No Slave Owners Need Apply

It is the 1830s in the USA, and the struggle for justice is primarily expressed in the fight to abolish slavery.  A small group of people in Boston start the “Baptist Free Church” — the first integrated church in the USA, welcoming both whites and blacks.   But beyond welcoming people, they also excluded people:  specifically, “All who practice slavery or justify it, shall be excluded from the church and its communion.”

Last Sunday I worshipped at this church, now called Tremont Baptist Temple, and reflected on its history. Three thoughts have come to mind:

1.  We, the people who call ourselves Baptists, have superb DNA in our collective history.  We have not been the conservers of tradition, but rather the radical innovators and, frankly, trouble-makers, always seeking to attend to the Word and the Spirit in the context of community, seeking to live out what we discerned.  Whether it’s a complete re-boot of our understanding of “church” (in the Reformation) or the first integrated church in a society that was dis-integrated (USA in the 1830s), our DNA leads us to continually self-examine and re-examine and re-imagine.  Today, in 2014, we need to access this DNA more than ever.

2.  The fight for justice is not a new phenomenon — it’s not just something that is trendy among the under-40 crowd or popular with the emergent folks.  It’s an old fight, going back to the Old Testament prophets excoriating Israel for immersing itself in the rituals of worship (e.g. today’s “worship wars”) while ignoring the poor, or Jesus dramatically subverting normal thinking and turning it on its head by saying “blessed are the poor”.  I am tired of artificial debates about whether the Gospel is “word” OR “deed”.  Jesus both spoke and acted.  He might be a good model.

3.  Here’s a more provocative thought:  are there times to EXCLUDE people from church membership or relationship because of their practices or attitudes?  Right now we are in an era that focuses on “come as you are”, i.e. the welcoming hospitality of the people of Jesus.  This is certainly a key motif in Scripture.  But I keep thinking back to those pioneering justice-seekers in the 1830s who felt that, beyond just welcoming blacks and whites, they had to take a stand that EXCLUDED certain people.  Were they right in doing so?  Is it ever right?  I wonder if we ever need to do that today?  And, if so, would we have the guts?