Spring is the season for meetings in Southern Baptist life—OK, let’s face it: EVERY season is a season in which Baptists are happy to convene a meeting, but there are a few periods of the year that are especially intense. For the past few weeks I’ve been encountering a lot of my friends from across the geography and ideology of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In the midst of a cordial conversation with one of them, he replied to something I had said by saying, “That’s nice that you would say that. We’re supposed to be on different sides!” (or something along those lines). It is interesting, this whole matter of sides, and in a moment of conversation a blog post was born.
I’m Not Afraid to Take a Side on an Issue
I confess, one attribute that causes me to have less respect for someone is if I discover that he or she is never capable of taking a side. Truth matters, both ontologically and pragmatically. The world is ill-served by a life lived without conviction. I’m no fence-straddler by my nature, and I have no ambition to become one. If you ever see me turning into one, please warn me.
I Resist Grouping People up into Sides
If you aren’t someone who resists grouping people up into sides, I predict your dramatic and repetitive failure in local church life. Many pastors face the temptation to keep a “Friends List” and an “Enemies List.” These are the two sides. The first list is populated by saints; the second list is populated by the spawn of Satan sent from Hell to ensure, by thwarting my personal plans, that the world slides off into perdition. Every person on the “Friends List” is in peril of being moved to the “Enemies List” simply by opposing (or perhaps even by not supporting vigorously enough) something that I want to do. No person on the “Enemies List” can have the hope of being moved to the “Friends List,” because once an enemy, always an enemy. The pastor who operates this way stays at a church for three years or so until the “Friends List” cupboard is bare, at which time he moves somewhere else and starts over.
This manner of operation is foolish. It fails to recognize that…
- The purpose of taking sides on issues is to try to persuade people, so I ought to build a winsome path by which people can come over to my side. There’s a big difference between debating with the goal of persuasion and debating with the goal of conquest.
- There is more than one question in the world, and the person on the other side on Issue A might be my most important ally when Issue B comes along, unless my behavior renders that sort of situation impossible.
- I like for my lists to have at least three points, since I’m a Southern Baptist preacher, but I can’t think of another one.
As a child I used to play pickup basketball games in my neighborhood (you know, back when it wasn’t considered child abuse to let your children out of your sight for a few hours…back when kids could just play a simple afternoon game of basketball in somebody’s yard without having to incorporate a 501(c)3 and start a bake sale to raise money for jerseys and a web site). We would choose up sides for a game. The choosing up of sides did not alter our relationships. It merely set the shape of a game among friends.
In the same way, just because you and I happen to have discussed some sort of an issue along the way and just because you happened—on that one occasion—to have been in error and on the wrong side, that does not mean that I have categorized you permanently and that I consider you and me to be bound eternally into mortal combat on opposite sides of things. We chose sides on an issue. Don’t presume that I was grouping us up into factions, at least for my part.
I See Different Layers of Sides
Sometimes the sides that emerge endure beyond the context of a single blog post. Also, there are indeed syndromes of thought that will cause certain people to fall on the same side on a lot of different issues just because they share a few foundational beliefs. For example, on any given question of theology the odds are better that Malcolm Yarnell and I will agree than are the odds that Joyce Meyer and I will agree. When we partake of the same underlying syndrome of thought, something emerges between us that feels more like a permanent grouping of people.
And yet, over the course of eight years of blogging, I’ve seen at least some tectonic shifting among basic philosophical groups. For example, although it put me at grave danger to life and limb, I was once, as I saw things at the beginning of my blogging, pretty much on the other side in the SBC from C.B. Scott. It has been a long time since that was the case. C.B. and I actually look at the world from fairly similar perspectives, which keeps me from having to look over my shoulder in dark alleys nearly so much.
When early SBC blogging was focused on IMB policies about charismania, one set of alignments emerged. When that same conversation shifted to women in ministry, at least a partial realignment took place. Conversations about alcohol align people one way; conversations about Calvinism align them another way; conversations about the Camel Method align them yet another. As The Big Question changes on this SBC merry-go-round, the semi-long-term alignments shift.
We are able to experience these kinds of shifts on one level of side-choosing primarily among people with whom we share agreement upon some underlying issue that puts us all on the same side. There is an important sense in which all Christian believers are on the same side. Indeed, more than just being important, this is of paramount importance. Above and beyond that critical level of agreement, for those of us who are Southern Baptist biblical inerrantists, we truly all have a lot in common.
That won’t keep me from disagreeing with you, but it will keep me from anathematizing you.
The Lord’s Side
Of course, servants don’t always get to choose their own sides. Over the course of time, I’ve watched some people fall off of my side to the wrong side. The. Wrong. Side. I’ve seen it happen from other sides, too. I’m thinking about a frequent blog commenter of earlier days who announced the he had become an atheist. I’m thinking about folks who were in these conversations who are now out of church altogether. I don’t want to push anybody in these discussions so hard that they wind up there, out of church and disillusioned.
And so, if you’re on the Lord’s side, you’re on my side, whether I like it or not. Soldiers don’t get to pick their own platoons. Servants don’t get to choose their fellow servants. Thankfully, in general I can say that I actually DO enjoy those with whom I serve the Lord, but that’s only incidental. The Lord has put us on the same side together, and that’s what really matters.
But before we descend into some feel-good slobber-fest, you’re still wrong.