Many things have happened in the twenty years since I published this book of sermons: James McClendon, Jr. died. I moved from Georgetown College, first, to the Academy of Preachers, and then, back into The Meetinghouse (themeetinghouse.net). The Southern Baptist Convention continued its emphasis on authority and its de-emphasis on freedom. Schools of theology and seminaries continued to be chartered in response to the rise of fundamentalism within the Southern Baptist Convention. The 9-11 attacks on the United States and the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements brought attention to things that were not on the public radar twenty years ago. Denominational distinctives continued to move out of the interest of ministers and lay people alike. Donald Trump was elected president, due in large part to the support of the Southern Baptist Convention.
This web edition of the book text contains a few changes, mostly related to gender pronouns. These small changes confronted me with how masculine the entire book it—it could not be redeemed by gender neutral pronouns when referring to God. No: there is almost no feminine presence in this book: no pronouns (originally); no scholars quoted; no stories told; nothing. I am embarrassed. Certainly the rise of ordained women in the Baptist ministry and the emergence of female scholars during my career will prevent future books on these subjects from being so parochial.
My interest in church covenants intersects with contemporary trends in two ways. First, the one group among Baptists that has embraced church discipline and church covenants has been, ironically, none other than the same one that is most vested in authority and least interested in freedom, namely, Reformed! These Calvinists who took control of so much of the organizational life of Southern Baptists have also resurrected the use of church covenants. Second, if I were to pen a church covenant today, it would not deal primarily with such things as tithing, dancing, and playing cards, as the old covenants did. I would want it to address racism, poverty, equality, violence (especially gun violence), war, and inter-faith suspicions. The emergency of the addictive drug cultures would, however, keep such old-fashioned drugs as tobacco and alcohol at the forefront of moral concern.
A generation ago, Baptist crusaders were focused on inerrancy, or so they said, and so I wrote in this book (and in my 1982 PhD dissertation: “Doctrines of Inspiration in the Southern Baptist Theological Tradition”). Many of us, then and now, think their real concern was politics rather than theology. The theological issue of inerrancy was, in reality, a cover for the socio-political agenda associated with the Moral Majority, the rise of Ronald Reagan, and what was often called the Culture Wars; it was a religiously-legitimate way of approaching the rise of secularism and diversity in American life and the corresponding decline of religion. The doctrine of inerrancy was in reality an interpretive scheme that permitted adherents to reject modern science (both natural and social) in favor of biblicism and promote (surprise, surprise) authority as the antidote to too much cultural freedom.
What actually happened was the continued decline of the Southern Baptist Convention and the shocking rise of right-wing politics and the election of Donald Trump. In many ways, Trump embodied everything Baptists in America rejected: promiscuity, gambling, ego, and ill-gotten wealth. He was the ultimate secular celebrity, and yet he was elected to high office due to the votes of millions of Baptist people. It was, and is, a strange and baffling contradiction.
Trump’s rise to power corresponds to (but did not cause) the reframing of the traditional baptist value of religious freedom. Now powerful Baptist leaders use “religious freedom” as a way to resist contemporary public policy addressing health care, discrimination, and equality. That is, they claim a religiously-rooted freedom to discriminate against people whose ideas or behaviors they reject as being contrary to Christian faith and practice. This has pushed learned baptist scholars to think more deeply and speak more forcefully about the true meaning of this long-honored baptist principle.
Trump’s success in presidential politics also raises in stark fashion the tension between religious life and political life. Millions of baptist folk have rushed to Trump, clinging to him as a God-ordained leader, providentially sent to lead the United States out of its “godless secularism” back to its true home of “biblical Christianity.” Needless to say, I am among the many who find this self-serving interpretation of national politics a basic contradiction of all that is secure and sacred in the baptist way of being Christian.
The one thing that has continued unabated over the last 20 years is the spread of generic Christianity and the demise of denominational identity. In many ways, this is a trend in all aspects of American life: commercial brands, for instance. But in Christianity, the rise of the mega-church and their appeal to non-branded Christianity is a serious challenge to all denominational traditions. However, many of these large congregations continue a long-standing pattern of American religious groups by adopting baptistic practices, especially believers baptism by immersion and some form of modified congregational government. In fact, most Christian traditions that have emerged on American soil have adopted baptistic practices, and in this group I count almost all Pentecostal, Restoration, Adventist, some Holiness and Wesleyan, and those loosely grouped as community or Bible groups; exceptions to this general rule include those gathered under the Methodist umbrella.
The challenges facing all religious groups, beside sustaining their essential identity and continuity, are global in nature, including the continuing challenges of science and secularism, and that posed by the encounter with other world religions, especially Islam. How the baptistic markers identified, described, and defended in this short book perform in the Christian encounter with Islam is certainly the bigger challenge and worthy of a very different book. This book, even reviewed 20 years later, describes the vigorous push-back against the distortion of baptist ideals by the rise of fundamentalism among Baptists, especially within the Southern Baptist Convention, which formed the immediate context of these sermons.
I continue to be convinced that the baptist way of being Christian offers gifts, first, to the Christian community and, second, to the wider human community; and therefore, I am committed to the ministry of articulating and embodying these practices in my own life and church membership.
Dwight A. Moody
St. Simons Island