By Wesley Hill
A long number of springs ago, when I was living with some friends in Minnesota and tired of wintering in my dim basement apartment, I made a habit of taking my Bible and first cup of coffee to the back porch and reading a chapter of Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1-2 Kings for morning devotions. It remains a cherished memory not just because I can still summon the sensation of the crisp, bright air on my skin, and the vague scent of the herbs and vegetables I was learning how to grow in my corner of the garden just over the porch railing, but also because Leithart’s commentary was shaking me. Reading it almost single-handedly prompted what retired Bishop Daniel Martins has called the “third conversion”: the conversion not only to Christ, not only to mission in his name, but also to his body, the Church, the visible community of his baptized followers.
I was a lifelong Baptist when I read Leithart on 1-2 Kings, and without much introspection I was able to see myself in his portrayal of the righteous, doctrinally orthodox remnant of true Israelites within the tragic decline narrative that those Old Testament books depict. We Baptists, according to the self-understanding I’d imbibed growing up, were the ones who knew and cherished our Bibles and tried actually to do what Jesus said, in contrast to the milquetoast Methodists and Lutherans. (I remember asking my parents when I was very young about the Roman Catholic Church. “They have the Knights of Columbus,” I recall them telling me. “And they drink.” We Baptists were, appropriately and “biblically,” teetotalers. Chalk another one up to distinguishing virtue.) We were (though I don’t think I ever heard it put exactly this way) the remnant — the true believers’ church, the obvious successors to the zealous first Christians.
But as I read Leithart’s comments on the role the faithful remnant plays in the unfolding storyline of 1-2 Kings, I started to feel the ground shift:
American fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals in particular tend to operate with free-church ecclesiologies in which they regard themselves as the remnant, the true Israel, separated from the false church in the mainline [Protestant churches]. Thinking that they are following Luther, they withdraw from contact with the mainline churches, largely ignoring them and leaving them to their own devices. To be sure Elijah and Elisha set up their own network of prophetic communities, but they remain in regular, if confrontational, contact with Israel’s mainline. An ecclesiology of total withdrawal cannot be sustained by 1-2 Kings. Elijah and Elisha do not entertain the comforting illusion that they can carry on happily as the true Israel while the Omrides take the nation further into the cesspool of idolatry. They recognize that they are inevitably bound with the nation as a whole, and their prophetic labors that gather faithful communities within Israel aim not at forming a permanent alternative to Israel but at renewing Israel.
Leithart goes on to draw a pretty on-the-nose contemporary conclusion:
To put it into contemporary terms: those outside the mainline do not have the luxury of considering mainline confusions and apostasies “their problems” as opposed to “our problem.” If the Episcopal Church in the United States of America sanctions homosexual conduct among its bishops, that is as much a problem for believers in a Bible church as it is for Episcopalians themselves. (p. 125)
Leithart writes as a “conservative” here, without bothering to argue for the “traditionalist” line on sexuality. And it’s no doubt because I take the same line that I felt so gripped by his recommendation: that I view those, within my own Episcopal Church, with whom I’m in disagreement on the appropriate Christian way to live out one’s sexuality, as part of my family — perhaps wayward, in my view, but no less part of my family, to whom I bear obligations of recognition and fidelity and charity. I remember closing the book at that point and scribbling some notes, my conscience pricked by an unsettling thought: What if, by having all my theological ducks in a row, I’m still not justified over against my theological enemy? What if I’m part of the problem, rather than the solution?
What prompted me to think back to my reading of Leithart was this horrible, tragic mess of a situation in the Southern Baptist Convention. The most visceral thing I’ve read about it all so far is this piece from Russell Moore, who recently left the SBC amid a cloud of controversy and has become a prophetic voice for reform. Here’s one part that struck me:
When my wife and I walked out of the last SBC Executive Committee meeting we would ever attend, she looked at me and said, “I love you, I’m with you to the end, and you can do what you want, but if you’re still a Southern Baptist by summer you’ll be in an interfaith marriage.” This is not a woman given to ultimatums, in fact that was the first one I’d ever heard from her. But she had seen and heard too much. And so had I.
Moore is now a minister-in-residence at a non-denominational church in Nashville, and he’s written eloquently about his inability to remain in fellowship with the SBC.
The first reaction I want to register is complete and utter sympathy with Russell Moore and his wife especially — and maybe also a sheepish wish that he and she would jump farther into catholic order (his associate, Ray Ortlund, is now an ACNA canon theologian). I grew up in the SBC and I met Jesus there, but I’ve also been convinced that to love Jesus is also to cleave to his visible body sacramentally and publicly, as widely as is possible (hence Austin’s Law: “If you feel conscience-bound to change denominations, never join anything smaller. The danger of self-deception is too great.”)
It’s no frivolous thing to depart from the community that taught you to know and trust God’s incarnate presence in Jesus, and Moore is enough of a churchman to see that and lament it. Solidarity with others who name the name of Christ matters, and he’s been one of the main spokespersons for that view, as far as I can see (from, for instance, his gracious effort to maintain charitable Christian ties with Mike Pence while strenuously critiquing his administration).
But for that same reason, I’m also thinking about the line every “catholic” I ever talked to, when I was considering my own jump into the Anglican fold, said to me: “If you can stay where you are in good conscience, then staying should be your default.” And the rationale for that advice, I think, was more or less the same as Leithart’s exegetical arguments: If you jump ship from one Christian denomination to another, you may — wittingly or unwittingly — be saying that, thank goodness, their missteps and crimes and rebellions are no longer yours to deal with. And if you say that, what are you ultimately saying about the centrality and finality of your shared baptism in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Is Russell Moore’s departure from the SBC an effort at self-exoneration? There’s no way to answer that, aside from trying to read motives, but my hope for his public witness going forward is that he’ll remind all of us that the crisis in the SBC isn’t just theirs to shoulder but is for all of us who share in the same baptism. Their crisis is ours. And we’ll only be fully healed and restored if and when they are.
At various points in my life, I’ve taken up the partisan banner with gusto. Although I planned to vote for Barack Obama for president in 2008, I remember being unsettled by Obama’s then-pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s remarks that emerged during the course of the campaign. “God damn America!” Wright had said, and I had absorbed enough Hauerwas at that point to sympathize with the point. But I still couldn’t look my GOP-voting parents in the eyes and say that I was ready to defend Wright as someone with whom I was in full, unimpaired communion. Then I read this from the “progressive” evangelical Jason Byassee in the “conservative” evangelical magazine Christianity Today:
Charity requires that evangelicals do business with Wright. He, like them, is part of the body of Christ. Not less than John Hagee or Rod Parsley — extremist ministers aligned with John McCain —Wright’s churchmanship means he is more brother than enemy.
Did I really believe the bonds I share with fellow Christians like Wright — and my parents — required me in some way to believe that all of us were part of the same dysfunctional kinship network? And what would it mean for my speech and action if I really did believe that? And what would it mean for me to learn from Wright, as a fellow Spirit-filled believer, even when I thought he was wrong?
A few years later, on the eve of Obama’s second term, I read this from Francis Spufford, an English atheist convert to the Church of England:
[If you’re a Christian,] what you can’t do, no matter how tempting, is to push wholly away from those who do their Christianity very differently. You can’t say: no kin of mine. I can find Sarah Palin, for example, as politically ridiculous and terrifying as (perhaps) you do, but I can’t just shun her. No matter how strange, bizarre and repulsive the expressions of her faith may be to me, I have to believe that she’s got something right, that she’s a member like me of the body of Christ, in need like me of the grace of God, and as sure to receive it. She is, despite everything, a sister. And I have to recognize her as such, while being very glad that Alaska is a long, long way away; and to hope that, in the same way, she would recognize a brother in me, despicable gunless high-taxin’ Euro-weenie socialist that I am. (Unapologetic, p. 214)
Again, as with my encounters with Leithart and Byassee, I was rattled.
I don’t mean to say that Russell Moore and his wife shouldn’t have left the SBC — let alone the survivors, who have been courageous and prophetic throughout this whole cataclysm. And I certainly don’t mean to throw any cold water on the entirely commendable and necessary efforts to blow the SBC coverups wide open.
I left the SBC myself, for reasons of conscience and doctrinal considerations, so I can’t very well cast stones on anyone else who does. But I hope that those of us who have left won’t view ourselves as having somehow succeeded where our Southern Baptist siblings have failed, as having escaped unscathed from the judgment that’s coming for us all. I hope we’ll view ourselves as all alike floundering about in the ark of salvation, opposing each other on vital, urgent matters but, for that very reason, occupying the same space and trying, however haphazardly, to listen the same Lord. And I hope we’ll be granted the repentance and amendment of life that these awful days surely call for.