Following Jesus: The Baptist Tradition

I’ve kept things quiet here all February: in part because I’ve been launching spring courses; in part because I’ve been working on a small Bethel project that I’ll be happy to share soon, hopefully this time next week. But let me awaken The Pietist Schoolman long enough to check in on our Following Jesus conversation, which turned this month to a tradition that’s been a big part of my own story… even though I don’t share its defining belief.

(“While I’m a convinced pedobaptist,” I confessed at the start of my response, “I’ve spent all of my adult life with Baptists— the last twenty years with Baptists who are also Pietists.”)

Our lead writer for February is Baptist ethicist David Gushee of Mercer University. Most recently the author of After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity, David recounted coming to faith as part of a Southern Baptist church, how he has come to a more complicated view of that tradition, and his desire for “Baptists to return to that long-ago message. God’s love to human beings has been expressed in Jesus Christ. The best possible human life is to serve him as Lord.” In my response, I reflected on how I’ve seen the Baptist and Pietist traditions intersect in the history of Bethel University — and, in particular, in the career of the late G.W. Carlson.

February’s Tradition: “One Account of a Baptist Way of Following Jesus

“…the way of Jesus in [my] first primitive introduction involved both gift and task — the gift of a staggering sacrifice to atone and forgive me for my sins (I was aware that they were abundant), and the task of learning how to become a faithful servant of a new Lord — no longer my wretched self-curved-in-on-itself, but Jesus Christ. This latter project, it was soon clear, was demanding, open-ended, and lifelong — one never arrived, one was always on the way, there was always more to learn, more growing to do, more sin to repent, more Bible to read and (better and better) understand, more people to (better and better) love, more millions to evangelize… and of course more Sunday School classes, church services, youth choirs, Bible studies, and mission seminars to attend….”

“The good news, God’s good gift, should not simply be reduced to Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins. The mission of God in the world should be broadened to include a cosmic redemption that goes beyond individual souls, and therefore the mission of the church must go beyond discipleship training, personal evangelism and world missions. The conversionist paradigm fits badly with a developmental-staged faith that often better reflects people’s life experiences. Personal discipleship training needs to watch out for perfectionism and guilt-mongering. A social, ethical, political vision is needed and not just a personal one.”

– David Gushee

Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA – Creative Commons (Wally Gobetz)

My Response: “Gift and Task: A Swedish Baptist Pietist Understanding

“[Gushee’s description of Baptist discipleship as gift and task] is a model that speaks to the concerns of Pietism, after all, since it doesn’t just stop with a realization of personal sinfulness covered by God’s forgiveness, but spills over into the entirety of one’s life… with both liberating and legalizing effects. Grace, in both the Baptist and Pietist understanding, is God’s undeserved gift, but a gift that entails more than justification. Grace turns the focus of my life away from ‘my wretched self-turned-in-on-itself’ and towards Jesus and his mission. I would not have thought to describe that conversion’s result as ‘task,’ but Gushee’s description of this aspect of ‘the conversionist paradigm’ also rings true…”

“For [G.W. Carlson], the gift of Baptist discipleship was an ‘early identification with people in need or people who are unacceptable to mainstream societal norms,’ and its task — also amplified by his version of Pietist piety — was ‘to follow in the footsteps of Christ and faithfully to live out the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.'”

Additional Responses

“…we must not forget Dr. Gushee’s call that this work is not individual, but communal. We follow Jesus when we fulfill His words in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, take care of the sick, and support the least of these. Black congregations have been doing this Jesus work for centuries, as our institutions have often been one of the few spaces that were concerned with the well-being of African-Americans. It has been in our houses of worship that Black Americans developed the organizing skills to serve in political office, create financial and social opportunities for Black communities, and assert the humanity of Black Americans. While there has certainly been an erosion in the influence of Black churches (and sometimes, rightfully so due to the ways said institutions occasionally engage in harmful practices and individualistic, ‘me-first’ rhetoric), there are some faith leaders in these congregations that attempt to emphasize that following Jesus means to be concerned with our neighbors.”

– Farris Blount III, “Moving From The Individual To The Communal” (The Black Church Tradition)

“I’d love for him to say more, including about how the upheaval within and across Christian denominations and traditions both in the U.S. and globally is confounding assumptions and values once seemingly more settled. How often these days I myself wonder, and how often I hear others articulate it, if I’m still a Christian when what multitudes now see that entailing seems for so many so disconnected from historic understandings of serving Jesus as Lord.”

– Michael King, “Feeding the Hunger He Couldn’t Name” (The Anabaptist Tradition)

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