Hit pause on the name calling

I’ve said elsewhere that the overuse of superlatives (best, worst, greatest, most, etc.) leaves us no room for when something breathtaking comes along. It’s sloppy and it numbs us against experiences worthy of the description. I recognize that these are relative terms that usually refer to a person’s experience up to now, but if a traffic jam or messed up coffee order caused the “worst” day of the week for you, you’ve had a pretty good week. 

A similar thought came to mind this week as I noticed rising rhetoric among SBC influencers regarding who’s a racist and who is a liberal. Some would say I’m unqualified to determine if a thing or person is racist, so I will abstain from doing that. The term can still be overused or unfairly used. Just the frequency of the use might indicate that this is happening. 

Perhaps I’m on safer ground with the term “liberal.” It’s also a relative term and has occasionally had a useful definition. Within the SBC it mostly means someone who cannot honestly affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. I don’t care about the “multiple” definitions of inerrancy or the fact that we don’t possess the autographs; is the Bible true in everything that it affirms, whether science, history or theology? It’s a “yes” or “no” question. You are likely an inerrantist if you can honestly affirm the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. In my modestly informed judgment, you are not a liberal if you can answer “yes” to that question. 

I grew up hearing non-SBC Baptists criticize our denomination for its connections to “liberals.” Granted, our denomination did for years employ some (I can name names) who were not inerrantists, but the criticism of our more independent brothers went beyond this embarrassing truth to connect my pretty conservative church to a less conservative church, or even a liberal member of a conservative church in another state. I, and my church enable liberalism because I, and my church, do not disassociate ourselves with the SBC—because they will not disassociate themselves with a conservative church that has a liberal member—according to this view. 

The election of inerrantists to the president’s office at every SBC entity (completed in 1995) did away with any sense in which this sort of criticism was fair. Some independent Baptists have recognized this and affiliated with the SBC since that time. Once the theological issue was settled in our denomination, the virtues of cooperative missions became clear and appealing to fair-minded critics. 

Some of the current cries of “racism!” and “liberal!” seem indirect in this way to me. Not everyone who disagrees with you or me is a heretic, guys. A few of them are probably correct when they disagree with me. 

Another way that this kind of overblown use of terms appears in the connection between one thing generally accepted to be very bad or very good and another thing that the speaker thinks could turn out that way. Many have suggested that Christians who do not embrace the orthodoxy of the LGBT movement are doing exactly the same thing to Scripture that pro-slavery preachers did to justify that institution. Too many have suggested that anyone who does something they find disappointing is perhaps a Nazi. Positively, a politician invokes Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln; a new invention might be prematurely predicted to change your life (even the world). These extremes—like inappropriate name-calling—don’t stand up to scrutiny but they do evoke emotions, very often divisive emotions. 

Yes, some differences within the bounds of polite company and Baptist Faith & Message 2000 are important. But within those parameters, not many things are worth dividing over. Neither are many worth ejecting someone from our fellowship. 

I apologize to you who are only puzzled by what I’m saying (and I congratulate you on avoiding social media). Here’s something for you that applies to this as well: don’t be eager to believe the worst about someone. There are several negative rumors and accusations bouncing around that can be consistently traced back to a handful of sources—self-appointed gadflies and ministers of discernment. You may not know where a rumor started, but it began on the internet with someone you’ve never met. If it fits the negative narrative you favor about another person, think twice before believing it. If it seems too good or bad to be true, pause a moment before passing it along. The people most annoying  to me within our fellowship of Bible-believing people are not necessarily heretics or liberals. 

We may have some disagreements to work out, especially in a culture that throws new challenges at us every day. But we have a better chance of understanding the way forward if we don’t turn the volume up to 11 at the slightest provocation. 

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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