In the climactic scene in the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indiana Jones and his girlfriend are tied to a pole to watch as the Nazis open the ancient Ark of the Covenant. This holy symbol of Israel’s religion has been captured and is being taken as a trophy for Hitler. When the Ark is opened, beautiful light and colors and faces appear then suddenly turn into scenes of horror as shafts of light strike through the onlookers killing them while the faces of those who opened the ark melt and explode! Indiana Jones and his friend survive, because they do not look at the desecration of the Ark.
In 1610 a small group began to meet with John Smyth in London to celebrate their belief in the priesthood of all believers, complete religious freedom for each individual, the separation of church and state, and responsibility of each individual to make his or her own decision about their faith in Jesus Christ. This led to the practice of believers, baptism. Smyth’s little group was the first known church that is basically the same in beliefs as modern Baptists, until the falling away from freedom that began at about the same time as the Stonewall rebellion in 1969 in New York.
These people were called Baptists. They practiced the same basic beliefs as the Baptists who help to begin the United States of America and who led in the fight for religious freedom for all and the separation of church and state in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Smyth’s group later grew into several groups and began to start churches. Their belief in the absolute autonomy of the local church developed to protect the individual believers from abuse and oppression by a controlling central authority.
Thomas Helwys joined with John Smyth and in 1612 wrote a book, “The Mystery of Inequity,” that included the first plea in the English language for religious liberty and the separation of church and state. For this, Helwys was imprisoned and died in prison. Roger Williams in 1631 read “An Humble Supplication”, by another Baptist, John Murton, who wrote while in prison. Williams was convinced by Murton’s message. Later, Williams received a grant of land, which became the present state of Rhode Island. Williams founded the first Baptist church in the colonies in Providence, Rhode Island.
Roger Williams was deeply committed to religious freedom and separation of church and state. The Rhode Island colony was the first political state to allow total religious freedom to all faiths, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Moslems, Atheists, pagans, etc. Other colonial leaders vigorously opposed total religious freedom, because they were convinced that without a state religion, anarchy and unbridled crime would lead to a complete break down of society and government. Instead, the Rhode Island colony became a model of efficiency and peacefulness. The example of Rhode Island greatly influenced the development of religious liberty in the beginning of the United States.
My favorite quote from Roger Williams is: “If you force people practice a religion that they don’t believe, you make them into hypocrites, which is worse than no religion at all!”
When I grew up in the First Baptist of Clinton, South Carolina, and entered the ministry in 1952, Baptists still held to these basic beliefs in soul freedom, the spiritual competency of the individual, separation of church and state, and the absolute autonomy of the local church.
Local Church Autonomy
For almost 400 years, Baptists consistently celebrated the absolute autonomy of the local church. Even through the ordeals of a disastrous civil war and two world wars accompanied by great social upheavals and cultural changes, Baptists in America remained committed to their individual religious freedom, separation of church and state and the autonomy of the local church.
Suddenly, in 1992, the Southern Baptist Convention made a radical turn in a new and uncharted direction. The convention reacted to the celebration of holy union for two gay men by Rev. Dr. Mahan Siler, Pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, by casting out a local church from the SBC for the first time in its history. The SBC also changed their bylaws to exclude any church from the convention that accepted openly gay and lesbian people as members.
My personal response was to see this as a call to action and a challenge to everything that I had respected and honored all my life as a Southern Baptist. My seminary friend and classmate, Mahan Siler, had sparked a whirlwind of revolution that continues to explode in all directions. Mahan and I have had many opportunities to discuss and follow up on this event. My web site and book are part of my response.
As soon as Southern Baptists defined themselves by who they left out, they ceased to be Christian. This has produced an ongoing and intensifying “horror show” that seems for now to be endless.
Recently my friend Adam DeBaugh suggested the term “selective inerrancy” to describe the current Baptist principle of biblical misuse. The abusive use of the Bible against women, people of color, homosexuals, objective scholars and others by Baptists has been based on the selective use of often dubious texts and the abysmal neglect of texts that give another view. Jesus described in Matthew 23 the mindset of hypocrisy and mean spirited religion that prevails in many religious environments today.
When I was still a student pastor, Dr. W. A. Criswell, pastor for many years of the largest Southern Baptist Church, the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, published a book that combined misinformation with enthusiasm in a powerful statement: “Why I Preach that the Bible is Literally True.” This book was one of the most influential ever in Baptist history. Because of his success in building a church with thousands of members, Criswell became the great authority on everything for multitudes of Baptists, especially for the struggling local pastors who were trying hard to survive.
A Baptist Blizzard of Words
Because of the prevailing Baptist opinion that the Bible is the “word of God” and is infallible in every detail, words have become absolute and worshipped in place of God. The Bible never calls itself “the word of God.” Jesus is the word of God in all of the Gospel of John and in many other places in the New Testament.
Baptists continue to call themselves “people of the Book,” which produces a sickening neglect of Jesus Christ and the humble, inclusive loving Spirit of Truth promised by Jesus to all believers.
I downloaded and read the entire 31-page “2000 Baptist Faith and Message” which gives the 1963 and 1925 statements in parallel columns. It is a blizzard of words that gives copious biblical references without regard to their context, accurate translation or relevance to what they are being used to prove.
This all-inclusive attempt to say everything about all religious issues is a bold rejection of the Baptist principle of soul competency of the individual and a thinly veiled grasp at control through an official “creed,” which Baptists vigorously deny that they have!
Abandonment of Education
When I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, 1956-68 for three degrees including a doctorate, it was the leading evangelical seminary in the world. Dr. Duke McCall was President. My professors were authors of textbooks that most major evangelical seminaries used, especially in teaching biblical Greek and Hebrew. My professors all had the same objective: to teach students to think for themselves by learning accurate information from primary sources and by developing effective personal methods of study and research.
This has changed. The present President of Southern Seminary, Albert Mohler, ended the debate at the Convention about the authority of the Bible when he said: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what it all comes down to: The Bible is not merely a record; it is the revelation of God.” The messengers stood and applauded. (Thanks to Lawrence Reh at FirstLight@egroups.com for this info.)
No room is left for effective disagreement and debate in the present state of legalistic fundamentalist control of the SBC.
A few days ago a retired friend of mine who was once a leader at the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville said: “Most of us left the Southern Baptist Convention 10 years ago.”
Can Jesus through the Holy Spirit bring change and hope in this prevailing attitude of Baptists that makes not just the Bible but their particular literalist interpretation of the Bible absolute and binding on everybody?
So far, the Southern Baptist move into legalism and literalism continues to accelerate.
Signs of Hope
The great tragedy of Southern Baptists is that this once powerful force for truth, freedom of religion, excellence in theological education, local church autonomy, separation of church and state and progressive social change has fallen into the pit of legalism and the abusive use of the Bible against just about everybody, including themselves.
Signs of hope, however, are beginning to emerge. Mel White and SoulForce go marching on with truth, love and glorious commitment to do whatever it takes to overcome the misunderstanding and distortions that are destroying our GLBT sisters and brothers around the world.
The American Baptist Convention’s progress is in stark contrast to Southern Baptist regression in GLBT acceptance and affirmation. Many other evangelical churches and denominations are openly affirming and including GLBT people at every level of church life and leadership.
See the great work of the Alliance of Baptists and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America in their new workbook for churches . My personal experience with the Southern Baptist “Honesty” retreat in Austin, Texas, last October and “American Baptist Concerned” retreat last weekend in Seattle greatly encouraged me!
The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches continues to lead the way in the United States and 19 foreign countries. MCC for over 31 years has given accurate information, encouragement, hope and the opportunity for Christian fellowship and ministry to multitudes of GLBT people, including me.
Millions of people are hearing the real truth about GLBT people for the first time and are listening, learning and changing their minds, as indicated by many recent surveys of public opinion.
The author of Invitation To Freedom and Steps to Recovery from Bible Abuse, Rev. Rembert S. Truluck served in Metropolitan Community Churches in Atlanta, San Francisco and Nashville from 1988 to 1996. He earned a doctorate in sacred theology from Furman University, serving from 1953 to 1973 as a Southern Baptist preacher. He resigned as a professor at Baptist College at Charleston (now Charleston Southern University) and became an MCC pastor after being outed to the college’s board of trustees.