Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reinterpreting the Baptist Ethos

The aspect of Baptist Identity most in need of reinterpretation is the Baptist ethos.

Baptists have long cultivated an ethos of legalism. When I was a teenager, most Baptists were proud to be known as the people who don't dance, don't drink, don't smoke, don't chew, and don't go with people who do. Though the issues today have shifted to weightier matters, Baptists are still defined by a moral mood that is most often perceived to be negative, censorious, and legalistic.

The Baptist ethos needs to be reinterpreted in light of our emphasis on liberty of conscience.

All ethical decision-making involves learning how to make choices and exercise our freedom conscientiously. Conscientious decisions are made by assuming a standpoint outside ourselves and viewing the situation from different perspectives. We can look at the situation from the perspective of the law, from the perspectives of the various parties involved, from the perspective of an interested observer, from the perspective of an impartial spectator, etc. Generally, we weigh the value of the various perspectives in relation to one another until we arrive at a decision we believe to be fair, equitable and just.

The most basic guideline for measuring the conscientiousness of an ethical decision is the Golden Rule, "do unto others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12). It presupposes two things -- the capacity to view things from the perspective of another and the ability to act in a manner that gives equal weight to the concerns of the other. The Golden Rule sums up not only the Hebrew law and prophets, but also most of the basic requirements for harmonious life in a pluralistic society and for peaceful co-existence in a world of religiously diverse and ideologically competitive civilizations.

Distinctive to the Christian understanding of the Golden Rule is an additional admonition concerning the spirit in which we are to exercise our power to assume a standpoint outside ourselves. Christians should exercise this power with humility -- looking back at ourselves with a contrite and meek attitude -- and not with arrogance -- looking down on others with a judgmental attitude (Matthew 7:1-5).

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