Thursday, August 30, 2012

Theology? or Relationship?

What is at the heart of our faith in Jesus Christ?

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?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A BAPTIST PIONEER: Freeman Smalley, the first Texas Baptist preacher

(Adapted from the TBC Baptist Briefs video series, Texas Baptists Who Made a Difference)

Freeman Smalley, according to the Texas State Historical Association, was born in 1790 in Pennsylvania and grew up in Ohio. He was already a Baptist by the time he enlisted in the army and fought in the War of 1812. After the war, he began preaching, and his church eventually – in 1817 – ordained him to the Gospel ministry.

In 1822, while visiting cousins in Pecan Point, Texas, he preached to the community there, becoming – most historians believe – the first Baptist minister to preach in Texas.

But Smalley didn’t move to Texas for good until about 1848. Two years earlier, his son had moved to a site just south of what is now Round Rock, Texas. So Smalley, Sr., sold his land in Illinois – where he had established a Baptist church in his home in 1834 – and followed his son to Texas.

Smalley preached wherever he could, but he had a hard time holding a congregation in Texas, because he preached against slavery – not a popular stand, to say the least, in Texas at that time.

In 1849, he boldly organized the first antislavery Baptist church in Texas, Union Baptist Church located in Williamson County. Union Baptist Church indeed! Years later, when the Civil War began, Smalley remained in Texas but stood foursquare in support of the union cause. For this, he was robbed, and he lived under constant threat of danger to him and his family.

Today a historical marker stands on the site of Anti-Slaveholding Union Baptist Cemetery in Williamson County near Round Rock. The marker notes that the graveyard has also been referred to as Smalley Cemetery because of its connection to Freeman Smalley’s family, and that it is believed that Freeman Smalley, Jr., was the first person buried there in 1849.