Identity Matters…Sometimes

by Kenny Vandergriff

Identity matters.  It’s important in this life to understand who you are, what you believe, where you come from, how you got where you are.  It’s important to identify yourself as something other than just another human being in the increasing mass of human beings.  My identity is a white, straight, married, father, a PhD student, a minister, a Christian, a socially liberal Democrat, and a Baptist.  As a white male I am keenly aware of my white privilege, the idea that because I am white I have an advantage over Latino and African Americans.  As a straight man I am also aware that I do not face the same challenges and difficulties of my LGBTQ friends.  I don’t have to ask my landlord if he or she is okay with a gay or lesbian couple living in the apartment building and I am not subjected to cruel comments or stern glares when I go to church.  As a married father I am aware that every decision I make affects both me and my wife and children.  As a PhD student I am aware that I live in debt, that I have much to learn, that I will have many sleepless nights, and that in the end I will struggle to find a tenured position.  As a minister I am aware that there are things that people have told me that I will take to my grave.  As a Christian I am aware that I need to be the hands and feet of Jesus each and every day.  As a socially liberal Democrat I know who I’m voting for, who I oppose, and where I stand on issues that face America.  And as a Baptist I am aware that one of the strongest pillars of my denomination is church freedom.

Church freedom is defined by Walter Shurden as “the historic Baptist affirmation that local churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine their membership and leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whom they perceive as gifted for ministry, male or female, and to participate in the larger body of Christ, of whose unity and mission Baptists are proudly a part” (The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms, 33).  Herein lies the issue with identity.  It is, in my opinion, precisely this fragile freedom that has been construed and twisted in many instances to exclude rather than include people in the body of Christ.  Take for example the fact that many Southern Baptist churches have a membership committee which presents new members as candidates for membership at a church conference.  Generally the new members are voted into the church, though the process suggests that a new member could be deemed unworthy of membership.  Likewise many churches have in their by-laws a statement on church discipline which is rarely acted upon.  It seems to me, a lifelong Baptist, that Baptists might want rethink this line.

I know what you’re thinking.  “If my church does away with these membership requirements or the church discipline clause then anybody can walk in and become a member!! This will lead to people wanting their dogs and cats to be members of the church, or their favorite potted plant!! Anarchy will rule!”  No it won’t.  People will not want their pets to be members of the church any more than people will want to marry their pets.  Let’s get real.  What then are we to do?  How does one become a member of a Baptist church?  One word: participation.  How were people included in the early church? Participation.  Acts 2:42-47 suggests that the earliest followers met daily (yep, not just Sunday morning and Wednesday night), they broke bread together, they fellowshipped, they gave to each other as each had need.  Sounds simple.

Again, I know what you’re thinking. “Yes, Kenny that may be true but they were all Jews and when they let those Gentiles in they started fighting. So is that what you want?  More fighting?” While the early church did fight, they came together and discussed the issue and settled it (see Acts 15).  Furthermore, Walter Shurden suggested that if love was measured by the number of arguments people had then Baptists love more than anyone.  The simple fact remains that they all were participants in the church.  This is what Baptists need to get back to.  Not just participating in the church we attend but participating in the larger Kingdom of God.  And for the record, I don’t think the Kingdom stops with Christians.  When God finished creating He stepped back and declared that it was all “very good.”  All of it, not just Baptists and not just Christians.  So my identity matters, so does yours…sometimes.

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