Can Baptists Learn Anything from Methodists?
In 1995, Dr. Thomas Oden, prolific author and Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University for more than thirty years, penned a fascinating but unfortunately little-read volume called Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements. Requiem is a delightful, educational, and melancholy lament of the demise of New Testament Christianity in Methodist seminaries. If ever there were an extra-biblical book Baptists need to engage, Requiem, with its recitation of the Methodist story, is that volume since it prophesies the future for Baptists. And who says theology is dreary? Oden had the capacity to bring even the Methodist corpse to life.
Now Methodists, according to the November 22 issue of theUSA Today, have come to the grueling climax of the long LGBTQ debate, which according to all appearances will divide the Methodist church. Even many Methodists are predicting a division of the Methodist church precisely as predicted by Thomas Oden.
As Oden describes the waterfront in Requiem, the classic confession
…galls the neopagan feminists and permissive amoralists and quasi-Marxist liberators and justification-by-equality syncretists, that they cannot change the Restrictive Rule, which guarantees that the doctrinal core cannot be amended or “improved” upon (p. 17).
He describes the problem this way:
When the liberated have virtually no immune system against heresy, no defense whatever against perfidious teaching, no criteria for testing the legitimacy of counterfeit theological currency, it is time for laity to learn about theological education (p. 22).
In fact, Oden opines that “it’s like trying to have a baseball game with no rules, no umpire, and no connection with historic baseball. Yet we insist on calling it baseball, because a game by that name is what most people still want to see played” (p. 47). He would “love to find a seminary where a discussion is taking place about whether a line can be drawn between faith and unfaith” (p. 47).
But make no mistake. The debate about human sexuality is a secondary distraction. The primary debate occurred in the early 20th century when Methodist scholars began widely to question the reliability of Scripture. The Interpreter’s Bible, the famous commentary edited by George Buttrick, began being published in 1952 and routinely questioned the accuracy of various biblical accounts. Once the decision that many Methodist scholars had misgivings about the believability of the Bible was in concrete, it was only a short step to enthrone culture over biblical Christianity. The aftermath was predictable. Evangelism faltered and virtually failed. Missions quiesced, social positions of increasing radicality were proposed—postures that would have left the Wesleys and Whitefield speechless.
As if the Methodist debacle had happened on Alpha Centauri, Southern Baptists have plunged headfirst into the abyss. Social concerns of special interest groups have overruled the Bible; and under the guise of love, Baptists are told that if we hold biblical positions at all, we must “whisper” and never “shout” them.
But please make no mistake. This debate is not about what the Bible says about sexuality. It is the continuum of a long debate about what the Bible is! If the Bible is a dated religious testimony of mostly good people who lived a long time ago and sported some amazing insights, then cultural mores of the day loom as correctives to biblical authoritarian mandates. If, on the other hand, the Bible does represent the very unchangeable Word of God, then we must be obedient to that Word whatever the cost. And cost it certainly will.
There is not a doubt in any truthful scholar’s mind about what the Bible says in Genesis 1 and 2 concerning God’s purpose and plan for marriage. No lingering questions are unresolved on how biblical writers view sexuality (Rom 1:18-32; Lev. 18:22, 20:13; 1 Cor 6:9, etc.). The only question is the nature of the Bible. Is it God’s Word or is it not? Nothing is needed so profoundly as for God’s people to stand firm for the truth of God’s Word or publicly admit that they no longer take the Bible to be the absolute Word of God. All we are asking is: “Be honest.”
If you wish to be a revisionist, that is fine. Reinterpret the Bible however you wish. You have that freedom. But, be honest. Tell the churches that truth. You are reinterpreting the clear testimony of Scripture according to the shifting desert sands of culture. Just be truthful.
As for “love,” believers always need to reflect on that admonition. All are sinners and the objects of God’s love. And if I am included, I have no authority to exclude anyone else. Hostility is foreign to the Christian faith, and we must make it crystal clear to all by statement and action how profoundly we love them. But 1 Corinthians 13:5-6 makes clear the point that agape “thinks no evil and does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in truth.” And what is the standard of truth—the Word of God. The kindest thing a believer can do for anyone is to tell him the truth.
As Dr. Chuck Kelley has said repeatedly, “Baptists are the new Methodists.” That is the choice Baptists now face. We are deciding our future.