Note: This essay first appeared in the
May 2006 Baptist Studies Bulletin.
Enough has been written about Baptist fundamentalism in recent years
that the subject is in danger of being oversaturated, it would seem.
And yet these modern-day legalists continue to outdo themselves as
they rush headlong into the religious chasm of the oldest heresy of
all: pretending to be God’s authoritative mouthpiece to the world.
Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, today’s fundamentalists
disdain anything Jesus says that opposes their self-centered world
view. Recently, Baptist leaders from across the theological spectrum,
called together by former president Jimmy Carter and representing a
large segment of Baptists in America, met to discuss ways they could
work together for the Kingdom of God. From this historical gathering
came a pledge to be obedient to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the
Baptist leaders “committed themselves to their obligations as
Christians to promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe
the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and the
marginalized, welcome the strangers among us”−Jesus’ own salvation
criterion in Matthew 25.
However, a commitment to the Gospel is not good enough for
some Baptists. Within days of the release of the
North American Baptist Covenant, fundamentalist Southern Baptists
dismissed the signers as liberals and heretics … in much the same that
six years ago they dismissed Jesus as the criterion for interpreting
Scripture in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, declaring that too
often Jesus is viewed as a liberal. Russ Moore, dean at Southern
Baptist Theological Seminary, seemed particularly upset that some
Baptist leaders dared pledge themselves to obey the (liberal)
commandments of Jesus: “the
Baptist left is the only side of the spectrum interested in these kind
of manifestos. I would have been outraged had conservative Southern
Baptists signed on to such a thing,” he fumed.
James Smith, executive editor of the Florida Baptist
Witness, also condemned the statement and signatories.
According to Smith, the NABC is void of “basic doctrinal truths”
and at least three of the participating Baptist leaders are heretics
and/or “theologically suspect.”
One cannot help but wonder how anyone who calls
himself or herself a Christian (much less a Baptist) could voice such
disdain for the Gospel of Jesus and towards persons committed to
obeying the Gospel! Who, then, are the real heretics? Jimmy Carter,
perhaps more than any other Baptist in the world today, lives out the
teachings and principles of the Gospel, while Moore and Smith mock the
commandments of Christ and teach others to do likewise. "Woe to you
experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge.
You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were
entering" (Luke 11:52), Jesus said of the fundamentalists of his own
The apostle Paul offers insight into why religious
legalists find the Gospel unsatisfying: they have a low view of grace,
an elevated view of law and self, and a resulting distaste for freedom
in Christ. “You who are trying to be justified by law have been
alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians
5:4), Paul admonished as he preached grace and freedom as the basic
doctrinal truths of the Gospel of Christ.
Ultimately, if the Bible is to be believed, the very
Gospel which Moore and Smith are so quick to reject will be the judge
of all: the Gospel that separates the faithfully obedient from the
smooth-talking pretenders who set up shop as the voice of God.