I'm writing this in the fellowship hall of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, the host site for the Alliance of Baptists' Annual Gathering. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Alliance, so it’s appropriate to mark that milestone here at Pullen, one of the congregations that was instrumental in the group’s formation.
The Alliance grew out of the conflict between inerrantists and moderates within the Southern Baptist Convention, which lasted from 1979 to about 1993. In fact, the Alliance of Baptists started out as the Southern Baptist Alliance, a loosely-affiliated group of churches and individuals who felt increasingly marginalized in their Southern Baptist congregations and could read the writing on the wall. The hard turn to the right the SBC had taken left little or no space for those of a progressive or even moderate approach to theology and church, so in 1987, some of these refugees banded together and created a new home for themselves.
I know this sense of dislocation personally. I grew up in a Southern Baptist environment, and after college I headed to Louisville to attend the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I had been pretty well insulated from all the nefarious goings-on in the SBC, mostly, I think, because my home church was right in line with the “conservative resurgence” (or “fundamentalist takeover,” depending on whom you asked) and the leaders saw no reason to talk about it. So it came as a bit of a shock when, at my seminary orientation in late January 1991, just after the “Desert Storm” bombing campaign had begun, one of the faculty members said, “Welcome to Southern Seminary, the Baghdad of the Southern Baptist Convention.” I wondered what I had got myself into.
Southern was the last holdout in the fundamentalists’ plan to take over the boards and agencies of the SBC, and the architects of the takeover were bearing down hard on the faculty and administration—hence the Baghdad metaphor. It would be a mere two-and-a-half years before the inerrantists gained a majority on the seminary’s board of trustees, but I found that a great deal of damage can be done in two-and-a-half years. It was a mean-spirited takeover, unworthy of disciples of Jesus Christ, and much of my education took place in an atmosphere of suspicion and rancor.
As I grew into my understanding of my own theological and philosophical convictions, it became clear that the SBC was no longer my home. I didn’t know much about the Alliance at the time, so I wasn’t aware of an alternative within Southern Baptist life, and when I got the call to come to West Virginia to serve as the American Baptist campus minister at West Virginia University, I jumped at the chance. Like Pontius Pilate, I washed my hands of the SBC and have not looked back since.
I soon discovered, however, that the American Baptists are a mixed bag as well. The West Virginia Baptist Convention might as well be a part of the SBC, I learned to my distress. In regions such as the WVBC, Baptists of a progressive bent often feel isolated and marginalized.
That's why the Alliance of Baptists is so important. It provides a home for the homeless, a port in the storm for ships that have been cut adrift, a respite for those wandering in the wilderness. This weekend I sat in worship between two gay couples; shared a meal with a transgender woman who is a former Army chaplain and a current stand-up comedian; attended a press conference and rally opposing North Carolina’s discriminatory HB2 law; and participated in discussions with a group committed to racial reconciliation in the US and another committed to a just peace in Israel-Palestine. I was embraced by old friends and new; I got hardly a whiff of judgment directed at anyone for her or his lifestyle or politics or opinions; and I witnessed courageous, open, and healthy resolution of interpersonal conflicts.
The Alliance is not perfect by any means. It’s made up of people after all, and people are notorious for having hidden agendas and mixed motives, and for saying and doing dumb and hurtful things. People can be self-centered, wounded, passive-aggressive, and obnoxious by turns. The Alliance is not heaven. But it is, I think, a small slice of the reign of God on earth—a group that despite its flaws remains committed to the full flowering of God’s justice and love in our churches, communities, denominations, and world. And that’s something to celebrate.
Happy birthday, Alliance of Baptists! Many happy and hopeful returns!