Holland, Michigan is a city filled with churches. A majority belong to the Reformed or Christian Reformed denominations. But on Douglas Avenue after you turn to head toward Ottawa Beach, there is a large, red-brick church with while pillars bearing the name “Harbor Reformed Baptist Church.” It always struck me as bizarre. Putting “Reformed” and “Baptist” together strikes me as a theological oxymoron. Some things about these two traditions seem to be clearly incompatible, at least in my view.
Most obviously, that begins with understandings of God’s covenant, including how and to whom baptism is extended. I also think that much of the Baptist heritage over-emphasized “free will” in individualistic ways which resonate more with American culture than with the biblical understanding of Christian community. And Baptist polity prizes congregational autonomy in ways that are hard for me to understand every time I read I Corinthians 12 or study the history of the early church.
Of course, I know of some Baptists who proudly embrace Calvinism, whom Gushee recognizes and who have been dissected previously in our Respectful Conversations. They tend to interpret Calvinism in ways that provide an intellectual defense against trends in modern culture, conveniently suiting a partisan politically conservative agenda on social issues. Such a version of Calvinism seems more tactical than theological.
Yet, Gushee’s winsome portrayal of his Baptist experience highlights qualities which should be welcomed by Reformed Christians and enrich our practice of faith. Gushee uses his own life as a powerful testimony to how an encounter with Jesus Christ through sincere faith can convert and transform one’s life. While this is at the heart of Baptist faith, it should be embedded, one way or another, in all Christian traditions.
Reformed Christians should be reminded by Baptists that our abiding theological convictions about the uncontrollable initiative of God’s grace should never diminish our joy whenever an individual makes what he or she describes as a “decision for Christ.” Let the theology of all that, and covenantal understandings, and the full meaning of discipleship be worked out in diverse ways through one’s ongoing pilgrimage of faith.
I’m glad that Gushee is so clear about how the landscape of faith’s meaning and implications in the Baptist world have evolved dramatically from when he first encountered Christ through that Baptist youth group. The understandings of mission and discipleship have deepened significantly. “A social, ethical, and political vision is needed, and not just a personal one,” as Gushee clearly explains. He enumerates with discerning insight how the Baptists in the U.S. have become fractured over those questions, which all was accentuated by the Trump presidency.
The admirable modesty of David Gushee, however, has inhibited him from sharing his own influential role within the Baptist world, within evangelicalism, and in academia. David Gushee is one of the leading voices in the field of Christian Ethics and has served as the President of the Society of Christian Ethics. The 25 books which he’s written or edited have made significant contributions to Christian social thought, following in the tradition of his mentor, Glen Stassen. Gushee has provided leadership within evangelical circles on work against torture, addressing climate change, and more. In sum, David Gushee, as a committed Baptist and faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, has courageously set forth his witness to ethical wisdom and truth on pressing public issues, at times resulting in controversy, but always grounded in his steadfast biblical faith. As one from the Reformed tradition, I thank God for his Baptist example of faithfully following Jesus.
I also find concurrence in the encouragement Gushee finds in the global Baptist world. This highlights how many of the divisions we face within the Christian community in the U.S. are driven more by social, cultural, and political conflicts peculiar to our society rather by historical theological divides. Bringing global perspectives into ecumenical encounters seems indispensable to liberate the American church from its parochial preoccupations.
The other dimension of American Baptist life central to its witness, in my experience, is the Historic Black Baptist Church, represented in denominations like the National Baptist Convention (USA), the National Baptist Convention of America, and others. Leaders such as Dr. William Shaw have had a major impact in ecumenical initiatives, including in the founding of Christian Churches Together (USA). These voices enlarge and enrich the Baptist examples of faithfully following Jesus.
In conclusion, some points of theological incompatibility continue to make my head turn in puzzlement whenever I drive by the Harbor Reformed Baptist Church. Yet, those theological differences while important, are far from central to our faith. As one from the Reformed tradition, I can only applaud how David Gushee lives out a Baptist way of faithfully following Jesus. It’s always a privilege to be an ally with him in a Baptist and Reformed witness to the world.