Responding to Eleven Very Gracious Christian Friends

It was a treat reading the engagement of the entire “Following Jesus” team with my little essay laying out my understanding of Baptist ways of following Jesus.

I especially appreciated how my turn to spiritual autobiography elicited considerable storytelling from other sisters and brothers in Christ. There is something instructive there, I think. Certainly many of our traditions make testimony, in one form or another, an important part of the discipleship journey. I cannot count the number of times I have been asked to “share my testimony,” nor the occasions in which worship services included spontaneous or planned testimony times. While such testimony times can reinforce individualism and self-focus, at their best they serve as sources of instruction about the Christian journey. We teach each other about the spiritual journey with Christ through the stories we tell.

I would like to respond, however briefly, to each of the essays so graciously offered by our team. It was like a conversation with eleven very gracious Christian friends. We should do this more often!

To David Ford and the Orthodox, with a nod also to Sarah Lancaster and the Wesleyan tradition, I want to heartily affirm the term “sanctification” with the meaning of real, actual, growth in holiness, to name what is supposed to happen in that never-ending journey of Christian discipleship. I have been struck by how few Baptist pastors and churches actually use the term. I also affirm the church as the community in which together, deploying all relevant resources of past and present, we pursue sanctification as both gift (of God’s Spirit) and task (involving our effort). I see sanctification more as becoming fully human in Christ than as theosis, but that is an old argument, isn’t it?

To Randall Balmer and the Anglicans, Sarah Lancaster, and Mark Ellingsen for the Lutherans, I want to reaffirm that 1) my conversionism remains strong, though I know it is not everyone’s story, 2) the Wesleyan version that Sarah laid out really offers an enriching contrast with the Baptist paradigm I encountered, and 3) I cannot accept infant baptism as part of the conversionist paradigm, except perhaps as marking a kind of conversionist opportunity for many parents, as the depth of their Christian-formation responsibilities with their child are so powerfully symbolized.

I also want to put Terry Todd’s poignant Pentecostal response together with Michael King’s Anabaptist account and with Mark Ellingsen’s post to affirm this truth: Baptist/evangelical conversionism can create spiritual morbidities when especially young or hyper-scrupulous people are unable to be convinced that their conversion is “sure” or has “taken.” Add that to the constantly ramped-up fear of hell and this is a path to spiritual panic.

The Lutheran perspective that we remain sinners who must repent again and again is a very helpful corrective here: who among us is truly “converted”? And yet we semi-converted semi-followers of Jesus are the ones on the journey of discipleship. Such paradoxes abound in the Christian life.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson (Reformed), Christina Wassell (Roman Catholic), Farris Blount (Black Baptist), and really most of the posts in one form or another, worried about individualism and individualist tendencies in Baptist versions of Christianity, especially in our very individualist society. I agree. Such individualism can make Christians little more than church-hopping, church-shopping consumers, pulling us away (as Farris mentions) from thinking about where we can best serve, to instead focus on where we can best be served. Individualism can also fragment churches theologically as people have no framework of accepted authority to settle doctrinal differences. It can also make Christians and congregations utterly blind to their social, ethical, and political responsibilities.

I do agree with Terry, however, that the term “conscience,” which can be collective but is sometimes quite lonely and individual, needs emphasis. I have indeed taken a number of conscientious stands in my career; they have been driven by my conscience and conviction, and they have sometimes broken with the convictions of  the communities to which I belonged.

On the issue of what’s my beef with the US Reformed types, Wes’s essay named it better than I ever have, and that kind of tactical/political Reformed theology bears no resemblance to what I see in winsome people like Wes Granberg-Michaelson, and so many others — many of whom I have encountered in wintry climes in Michigan!

I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to Christina for my assumptions relater to her parish and its relation with Vatican II and the current pope. Thank you for your grace and for that clarification.

I want to thank Robert Millet (LDS Church) for his storytelling related to the endless altar call from his own friend. That is truly bad form. Conversionism can be experienced as spiritually abusive. I am impressed, Robert, that your friendship survived. That says much about your own Christian maturity and God’s grace in and through you. Remind me to tell you about the time when I was 18-years-old and I held open an altar call for twenty minutes in order to browbeat my ex-girlfriend into converting so that she could she be my “equally yoked” girlfriend once again…

Finally, with special nods to Christopher Gehrz (Pietist) and Michael King (Anabaptist), and others as well, it is certainly true that my professional work has involved an awful lot of articulating Christian social ethics. (Thanks for several kind comments about my work!) I agree with Christopher that being irenic is not enough, though it is a heckuva lot better than the irascibility so often encountered in Christian circles. Still, we need a social ethic. And developing that social ethic takes a lot of work — biblical, historical, theological, social-scientific, and every other kind of resource is needed to do it well. It also involves a willingness to take hard, definite stands and to make arguments against other views. It can be assumed to connect with and to create controversy. Some of what Christian ethics does challenges the world and its powers. All of it challenges the church.

I have made one more (one final?) book-length effort along those lines. It comes out on Monday, February 28 — the day this essay is due. Check it out: it’s called Introducing Christian Ethics: Core Convictions for Christians Today. This is my “here I stand, I can do no other” statement of core beliefs.

There are indeed days where I wish for what seemed the relative simplicity of my new-convert days. My Christian vision was simpler. My sense of calling was simpler. Both church and world seemed simpler. But Christian life is a journey, and there is no going back, only forward.

I am glad to be on this journey with so many wonderful Christian kinfolk.