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Reporting the Truth.
Restoring the Church.

Guest Opinion: Still Baptist. Still Evangelical.

By Karen Swallow Prior
Still Evangelical
Photo by Joshua Rodriguez/Unsplash/Creative Commons

The Baptist church I attended with my family as a girl in The Middle of Nowhere, Maine, was a one-room affair. The old clapboard building had no running water and — until we raised enough funds for an addition — no bathroom but the outhouse at the back corner. An old hitching post rose from the ground next to the granite front steps, a reminder of congregants long ago who once traveled on horseback to worship.

A tiny vestibule opened into an airy sanctuary, filled to the brim with three sections of white wooden pews. Two side aisles led to the platform where the altar stood sentinel in front of a rustic maple Communion table.

As a young girl, I spent many a Sunday service fretting about being married in that church someday. Every wedding I’d ever read about or watched on television depicted the bride walking gracefully down a middle aisle, straight toward the altar, pews on either side evenly surrounding her like the parted waves of the Red Sea.

How could I get married in a church with no middle aisle? This was my inordinate worry.

Our pastor, Vern, was a big man. His presence flowed off the platform all the way down to the front pews where I sat with my family. When Vern led the hymns with his deep, baritone voice, the floor would rumble as he stood firmly on one foot and stamped the other in time, especially so when we sang his favorite song, “I’ve Got a Mansion”:

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I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold.
But in that city where the ransomed will shine,
I want a gold one that’s silver lined!

When we would get to the last round of the chorus, repeating it several times, I could see sometimes his eyes glistened with tears as he pumped his foot even harder:

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old.
And some day yonder we will never more wander,
But walk on streets that are purest gold!

Does this all ring nostalgic? Perhaps so. But I paint this picture — not out of some Thomas Kinkade kink — but rather in an attempt to explain why I’m still here. Still in the church. Still part of the bride — even if the reality of life in the church hasn’t quite met up to my youthful idealism.

Far from it, in fact.

Consider, for example, the countless instances of sexual abuse and cover-ups by pastors that have taken place, not only across denominations, but particularly in my own Southern Baptist Convention. Numerous church leaders have been removed because of “moral failings” — and even more should have been.

This is not merely headline news: I was deeply and personally devastated to invest decades of my life in a Christian institution only to discover it was led by a man leading a double life of sexual perversion and self-dealing.

This betrayal merely compounded my bewilderment over the past few years in watching leaders I once respected and principles I still believe in being co-opted and distorted in the name of political power and expediency. The relativism and rejection of absolutes I was warned to resist in the world have come to the church — and nothing prepared me for this.

And yet, I am part of this.

I have wept these past days, weeks and months. I have felt the truth of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew, pronouncing woe upon “the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.”

Woe to us, indeed.

Yet, Jesus’ invitation still stands, offered in the verses that immediately follow his words of judgment: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Over the past few years, in the midst of the turmoil the church and the country are enduring, I have received countless messages of pain and lament from fellow evangelicals (and especially Baptists), asking me what to do, where to go, whether to stay in the church or to leave.

I understand many have been hurt or betrayed by the institutional church. And while my wounds are not as deep as those of so many, I now count myself among them. I don’t always know what to say to people in their pain. But one thing I do know to say is, “The bride of Christ needs you. Don’t abandon her to those who exploit and abuse her. Christ loves his bride too much for us to let her go.”

My childhood church has come to mind a lot lately, perhaps because these days in church life have so dismayed and disoriented me. I smile now at my long ago worries about the aesthetics of my someday wedding. Yet, when I reflect a bit more, I see now below the surface-level worry was something deeper: a young, innocent and earnest believer who simply couldn’t imagine a future apart from her church.

I still can’t.

But I know better now what that future looks like, what it means to be a part of the church, not merely a daydreamer in the pew. I realize while churches are led by fallen humans, Christ is the true Shepherd, my real Groom.

Yes, the bride of Christ — the church — is seared, spotted, smudged and smeared.

Yet even so.

The gentle and humble can still be found.

Like Pastor Vern. And like countless other pastors, missionaries, teachers and servants who spend hidden lives of no name or repute, toiling for God’s kingdom in The Middle of Nowhere, day in and day out. Who preach the Word on Sunday and deliver the mail Monday through Saturday.

Who drive long country miles to bring meals to the sick and lonely. Who cut out construction paper hearts for toddler hands to cover with glue and glitter. Who pore over obscure footnotes in search of deeper understanding.

Who shoulder the cries of confession for those who’ve gone astray. Who shoulder the tears of torment for those who’ve been abused. Who don’t headline conferences, or sell books they’ve not written under their name, or tweet their way to feeble fame. Who love because they were first loved.

The eyes of these are on the coming perfection, the future glory, the feast that is still being prepared. From either side, or maybe the middle, they walk down the aisles. Because they see only the Groom, they are moving toward him, their feet firmly placed on this present ground, gently tapping out the time.

Karen Swallow PriorKaren Swallow Prior is research professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Before that, she was a professor of English at Liberty University. Her most recent book is On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life in Great Books.

This piece was originally published in Religion News Service.



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20 Responses

  1. Thank you Karen. That was extremely well-written and well-tempered. There’s plenty to be outraged at but you took the higher path of looking at the big picture and not giving into the cynicism.

  2. Perfect timing……….thank you for listening to the Holy Spirits’ calling. The globe is littered with spiritually abused, sexually abused, conned and devastated people. Likely all who truly WANT to believe and grow in Jesus but are stopped by the reality of the contradictory experience they were subjected to…….often walking away in disgust , deep pain, shame and anger.

    Yet to those who toil & serve without notoriety and great acclaim I say……… YOU ARE MY HEROES.
    Why….because 40 years later I remember your sermons, 50 years later I remember how you were true to your wife, 30 years later I watched from afar as you ministered to those who were considered lepers by the so called righteous. and today you stand silently tall continuing to preach the truth in a world that is so easily beset by lies.

    Karen , your note will serve as a permanent encouragement to “Turn My Eyes Upon Jesus”
    Kind Regards,

  3. Thank you so much for this, especially in light of this blog’s latest article and the video shared…..WE are the Body and we will stand together in Christ, with the faithful..

  4. Christians are starting to realize that leaving the American-sponsored corporate business institution called “church” only enriches the disciples’s experience within the true Church. I have more fellowship and Spirit-led interactions since I left the business of “churchianity”, than I ever experienced in 40+ years within that soul-starving machine. Thus, I’m always amused when people say I’ve “left the church”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus’ promise remains true. John 14:26 “…He will teach you all things and bring to remembrance those things I have spoken to you.”

    It’s helpful to remember that the only thing that really seemed to anger our Lord was the big-business of religion that He encountered during His earthly journey. With all these scandals and abuses, it’s obvious that nothing has changed. If anything, big religion has only gotten worse.

  5. True followers of THE WAY, our only LORD and SAVIOR the CHRIST JESUS should not be surprised or dismayed that there is sin in the pulpit. We all have a sinful nature, hearts that are wicked. There are wheat and teres. Yes pastors will fail, so we should never make them idols. GOD will continuously use even fallen leaders to accomplish HIS ends. Are any of our fallen pastors worse than David or Paul? Do we even know those fallen pastor’s hearts? Their end is part of GOD’S plan. Let GOD sort it out. HE has his plans. HE is in control. Be as the Berians. Look to THE WORD to conform and renew our hearts, as HE alone sanctifies us. We need to keep the mirror of our own sins to bring us daily to our knees in a prayer of thanksgiving that in LORD JESUS our sin debt is finished. He saved us and loves us even as we daily sin. HALLELUJA!!! Grace and peace is for all, so let us guide the lost in HIS love to the salvation that our hurting and broken world so despaerately needs.

  6. Thanks for sharing.

    A few responses to your moving article:

    1. One of the challenges for Baptists is the church polity. Local Baptist churches are sovereign over their affairs. This means that the local deacon board must be extremely diligent. The local church even ordains ministers.
    Southern Baptists in particular have learned that bad actors need to be tracked by the larger denomination. Catholics had the opposite problem of powerful Bishops and Cardinals protecting and moving offending clergy (even out of the country) while powerless congregations stood by helpless.

    2. Jesus told us that “scandals will come.” (Lk 17:1) So, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. The latter epistles in particular point out almost all the internal problems we see in churches today: sexual sins by preachers (2 Tim 3:6); promises that faith guarantees wealth (1 Tim 6:5); exaggerated claims of miraculous (2 Cor 11); divisions over matters of personal preference (Rom 14:1-11); etc., etc.

    3. Paul reminds us from prison that some preachers and teachers do so for bad motives. Yet the Gospel is true whether it be preached with bad motives or not, whether it be preached by a godless actor in a movie or not, whether sung by an atheist singer or not.. (Phil 1:15-17).

    Years ago, i read about a child evangelist who decided to renounce his faith and build a Hollywood career. He went on a revival trail he had done with his evangelist family. He held meetings and recorded them for use in a movie about a crooked, money grubbing evangelist. When the movie came out, one man who had committed his life to Christ at a meeting was easily recognizable because he now ran a Christian radio station. News people confronted him. How did he feel about being deceived? I will never forget his answer: “When I went forward, it was to commit myself to Christ not to the evangelist. To this day, Jesus has never failed me.”

  7. I liked your perspective in the article:)
    Like so many I came out of a toxic “church” after 25 years!!! Arghhh

    So now I’m asking what does church mean ? Original idea of church was? Purpose of church?

    Currently reading Pagan Christianity by Viola and Barna…finding some answers and grieving over what has become of the gathering of Jesus followers over the years since He walked among us and taught us what to do to be salt and light.
    Father, help us!!!

  8. Such a great article Karen. With so many so called Christian leaders “falling” it has become very discouraging to me, even though God’s word is very clear about putting our faith in Christ alone. Romans 3:10 says, “As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one;”. And John 2:24 reads, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.” But it still hurts.

    And yet, it is still a joy to fellowship with followers of our Savior. It’s always good to remind myself that my heart is just as wicked as every other human heart ever, and there, but for the grace of God go I.

    I remind myself of Hebrews 12:1-3 in the New International Reader’s Version,
    “1 A huge cloud of witnesses is all around us. So let us throw off everything that stands in our way. Let us throw off any sin that holds on to us so tightly. And let us keep on running the race marked out for us.
    2 Let us keep looking to Jesus. He is the one who started this journey of faith. And he is the one who completes the journey of faith. He paid no attention to the shame of the cross. He suffered there because of the joy he was looking forward to. Then he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
    3 He made it through these attacks by sinners. So think about him. Then you won’t get tired. You won’t lose hope.”

    Verse 3 is a great reminder.

    Thank you, Karen, for your insightful article and thanks also to Julie Roys for seeking truth in the Christian world of lies and deception.

  9. “Still Baptist” but now voting for pro-choice, LGBT…affirming liberal democrats. I’m equally appalled at SBC elites who push liberal agendas on unsuspecting congregants and use tithes given in faith for the gospel to promote and support such unbiblical lies such as CRT, etc. We need a change in leadership all the way through to our seminaries, entities, and pulpits!
    This includes KSP for conflating abortion with not wearing a mask! What lunacy. God Help the church!

    1. Yes. Just because some leaders fail us all doesn’t mean the principles they pretended to stand for are worthless.

  10. As concerning the Word of life, Luke 10 section 25-28 says: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
    Luke 18 section 18-25 says: A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'” “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
    Matthew 5 section 43-48 says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
    In Old Testament, the Jewish people and their ancestors were given the Law to observe. First, What Adam and Eve should observe was that they could not eat the fruits from the tree of wisdom. Then, their son Cain was told that he should not kill. As sins became increased, the laws were also added more. Up to the generation of Moses, the Law in Old Testament was given to Israelites. We know that the Law is good and the Law is used to punish people who commit sins, but people cannot obey the Law because the sinful spirits are in people. Even that we know stealing and giving false testimony are sinful, but greedy and pride spirits in us drive us to do sinful things. So as Old Testament prophesied we need to get rid of our sinful nature from our spirits.
    Jeremiah 31 section 31-33 says: “The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
    Ezekiel 36 section 24-27 says: “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
    The prophecies are fulfilled when Jesus begins to teach love. The two greatest commandments are ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Love is above the Law and if people have love they are free from the law of sin and death. People who are full of love will not think about stealing or giving false testimony but are merciful and they feed hungry people or give thirsty people something to drink or invite strangers in or clothe people who need clothes. The Law is for people who commit sins. Nobody will say that he will get reward because he does not steal before. But love is the grace we get. And with love we will get eternal life.
    Romans 13 section 8-10 says: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
    Luke 17 section 20-21 says: Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say,’ Here it is,’ or ‘ There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”
    John 4 section 23-24 says: Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

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