July 1, 2009

‘Hello. My name is Joe, and I’m a Baptist’

Being Baptist these days is tough, not only because this diverse group is generally painted with a single brush of public opinion, but also because being Baptist is addictive.

How else to explain my visit to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention just to snoop around a bit?

Several years ago my congregation separated itself from this particular national body of Baptists. Too many Disney boycotts and disavowals of science, too much suppression of women and partisan politics (my friend calls the SBC “the Republican Party at prayer”). And yet, like a car crash rubber-necker, I found myself wandering into the fray of people, mostly older men, gathered to conduct their business.

They came to my city, I argued to myself; it was only a short drive.

The rationalization of an addict? Those of us raised Southern Baptist continue to engage, even when we’ve left the SBC. Our relationship to this group we no longer claim is dysfunctional and enmeshed.

Perhaps it’s because, like siblings, we have the same name and it bugs us that we’re so very different and yet painted with the common brush.

SBC beliefs about the Bible, how to read it, how to frame it, the way it points, what it means to please God, on and on, are amazingly narrow and exclusive. For SBC leaders, that this creates a chasm between them and others is a sign they’re on the right track. “There’s a way that seems right unto man,” they quote from Proverbs, “but the end thereof is destruction.” Their interpretation: Tow the pre-approved party line even if you’re drawn to a new insight, or you’ll end up on the road to hell.

I acknowledge that my theology has become more progressive over the years, but not nearly as much as the SBC has narrowed its definition of who could play on its team. Suddenly churches like mine, which built Baptist seminaries, children’s homes and hospitals, found themselves outside the fold. Our alleged “liberal” way of thinking was the cause for denominational decline, they said.

So they kicked us out, or at least excluded us.

A funny thing, though: They’re still in decline. They’ve discovered they can’t fight demographics, though they try. The “full quiver” message (a claim that the Bible requires us to have as many children as possible) is one strategy concocted by SBC leaders to stem their churches’ declines. It’s not working.

So why do I care? Why did I take an hour out of my day to visit the SBC? Why not simply let them go their way?

Maybe I really do need to address my co-dependency.

As I entered the convention hall I learned that the SBC had voted to “disfellowship” a Fort Worth congregation because it hadn’t taken a strong enough stand against homosexuality. The church had tried compromising — rather than include gay couples in their pictorial directory they opted not to include families at all, rather to only photograph Sunday school classes. Not good enough, said the SBC — you must condemn homosexuality.

I immediately sat down to compose a motion to offer to the SBC: In light of today’s action to disfellowship the Fort Worth church, I move that the SBC embark on a more thorough investigation to ferret out churches, like my own, that welcome into membership all baptized followers of Jesus.

It struck me that most in the room would not recognize the irony of the motion. Southern Baptists seem deaf to irony. Why else would they have as this year’s theme “Actions speak louder than words”?

Then something reminded me that this was no longer my fight. It was time to “shake the dust off my feet,” as Jesus instructed, and move on. As my poet friend Duane says, “I think you’d better let it go.”

The good news: There are plenty of other Baptists all around the world who bear the beauty and mystery of Jesus, do justice, celebrate science, promote peace, welcome truth no matter its source, champion religious liberty for all, and cause me to say with gratitude, “Hello. My name is Joe, and I’m a Baptist.”


Joe Phelps is Pastor of Highland Baptist Church. Contact him at www.hbclouisville.org 

Tagged: Guest Commentary |


By LC McKinley
I am happy to see that all churches are not bigoted and excluding. The hard line taken by Southern Baptists seems to shut out the very people who would need to be brought in. They cause those within the churches to often pretend to follow their directives or suffer shame. They judge severely and often dictate to their members even as to their political vote. In my opinion they are way too fixated on sexual matters and human physical behavoirs rather than spiritual enlightenment, love and development of the soul. To me the most important thing is, "Who are you becoming?" and "Where is your heart?." I do not believe we should set ourselves above others or try to dictate their beliefs. God has given them the right to develop as they choose, allow them to do this. You may find that they end up enlightening you. They should not forget that those they wish to cast aside are God's children, their brothers and sisters. Thank you Joe Phelps for some sanity in the church. McKinley


I think your friend is right. "You'd better let it go." Writing more articles like this just adds fuel to the fire, Joe. If it's no longer your fight, why do you insist on fighting it?

thanks to Joe Phelps

By Bob Boboson
I love the idea of guys like Phelps serving as a pastor in today's church. There is nothing more comforting than having a spiritual leader who will go the extra mile to ignore certain portions of God's word that he might deem culturally irrelevant. Yep - A bold guy with his own opinion is way more desirable than those yucky scholars of the scriptures. Who needs to read that stuff? Boring! - say, for instance Romans 1:26-27 or I Cor 6:9-10. Good ol' Joe is so good to his flock that he'll just take a sharpie to those verses and cross them out so that no one is troubled when reading them. Super awesome. My ears are tickling as we speak...and boy does it feel great. Thanks Joe. God certainly can't scratch the way you can. Way to not be a wolf. Bob the Builder