Years ago as my father was leaving his final pastorate and moving to a director of missions role, one of my fellow teenagers told me why he would miss my dad, his pastor, so much. Steve hadn’t grown up in a Christian home but started attending our church with his girlfriend. Not long after he made this statement, he invited Jesus to be his savior and was baptized.
“Your dad always sticks to the Bible, but he shows you multiple sides of an issue,” Steve said. “He doesn’t just say, ‘This is how it is.’ He frames the issue and shows you plenty of Bible verses, and then gives you room figure out what you believe. I like that.”
My dad believed that the Bible, and the summary of its primary doctrines that we call The Baptist Faith and Message, along with the unifying priority of the Great Commission, provide a lot of common ground for diverse viewpoints. Over the 34 years that he wrote a column for the Illinois Baptist, he helped diverse Baptists find common ground on issues ranging from theology and morality to loud music and long hair.
My dad’s example is still my guide as we diverse Baptists continue to navigate difficult and sometimes controversial issues. I, too, believe that, as churches, the Bible and The Baptist Faith and Message, along with our Great Commission priority continue to provide plenty of common ground for our otherwise diverse viewpoints.
What we must guard against, for the sake of our fellowship and cooperation, is the temptation to allow current events, politics, or other lesser things to redefine and reduce the acreage of our common ground.
We could apply this reminder to any number of current issues, but today let me urge us to guard the breadth of our common ground as Baptists by intentionally seeking empathy and understanding among the racial and cultural diversity of our fellowship of churches.
Over the past year or so in particular, many of our African American brothers and sisters have had their own experiences with racial injustice stirred by news reports of the deaths of men and women such as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The riots and violence that ensued in some cities compounded the problems and the emotions. The backlash against police stirred strong reaction among many others. Politics then helped fan the flames of anger and distrust into a wildfire of conflict.
Here’s the thing. Simply writing that last short paragraph took almost an hour. That’s how careful one needs to be today in even trying to describe accurately and objectively the events that contribute to racial tension or division. Still, in trying, it’s possible that I have stirred someone’s anger or displayed my own lack of perspective or sensitivity. That’s how tender the hurts are, sometimes spanning generations, and why great love, humility, and patience are so necessary to pursue understanding and solutions.
Into this discussion that is already so grieved and volatile have entered the controversial subjects of Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. A year ago, I couldn’t have told you what these were, and I suspect most church members and even pastors would need to look those words up to receive their first orientation to them. Yet for some, these theories risk becoming an ideological wedge that can threaten the larger unity, cooperation, and priorities of our common ground.
Elsewhere in the Illinois Baptist and in other Illinois Baptist media you can read reporting of how this discussion is taking place at the national SBC level, including our SBC seminary presidents and leading African American pastors. With the few words I have here, I wish primarily to underscore the importance of our fellowship, and of our common ground as Baptist brothers, sisters, and churches. From that common ground we denounce racism and injustice. From that common ground we can renew our commitments to dialogue and understanding, and to intentionally battling these evils together. And on this common ground we will find Spirit-filled love and unity that will show the world our savior. That broad but biblical common ground is where my friend Steve first opened his mind and heart to Jesus.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.