Life in the church is not always easy. Sometimes it is downright confusing and difficult to understand. Christians are part of a community of a common faith in Christ, and from what I have learned, this does not always mean we come to the same conclusions about social or ethical issues. But, we do agree that “Jesus Christ is Lord” and that should be the maypole that we all dance around in sharing life together. Of course, that doesn’t mean we dance the same way or to the same tune.
Marv Knox has written an excellent article entitled “When ideology trumps theology” in which he discusses the unbelievable yet not so surprising move of Paige Patterson in allowing a Muslim student to be admitted to Southwestern Baptist Theology Seminary. This is a breach of the school’s purpose in receiving students who demonstrate “mature Christian character.” It is possible to have good character and not be Christian, but in order to receive an education for the local Church at a seminary this should exclude persons who do not share a common faith in Christ.
Also, and Knox rightly points out, Patterson spent the bulk of his life kicking out fellow Baptists out of SBC positions whom he deemed as “not believing the Bible” yet apparently now it is okay to demonstrate understanding to someone who agrees philosophically with him while not believing the Bible.
I share Knox’s reaction at this development, yet recognize that many Baptists have moved on beyond denominational ties and designations. I was fortunate to receive a good education at a Southern Baptist seminary, and while there studied alongside persons from different denominational backgrounds. These students did not benefit from the Cooperative Program monies given by the local churches, but came to learn at a greatly reduced price compared to other schools of advanced learning. This experience was the closest to an ecumenical perspective I had while earning my degree, and it was helpful to hear different perspectives from fellow Christians.
There is a place for tolerance and diversity in learning alongside persons of different faith backgrounds. Much can be gained in that process regarding love, compassion, and tolerance. Unfortunately, there was not much of these qualities evidenced during the so called “denominational controversy” and Baptists who decided they could not in good conscience describe the Bible as “inerrant” were labeled and libeled and told they didn’t believe the Bible. Now a prominent SBC leader who led in that denominational purging has determined that agreement on moral and social issues trumps salvation through Christ Jesus as a criterion for admission into a Southern Baptist seminary.
Before I could be admitted into New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I had to give a written testimony of my conversion experience and have letters of support from Christian leaders. I was asked to give evidence of “a call to ministry.” I would think such criterion remains part of the process. I wonder if this remains part of the process of admissions and if so, how does a non-Christian qualify for admission?
No doubt, there are many SBC refugees who are looking at this development at SWBTS and wondering where the graciousness was when they were being told that “you don’t believe the Bible.”
There is good learning point from all this. It is a good opportunity to go back and review what it takes and means to be part of the body of Christ. In his book “Life Together” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it is a brief single encounter or daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. What does that mean? It means that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and unity for eternity.”
It’s not always easy being part of the body of Christ. It means rubbing shoulders with people who don’t always agree with us on certain social, ethical, or theological issues. We should use these opportunities to learn, debate, and disagree without diminishing the value and relationship the other person has to Christ. Baptists remain a “believers church” and that means belief in Jesus Christ, not necessarily believing all the same things about our sacred book. That’s what makes life together a challenge, and that’s what makes life together important.
Let’s show graciousness to those of other religious backgrounds and beliefs. Let’s share our faith, listen, and learn. Let’s build relationships. But, let’s also be sure to do same to persons who share a common faith in Christ even if they don’t agree with us certain matters of biblical interpretation. After all, they are part of the family of faith known as the body of Christ.