Moderate Baptists: The Road Less Traveled

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
  Robert Frost

Contrary to popular belief, the road less traveled is not always the wisest one to take.  Sometimes, the less traveled road has fewer people on it for a very good reason. 

Since 1979, there have been two clear paths for Southern Baptists to trod — the Conservative one and the Moderate one.  While the roads may have appeared to be closer together 30 years ago (and that is debatable), the passage of time has revealed just how far apart these two roads truly are in 2010.  During the last three decades, there have been few who have changed roads during the journey.  Those who have made the switch almost always veer off the conservative road to stumble upon the moderate theological one.  Such is the case with my former Christian Ethics Professor at Southern Seminary, David Gushee.

Around 1995 at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, my wife and I took Dr. Gushee’s Christian Ethics class.  We can only speak from our own experience, but neither of us ever heard Dr. Gushee say anything that could have been construed as anything other than theologically conservative.  Dr. Gushee was (and I assume still is) a kind and thoughtful Christian educator who loves the Lord and loves his students. 

I do not presume to know how Dr. Gushee has arrived at the place where he is on his spiritual pilgrimage, but his writings today reflect the view of a different kind of Baptist.  Certainly different from what he taught in his Ethics classes at Southern.  Perhaps different from what he taught at Union University, serving under Dr. David Dockery, my former Theology Professor at Southern.  I do not begrudge Dr. Gushee or anyone else from choosing to follow the moderate Baptist road, but we need to understand where this road leads, both doctrinally and practically.

In a recent article, What Kind of Baptist Are You?, published by Associated Baptist Press, Dr. Gushee writes positively of a recent ordination service at his church in Georgia — First Baptist Decatur.  Describing the service as a “classic ordination” and “very traditional,” Dr. Gushee certainly gives new meaning to those words.  To believe that an officiating female pastor, two female associate pastors, and a female candidate, taking part in one ordination service, represents classic and traditional in Baptist life serves to illustrate the divergent roads that we have indeed been traveling on since the Conservative Resurgence began. 

On both roads, Scripture is claimed as authoritative, although how Biblical authority is defined tends to be very different, depending on the road you are on.  While I disagree with Dr. Gushee’s egalitarian view of women in ministry, I do not believe that this issue is one of heresy. 

However, far too often, it seems, the moderate road leads to more and more dangerous, and in some cases, heretical views.  First, women pastors.  Next, a struggle over practicing homosexuals as members of the church.  Then, mission professors at Baptist theology schools teaching that Muslims and Christians worship the same God

Two roads diverged in 1979.  Most took the tried and true path of conservative, Biblical theology.  A few took a moderate path.  What a difference the right road makes!

12 comments for “Moderate Baptists: The Road Less Traveled

  1. Bennett Willis
    August 4, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    It seems to me that Christians and Muslims share the same tradition regarding God and God’s relationship with people–the covenant with Abraham. The two promptly separated (Isaac and Ishmael, much like your two roads) and are now very far apart in the concept of God and how God relates to humanity. [I suddenly realize that I have no idea how Mohammed looked at the “tradition” that he came from.]

    How you define “same God” was something that you did not discuss. I’m sure that your definition and someone’s definition who feels that we have the “God of Abraham” in common would be somewhat different.

    When I was at Union, I don’t think that the words Islam or Muslim were ever mentioned in any of my courses. My history classes did not include the lands where they were involved. Forty-eight years ago, you had to look for classes that reached out in that direction and I had other things to take–mostly science and math.

    I don’t feel that it is appropriate to “tar” all moderates with the extreme example that you mentioned. A large number of us just recognized that we would never have a friend elected to a “national” job and moved on down the same road with our definitions unchanged. Remember that the votes that set the CR into motion were relatively close and those of us who voted the other way still regard ourselves as moderates in most cases. Those who left to become “moderates” were those whose position on things was not simply a minority opinion but now unacceptable and not tolerated.

    And I would encourage you to read your post on “who worships at our church” from a few days ago. That author had some interesting things to say. 🙂

    • August 4, 2010 at 11:25 AM


      Thanks for the comment. You may have missed it in my earlier post, but I think I defined fairly clearly who this “same God” would be:

      With all due respect to the good professor, Christians and Muslims do not share a common belief in the God of Abraham nor do Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The God of Abraham and the God of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Old Testament) and the New Testament IS (not was) the Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! Jesus said that ALL of Scripture spoke of Him. If you fail to see Jesus as God, then you cannot share a common belief in the God of Abraham.

      I didn’t mean to “tar” all moderates with the extreme example (I’m assuming the Hardin-Simmons’ Missions Professor), but there certainly seems to be a struggle, at least as evidenced in continuing news articles, regarding the issue of homosexuality, and to a lesser extent, the exclusivity of the Gospel. To me, those two issues, particularly the last one, are much more problematic than women serving as Senior Pastors. Baptist churches are still autonomous and can choose to call a woman as their pastor. I would defend their right to do so, but I would not feel particularly comfortable partnering with such a fellowship.

      I may know how you feel regarding leadership and why some moderates left SBC life. I was one of the minority that opposed the GCRTF Final Report at this year’s convention. I have serious reservations and questions regarding the direction that those in “leadership” are trying to take the convention. Outside of New Mexico, I do not anticipate that I’ll be asked to serve in any time of SBC leadership position or on a board of trustees.

      I did take your advice and re-read my post about “who can worship at your church.” I’m not sure how that applies to the doctrinal postions that a church takes, as I was clear on people attending “just as they are,” but not staying that way. Folks are free to believe many things before they join a church, but once they join, then there will be certain doctrinal positions that the church has that would need to be ascribed to in order to remain in right fellowship. I do believe that there are tertiary issues that even members within the same church can disagree on and it not affect their fellowship, but I think a divergence of opinion on key doctrines will make it difficult (if not impossible) to maintain a harmony and unity within the church body. What those “key doctrines” are is somewhat open to interpretation, but I think we have seen this with the continuing divergence of the conservative and moderate roads in the last 30 years. Hope that helps. Thanks again for stopping by and reading. I enjoy the dialogue, even if we don’t always agree. God bless,


  2. Bennett Willis
    August 4, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    When we completely agree, I generally don’t say anything–and I plead guilty to reading postings rapidly.

    Most of the time our differences will be subtle–and often they will be only the words that we choose to use. Some words have histories with each of us and we forget that all do not share that history. Writing, when we have other things to do, takes a lot of time so we can’t put the details in that serve so well when there are face to face discussions.

  3. Tammy
    August 4, 2010 at 4:04 PM

    I have to take issue with your statement regarding female pastors. Growing up I, too, believed that allowing women that much “authority” was heretical. However, after moving up north and experiencing females in such roles, I came to realize that there was absolutely no reason to bar them from the ministry. To link together women, homosexuals, and Muslims in the fashion that you have is frankly offensive. Call me a crazy liberal if you want, but I believe that there is a time to come to the realization that there are other valid Christian interpretations of scripture.

    • August 4, 2010 at 5:05 PM


      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m sorry I offended you, cousin. I thought I had been fairly clear that I did NOT believe that believing in or having female pastors was heretical. In fact, I said that it was not heretical. I believe that Scripture is a bar to women serving in the role of Senior Pastor or Teaching Elder, although the Bible doesn’t speak to other ministerial or “associate pastor” roles. And I will defend Dr. Gushee’s church, your church, or any church calling a woman as Senior Pastor. I just don’t have to feel comfortable in entering into an ongoing partnership with those churches.

      My linkage of women pastors, affirmation of homosexuality, and Muslims (the exclusivity of the Gospel) may not have been as clear, especially to those not up-to-date on Baptist life. There has been a trend in moderate Baptist life over the last 10-15 years to move away from a high view of Scripture and Biblical authority. That trend, at least in Baptist circles, has almost always started with the “women in ministry” issue. Soon churches, and groups of churches (like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) seem to struggle with how to view homosexuality. Then we get to professors in seminary teaching that the god of Islam and the Triune God of the Bible is the same God, which I do not believe. That is the only linkage and, to the extent I could have been more clear for folks not as conversant with the Baptist battles, I apologize.

      Lastly, I would never call you a crazy liberal! There are indeed various interpretations of Scripture. Some things in the Bible are pretty clear. Others, not so much. There are some interpretations that I believe are not “valid.” The issue of women serving as Senior Pastors is one of fellowship and partnership, not salvation. We’re still within the Christian faith family, but not necessarily interacting very much. The issue of who Jesus is and the centrality of the Cross and Resurrection is different altogether. Then it becomes more of a matter of what it means to be saved or a Christian. Even if we disagree on this issue, hope that gives you more clarity and helps to remove the offense. Thanks again for taking the time to interact with me on this. If you have time, would love to hear from you more on this. God bless,


  4. August 5, 2010 at 12:24 AM

    “Contrary to popular belief, the road less traveled is not always the wisest one to take. Sometimes, the less traveled road has fewer people on it for a very good reason. ” I completely agree with that.

    • August 5, 2010 at 2:03 AM


      Thanks for stopping by and reading. I appreciate the comment. Sometimes we find ourselves on the road less traveled and we should be on the other road. God bless,


  5. Bennett Willis
    August 5, 2010 at 9:43 AM

    “The God of Abraham and the God of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Old Testament) and the New Testament IS (not was) the Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! Jesus said that ALL of Scripture spoke of Him. If you fail to see Jesus as God, then you cannot share a common belief in the God of Abraham.” (From a comment above.)

    Since the Jewish faith “fails to see Jesus as God”, do you feel that we share God with the Jewish faith?

    • August 5, 2010 at 11:08 AM

      Good Morning,

      That’s a good question. As a matter of fact, I was dicussing that we the secretaries in my office yesterday. In answer to your question, yes and no. The God of the Bible, revealed in the Old Testament as Yahweh (although a Trinarian God can be inferred), the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the same God that Christians worship in the sense that we both worship the One and Only True God. However, we know through the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ — the Word made flesh — that Yahweh is in fact three in one. In John 1:1-2, we have a clear statement of Jesus pre-existence, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He wa in the beginning with God.”

      This understanding of God differentiates us from most Jews (although there are Messianic Jews who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord) and is a major point of division between orthodox Christians and groups like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and most definitely, Muslims. Christians share much more in common with the Jewish people, faith-wise, than we do with any other religious group.

      For those of the Jewish faith who “fail to see Jesus as God,” the Bible tells us that there is a veil that remains over their heart when they read the old covenant or Moses. That veil can only be removed when one turns to Christ (see 2 Corinthians 3:14-16). My prayer is that the veil will be removed so that Jews (and others) will see Jesus Christ as the Son of God and as their personal Savior and Lord. Hope that helps. Thanks for stopping by. Have a great day. God bless,


  6. Stephen Fox
    August 6, 2010 at 9:02 PM

    I hope you will stay aware of the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the works by Charles Marsh, Fisher Humphreys nephew.
    I feel some of your notions are naive not very substantively explored, a matter more of affinity and comfort, than substance.
    Remember Garry Wills American Christianities is a bargain these days at Barnes and Noble. Hope you pick up a copy.
    Hope things otherwise are well.

    PS, as a citizen of New Mexico, would be interesting to see you blog on immigration reforem in distinction or agreement with current blog of David Rogers at SBC Impact.

    • August 6, 2010 at 10:33 PM


      Thanks for stopping by and reading and commenting. When I pastored in Virginia (2002-2007), I read the BaptistLife forums and always read your comments with interest. I’m not immune to being naive at times, but hopefully I explore the issues with passion and reason. We may not always agree, although I have a feeling that we would agree on more than you might think.

      I am not familiar with Karen Gormley, but will try in my spare time (with 3 boys, oldest one, who is 11, also named Stephen — I knew I would like you for some reason; and a church to pastor, not much time), I will try to look her up. Have not read David Rogers on immigration. I will try to do that and interact with his arguments.

      Stephen, I think that you will find that, while I am conservative politically and theologically, that I cannot be pigeon-holed into one particular group or another. That’s why I enjoy the dialogue (and sometimes debate). I think we can learn more from each other when we don’t talk past one another, even when we strongly disagree. I must ask you this though — Alabama or Auburn? Look forward to continued dialogue. God bless,


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