During the summer of 1994, while serving as pastor of Third Baptist Church of Owensboro, Kentucky, I preached a series of sermons on the religious and theological traditions of Baptists. This grew out of two very important events, one social, the other personal. The first of these was the transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention. I had been nurtured form birth in the convictions and culture of these religious visions. It was a mixture of joy and guilt learning and prejudice, salvation and damnation, and it took hold of my soul and called me to be its servant.
My pilgrimage took me to Georgetown College, one of our Baptist-affiliated colleges; then to Jerusalem for a glorious year of travel and study; finally to what was then considered the principal center of Baptist learning in all the world, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Louisville, Kentucky. Before I could complete my academic work, the entire convention was engulfed in a struggle of self-definition. People, powerful people, had a very different sense of what it meant to be Baptist, and they succeeded in seizing the institutional means of establishing and extending their version of Baptist life and thought. Perhaps they were the family back home that I found embarrassing; perhaps they were the in-laws that married into the family bringing with them new patterns of speech and conduct. The family reunions, so to speak, became occasions overrun by strangers; some found them happy, I found them depressing.
Like many who had called themselves Baptist, I struggled to find my place in this new family of faith. The spirit and substance of the conversation was foreign to my life in Christ. I asked myself: Are these people Baptists? Am I a Baptist? Why is everything so strange, such a struggle? I was forced to evaluate the shape and substance of my own identity as a Baptist Christian. Reading, writing, talking, listening, praying, waiting, and yes, preaching–these were the elements of my search, these were the paths I walked on my journey.
There were, I discovered, many who were walking this way, indeed any who had walked this way before. Among these was James William McClendon, Jr. and the Jr. is important. He was a southerner of the Texas variety, a theologian, a thinker, a teacher, a writer. I read first his book Ethics, then the wonderful Doctrine; and therein I sound a vision of Baptist ways that was both fresh and familiar. He was describing the kind of Christian I had always been; he was explaining the things I had always believed. And the ironic beauty of it all was his testimony to a similar, self-clarifying experience at the same midpoint of his intellectual and spiritual life, on which occasion he picked up the writings of John Howard Yoder and discovered himself.
McClendon is now my friend, and his books fill a shelf in my library. Most of all, his ideas and his manner of expression have given new enthusiasm to the confession and conduct of my own faith. As a tribute to his influence and as a statement of my refurbished life as a Baptist, I have adopted here and elsewhere McClendon’s peculiar use of the word baptist. By this word, he (and I) refer to a way of being Christian, a pattern of following Christ, a vision of Christian existence–initiated by Anabaptist ancestors of the 1500s. Sometimes, this way, this pattern, this vision finds visible expression in organizations, institutions, and agencies known by the name Baptist. At other times, Baptists drift from the baptist vision; this has happened, so I judge, among some known as Southern Baptists.
These intellectual and spiritual forces, pushing and pulling, formed the context of both my personal and my pastoral work. For I was also very much concerned with the mental fuzziness of my own congregation concerning the chief ideas and practices of the baptist Christian tradition. Our church, like all churches, needed constant exposure to, and examination of, the essential themes of our faith.
Much has been written about the current decline in denominational awareness and loyalty. The response to the corresponding rise in generic Christianity is mixed. Some press more firmly the importance of a particular religious network (like the Southern Baptist Convention) while others abandon all heritages and opt for the paradigm of disconnected church life. I have traveled another road, one pioneered by McClendon and others, a road that leads to this affirmation: God called out baptist people in order to bless and serve the entire Christian community.
Out of my own religious struggles and out of the need of my congregation these sermons came.. Their purpose is to give faithful, explicit instruction in how the baptist interpretation of Scripture gives rise to the life and work of baptists. This, in turn, equips baptists for our role in the Christian mission of the twenty-first century. May we all be faithful to the calling which we have received from our wide and gracious God.
For the Glory of God and the Common Good