Appellations: Maybe Less Is More

June 13, 2013

My last blog post, on the passing of Rev. Will D. Campbell, brought a flood of memories to me. Mainly of my time in seminary and the work I did to answer God’s call, all in the context of a looming shadow slowly drifting over the Baptist landscape of the time.

A bit of history. In the 1970’s, two prominent Baptists viewed with alarm at what they considered “liberal” teachings at our Southern Baptist seminaries. They, Judge Paul Pressler and the Rev. Dr. Paige Patterson, helped engineer a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, beginning in 1979. The church I went to was very conservative and my pastor warned me about the evils of liberals in those institutions. Especially at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. I chose to go to Southeastern, calmly assured my faith was strong and unshakable.  Naturally, I believed in the inerrant and infallible Word of God.

It didn’t take long for my professors to start making an impression on me. I began realizing when you start adding doctrines and theories such as the writers of the Bible merely being “human pens” so that God could write his Word, it didn’t make a lot of sense. I can’t find a theory or explanation of the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible in the Bible. Thus, it is merely a human idea, and thus, not one worthy of my time or energy to defend or promote.  I considered it a lesser theory because it leads, in my opinion, to faith being built on shaky ground. My faith is built on the Bible, not theories about the Bible. It is, I think, crucial to understand the difference.

So, I tossed inerrancy and those related theories out the window. But the conservative movement had continued to grow, fueled by Reagan’s presence in the White House and the near-hysteria of the proponents of the movement in insisting on the removal of the “liberals” from our churches and seminaries. And believe me, these conservatives most certainly did believe those theories. In their entirety.

The stage was set then for a major clash.

When the conservatives finally gained a majority on Southeastern’s Board of Trustees, students and faculty alike staged massive protests. We painted signs, wore ribbons to signify “courage” and vowed to sit in the trustee meeting and not move if they made a move to go into executive session. The conservatives lashed out at us, deriding us for creating “an orchestrated climate of intimidation.”

You betcha! I was in the thick of it, being on an ad-hoc steering committee that worked to get the signs painted, prepare responses and spread the word to those around us. We wanted the conservative trustees to understand how we felt, that this intrusion into academic freedom was not a welcome thing. As baptists, we don’t believe in creeds. Our guiding principle is the preisthood of the believer, the belief that God will work miracles in his own way in his own time with each individual, and that does not depend on following a rigid belief system for it’s efficacy. Faith is not a pick-and-choose menu.  Our little movement spread to all the seminary campuses, but not for long.

Of course, they did what they came to do. Within five years, all but one professor had left. The seminary and its marvelous faculty was gone, dispersed like seeds in the wind. Some have passed away now, and a few are still teaching. I count it a great tragedy that the conservatives sought the ouster of these talented and compassionate men and women.  Oh, and by the way, I only met one professor at the seminary I could call a “liberal,” and even that is debatable.

And we all moved on. Graduated, moved out to begin ministry in all kinds of settings. I am proud of my involvement in those days. I don’t relive it much, though.

And here’s why. With the fighting of a certain movement, labels became necessary. Conservative, Fundamentalist, Liberal, Moderate. Thus I was a moderate Baptist or moderate Christian, not holding extreme views, but not subscribing to the fundamentalist doctrine of biblical inerrancy. That doesn’t mean I think the Bible is false, for crying out loud. It just means I don’t agree with their theory of inerrancy, at least the way they present it.

So we became a carefully labeled Baptist society, conservative Baptist, modern Baptist, and so on. In due time, I’ve come to realize something. That’s not workable.

“What am I?” is the question that occurs as I wonder what appellation to ascribe to myself. More and more over the years, such designations make me increasingly uncomfortable. Am I, or is anyone, less or more of a Christian, a follower, by qualifying such appellations with words such as liberal, conservative, moderate, fundamentalist?

I think not.

And I suspect the question itself might be part of the problem. What am I? or Who am I? Maybe it is better without the qualifier.

Am I?

Or am I not?

I am a follower of Christ. I am living my life in accordance with his teachings, revealed in the Bible. As a person of faith, I am cogent of the workings of the Holy Spirit to guide my thinking and help me better understand my place in this world.  I am ready to act on my faith when presented with a situation that calls for it.

Or, I am not. I think it is that simple, when we get right down to it.

I AM, of course, is the answer God gave Moses at the burning bush, when Moses asked who he was.  And that problematic answer seems to make a lot more sense when I quit trying to qualify it with modifiers.  In other words, God is saying to Moses, “Moses, quit beating around this here bush and get your ass in gear! Because I AM.”

Indeed.

I am either a follower of Christ or I am not. Anything beyond that is to invite something besides faith to live within us. And that troubles me mightily.

 

 

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