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An Open Letter to the CBF and SBC, From a Younger Evangelical

My brother-in-law and I are different yet the same. He recently completed course work at one of the Southern Baptist seminaries and plans to work with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I recently finished course work at a seminary supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and hope to spend the rest of my ministry serving in churches that partner with CBF. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
He is thankful for what he calls the “conservative resurgence” in his denominational home. I am saddened by many of the changes that came from this movement, but CBF’s commitment to theological freedom, and the strides we are making to do ministry to a new generation, make me thankful for my new home.
 
To hear some people from both of our theological circles, this difference in denominational preference and educational background would entail such a great divide that one could hardly imagine us being together without coming to blows.
 
Many SBC leaders have been openly and harshly critical of CBF. The SBC’s Baptist Press often paints unrecognizable pictures of us as a leftist organization so extreme that Ted Kennedy would be uncomfortable fraternizing in our midst.
 
In CBF life, the criticism has often been more subtle, made in crowd-pleasing quips about “other Baptists” during sermons in our General Assembly or the overwhelmingly negative coverage that independent, yet moderate-funded, news agencies devote to the SBC.
 
In both circles, if you listen long enough to the right people, it is clear that our brothers and sisters in Christ from the other side are understood as justifiable enemies.
 
There are people in both of our denominational homes that are as different as these extremes. But, for my brother-in-law and me, in our experiences with each other, this is not the norm.
 
When the two of us engage in theological conversations, I note differences in our language only to discover that our meanings of these terms and our Christian values are not so far apart.
 
I imagine that we could easily work together in the local church or partner on the mission field and notice no more theological discord than we would if working with people from any other walk of life.
 
Yet, unfortunately, the lines of theological difference have been drawn so finely on both sides of the fence that it is doubtful either of these scenarios could occur.
 
While there are exceptions to every rule, my employment record and educational background would be highly scrutinized by any church supportive of the “conservative resurgence.”
 
Most churches who have struggled after the “fundamentalist takeover” would never get past my brother-in-law’s recent SBC education and experience with the IMB.
 
If either of us did score an interview, as soon as our prospective employers asked us how we felt about the “resurgence/takeover,” our interviews would likely end rather abruptly.
 
In his book, Beyond Foundationalism, Stanley Grenz suggests that the next great theological debate is not between the liberal and the conservative, but between the moderns who are consumed with these old political lines and the postmoderns who want to celebrate our differences and coexist for the cause of Christ.
 
This battle can be seen taking shape over the next horizon. A recent article in the Charlotte Observer noted a “lack of leadership” from younger folks in the new SBC. People in the moderate camp are intrigued by studies predicting a coming “pastor shortage” for established churches.
 
Could it be that these “shortfalls” exist because those of us in our 20s and 30s who care about doing ministry are tired of fighting the modernist battles of the minute differences between one side’s definition of biblical “inerrancy” versus another side’s definition of “inspiration?”
 
Friends and colleagues my age are leaving the divided lines of denominationalism to start house churches where theological differences are celebrated. Others are exploring non-vocational avenues for using their gifts that free them from the seemingly endless argument over which side of the same coin looks better. This revolt often angers the keepers of modernist theological battles who look for new soldiers in the fight.
 
My brother-in-law and I recently shared our common frustration about the swordplay of these theological Capulets and Montagues. We have carried the sword ourselves. Yet, this practice is leaving our generation hollow and lacks enough merit to separate us as we do ministry. We are not “liberal” or “conservative.” We are simply evangelical Christians who, usually, are young. We are laying down our weapons.
 
So, here’s an open letter to all who fight the battle that will not end. On both sides, we have accomplished goals that are valuable to the growth and glory of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Kingdom of God.
 
A new fellowship has been born where women are given new opportunities that did not exist even in the days before the “fundamentalist takeover.”
 
Those happy with the “conservative resurgence” have made a home that feels safe and offers a way to carry the gospel as they feel the Spirit leads them.
 
In our differing values and opinions, on both sides, we have laid paths for future generations to experience Christ.
 
We must find a way to celebrate these good things, even with the pain of past battles and even in our differences. If not, we risk complete irrelevance to a generation of church persons and seekers that cares far more about helping than winning a debate.
 
It is true that these are two worlds now, where the Spirit’s work and a very few passages of the Scriptures are understood differently. Yet, the Spirit moves in the same way among us and, through the Scriptures, leads us to the same goals.
 
At least, that is my experience with my brother-in-law. No. Better, my brother in Christ—a gifted minister who is different, yet the same.
 
Johnny Lewis is a recent graduate of the Gardner-Webb Divinity School and pastor of Kendalls Baptist Church in New London, N.C.