It is interesting to be a Baptist pastor in the south.
A lot of Baptist pastors in the south are very much like the ones on TV. I’m not. I think hunger and racism are bigger problems than sexual orientation. I think if Jesus showed up to talk to us, he would tell us to stop being so self-righteous, self-important, and greedy. (I think this largely because, when he did show up to talk to us two-thousand years ago, that’s what he talked a lot about.)
Lots of other Baptist pastors in my area see these things differently. I don’t think this makes them awful. I’m humble enough (most of the time) to know I’m not perfect, and they are humble enough (at least most of the are) to know that they aren’t perfect either. We usually realize that our differences are outweighed by the hope, redemption, and salvation of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit unites us in ways more powerful than our differences.
Recently, I had lunch with a group of other Baptist pastors from the area. As we ate, they talked about women and people who are homosexual. Their underlying assumption is that God does not use these people in the same ways that God can use us (straight, middle-class, white guys). I see these things differently. I happen to believe that God does not take human biases into account when calling people to work for the Kingdom. But those differences are well documented and understood by all involved. I’m convinced those guys are wrong, they are convinced that people like me are wrong.
What surprised me was an argument over communion.
One pastor, proud to be an extreme conservative, said that he is unwilling to take communion to anyone outside of the church building. He says that communion is only valid when administered as part of a worship service. He couldn’t imagine anyone wanting communion outside of the regular worship situation, but he said it could conceivably be done if he took several families with him in order to worship with someone who is unable to attend.
I told him that, as pastor, I sometimes go with a deacon or two to take communion to people who are home bound. They would love to come to the service, but cannot. They greatly appreciate the connection that they feel to the rest of the church body, and they are blessed by being able to partake in a physical affirmation of their faith and of the saving action of Jesus Christ in their lives.
He said that this was unbiblical – that communion could only take place within a church service; otherwise it’s just bread. What the deacons and I do with elderly church members doesn’t count because there is no sermon or offering plate. (I wish this was an example I made up to exaggerate. He actually said that the sermon and the offering plate are necessary for communion to be real.)
I suggested that the Spirit was what was significant, not the service that we put together. (In retrospect, I could have cited Galatians. The whole book. Paul says that Christ is insulted when we pretend that our own understandings and actions are the origin of salvation. The initiative lies with God.)
He said I needed to look closer at scripture – that communion only takes places within the church.
I asked how many people the scripture required for church, and reminded him of Jesus’ promise that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Well, he said, it wasn’t Baptist. I was acting like a Presbyterian when I took communion outside of the church.
He and I both left the conversation with our original opinions about communion intact. I was a bit aggravated and still had the same impression of this pastor’s compassion and care that I began with. I suspect that he was not particularly fond of me either, although his ego didn’t seem much at risk of being bruised.
As I drove home, I reflected that, for this guy, there is no discernible difference between:
- His position (or his interpretation, opinion, understanding)
- God’s position
- What the Bible Says
- Baptist tradition
- Goodness, the moral position, or the “right” thing
For him, all five of these are the same.
If you are doing something that goes against this pastor’s understanding of Baptist History, then you are violating what God said to do in the scriptures. If you interpret scripture differently than he does, your position is immoral.
This is a handy framework. If you act as though all of your sources of information mesh together perfectly, then there is no need to cite individual sources – anything that you don’t like has always been clearly defined as wrong by God and by everyone loyal to God. Those with different opinions are heretics: scripturally, historically, and morally.
Once I realized this, and counted these 5 things, I was proud of myself. I was outraged at him, of course, but in that thoroughly self-satisfied way that can feel so good.
I knew that he was wrong because:
- I had taken communion to people’s homes, and it was rewarding.
- God is generous and boundary breaking.
- Scripture doesn’t say we need a sermon and an offering plate for communion. Jesus says that people who worship the form of the Sabbath while missing the point are off base; it seems to me that’s what this pastor is doing with communion.
- Baptists don’t worship the sacraments. We realize that symbols are valid, not because some priest says so, but because God moves through them in meaningful ways for the faithful.
- Not taking communion to home-bound people is mean and exclusive; we are called to be compassionate, generous, and giving as we follow the example of the one who ministered to the downtrodden, the sick, the helpless, and the outcast.
My list is great. He is an idiot. I’m right, and God, scripture, Baptist tradition, and morality all back me up.
My list is the same as his.
In seminary, one of my friends suggested the term “fundamentalist moderate” – someone who is a progressive or moderate, and believes that this is the only acceptable position. The identity statement would read something like this, “I think that everyone should be free to have their own opinions because we all have something valuable to add to the conversation – and you have to think so, too.”
Perhaps I’m not as open as I would like to be.
I still think I’m right about communion. In fact, even the conservative pastors there, who would never have a woman in their pulpits, seemed to think that this guy was over the top about communion exclusion.
But it was valuable for me to realize that, no matter how passionate I feel, I am not God. All of history does not support me. The scripture verses that I read most often don’t do away with the verses that other people assign the most weight. God is not limited to my thoughts and my opinions – God is just as much bigger than me as God is bigger than this other pastor.
Sometimes I forget how outstanding a candidate I am for humility.
I have faith in the hope that the grace of God is large enough to extend to me and to this pastor, that the compassion of God is deep enough to reach the people I take communion to and the people who he does not take communion to, and that the redemption offered by God continues to invite us all into the humble, transformed, honest, self-giving life that Christ models for us.