in God's country
Last week I finished reading Carl Kell and Samuel Hill's edited volume, Exiled: Voices from the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War. The book is a collection of short essays by various moderate and liberal Baptists, all of whom used to be part of the SBC but do not identify themselves as such anymore (although a few of the contributors are members of dually aligned churches).
I found the book to be fascinating and heartbreaking. Because I was a child when the battle for the SBC happened, my knowledge about what actually happened is based mostly on second-hand accounts. I don't think anyone has written about the children of the split - children whose parents were pastors of divided churches or leaders in SBC agencies - but we knew, at least in a broad sense, what was going on. I learned most of what I knew about the split not from my parents, whom I'm sure wanted to shield us from what was going on, but through whispered conversations with friends in the summer at Ridgecrest and Glorieta, and from a friend at school whose family was in a church that was having problems and whose dad also worked for the convention. I read my daddy's copies of the Baptist Standard and the Baptist and Reflector and wondered how people I knew from church could say such mean things to other Christians, even if they were being honest.
Exiled helped me to better understand that the roots of the split were not just between Baptists of moderate and conservative theology, but that in many ways the split formalized a long-existing divide between those who focused more on missions and those who focused more on evangelism. Indeed, as several of the writers point out, there were very few Southern Baptists at that time whose theology could truly be called "liberal." Most moderates and conservatives had (and continue to have) far more in common theologically than they did differences.
Sometimes I get tired at CBF or BGCT events of hearing about how awful the split was. Why can't we just move on, I wonder, and why can't we stop pretending that the CBF isn't a denomination? The book was valuable in helping me to further understand how painful the split was for moderates who were forced, either directly or by conscience, to leave the churches and agencies they had given their lives to building up. It helped me to see how much moderates really have moved on, compared to where they were after the 1990 New Orleans convention. It was interesting to see how some commentators see the split as a kind of punishment for the pride the SBC had in its huge, well-organized system of getting things done. Others question why God allowed the conservatives to win, and some graze over the question of what that says about the rightness of moderate views as opposed to the political organization of the conservatives.
I especially enjoyed the essay by Rev. Cecil Sherman, "Getting My Head on Straight," and the one by Gladys S. Lewis, "Still a Baptist Woman." Lewis' words about the importance of soul competency in helping her to navigate her "own faith positions when life gives [her] conditions not covered by doctrine" was particularly powerful, as she told the story of her husband being paralyzed in a skiing accident. I also enjoyed Professor Paul D. Simmons' reflections on academic freedom in "Finding a Voice in Exile," for although I may not agree with all of his positions, I too have wondered about the search for truth in the face of absolutist definitions about what constitutes true doctrine. One of the reasons I chose to no longer a member of a Southern Baptist church was the sense that if I stayed in the SBC, I would forever be dealing with those who would ask me to check the mind God gave me at the door.
Exiled is an excellent collection and I highly recommend it to those of you who are interested in Baptist life. It left me with two impressions: First, the wish that there were an equally thoughtful book from the conservative SBC side of this fight. I would like so much to read honest reflections about the reasons for the split, the justifications for the tactics that were used, and the resulting shape of the churches.
Second, and more troubling, the book left me thinking even more about something I have wondered since I was a child: how can it be pleasing to a God who calls us to first be reconciled to our brothers and sisters for Christians of different stripes to hate one another? For although it is neither feasible nor wise to think that we could or should find a way to fully reconcile and return to what we were, I also find it heartbreaking that we can't worship together. This is not how it was meant to be.
I hope that all of my Baptist readers, both conservative and moderate, will take time to read Exiled. It is definitely food for thought.