February 26, 2018
As the president of Sioux Falls Seminary, I serve on the Strategy Team and the General Council of the North American Baptist (NAB) Conference. These roles recently took me to Roseville, CA, to participate in several days of meetings. In these meetings, we discussed everything from international missions to church planting to governing documents to the future of theological education and much more.
As is often the case, the conversations at meals, over coffee, and while out for ice cream (probably too much ice cream) were very encouraging. Such conversations are always a good reminder that the Spirit is moving in exciting ways in our family of churches.
There were a few specific moments on this trip when it occurred to me that the North American Baptist family has an important heritage to steward and that the seminaries must continue to play an important role in that process.
In a post I wrote in 2016, I referred to a quote from Walter Rauschenbusch in which he says, “We are not a perfect denomination. We are capable of being just as narrow and small as anybody. There are fine qualities in which other denominations surpass us. I do not want to foster Baptist self-conceit, because thereby I should grieve the spirit of Christ. I do not want to make Baptists shut themselves up in their little clam-shells and be indifferent to the ocean outside of them. I am a Baptist, but I am more than a Baptist. All things are mine; whether Francis of Assisi, or Luther, or Knox, or Wesley; all are mine because I am Christ’s. The old Adam is a strict denominationalist; the new Adam is just a Christian.”
Rauschenbusch was one of the important early voices of our denomination and this seminary. His words are a good reminder that ours is a family of churches that, over the years, has been one in which people choose to work together because of their shared mission. In that ethos, there has always been a recognition that we will hold fast to orthodox Christian faith or what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” while welcoming the reality that differences of opinion on certain matters will exist. Such differences have been welcomed, and perhaps encouraged, because they are a natural result of the Baptist principle of local autonomy. That is to say if a conference of Baptist churches is to fully embrace the fact that being Baptist means the local church can read and interpret scripture, therefore coming to conclusions specific to their context, the practices of local churches will vary across that conference of churches.
In fact, the denomination was so focused on this key principle that it took 131 years to create its statement of beliefs. This wasn’t because contentious arguments kept it from happening, but rather because, over the course of those years, the leaders of the conference kept tabling the discussion.
When people fully understand this reality, it creates a beautiful expression of community. I saw this community on display in many ways on my recent trip. One evening, I had a two-hour conversation with a friend, who I think is an amazing asset to our conference. This person has good words that many in our conference should hear as to what it looks like for a community of believers to be on mission in their neighborhoods. At the same time, he and I disagree on some very important points of church practice. Not only do we disagree, but we disagree strongly. Put simply, he is utterly wrong in some areas. And, of course, he would say the same about me!
But why am I saying all of this? While I couldn’t disagree more with some of his thoughts and practices, I count it a blessing to be in the same family of churches as him. I think the NAB is stronger because he is a member of our community. I celebrate our diversity of opinion and practice. Why do I feel this way? For starters, it is because of the way he holds his thoughts, opinions, and theological views with humility and charity. It reminds me of Rauschenbusch’s quote. Another reason I celebrate my friend is that through our diversity, the conference remains open to the various ways that the Spirit works in our various communities.
My friend is, first and foremost, a follower of Christ seeking to participate in God’s mission in this world. He sees the same in me. We arrived at this point in our relationship because of our willingness to engage in conversation and ministry with each other from a place of humility, a place of shared passion for seeing the kingdom of God break forth.
The history of our conference of churches is one that is rooted in the belief that we are to be a people of God at work in our communities and neighborhoods as we discern the movement of the Spirit and help people see life in the present reality of the kingdom of God. It is a history in which we have gathered more around a shared mission or common practices than belief statements. This is an important aspect of our heritage and one that needs to be preserved even though it seems the culture (yes even the church culture) in which we live is even more divided and unable to have conversations in which humility, peace, love, and hope are the foundations.
We at Sioux Falls Seminary are faithful members of the North American Baptist Conference and believe that through the conference and a humble approach to theology we might be able to help this generation of Christ followers bring new life to an age-old commitment of unity in the Spirit.