Monday, February 15, 2010

New Baylor President Ken Starr needs to be as clear about his theology as he wanted Bill Clinton to be about his sexual activities

Back in the 1990s, when the flame of Southern Baptist interest in establishing better relations with other Christian denominations was flickering and getting ready to go out, our home was practically ground zero for Southern Baptist ecumenical dialogue.

At that time Southern Baptists had only two official dialogues under way with other Christian groups—Roman Catholics and Churches of Christ. I served as one of the 10 Southern Baptists on the Roman Catholic-Southern Baptist dialogue; my wife Kay served as one of the 10 Southern Baptists on the Churches of Christ-Southern Baptist dialogue team. Kay at one time was the only female among the 20 Southern Baptists, 10 Roman Catholics and 10 representatives of the Churches of Christ—40 people all total—serving on the two teams.

To say we had a ringside seat on these discussions would be an understatement. Both dialogue teams each met for dinner and discussion in our home for one of their meetings.

I was invited to be on the RCC-SB dialogue team because of my extensive interest in the Roman Catholic Church and the fact that as religion editor of the Houston Chronicle I had traveled with Pope John Paul II on some of his many trips abroad and had spent about a month working in Rome covering the Vatican.

Kay was invited to be a participant in the Churches of Christ dialogue because of her extensive knowledge of and interest in the Churches of Christ. Her paternal grandfather was a minister in the Churches of Christ and her father was a lifelong member of a Church of Christ congregation. Only the fact that her dad's particular Church of Christ in their hometown in the late 1940s did not have an air-conditioner and the local Baptist church did kept Kay from growing up a member of a Church of Christ. Instead her mother—with Kay's father's blessings—chose to remain a Southern Baptist and to rear Kay in a Southern Baptist church which had a wonderfully cool church nursery for Sunday morning and evening and Wednesday-night services.

Recently we were reminded of how these two strains--Baptist and Churches of Christ--flowed into our own lives when our alma mater, Baptist-born-and-bred Baylor University in Waco, TX, announced that Judge Ken Starr, a born-and-bred member of the Churches of Christ, would be the new (14th) president of the school. While most alumni are fixated on Starr's controversial—and some say divisive—political life, we were intrigued and puzzled by his Churches of Christ heritage and affiliation and the odd statement in the Baylor press release rather deep in the story announcing that Judge Starr plans to join a Baptist church on arrival in Waco.

(News reports say Starr is officially a member of non-denominational mega-church McLean Bible Church in Virginia where Evangelical politicos often have their memberships. Church of Christ sources say, however, he was a "weekly attender" at the University Church of Christ on the Church of Christ-affiliated Pepperdine University campus in California where until February 15 he was the dean of the Pepperdine Law School.)

This brought back memories of some of the most controversial points in the Southern Baptist-Churches of Christ dialogue. Most interesting was the fact that the 10 members of the Churches of Christ team did not fit at all the traditional Southern Baptist stereotypes of members of the Churches of Christ. These were not people who were against just about everything progressive in church life—such as pianos, organs, Sunday School, nurseries, homes for the aged, and so forth. The Churches of Christ team members were erudite, articulate, positive, and surprising in their receptivity to new things and in their presentation of their theology—a far cry from backwoods locales in which Churches of Christ members were stereotyped for the things they were against more than for anything positive.

Southern Baptists on the COC-SB dialogue team also were surprised at the many negative stereotypes the Churches of Christ members had of their denomination, too.

Theologically the biggest sticking point between Southern Baptists and Churches of Christ has traditionally been the matter of baptism. Southern Baptists believe salvation occurs through faith in Jesus Christ as one's personal Lord and Savior. Southern Baptists believe baptism is a symbolic act after salvation and illustrates what has occurred inwardly in an individual. Members of the Churches of Christ, on the other hand, believe salvation occurs through baptism. COC members believe salvation occurs in the actual act of immersion. Thus, COC members are more in keeping with Roman Catholic theology and mainline Protestant theology which link salvation and baptism together. Though those may sound like technicalities to some people, these are major theological dividing points in Christianity.

During the dialogue, Kay found some of the COC team members hedging on whether salvation is through baptism alone. (Members of the Church of Christ team almost universally confided that the very oldest Churches of Christ members--people in Kay's grandfather's generation--were far less adamant about baptism for salvation than younger members were and documented how that particular controversial tenet increasingly "gathered steam" as the movement progressed). She often returned home from the dialogues reporting that some of the participants sounded more like Baptists than the stereotypical COC members. She was particularly fascinated by COC participants who insisted COC members are more diverse in their theology than most people believe.

And of course we know Southern Baptists who are equally as diverse and who also hedge on whether they think immersion in water is actually necessary for salvation to occur.

From our experiences on these dialogue teams and other life experiences, we both learned that one needs to listen carefully to what a member of a particular denomination says he or she believes before assuming that the person falls in lock-step with whatever the prevailing theological stereotype is of the person's denominational beliefs.

That's why we are eager to learn more about what the new Baylor president actually believes about theology as well as other important issues. We hope in the next weeks and months Judge Ken Starr will articulate as clearly as he wanted President Bill Clinton to articulate in the courtroom and that he (Starr) will state emphatically what he truly believes about baptism and salvation as well as about minor issues such as whether a church ought to have instrumental music in its worship center, whether a church ought to celebrate Easter, and whether he agrees with the traditional Churches of Christ viewpoint on the role of women in public worship.

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