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.


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