That's really the heart of the matter when it comes to divisions among Baptists.
Notice I said "divisions," not "differences." Differences are inevitable, Baptist or not. To be human is to be different. Each of us is made in God's image, yet each of us is unique, with our own minds, our own backgrounds, and our own experiences.
For four centuries, being Baptist has meant - to most of us - celebrating our freedom to be different . . . to bring different gifts, understandings, and personalities to worship, service, and fellowship within the Church.
Differences, in other words, are good. Divisions are destructive.
Divisions among Baptists do not result from differences in theology. Now you may need to take a second look at that statement, and you might disagree. But I stand by it. It's not our differences that cause divisions; it's how we handle those differences.
My wife and I are members of a Sunday School class that engages in a vigorous discussion of our theological understandings every Sunday morning, and those understandings are often radically different from one person to the next. In fact, "vigorous" is probably too weak a word to characterize the intensity of our discussions.
But our class is not divided. Our common love for Christ and commitment to His service bind us together, and we work together to serve Him. Our theological differences strengthen our fellowship, because we listen to each other and learn from each other. Again, divisions among Baptists do not result from differences in theology.
Rather, divisions among Baptists result from the priority we give to our theology in expressing and experiencing our faith in Christ. It's not a question of theology; it's a question of the priority given to your theology.
The critical question is:
Is theology - or relationship - at the heart of your faith?
Does your faith depend on having the "right" interpretations of Scripture? Or does it depend on having the right relationship with God's son, Jesus Christ?
If it depends on having the "right" interpretations of Scripture, then we're all doomed. None of us has a perfect theology. None of us knows the mind of God perfectly. None of us can get into the minds of the authors of the Bible to understand all of the nuances of their writing and unerringly unravel the influence of context and circumstances on different Scriptures.
So, many Baptists have decided to trust human leaders to dictate how they interpret Scripture. When we sign away our God-given freedom and responsibility to interpret Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and rely instead on the interpretations of self-appointed biblical authorities for our understanding of Scripture, then we have ceased being Baptist.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1, NIV)
Our differences affect our reading of Scripture, even the things we emphasize. For example, take Galatians 5:19-21 - "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like."
Now we typically find it easy to hone in on things that aren't a problem for us personally, and "drunkenness, orgies, and the like" fit into that category for a lot of Baptists. But we tend to slide right past "hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy," because those often hit too close to home. So we get leaders pharisaically condemning selected behaviors, but then often find them exhibiting selfish ambition and fomenting dissensions and factions.
I'm not pointing this out to condemn them. To the contrary, I'm citing it to say that they're human - just like the rest of us. They're fallible, just like the rest of us. We should look to leaders for guidance but not for "dictation." And they should not presume to have an infallible understanding of Scripture.
Again, none of us - even those self-appointed biblical authorities - has a perfect theology or a perfect understanding of the mind of God.
"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face." (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV)
Basing our faith on having the right theology is a dead-end road, and it's a denial of the Gospel.
On the other hand, a right relationship with Christ, though it requires - as does any relationship - constant nurturing and growth, is something that all can attain through repentance, faith, and prayer.
Should the Church be about exercising power and control to ensure that everyone has the "right" theology, as a few leaders define it? Or should it be about recognizing people's God-given freedom to walk closely with Christ?
Is faith demonstrated by dictating theology to people? Or is it evidenced by trusting the Holy Spirit to work within people's hearts and minds? By leaders who rely on their own understanding? Or by leaders who trust God and His people?
Is our faith in creeds? Or in the living Word of God, Jesus Christ?
Is it Baptist to control? Or to cooperate?
Moreover, is it Christ-like to control? Or to cooperate?