“I am not being melodramatic when I say that people from Eagleton are snobby and evil and would most likely exterminate everybody who isn’t from Eagleton if they weren’t so busy being obsessed with themselves.” — Leslie Knope
Leslie Knope, of Parks and Recreation fame, abhorred folks from Eagleton. That’s what people from Pawnee did. It was part of an ongoing feud. But the writers of he show include a couple of entertaining story arcs. One is that viewers find out Leslie Knope was actually born in Eagleton. It creates a funny story. Another arc has the two towns attempting to unify. The big plan is to create a massive unity concert to heal wounds and help the two cities become one.
Maybe when we Southern Baptists meet in June we should have a massive unity concert—but who gets to decide the bands? Certainly, one or more of the splinter groups among us would need to boycott such a festivity.
We laugh at the struggles of Pawnee/Eagleton in Parks and Recreation, and engage in a bit of nervous laughter as we joke about the 15 Baptist churches in our town of 300 people. It’s not secret that Baptist love to fight and separate over small differences. Somehow it seems to have become part of our DNA.
The Narcissism of Small Differences
Part of our sinful tendency is to pursue individualism. And this drive causes us to have the most heated of arguments with those whom we have much in common but only small differences. Now, I know that I’m not supposed to learn anything from such an unbelieving dolt as Sigmund Freud, but he has a term for this phenomenon—“the narcissism of small differences”. Our pride propels us to pursue dominance with our uniqueness. We like to think that we are uniquely great. When we are confronted with people who look and act and think mostly like us, rather than inviting us into oneness, it threatens our singularity and so we respond by heightening our differences.
We do have significant differences of thought and opinion within the big tent of the SBC. But I wonder if this narcissism of small differences plays a bigger role than what we’d like to admit. Is it possible that we are actually making our differences seem bigger than they actually are? I believe this to be the case.
I know within my own heart—which is prone to introversion, anyways—I will be quicker to make sure folks see me as “not one of those types of Southern Baptists”. On occasion it might be simply getting in front of bad press—but it may also be a good deal of pride. Am I willing to attempt to dig into community and find the things which are similar? Or am I immediately looking for places where we differ? Am I scouring for evidence of divergence or points of fellowship?
The Answer, Or Life in Mordor
It’s not an accident that Paul wrote Romans the way in which he did. It is structured in such a way that the Jew and Gentile would be leveled before God and their differences flattened compared to their commonality in the gospel. Not only are they both guilty before God but they also have the same means of redemption. Their justification, sanctification, and glorification flow from the same source. Therefore, they must offer themselves (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular). The gospel needs to get to Spain and the Roman church needs unity to make this happen.
The same is true for us today. We have over 7,000 unreached people groups. It is estimated that 3.1 billion people have little to no access to the gospel of Jesus. Even here in the US we are now considered a post-Christian environment. In my own county (Newton County, Missouri) which is part of the Bible Belt, we have over 50% of our population who are unchurched. And that number is probably higher if you consider the de-churched. And yet we find ourselves, at times, unable or unwilling to partner with other believers over minor points of doctrine or practice.
I realize that such statement can be used as tactic to minimize doctrine and turn into mere pragmatism. Doctrine does matter. The issues we are facing within the SBC actually do matter for things such as engaging the lost world. We are called to steward the gospel of Christ. That doesn’t simply mean to baptize the nations but also to teach the nations—and the content of this does matter.
But there is also something to be said about the desperation of doctrine in the midst of mission. What I mean is that when we are engaging in real battle together we have a tendency to minimize difference and maximize similarities. The narcissism of small differences is of particular temptation to the comfortable. I think Mark Buchanan makes this point beautifully in his book Your Church is Too Safe. He uses Lord of the Rings to make this point:
In the place where life is easy, where good things abound, where no threat encroaches, it’s impossible to get a dwarf and an elf to trust each other—even to be civil with one another—if their lives depended on it, precisely because in a place like that their lives will never depend on it. They can live forever there in their prideful independence. They need rely on no one. They need not trust anyone. they can simply become more entrenched in their belief that they are superior, all else are fools. (62)
But we aren’t in Rivendell anymore. And the sooner we wake up to this truth the better. What is needed for unity within the SBC isn’t a renewed focus on unity, or even lengthy discussions about fine points of theology. Perhaps what is needed is renewed engagement in mission together. That will have a tendency to shake us out of our narcissism of small differences and give us a worldview shaped by the gospel. And not a gospel of merely well-worn theology books but calloused hands and feet as well.