Baptism, Expulsion

Sorry for the delay — it’s been an intense week.

What I was thinking about the Baptist excommunication controversy was this: Public debates about religious groups frequently ignore the most decisive features of such communities, and frequently assess them as though they were voluntary associations of any familiar civic kind. Hence, some portion (not all) of the brouhaha about the unfortunate congregation in North Carolina teems with the outrage we would appropriately feel if some ostensibly apolitical entity had purged its ranks of Jews. [I should add: “And of course, no one has attempted the genocidal exttermination of Democrats.”]

But that superficial outrage is surely groundless; if voting for John Kerry is incompatible with the discipline of a given congregation, that congregation must be free to say so. The pastor did not, after all, clap Kerry voters into leg irons or confiscate their property — he said they could not be part of that congregation. Since the Democratic platform included some claims (about abortion, sexuality, and so on) that a Christian group can intelligibly deem incompatible with the faith, I’d say that — at first blush — the pastor was on firmer ground than his critics. Churches don’t owe Caesar neutrality at the cost of muting the Gospel.

Ah, but things are more complicated than that. After all, there’s established case law to the effect that if a tax-exempt religious group uses its place in the community to effect particular electoral results, they lose their tax-exempt standing. Now, I don’t suppose that’s the worst thing that can happen to a church (not really up there with “take up your cross and follow me”), but it’s a nuisance and puts a crimp in the budget. (If they’re going to play Caesar’s political game, they must pay Caesar’s tax.) If East Waynesborough Baptist Church figured that the gospel was at stake, why I’d positively commend them for forgoing their tax advantage in order to remain true to the church’s moral teaching.

On the third hand, though, there’s an ironic catch. If I recall correctly from the Baptist students who have labored so hard to teach me the truth about church polity and the state, one of the founding principles of the baptist movement involved the believer’s freedom on conscience (vividly expressed in Thomas Helwys’s A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (8-meg downloadable PDF of scanned pages here; why hasn’t anyone transcribed and marked it up in HTML?). Having experienced the tyranny of imposed profession of belief, the baptist movement stood squarely for the uncoerced freedom of the individual conscience. To the extent that the pastor in question intended to sway his flock toward unanimous support of George W. Bush, he came awfully close to aligning himself with the early persecutors of baptists, over against the earliest baptists themselves.

All that being said, the pastor in question seems to have handled the situation badly; his most eloquent defenders offer a much more precisely-framed theological case than he seems to have done, and his assailants justly call him to task for expressing so unalloyed a partisan sentiment. The controversy illustrates yet again that church leaders need the skill of careful and measured communication more perhaps than any other — and they run into all kinds of trouble when they say important things in careless ways.

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. When I was talking about this story with my wife, we went over almost exactly the first points you made.

    Regarding your “third hand” though, in my experience this is not a very important principle among conservative baptists (which is the church (broadly speaking) I was raised in). Not to say they ignore freedom of conscience entirely. But I never heard it stressed as anything fundamental in my memory. The only sacrosanct principle I remember was believers baptism by immersion 🙂

  2. I do truly hate it when fine Bapto-Catholics such as yourself have a firmer grasp upon us than we often have of ourselves. Baptist have always struggled with the intense paradox of community standards and dissent. Oh that some baptist would have read Helwys. Remember though the early baptist were quite fond of excommunicating one another. In fact, our very origins involve at least two fractious streams of theology. (Particular & General)

    You have more than adequaately shown the real “beef” as it were in the situation. Can the congregation dissent. This is the prime issue in all of the these new congregational problems. The political nature of them is a red herring that gets good press, but misses the point (as you so ably pointed out). The issue at stake is how do view one another, especially leadership in the church. Can we live with one another and hold contradictory convictions. It seems that it is often not the case. We might be more well known for it, but we are not alone in our struggle to understand how to live in community.

  3. My experiences raised in a Southern Baptist family were completely differnt. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was still a strong voice for separation of church and state among Baptists — at least in Texas. Baptists still remembered being ostracized or punished for existing outside of state sanctioned religion.

    In fact, supposedly one of the considerations for Baylor University in giving independence to its prestigious medical school in Houston in the late 60s or early 70s was because the restrictions that Baptists placed on themselves at that time from receiving federal dollars directly was limiting the medical school as a research institution. (Ironically, Baylor’s motto is pro ecclesia, pro Texana).

    The organizations supporting separation of church and state were supported by denominational (all levels) and individual churches. Baptists provided leadership for those organizations now considered leftist or anti-religious. Of course, part of that support was also anti-Catholic, in terms of government funds going to parochial schools.

    Those sensibilities over government involvement are long dulled now.

  4. I read a fascinating commentary on this at Slactivist (http://slacktivist.typepad.com/) Be sure to read through the comments; they contain some real gems. Apparently, Baptists (both Southern and otherwise) are far more diverse than one would suspect from the mainstream media. But then, considering what I know of the mainstream media, I should have been able to figure that out on my own.

  5. You are right on target, AKMA. Freedom of the individual conscience before God is precisely the point here. And if I remember my Baptist history correctly, Thomas Helwys died in the Tower of London for publishing the tract you cited. Baptist congregations do excercise “gate-keeping” with a profession of faith, baptism and affirmation of a covenant defining norms of the community’s life together (participation, acting in love, giving of time and money, etc.) at the entrance. In my experience we are loath to kick anybody out except for non-participation. This particular incident at the East Waynesborough Baptist Church is an unfortunate example of how a large segment of Baptists have forgotten our core value of freedom of conscience. As Walter Shurden defines it “Soul freedom is the historic Baptist affirmation of the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to deal with God without the imposition of creed, the interference of clergy or the intervention of civil government.” (The Baptist Identity:Four Fragile Freedoms, Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 1993) This is the foundation of our identity. All the other Baptist distinctives (priesthood of all believers, autonomy of the local congregation, separation of church and state,etc.) flow from the bedrock principle of conscience.

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