Breaking News: Former Fundamentalist Declares War on 14.7 Million Southern Baptists!
Like many headlines it was fake news. Although it appeared true on the surface, the war was really with myself, and it was a complete surprise to me. An unexpected confrontation led to sharp attacks from every angle. Each subsequent engagement opened a new crack in the walls of my Southern Baptist fortress until, finally, the walls came tumblin’ down.
After spending eleven years leading worship in three different Southern Baptists churches, I found myself sitting in the pew with my family at the Shaw Avenue Baptist Church in Fresno, California. Our new pastor Jerry had just graduated from the Dallas Theological Seminary, a fundamentalist school emphasizing a literal interpretation of the Bible. I felt sure he never questioned the parts of the Bible by the apostle Paul that urged Christians to be good citizens of the Roman Empire.
To the Romans, Paul wrote that gay sex was unnatural, a view still shared by Southern Baptists. I knew nothing about gays or gay sex and wondered if Jerry did. Paul also wrote to a slave owner, Philemon, urging him to welcome back his runaway slave. Paul expected slaves to obey their masters, whether the master was kind or cruel. Southern Baptists, too, had endorsed slavery enthusiastically, until the Civil War when, as far as I was concerned, the slavery issue was settled by Abraham Lincoln. Still, I never heard Southern Baptists question either of these views of Paul’s.
On that day, Jerry chose for his sermon topic a third norm of Roman society, which Paul included in his letter to the Romans: the inferiority of women. They should know their place and stay in it. They should be silent in meetings. If they had questions, they should wait until they got home to ask their husbands. I wondered if Jerry had any idea how many Southern Baptist churches would have folded long ago if their female members had been quiet. During the Great Depression, the Southern Baptist Convention faced a crisis when distressed men left the church. It was women who kept the churches afloat and saved the Baptists’ bacon.
In my eyes, this directive that women be in submission to their husbands was on a par with the Bible injunction telling a father to stone a disobedient son. Like many strange things in the Bible, I heard what Jerry said, stepped over it, and was ready to move on. But not my wife. On our way home, Betty announced we weren’t going back. I didn’t object. “Let’s look for another Southern Baptist church,” I said.
“Fine,” she said. “You look. I’ll stay home and listen to Dr. Schuler,” the “Hour of Power” televangelist.
I decided to try Harvard Terrace Southern Baptist Church, which faced McLane High School where I did my student teaching. Arriving in time for morning worship, I found a spot in a crowded parking lot and settled into a pew near the back of the sanctuary.
As was the custom, the superintendent of the Sunday school came to the pulpit to announce two figures which gauged every Baptist church’s success: the attendance in Sunday school and the amount of the offerings. The number in Sunday school had declined from the previous week.
When he left the platform, the pastor took it up. He leaned on the pulpit like a friendly counselor and said, “I know why the attendance is down today.”
I waited, thinking, School is out. Some members are probably away on vacation. Some could be ill at home or in the hospital.
The pastor’s eyes swept the congregation as he continued, “Our attendance is down today because there were only four people out last Thursday to go calling for the church.”
It wasn’t the onset of summer vacations, and it was certainly not the pastor’s fault. The decline was the congregation’s fault, their failure, their lack of dedication.
Conditioned to see themselves as guilty, they were no more surprised at his tongue lashing than a man before a firing squad is surprised by bullets, so they sat mute while the pastor browbeat them.
I asked myself: Is this worship? Is this “joy in the Lord?” It wasn’t. It was bullying in the name of religion. The time had come to abandon my ties to the denomination. I felt sad for those I left behind, for what they were suffering, and for the joy and the comfort they were being denied on their spiritual journey.
Never realizing I was about to engage in a major battle, I persuaded Betty to visit First Presbyterian Church, a large congregation that, in the face of white flight, had decided years ago to remain in downtown Fresno as a witness to the urban area. To our delight, Dr. Paul Pierson, who recently returned to the United States from a mission assignment in Brazil, led a bright staff in a positive and exciting worship service.
We were drawn in by the uplifting tone of the services, and Pierson’s stock rose in the years we attended there. When a young couple stopped him in the aisle of the sanctuary to tell him they didn’t feel useful enough, I overheard Pierson advise them to consider finding a smaller church where they could be more active. As a former Southern Baptist pastor and staff member, I would never have advised a member to visit another church. Sister churches were in the family, but they were also the competition. Why risk losing a tither?
Another time, a speaker from out of town was scheduled to speak at Fresno’s second-largest church, Northwest Baptist. Pierson encouraged members to go hear him. In contrast, Baptist pastors guard their members like a prize herd. They would never invite members to graze in other pastures.
Pierson clearly lived in a world larger than mine, and I was eager to enter it. A piece of my Southern Baptist armor hit the dust. But it would be a while before I appreciated the loss.
(An illustration: Moveable pieces of Armour from “Put on the Whole Armour of God” published by Baldric Young. End of Chapter 1.)