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Sunday, July 19, 2020

Progressive Baptists and Church of Christ Ecumenism

First Baptist Church of Hurdland, Missouri
It continues to amaze me that Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology is preparing to open a Baptist Studies Center. Despite the vast theological distance between the Baptist position and my own, I'd sort of like to see this succeed. 

Although raised Roman Catholic, some of my best memories of church were made during Vacation Bible School at the Baptist Church in Hurdland, Missouri. The punch was watered down and the cookies mostly store-bought, but the teachers were kind and we had fun. It was at this VBS that I learned the basic outlay of the Bible, and was taught how to find chapter and verse. When my father passed away 15 years ago one of those teachers, by then quite elderly, came to his visitation. I told her the place that her church's VBS had in my life, and she seemed overwhelmed. I'm glad I had the opportunity to tell her that. 

When I was 19 and had been evangelical for less than two years I decided that I should be baptized by immersion. Like Baptists and many other evangelicals, I believed that adult baptism by immersion was fitting and proper, but not necessary for salvation. Later that same year, just before I turned 20, I began to see that the New Testament writings attach the salvation event to baptism in water, as an act of submission to God and sign of spiritual resurrection. This was something I couldn't 'unsee,' and so began my affiliation with the independent Christian Churches.

The independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ are much like the Baptists in form, but not not entirely. Aside from belief in baptism rather than a "sinner's prayer" as the point of forgiveness and regeneration, these churches also practice weekly communion, and tend to have elders and deacons as lay leaders. The debate among the more conservative of this group is over whether the Baptists are saved because they trust Jesus for salvation and were obedient in baptism, or if they also had to understand the necessity of baptism in order to be saved. To the more conservative, the answer is that faith only Baptists are hellbound, even if they believed and were baptized. 

This outlook has been even more widespread in another branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Those churches known solely as 'Church of Christ.' Well-established in the American South, this historically fractious sect has split repeatedly over everything from supporting missions and charities with congregational funds, to the establishment of a Sunday School program, to how communion should be practiced (one cup or many?). Some of these divisions have formalized over the years to the point where congregations with similar views tend to associate more with one another, to the exclusion of others, resulting in various mini-sects.  

Their contention has by no means been only with one another. They've taken issue with drinking (wine was more like grape juice in Jesus' day, they say), dancing (sorry kids no prom ever!), card playing (not sure about UNO or Rook), and 'mixed bathing' (that means boys and girls can't swim together). In the 1970s they, like many other horrified fundamentalists, were certain that men getting perms would be the end of civilization (or something). 

Beyond such 'issues,' as they refer to them, the Church of Christ preachers have debated, both publicly and privately, with Pentecostal and Baptist preachers. The Pentecostals are wrong about spiritual gifts (some Church of Christ people don't even believe in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit) and miracles (let's all head to the funeral home and resurrect the dead!), while Baptists are wrong about the role of baptism in salvation, as well as a few other matters. The Pentecostals and Baptists, for their part, often held their own against the Church of Christ folk. In many areas of the south these topics and the rancor became sore spots causing divisions in the larger communities. 

When I was preparing to apply to Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology I explained to the admissions counselor that I'm Unitarian Universalist, and she hurried to assure me that although the school is Church of Christ affiliated, they take 'a very non-denominational approach.' I still suspect she didn't really know what UUism was all about, but I also think it really doesn't matter. My application was accepted and I'm set to begin my Master of Divinity studies next year. 

In retrospect, I now see that I shouldn't have thought of myself as such a special case. While I doubt that a UU has ever earned an MDiv from ACU, it's possible. It also turns out that the seminary is pretty flexible about the denominational background of its students and graduates. One example is something that they tweeted this year.

When I saw this show up on the timeline, I did a double and then a triple take. The word 'rector' immediately screamed 'Episcopalian,' and the fact that it was a woman referred to as preaching all but confirmed it. Sure enough, Rev Becca Kello is currently based out of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. According to a write up about her ordination to the diaconate she earned her bachelor's degree from Freed-Hardeman University, another Church of Christ school, before going on to ACU for her MDiv. It appears that she also received a post-graduate diploma of Anglican Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary, which is essentially the same thing I'm doing with the supplementary denominational study I'm doing through Starr King School for the Ministry.  My curiosity over what in her background might have taken her to two Church of Christ schools aside, the fact that she not only studied at ACU GST but also is openly acknowledged by her is a hopeful sign to me that perhaps they are embracing a broader ecumenism. 

With that in mind, it seems far less controversial that they are making room for a Baptist Studies Center at the graduate level. It occurs to me though that where normally the faculty have to be active members of a Church of Christ, they are making an exception here. Then again, I'm not sure of what exactly ACU's policy is on that at this point. 

Matters in the world of the Baptists are as muddy as ever, so far as I can tell. The Southern Baptist Convention doubled down on conservatism decades ago, driving out the liberals and moderates, while the American Baptist Church is moderate but evidently not progressive in the way of United Church of Christ or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Logsdon Seminary at Hardin-Simmons University evidently provided a moderate-to-progressive educational opportunity, and with its closing many felt something special was being lost. By opening a Center for Baptist Studies at ACU, Dr Werntz is providing a successor to Logsdon that already has full accreditation and staffing. It's remarkable, really, and so again I hope to see it succeed.

My fond memories from childhood of the good-hearted Baptist folks who did their best for the kids every summer remain, despite the extreme theological and political conservatism of their SBC denomination. I'm well aware that others suffered abuse at the hands of Baptist pastors or experienced a kind of hell growing up in some Baptist homes. This gives me all the more reason to hope that more moderating voices, and ideally the more progressive in particular, can be amplified.