James L. Evans: Baptists in witness protection
Jun 22, 2012 | 1824 views |  0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
One of the most popular television series in recent years has been a weekly foray into the world of witness protection. The series, In Plain Sight, chronicles the efforts of U.S. marshalls trying to protect witnesses of major crimes from retribution. They hide them by changing their names and relocating them to new communities.

I bring this up because it seems to me that Southern Baptists seem to be searching for a way to enter a witness protection program.

For some time now, a special committee appointed by the convention has been studying whether to keep the word “Southern” and the word “Baptist” in the designation for the denomination.

There are many examples across the country where individual SBC churches have decided not to use the words “Southern” or “Baptist.” One of the most notable is the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

The positive spin put forward by those who favor these changes sound something like this: As the denomination becomes a national presence, the narrow designation of “Southern” no longer applies. Southern Baptists are not just in the South, they are everywhere.

Dropping the designation “Baptist” is harder to explain.

Religious pollsters have discovered that young people are not necessarily given to denominational loyalty. They are interested in spiritual pursuits rather than institutional identity. Dropping the word “Baptist,” proponents argue, makes it easier to reach these young people and help them find their way into the church.

All of this is true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. The deeper motivations for changing the name of the denomination are not discussed out loud, but they are there for anyone who wants to look.

And it’s all about witness protection.

And what did they witness that now creates the need for protection?

Here is the first crime: Baptist leaders stood by while the denomination sold its soul to right-wing politics. To this day, Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is nothing more than a shill for right-wing political groups.

Young people seeking authentic spirituality take note of these things. They are not interested in ideological orthodoxy; they are interested in finding God.

Additionally, the combined terms “Southern” and “Baptist” have become an emblem for conflict and infighting. Since the 1970s, a fierce battle has been waged for control of the denomination. Gifted and dedicated people were sacrificed on the altar of denominational power and politics.

And people of authentic faith take note of these things.

We could go on to mention the SBC’s tainted history on race, which it only recently has tried to mitigate. In fact, the convention elected its first black president at this year’s annual meeting. But this is nothing more than ecclesiastical expediency — an effort to expand membership by reaching out to established black Baptist churches.

We could also mention the deplorable way women ministers are treated by the SBC. Churches have been expelled for hiring a woman pastor.

So it makes sense now, as the SBC comes to grip with its checkered past, that leaders would like a little witness protection. Change the name, relocate — try to hide.

This is what is sad: “Baptist” can be such a good word. Baptist used to mean freedom, tolerance and autonomy. Now it means bigotry and partisan politics. Baptist used to mean religious freedom, now it means “We have the only truth.”

All you seekers out there beware. The “Church of Fluffy Pillow Heights” might actually be a Baptist church in witness protection.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn. Email: faithmatters@mindspring.com.
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