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Not That Kind of Baptist

My life as a Baptist is a positive one. I am pastor of a congregation that is loving, accepting and desirous of presenting the gospel as good news. Unfortunately, not all Baptists experience such a positive and loving environment.

Because I belong to this wonderful, historic group of Baptists in the heart of our city, I am compelled to speak out following the highly publicized remarks made by former Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines a few days ago. Vines declared that Muhammad, founder of Islam, “was a demon-possessed pedophile.” <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
It is extremely important to me, to many in my congregation, and to many Baptists in general that everyone know that Vines does not speak for all Baptists. Neither do other SBC leaders who defend his statement. I would like to believe that Vines and company speak, in fact, for a very small number of Baptists. 
 
Time and again many Baptist Christians have had to shamefully endure ill-considered, even scandalous and outrageous, statements from national SBC leaders. Some years ago, for instance, Bailey Smith proclaimed that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew” (notwithstanding that Jesus was himself a Jew). Recently, Jerry Falwell declared that Americans deserved the attacks of Sept. 11 and, in fact, brought the attacks upon themselves. 
 
A great many of us are wondering when such pronouncements will cease. How many more grace-less and embarrassing words can we endure?
 
I’m sure that Vines believed what he said, but such a sentiment should never have been given voice. There are nearly one billion Muslims in this world. Slanderous and derogatory words about Muhammad (even if one believes those words to be the truth) do not invite good relations between Muslims and Christians. And without good relations, what are our chances even for discussing our beliefs with them? 
 
Only in a climate of understanding and respect can healthy dialogue, much less evangelism, occur. Suppose a Muslim leader pronounced Jesus Christ an insane cannibal (a charge believed by some of the Roman population because of Christ’s command to receive his body and blood when he instituted Holy Communion). Would not some Christians be deeply offended? Would not some Christians develop a justifiable resentment toward Muslims? 
 
But my disappointment and dismay arise from graver concerns: Where is the spirit of Christ in Vines’ charge? I can see how Christ’s great cause in the world is advanced by exalting Christ and his teachings. But I cannot understand how Christ’s cause can be advanced by demeaning, belittling or vilifying the founder of another faith. 
 
The Bible tells us to “speak the truth in love.” Even what we believe to be the truth is best left unspoken if it cannot be spoken with love and grace. Perhaps Vines’ statement was his attempt to express the truth, but where is the love? And where is the example of Christ, who himself said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”
 
We surely do not want our Christ profaned. How then can we tolerate one of our “spokesmen” profaning Muhammad or anyone else?
 
And what about ordinary human respect and civility? Most atheists and agnostics I know would not treat the deeply held beliefs of either Christians or Muslims with scorn and contempt. They would refrain out of a sense of decency if not conviction. Should not Christian leaders live up to at least as high a standard? 
 
Bashing another’s religion, values or beliefs is never a method for converting another to our own. Instead, it angers and provokes those outside our faith into a defensive position and galvanizes them against us.
 
Some years ago when fundamentalist Muslims made outrageous statements and committed outrageous acts, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, a devout Muslim who worked for peace with Israel, said with sorrow and embarrassment: “This is not Islam. This extremism is not Islam.” Today, many Baptists, after Vines’ remarks, are moved with embarrassment and profound sadness to say, “This is not Christian. This extremism is not Christian.”
 
Vines asserted correctly that our Christian faith is one of grace, not law. A religion of grace must speak the language of grace, use gracious words. The New Testament says we are “stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Do Vines’ words exemplify good stewardship of grace?
 
I will gladly praise the life, teachings and person of Jesus Christ. I ardently believe Christ is the clear picture of who God is. But I can never be comfortable with those who demean or decry another person’s faith.
 
Bill Coates is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga.