February 5, 2015

I was recently asked to submit an essay to the theological journal, Review and Expositor. I am happy to share what I wrote with you.

I am not sure they ever met. One served as a Baptist pastor on the West Coast. The other is best known as a professor at the Duke Divinity School in the East. One represented the best of the liberal Protestant tradition. One is known as a critic of that tradition and a spokesperson for postliberal theology. One believed that the church could change the world. One believes that this is an unproven hypothesis. Yet, for some reason, when I was asked to write this essay and informed that it would be something of a foreword to an exploration of the relationship between Stanley Hauerwas and the Baptists, I thought of the late Rod Romney.

From 1963-1981 Rod was the Pastor of the church I have pastured since 1989, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California. From 1980- 2000 he served as the Pastor of Seattle First Baptist Church. Perhaps I connect Romney and Hauerwas because both courageously nudge their faith traditions in new directions, both tend to elicit strong, sometimes negative, reactions, both stand as ardent lovers of the curious community called the church and both understand that it is a great privilege to minister to, and in, a faith community.

In a September 2010 interview with Christianity Today Hauerwas, was asked, “How have you tried to steel the theological spine of students going into pastoral ministry?” His answer was, “I try to give them a sense of what a wonderful thing it is that they are doing by going into the ministry. What an extraordinary privilege to every week be asked by people to preach. Our lives hang on it. I try to give a sense of the marvelous adventure it is to be brought within God’s providential care of the world through the every day acts of preaching and Eucharistic celebration.”(1) This is a statement Rod would have fully embraced for he often said of preaching that it is the preacher’s great honor to share with the people his, or her, own joyous discoveries.

Rod’s joyous discoveries were not readily appreciated by all of his Baptist sisters and brothers. In the mid-1960’s he proclaimed, “I am convinced today that if America is going to free herself of the evil of racism that is bred so deeply into the origins and patterns of her life as a nation, it will only be as the Christian church is willing to effect a theology of race that accepts all people for what they are and forever works to grant equal rights and privileges to everyone.”(2) Certainly this position is not readily accepted either then or now.

By the early 1970’s Rod was questioning the traditional Baptist theology of hell. “I think the Bible is trying to teach us in purely allegorical terms that God is a consuming fire, but a fire that purifies rather than destroys …I see hell then, not as some place we go after we die to burn eternally for our mistakes and unconfessed sins, but rather as a fire that always takes place in us to purify the spirit implanted within.”(3) Again, this is a teaching not readily accepted then or now.

At about the same time Rod began teaching that reincarnation was an acceptable Christian belief. He writes, “Most of my Christian associates, who brand me as a heretic for accepting any belief in reincarnation, claim there is not a shred of evidence for it in the New Testament. I cannot regard this as so, and even if the scriptures are not explicit on this matter, there is nothing in reincarnation to contradict the essential teaching of Jesus Christ. There are several texts (Mark 6:15, Matthew 16:14, Luke 9:8-9, Matthew 17:9-13, Mark 9:11ff., John 9:2) which seem to indicate that reincarnation was an accepted Jewish belief and we do not ever find Jesus refuting or challenging that belief. Rather, he seemed to accept it.”(4) It is still extremely rare to find a Baptist who embraces this position.

By the mid 1970’s Rod was pushing the boundaries of Baptist teaching on human sexuality. “Marriage can exist without sex but it cannot exist without presence. By presence, I mean being with another person in a deeply satisfying and giving way … the same principles would apply to homosexual relationships. I am inclined to believe that true homosexuality is congenital rather than aberrant, and that society should offer full acceptance to the homosexual. Yet while homosexual ‘marriages’ are undoubtedly right for homosexuals, they often lack stability and permanency. This is due partially to the social stigma that surrounds every homosexual. It is also due to the emphasis placed upon the sexual act and physical aspects of the relationship. No relationship can achieve depth or purpose if it exists only for sexual purposes.”(5) This teaching is not likely to gain wide acceptance in Baptist congregations in 2015. It was even less likely to be appreciated or respected in 1975.

Stanley Hauerwas knows a little something about advancing unappreciated views. The essays that follow will likely describe those views in some detail so I will not belabor the point here. I will only lift up this quote in regard to one of his frequent themes, that of the end of Christendom. “The demise of the Constantinian world view, the gradual decline of the notion that the church needs some sort of surrounding ‘Christian’ culture to prop it up and mold its young, is not a death to lament. It is an opportunity to celebrate. The decline of the old, Constantinian synthesis between the church and the world means that we American Christians are at least free to be faithful in a way that make being a Christian today an exciting adventure.”(6) While this perspective has it adherents, it most certainly has its detractors. It remains widely unappreciated.

The memory of Pastor Romney and the consideration of Professor Hauerwas stand as important reminders of the significance of the historic Baptist commitments to Soul Freedom, Bible Freedom and Church Freedom. Taken together these freedoms insist that each person, and each congregation, as they are led by the Holy Spirit, is free and competent, to discern the will of God, to interpret the Word of God and to pursue the work of God. These freedoms mean that provocative leaders like Rod and Stanley can, even within their own families of faith, be given a fair hearing, a respectful audience and an honest consideration. They mean that preachers and professors are both free, and encouraged, to explore options, reconsider tradition, and question established beliefs. They mean that unappreciated, unpopular and unwanted voices are not rejected simply because they are not the views of the working majority or the organized minority. They mean that a faith community can take seriously the maxim – if you are comfortable with everyone in your organization, your organization is too small.

In his recent book Endowed By Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America Professor Michael Myerson gives the Baptists credit for the role they played making religious freedom a defining characteristic of life in these United States. He pays particular attention to John Leland, a New Englander who spent much of his professional life in Virginia. He notes that Leland “often argued that there was no assured path to heaven ‘without repentance towards God, and faith towards the Lord Jesus,’ yet he asserted that ‘Government should be so fixed that Pagans, Turks, Jews and Christians, should be equally protected in their rights’.”(7)

It is my plea and my hope that we Baptists will stand in the tradition of Leland when it comes to extending and protecting the religious freedoms of those outside of our community of faith. It is also my plea and my hope that we will honor our long-standing commitments to Soul Freedom, Bible Freedom and Church Freedom and provide safe space for voices like Rod Romney and Stanley Hauerwas within our congregations, seminaries and ministries.

Extending the reach of religious freedom outward to religious traditions other than our own is good and essential work. In our world, Religious Freedom is a hallmark of truly just societies. Extending the reach of religious freedom inward to voices in our communities that we find irritating and inconvenient is also good and essential work. These voices might indeed be wrong and misguided. However, they may also point us toward the new day that God has in store for us. We will not be able to ascertain the truth of challenging perspectives if these voices are never heard. Soul Freedom. Bible Freedom. Church Freedom. One way of describing the importance of these three freedoms is to say that they make our faith communities safe places in which the next generations of Rods and Stanleys can find their voices. It seems we would all be far the better for that.

  1. Andy Rowell, “The Gospel Makes the Everyday Possible,” Christianity Today (September 9, 2010): web
  2. Rodney R. Romney, A Promise of Light: A Spiritual Autobiography (Valley Forge: Judson Printing, 1978), 147.
  3. Romney, 166.
  4. Romney, 167.
  5. Romney, 90.
  6. Stanley Hauerwas, William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: A provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know that something is wrong (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 189), 18.
  7. Michael I. Myerson, Endowed By Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012) 18.