WARNING: You are about to read some gross generalizations. Baptist churches are so diverse that it’s pretty much impossible to write anything that applies across the board, so know that I’m writing from my personal experience in fundamentalist Baptist churches. Your experience may differ.
Every breakup is tough. If you know anything about my personal life, you probably know that I’m happily married to the only girl I’ve ever dated, so I’ve never gone through a relationship breakup… but I know religious breakups very well.
In the first 21 years of my life, I regularly attended somewhere around 10 or 11 different churches. They all bore the name “Baptist” – some Southern Baptist, and some independent fundamentalist – but they varied in their doctrine on the scale from almost-Westboro-Baptist legalism to praise-band-can-include-an-electric-guitar conservatism. All along that scale there was a healthy dose of KJV-only-ism, complementarianism, and inerrancy-or-die elitism, but none of those things were the cause of my breakup with the Baptist church.
There were three main issues that I found irreconcilable with the way I understood my faith and my life.
1. The Baptist church has no theological tradition.
On the surface, this sounds simple. Certainly, different baptist congregations have wildly variant theology and practice. It’s also true that Baptist theology tends to be a weird mish-mash of Augustinian, Calvinist, and Arminian frameworks. I do wish the Baptist church could fix these issues of theological inconsistency, but my concern runs a bit deeper.
The real issue for me is the way Baptists shun Christian history. I have never heard a Baptist church discuss the sacramental richness of communion, the understanding of baptism as a covenant initiated by God, or even a topic as simple as the broad, inclusive family tree of Christianity. They skip over the majority of the Christian calendar and rarely mention the creeds of our faith. These are all basic components of the beautiful tradition of Christianity, and they are just a small sample of the history that the Baptist church neglects.
Instead, the Baptist church seems to separate themselves from all other perspectives of Christian faith – even the historical ones that birthed them. They are swallowed up in the idea that they have the market cornered on Bible-based faith and that all others throughout the ages have missed the gospel somewhere. It’s an exclusivism that breeds arrogance and a self-righteous us-against-them mentality.
Churches that embrace the wide swath of Christianity are able to understand the fullness of the God’s kingdom in a way that the Baptist church fundamentally refuses to see. There’s an entire beautiful world out here, and the Baptists are standing in the corner with their arms crossed and their eyes closed thinking they see it all.
That’s the first reason I broke up with the Baptist church. I wanted to open my eyes.
2. The Baptist church is plagued with biblical literalism.
First, let’s define “biblical literalism.” I swear that every single theologian in the world defines it differently, so I’m going to just paint in really large brushstrokes here. I tend to consider someone a literalist when, as they read the Bible, they take it at face value (i.e. “it says ‘on day six,’ so that means there must have been six literal days in creation”) without considering an alternative reading. I hear this frequently stated as: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Where’s the harm in that, right? God inspired it, so everything in it must be factually true, right? Wrong. That is exactly the ideology that caused me to break up with the Baptists.
Literalism ignores just about every type of context that a text can possibly offer, including the historical and cultural contexts. It can only exist under the assumption that the Bible was written just for me, in my time, in my context, and in my current state of mind. Each book of the Bible was individually written for a specific audience in a particular time, but we American evangelicals can’t lay claim to either of those. Its original intended audience was much different than ours, and we have to make an effort to understand it within the culture to which it was written.
Whenever we read anything – no matter if it’s the Bible, a newspaper, or a post on my website – we interpret it. We read tone and intent into it that may or may not be there. The words on paper have no meaning until we, the reader, put them together and translate them into ideas, and those ideas are interpretations of the author’s intent.
If a biblical author has a different understanding of a foundational concept (for example, what it means to “create” something), then we make a huge mistake by reading it at face value with our own (different) understanding of that foundational concept. We risk not only missing the author’s point, but even reading into it something the author never intended to say in the first place.
Instead, we should be devouring as much context for each passage of Scripture as we can get our hands on. As we read, we should try to understand the text as the text’s first readers would have understood it and only then can we derive the author’s meaning from it. From there, we can extrapolate that meaning into our own culture in a way that is true to the purpose of Scripture.
I can hear some of you saying, “But God wrote the Bible and it speaks to us today every bit as much as it did to them back then!” and I don’t disagree with you. Well, I do disagree with you, but not in that statement exactly. I do believe God speaks to us today through the Bible, but when we only read it at face value, we are not treating it with the reverence and respect it deserves.
When we spend ten minutes reading a chapter and think we’ve got it figured out, that is treating it just like any other book we might have sitting on the shelf. Scripture demands better. It demands study and context. It demands application. And the contextual interpretive process treats it as the word of God in a way that a surface-level reading can never hope to accomplish.
Biblical literalism is steeped in shallow interpretation, and I hungered for deeper understanding of biblical truths. That’s the second reason I broke up with the Baptist church.
3. The Baptist church shuts down conversation.
If Baptist churches have one concept that unites them, it seems to be the idea of assurance. Being certain of what you believe is hailed as the mark of a true Christian in Baptist churches. They carry that from the teachings of “once-saved-always-saved” to the reliance on apologetics (anyone else seen God’s Not Dead?). The ramifications of this need for assurance are seen all throughout Baptist doctrine and practice.
It’s deeply ingrained in Baptist youth that they have to know with absolute certainty what they believe or the world will pick them apart piece by piece.
But this concept is wrong on so many levels. It reeks of modernism and sets up a false binary (this is right, that is wrong; this is black, that is white; this is true, that is false). It emphasizes the destination (“knowing”) rather than the journey. It says “We have the answers!” rather than “We all have questions, so let’s grow together by exploring those questions.” It sets Baptists up for failure because the instant one of the answers they’ve been taught fails, their entire system of belief must crumble along with it.
And the worst part of this dependence on assurance is that it stifles discussion. Baptists tend to think they have it all figured out so, whenever a question comes up, the Baptist has a pat answer to give. And that answer is supposed to settle it. There is no room for wrestling, no tolerance for exploration. For Baptists, questions are a sign of weakness.
If questions are a sign of weakness, then I am the weakest of the weak and Baptists have no room for me in their ranks. That’s the third reason I broke up with the Baptist church.
These are three very personal reasons that I decided to part ways with the Baptist church, and they are based on my experiences. I’m sure there are Baptist churches that don’t fall into these traps, and I applaud them for standing out in that way.
I should also point out that these issues do not keep me from caring for my Baptist brothers and sisters. I have many dear Baptist friends and family members and, though I do not agree with much of their theology, I have been greatly impacted by their lives and ministries. I don’t want to discount that in the slightest, but my faith journey has taken me to a much different place – one that appreciates the richness of Christian tradition, values the context of Scripture, and allows room for questions.