Before I knew it was one of the most historic and identifying characteristics of Baptists, my parents taught me what it meant to be a Separatist.
In the mid-1970’s my family separated from our local Baptist church after it was strategically overtaken and controlled by a large group of new members who enforced outlandish theologies and unreasonable practices. This separation was not done lightly nor without grief as my parents had invested 30 years of their lives in this congregation. They made the decision to move from Tulsa’s Phoenix Avenue Baptist Church, to nearby Red Fork Baptist Church, in order to provide a positive experience for me as I entered junior high school. This change impacted my life for the better and demonstrated there would be occasions when being a Separatist was the best choice. As I grew and prepared for ministry, this understanding continued to guide my church and denominational life.
The Southern Baptist Convention taught me what it meant to be Fundamentalist.
In the 1980’s the SBC (a denomination whose history includes the endorsement of slavery) shamefully pronounced the inequality of women, the depravity of homosexuals and a disregard for Biblical scholarship. During this time, I was receiving excellent training for music ministry at Oklahoma Baptist University where I experienced the exact opposite: gifted women who were professors and church ministers, upstanding gay friends, and a responsible, thoughtful approach to the Bible. While continuing my education at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I witnessed the Convention’s fundamentalist takeover that resulted in hurtful actions bombarded upon professors and students. In response, I wrote a hymn in 1988 that was published in The Baptist Hymnal, 1991: “O God, We Ask for Strength.” At best, the hymn was my protest; naively, I thought the SBC might sing its words and repent. But it didn’t work, and I became a Separatist again, not wanting to be associated with a denominational group that weaponized the Bible to harm and abuse others.
The national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship taught me what it meant to be Moderate.
In the year 2000, the national CBF Coordinating Council voted to affirm policies that would communicate a position of being “Welcoming but Not Affirming” of LGBTQIA+ people. (If that’s not a moderate stance, I don’ t know what is.) At the time I was the youngest member of the national CBF Coordinating Council, and after standing with those who opposed this position, I immediately resigned from the council, becoming a Separatist once again. Having lived through the exclusionary trauma of the SBC, and after giving much time and energy to both state and national CBF bodies, I was physically sick to experience the national CBF’s acts of oppression. (Because of Baptist polity I make a distinction between the actions of the “national” and “state” CBF organizations, as each body is autonomous). It was not lost to me that the CBF, an organization whose membership was comprised of outcasts from the SBC, was now continuing the same cycle of exclusion. I knew that some members would remain in an effort to bring about change from within, but I also knew that individual and institutional advancement would take time. After personally witnessing the deeply injurious actions of the SBC, I didn’t want to spend my time in ministry trying to convince another ecclesiastical organization that it should be inclusive. I simply did not have the patience or desire.
The Alliance of Baptists, my church congregation and others are teaching me what it means to be Liberal and “beyond.”
During my seminary years I heard about the formation of the Alliance of Baptists, and the first two churches I served were minimally associated with this fledgling Baptist network. After my resignation from CBF, I became much more involved in the Alliance and read in its newsletter about the search for a Minister of Music at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC (which I became in 2001). I had previously learned about Pullen through national news articles that revealed the church’s commitment to fully include LGBTQUIA+ people. Because of this stance, in 1992 the SBC ousted Pullen from its membership, but a supportive community was already in place as five years earlier members of Pullen joined others in forming the Alliance. After becoming Pullen’s Minister of Music, I learned that the church never connected to the moderate CBF because it suspected from the beginning that the CBF would not be as open and inclusive as the Alliance. From my experience, this prediction was accurate.
While no congregation or denominational organization is perfect, the liberalism expressed through Pullen and the Alliance of Baptists resonates with me and seems to have put an end to my Separatist ways. A liberalism that continues to progress encourages life-long learning, the willingness to venture out, and the equal willingness to change course as new wisdom emerges. Compared to the mental restraints of fundamentalism, progressive liberalism allows the freedom of inquiry essential for this post-theistic century. But liberalism also has limits. There are times when liberalism is inadequate and invites the search for what is “beyond."
Perhaps even more descriptive for me than the term, “Liberal,” are words I suggested for a sanctuary art installation at Pullen: “Ever Embracing” and “Ever Becoming.” These active phrases express how I desire to be identified – “Ever Embracing,” as I participate with my church and other groups in welcoming and including all, and “Ever Becoming” as I evolve, explore new insights, and discover who continues to be excluded.
Interestingly, it is by being a Separatist that I have been able in good conscience to remain both Christian and Baptist – two worlds in which I was born, have grown, was educated, and continue to offer my ministry of music.
Songs Born Out of
Larry E. Schultz is a Minister of Music, composer, hymn writer and teacher.