Dr. Roy Medley, our General Secretary, delivered the key message on Friday evening during the Biennial. ( click here
for the full text of his message) It was the most personal and impassioned such address that I have experienced by a General Secretary. It ended with a classic (for most Baptists) call to revival prayer.
Responses were (and continue to be) mixed. Right after the session I heard several say “he hit the nail right on the head.” But it was obvious that they had different nails in mind. Conversely, others said “he dropped the ball.” Likewise, one was playing football, the other baseball.
Certainly much of the confusion can be traced to the expectations (both positive and negative) of listeners. At the same time, some of the confusion is due to the genre of the message. Was it a sermon or a state of the denomination speech? Was it a plan for action or a logical monologue?
For me, it was clearly a sermon. And it reflected both the strengths and weaknesses of sermons. In particular, it was strong on images and emotional connection. But the very thing that makes most sermons powerful (stories and images with openings for “entry” and participative thinking) precludes clear, linear action strategies. Many, on all sides, were seeking the kind of clarity a sermon can seldom deliver. That is not to say that Dr. Medley’s address should not have been a sermon. Rather, I think some follow-up (even if pedantic and boring) is needed to draw out the complex implications and consequences that Dr. Medley had in mind while preaching.
Here are some of the things I heard and read:
1. Dr. Medley gave a testimony early on: “I want you to hear me clearly tonight: I am STILL traditional in matters of human sexuality AND I do not want to be separated from those who in Christian conscience differ from me on the issue of homosexuality.” Those who were hoping for an endorsement or approval of homosexual practices were disappointed. Likewise, those who were hoping for a strategy to accomplish denomination-wide purity on this issue were also disappointed.
These two poles define an awkward space. Whether or not it is livable space remains to be seen—but our track record so far is not encouraging. It seems evident that Dr. Medley will not use his office for anything other than the affirmation of traditional heterosexuality. At the same time, it seems evident that he will not use his office to encourage the denomination-wide dismissal of those churches which believe differently. Even within these poles, there is a large field which demands further delineation. Things cannot merely rest here.
2. He then went on to the role of Baptist principles. For Dr. Medley Scripture is key and Baptist principles function as a hermeneutic. He then went on to list personal convictions, including seventeen citations from Scripture. In that outline of faith you will find a robust confession of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and a resounding affirmation of the eschatological community of faith that we call the church. Dr. Medley’s essential theological conservatism will attract some and repel others.
While it is an important move to link Baptist principles to Scripture by functioning as a hermeneutic, or “rules for reading,” it raises several questions. If Baptist principles are derived from Scripture, then they cannot be superior to nor take the place of Scripture. Those principles themselves must be constantly tested against Scripture. That is not an easy task, especially for a denomination that does not have a formal court of theology or biblical interpretation.
Indeed, the identity and role of Baptist principles per se is a growing issue. The Baptist movement was not founded on a list of principles. The so-called principles were unearthed after the fact in reflection. Beyond that, there are many groupings (and non-groupings) of Baptists. There are significant differences among those groups regarding those principles, their order, and the function given to them.
Even among American Baptists our “priniciples” have changed. In the preface to American Baptists: A Unifying Vision (produced by the Commission on Denominational Identity in 1988, chaired by Dr. Ralph Elliott) warned: “American Baptist identity cannot be reduced to one or two simple affirmations that may distinguish us from the many communities that make up Christ’s church. … Denominational identity, like human identity, is not fixed and rigid.” Baptist principles exist in tension among themselves, creating another awkward space.
3. Dr. Medley drew on the story of Esther and her call to radical discipleship: “Who knows but that you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” I know that he has found connection with this story because of the personal burden he carries as General Secretary. However, in this sermon he issued the call for all of us to live up to our calling to be radical disciples in a time of great uncertainty.
Three brief points were made from this story. First, that God called Esther to radical discipleship that expressed itself in radical love. She was called to face adversity by placing her life in God’s providential care. Second, that radical discipleship has been mark of American Baptists. Finally, that God is calling us to a new radical discipleship today.
Dr. Medley quickly went on to describe what he meant by “radical discipleship.” His litany included evangelism, social ministry, being centered in Christ, etc. The point was driven home by a listing of the diverse heroes/heroines of Baptist faith, all of whom were seeking a deeper form of discipleship. Indeed, the thrust behind Baptist principles was to make radical discipleship possible.
This presents a second-function for Baptist principles. Those principles are derived from Scripture, provide the community “reading rules,” and have the purpose of promoting radical discipleship. Now we have been another “test” for Baptist principles: Do they actually produce disciples? This forces us to address the issue of discipleship. Dr. Medley said that the “call to radical personal discipleship in Christ Jesus is part of our Baptist DNA. We by our very nature as a Baptist body can do no other than to proclaim the invitation of Jesus, ‘Come, take up your cross daily and follow me.’’’
Dr. Medley followed a very traditional, personalistic path here. I wish he had said something about the role of the community of faith in discipleship. I am persuaded that Baptists (and other revivalist offspring) have lost something of great importance in our neglect of the community. Christian formation requires intentional communal life. Not only that, I am persuaded that the goal of discipleship is life together, not mere personal piety. That is yet another tension we live with.
4. The remainder of the sermon was an impassioned call to radical discipleship, demonstrated in radical love. There is a lot of powerful, compelling rhetoric in this section. It needs to be unpacked carefully, but this is already too long!
Dr. Medley affirmed (once more) the linkage of Biblical authority, soul liberty and radical personal discipleship. He also affirmed yet another tension. “American Baptists grant the majority the right to say ‘This is what we believe’ and also protect the right to speak a minority point of view.” That one line needs to be read again and again and again. It demands answers to all kinds of questions. How does the majority (or minority) speak? What does it mean when the majority (or minority) speaks? What are the consequences of majority (or minority) speech? Most of all, how do we fit all that together in a unified (not uniform) community of faith?
Dr. Medley asserted that the last question “returns us to a biblical principle more important even than soul freedom: the principle of love.” Community is possible only because soul freedom is tempered by love, it is not absolute. This is not the romantic or popular notion of love, it is the love exemplified by the Cross. Love is costly action; and it costs me. Worst of all, it can’t be legislated, enforced, or demanded. The challenge from Romans 14:13ff is very blunt: “if your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” It is a principle of self-control that challenges autonomy and is found repeatedly in the New Testament. This is a devastating critique of many in our denomination today. If we were living like this we would not be in the midst of turmoil. For this reason, if no other, Dr. Medley was right in calling us to revival prayer. Unfortunately, I suspect many nodded their heads and pointed to someone else.
What would happen if, instead of strategy meetings discussing how to win those meetings addressed the question “How can we best demonstrate our love for the Body?”
5. Dr. Medley moved to the close of his sermon with another personal note. Citing the words and example of Dr. Billy Graham, he claimed that this kind of love was a missional issue. Consequently, he avoids being drawn into controversial topics.
I sympathize with Dr. Medley, and I also fear for him. Dr. Graham (and others in positions like his) enjoys a luxury of personal freedom that I have not experienced as a pastor. While I can often (even usually) avoid controversial topics, I cannot always. Most morality issues are controversial. (Imagine the Triennial Convention had not taken a stand on slaveholding.) Sometimes what to one person is an inconsequential issue, is to another the ground of being. (I note that Billy Graham does not avoid the redemptive work of Christ, which is controversial to many). Sometimes a controversial topic has persistent life in, or even threatens the life of, the community that I serve. Despite my personal feelings, it would be irresponsible of me as a pastoral leader to refuse to be drawn into such conflicts—I do not live unto myself. (That does not mean I go looking for them or nurse them.) I am persuaded ministry is always contextual; and context sometimes includes unavoidable conflict.
In closing, I agree with Dr. Medley that “We stand at a crossroads. In our world, the path of radical discipleship, the path of radical love is the road less taken.” He painted a picture of a Baptist community of intrinsic tension. I have said many foolish things in my days. One of those foolish things was that “I am an American Baptist because I am comfortable here.” I am not comfortable any more. I am not sure it is even possible to be comfortable as a Baptist (perhaps that is why Roger Williams ended up alone). The greatest source of my discomfort right now is not so much the tension as it is the determination of one side or the other to resolve that tension in their favor and the “no holds barred” approach that many (not all) on both sides have adopted.
I have a deep personal affection for Roy Medley. And I have no doubt about his personal integrity or theology. I disagree with his intention to ignore this into oblivion. The balkanization of ABCUSA is progressing at a frightening pace, and many share the blame. Two years ago I could not imagine the things that are happening right now.