This is my response to Dr. Gerald Harris’ article that expressed concern about the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention. He outlined five trends that have contributed to this decline: Social Justice, Social Gospel, Feminism, Tolerance, and Intolerance. Having squirmed most of my life away in a Baptist church pew, I have a little different take on what is driving some people away.
1. We Baptists gloss over inconsistencies and challenging texts contained within what we proclaim is the “inerrant” Bible. There was a nasty fight between Baptist conservatives and moderates in the 1990s. The conservative branch ruled the day which further limited critical scripture analysis and interpretation. Today, most of us cherry pick from the Bible’s inspiring and instructional parts, or those that prove a point, while avoiding the bulk of biblical text.
Based on my observations, the spectrum of beliefs about the Bible might be described as follows from the most strict of interpretations all the way to disbelief:
reliable for spiritual guidance
a text to use for controlling others and/or proving political points
a book of inconsequential myths and legends
Baptists claim to be in the “inerrant” category, but act more as if we’re in the “reliable” category with all of our picking and choosing. It’s alright to pick and choose but we need to honest about what we’re doing. Politically, we sometimes dip into the proving points or justifying nasty behavior category.
I had a pastor while growing up who was masterful at grappling with challenging Bible texts. He sometimes made large intellectual leaps to preserve the view of an inerrant text, but he had a balanced approach and attempted to preach from all of the Bible. He died years ago, but I admired him and his effort. Through his struggles, he baked things down to a Christian faith that focused on compassionate evangelism, kindness, and good humor (rare qualities today).
2. There’s a failure to honestly face and repent for the church’s historic moral mistakes such as slavery and racial relations, or justifying the limiting of certain voices based on their sex or social standing (see item #3). Slavery was justified by scripture using literal interpretations (see item #1). Every branch of religion has old skeletons in the closet, but some are better at airing them out and being mindful of the lessons they hold for the present day.
3. We Baptist pay lip service to the importance of women in the church but forbid their participation in specific offices/activities that are for men only. Scripture and ancient social context are imposed directly on today to sustain this practice. (See item #1)
4. There’s little difference in the moral conduct, emotional stability, and work ethic of those inside the Baptist Church and those outside of the Christian faith. Sometimes, those “in the club” will justify their actions by crediting God in some way. It’s popular to say, “I prayed about it…,” after which the person goes on to do something mean or stupid. I prefer poor moral conduct that does not credit God for bad decision making. Better yet, why not just try to “…do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly…?”
5. A close association has evolved between the Baptist Convention and a particular political party. There are strong tendencies toward establishing a political theocracy. The Baptist Church walls have shrunken and no longer tolerate conflicting opinions. That’s all I have to say about that.
6. There is a perceived requirement that you “check your brain at the door” often demonstrated in suspicion or discounting learning and intellectual pursuits. “For with great wisdom comes great frustration; whoever increases his knowledge merely increases his heartache.” The misinterpretation and misapplication of Bible texts similar to this might be summed up as “ignorance is bliss.” Some even boast of intellectual laziness. “God just tells me how to interpret the Bible. I don’t need all that book learning.”
These are just a few thoughts that came to mind as I read Dr. Harris’ article about the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention. Though still physically present, my reasons for emotionally and spiritually walking away from the Baptist Church appear to be very different than what drives conservatives out, but decline is still the result. Maybe the Southern Baptist Convention’s political stands combined with its lack of honesty and willingness to hold conflicting ideas has resulted in the exit of both conservatives and liberals. What could be more efficient?