent biblio and theo-blogging Baptists as illustrations.

And, Guy, you yourself would have hated the way the post-1979 SBC became more and more identified with rightwing politics (and tried to force that on its overseas missions, too). Right? Don't start narrowing the definition of "evangelical" NOW from where you usually do on your own blog.

Bob, I actually knew about the near merger between Disciples and American Baptists. Also, despite some differences with "Campbellites," the Christian Church (D of C) is one place I considered going when I wondered if I could remain Baptist at all. I was, however, more likely to become Mennonite or Church of the Brethren.
My wife, a Baptist minister whose ministerial credentials have been recognized by the Disciples and the UCC, served a UCC congregation as interim pastor in the early '90s. I was asked if I wanted to apply for ordination in the UCC, but I could never bring myself to baptize babies (which I view as a form of coercion, of spiritual violence), so I turned them down.

So, I remain a Baptist from the (U.S.) South, but never again a Southern Baptist--and I know the difference.

Travis McGowen said...


I am sure you are aware of this, but there are a growing number of younger "SBC fundamentalists" who are rejecting the complete devotion to the Republican party. Although they are still very much pro-life, I have noticed a more diverse group arising. At least here on campus at SBTS.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have actually been in contact with a few, like Ben Cole and Wade Burleson. They still preface everything they say with the phrase, "The Conservative Resurgence was necessary and saved the Convention, but now we are in danger of overly narrowing our parameters and we need spiritual revival." Of course, I contend that the first clause in that is completely untrue.

And when the annual SBC convention is dominated by arguments over whether missionaries can speak in tongues privately, whether or not one can drink a beer, or how many points of Calvinism must be believed before one knows that Jesus loves him or her; when seminaries announce degrees in homemaking for pastors' wives-- while the goodness of the war is taken for granted, Lifeway publishes idolatrous "Military Bibles," etc. then I think the "new reformers" have a long way to go.

Paul said...

I can appreciate your search as one who came out of USSR from a baptist church that embraced pacifism due to its influence in Russia and Ukraine at large prior to Soviet Revolution by the German Mennonites who settled lands in Ukraine and Russia, their way of life influenced Baptist Churches in both Russia and Ukraine. As a Baptist coming to North America it was very confusing to witness the mixed doctrines, theology and practice of baptist churches in America (Canada included) and little connection to pacifism, in light of my families persecution in USSR as believers who prayed for our persecutors it was odd indeed to see people embrace arms and military in the west...since then I have learned that Baptist churches vary greatly in North America and the world...although I have made a deliberate move to Anabaptism, and am now a associate pastor at a Mennonite church in Canada. I find your journey through branches of Baptist churches similar to mine. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

From Article 19 of the Baptist Faith and Message, 1925:

"It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war." This article was revised in 1963 and watered down in the rightwing revision of 2000, but that sentence remains in even the latest edition.

Baptists don't have creeds and, historically, our confessions of faith have been seen more as summaries, testimonies to outsiders, and guides to biblical interpretation, rather than strict tests of orthodoxy. The rightwing lurch of the SBC has treated the Baptist Faith & Message in an ever more creedalistic fashion--but has ignored this article in doing so.

Paul, thanks for your testimony. I could easily become Mennonite. I stay Baptist because of things such as the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (which has a British counterpart), composed of peaceloving, peacemaking Baptists from Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba--over 20 denominations of us including a few diehard Southern Baptists.

Tauratinswe said...

I used to be proud to be a Southern Baptist because we had room for great diversity. That kept us from going to extremes. Now I'm ashamed to admit that it was with Southern Baptists that I served as a missionary.

I hope the upcoming multi-baptist celebration will revive the tradition of broad fellowship among baptists.

May your pilgrimage continue in faithfulness.

One of Freedom said...

Enjoyed the post. I did a stint as a Convention Baptist (which is associated with the SBC IIRC) lay minister. I was struck by the diversity that they held in tension there. But I was on the more fundie side of things back then - recovering from my pentecostal experience. Although I went the other way with baptism - I actually affirm either believing that the significance lies with the believer not the specific form of that sacrament.

Anonymous said...

Great story, Michael, and one I found particularly helpful. Half my family was Southern Baptist, and my young experiences of their nonsense left an almost indelible bad taste in my mouth for all things Baptists. (I sometimes wonder how much of my going over to Anglicanism was sheer rebellion.) I've been working for years to temper that prejudice and not indiscriminately lump all Baptists with the Southern mix. Your post here is one more step along the way. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Reading back over these great comments, I see that I missed an early question addressed to me.

An anonymous commenter not only asked if my pilgrimage entailed adult baptism (it did), but how my Methodist family felt about it. I missed the latter part of the question and it is a fair one.

Ordinarily, I suppose, my folks might have been upset. My parents didn't think much about Baptists, especially since they were working class (but striving!) folks who valued education and thought most Baptist ministers were incredibly uneducated. (The Baptist tradition does have a long love/hate relationship with higher education, but that's a story for another time.) And, although I did not consider my infant christening a baptism, my mother DEFINITELY did and could easily have resented what she would have seen as a "rebaptism."
What saved the situation is that I had already dropped out of church as a young teen when I refused to finish catechism classes and be confirmed. I had declared myself an agnostic and hadn't gone to church for years. So, after my conversion and baptism, my parents were so glad to simply see me become a Christian and attend church, etc., that they quickly "got over" the fact that I was now Baptist. (A few years later, my younger brother became a Pentecostal via marriage--which took any remaining heat off me!! I wonder if I ever thanked Jim enough for that?)

There was, anonymous, far more Sturm und Drang over my becoming a conscientious objector and pacifist! You see, I didn't mention that I came from a long line on both sides of my family of folks who volunteered for a term of military service. In the case of my mom's family, that tradition went back to the U.S. Revolutionary War. (Note to UK readers--"the revolt of the Colonies.") My father had joined the Navy out of high school instead of the Army in order to avoid going to Vietnam (he--rightly--realized that it violated all 7 principles of Just War Theory). But it was still 5 years before my family would mention or discuss my pacifism--though since 9/11 many have moved closer to my view.

Anonymous said...

I'm someone for whom the word "Baptist" has overwhelmingly negative connotations, having grown up in a South African Baptist context in the apartheid era. Although the SA Baptists originally had more British roots they had become increasingly influenced by the Southern Baptist fundamentalists and were not only fundamentalist but decidedly apartheid supporting, war-mongering, anti-ecumenical etc. Although I know (and knew - my father who was on the fringe left of the Baptist scene kept trying to convince me about the radical reformation; in retrospect he was probably trying to convince himself) in theory that there were other sorts of Baptists, this remained at the level of theoretical knowledge or else of a sort of distant admiration for people like Mennonites (who were banned in SA). But reading your post and sometimes also your blog has helped to put a more human face on this thing called the radical reformation, and, as Kerry says above, is a help towards tempering my prejudice. Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

I understand completely your prejudices. I was privileged to know several black Baptists from South Africa during my seminary days (I've kept in touch with a few)--and the Baptist legacy in S.A., both British-influenced and SBC-influenced, has been a checkered one. On the one hand, some Baptists in S.A. were involved with Gandhi during his S.A. period as he forged the beginnings of his views on nonviolence. (This story is told in James D. Hunt's, Gandhi and the Nonconformists: Encounters in South Africa(1986)). And some were involved in the ANC struggle, but most were pro-apartheid and/or so otherworldly that they "ignored politics" which amounted to the same thing.
All I can say is that my friendships with these international students, Black South African Baptists, led to my involvement in the Stateside section of the anti-apartheid struggle of the '80s. I led groups of seminarians to civil disobedience in those days as we endeavored to persuade the U.S. government to stop "constructive engagement" and put more pressure on the white government to change.

But I make no claims that this was typical of Baptists in S.A., the States, or elsewhere. As with many other Christian traditions, racism has a large, nasty history within Baptist circles.

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