Saturday, August 16, 2008

Was Separation from the ABC Really Necessary?

Recently a friendly interlocutor quipped that since the withdrawal of Transformation Ministries (formerly ABC PSW) from the ABCUSA, His Barking Dog has been unusually quiescent. Actually, what Zack said was “Ever since the dog stopped barking at the ABC-USA, he seems to have very little to say.”

With several years between the separation of TM from the ABC, most of the extreme grief has settled into merely the dull sadness that afflicts those who have lost their first love through a breakup. And, TM has flourished to the point that as of the first of last month nearly 150 congregations have signed the covenant (no mean feat for a group of creedal-phobic Baptists!).

What sense does it make to carp about the ABC anymore? No ABC conservative regions joined TM in their departure. Evidently, the audience for this blog is quite satisfied with all things ABC. And, to the extent that they are not, several of the leaders have told me that they intend to marginalize the ABC by privately advising congregations to target their giving and by-pass Valley Forge, especially the Office of the General Secretary. But, with the sale of the headquarters building to the mission boards, OGS will be far less dependent upon support from the churches anyway. Endowments can last in perpetuity.

But now, a few years after the break, quipster Zack’s comment prompted me to look back and the ABC again and re-examine my decision to vote for departure. Was it the right thing to do? Was the ABC really on a trajectory into the depths of heresy as some of us had contended?

Confirmation for the wisdom of withdrawing comes from a strange source, the pro-gay Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Yes, those most responsible for pushing PSW to the edge of the precipice are also the ones bearing clear witness to why we believed that we had to jump in the first place.

In the June 2008 Associational e-newsletter, AWAB Executive Director, Ken Pennings, writes about a recent visit to the First Baptist Church of Madison (WI) by Dr. A. Roy Medley, General Secretary of the ABCUSA.

Dr. Medley preached in morning worship and also stayed for a luncheon at the church, a member of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Remember that the national policy, adopted by the General Board of the ABCUSA, declares homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.” So what prophetic word would the chief executive officer of the ABC bring to a church committed to a proposition that his own board declares to be “incompatible with Christian teaching”? I cite at length the words of the Rev. Mark Clinger, pastor of the church, as printed in the AWAB newsletter (emphasis mine):

"Dear Friends:

Yesterday’s visit by the General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches, the Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley, was a very positive, inspiring and reassuring experience. In his sermon, Dr. Medley encouraged us to serve as the hands and feet of Christ, by strengthening our Christian practices of gratitude, generosity, and engagement in the wider world. He called us to live in a 'new ecology of relationships' begun by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“During the luncheon following worship, Dr. Medley spoke to a number of issues within our denomination, beginning with the 'recent unpleasantness' on matters surrounding the issue of sexual orientation. He upheld the twin historic Baptist emphases upon the 'authority of scripture' as well as the final role of the 'local congregation' in scripture’s interpretation. He recognized that standing for these principles cost the denomination the loss of one region but added that we could not surrender these convictions of conscience. Dr. Medley’s assertion of the primacy of these principles in the ongoing life of our denomination was deeply reassuring.

“Dr. Medley went on to share some other observations about our life together. He spoke of the 'catholicity' of the American Baptist family, recognizing we are the broadest and most inclusive band of Baptists in the country, spanning a greater diversity of theological belief, race and culture than any other national gathering of Baptists. He encouraged us to reclaim the joy of living together, out of this diversity, as we simply share in the work of God. He also celebrated the many relationships that are growing between us and other Baptists as seen in both the Alliance of Baptists and the New Baptist Covenant. He added, 'Excluding different views is not how we conduct our life.'

“Finally, I was keenly impressed by the leadership and initiative Dr. Medley is taking in building an 'ecology of relationship' between our denomination and the Islamic Society of America. He is particularly emphasizing dialogue on how we can work together to insure peace and dignity for all, a prophetic stance in this time of growing anti-Islamic prejudice.

“In all, I found in Dr. Medley, as I so often do, a genuine Christian spirit deeply committed to the principles of conscience that ground our denomination in the best of times. His visit, his presence, and his honest addressing of the issues at hand were deeply reassuring to me and should serve to strengthen our continuing relationship with our American Baptist family."

The prophetic edge of Dr. Medley’s words consisted in lamenting the “recent unpleasantness” over differences in understandings of human sexuality leading to the loss of one of the most significant regional units in the country and boldly stating that one cannot “surrender these convictions of conscience.”

Believing that one must cater to those who affirm what the denomination has already declared to be “incompatible with Christian teaching” makes about as much sense as affirming a square hole, Christian atheism, or a “Buddhist Baptist.” That Dr. Medley’s sincere and heartfelt vision of Baptist life includes such expansive horizons substantiates beyond any reasonable doubt what leaders of the old PSW were saying when they cried out for redress. In the end, we left. And, friends of mine within the ABC bureaucracy have since confirmed that our departure was not so much a cause for grief as one provoking a collective shout of “good riddance!”

Interestingly, in addition to the “core values and shared beliefs” of the church where Dr. Medley preached can be found the following: “Beyond these shared values and beliefs, a great diversity of personal faith, beliefs, and values is found and treasured within our community. We expect no conformity to any creed.”

Four hundred years ago Baptists were persecuted and died for advocating a freedom of church from state in order to follow what they saw as the clear teachings of the Bible. Now some of them just stand for freedom to believe any fool thing they want to, even when it contradicts the clear teachings of the Bible. And their titular head calls it all an “ecology of relationships” he claims to be rooted in the resurrection. Since when does the resurrection annul or overturn the Word of God?

In 1689 Baptists had no trouble affirming and submitting to an orthodox confession, the doctrinally sturdy London Baptist Confession of Faith. Here, in America, the 1742 Philadelphia Confession restated it for that time. But in 2008, and in a “very positive, inspiring and reassuring experience,” American Baptist leaders such as Dr. Medley have no problem developing an “ecology of relationships” with those holding beliefs incompatible with Christian faith, including Islam!

Did Transformation Ministries really need to leave the ABC? Ya think?


Laura said...

While periodic sadness over our departure remains, this sadness is more over the necessity of it all (as affirmed by this post). The Body is one and any division is in fact damaging, but in reality, the division was not from our side, for our departure merely confirmed the departure of those who left the Word.

Still, as an at least third generation (former) American Baptist, the loss is deeply felt.

ZSB said...

Doc Mac (I just decided that's your nickname, whether or not it has been before),

I suggest you remove all references to Dr. Medley. His name, likeness, and persona have been trademarked by the ABC-USA (a la "Famous Amos") and they may need to take legal action if you do not cease and desist.


Hey, I know you're weaning yourself off blogging, but you can always check mine out from time to time.