My Faith Journey
I wrote the first version of this in 2005 for a conversation about “Visions of the Church” in the Faith Narratives Consultation of CTS, beginning, “This has been a difficult reflection for me. . . . My reflection has been to great degree the probing of a wound - a wound discovered in memory.” Wendell Berry observed in The Hidden Wound that memory is the ancestor of consciousness. For eleven years, the probing has continued.
Faith narratives and personal vocation are two sides of a single coin. I grew up Southern Baptist, the son of the Southern Baptist pastor. Thus my life tended to revolve around church. The Southern Baptist Convention during the 1960's and 70's excelled in forming believers in what Bill Leonard has aptly called “programmed piety.” When I was little, I attended an educational program and worship service twice each on Sunday (morning and evening); and missions education, Bible study, and informal worship on Wednesday evening. In the summers I attended boys’ church camp where I met “real, live missionaries,” who were and are revered among Baptists (and discovered that some of them actually knew my parents from seminary!). There I began wrestling with the momentous weight of the need to “make a personal decision for Christ.”
What made this more than “mere program,” though, was that it was undertaken in the community called Calvary Baptist Church of Newton, NC. The saints that I most naturally name and revere are nearly unknown to the wider church: Phoebe Fowler, Grace Boone, Mildred Bost, Cecil Anderson, Gary and Sharon Murry, Jean and Elizabeth Pate, Bill and Jo Styers, Earle and Eulalia Drum, and I could go on in this roll call of what Hauerwas calls the funny lot of the saints. We gathered to hear the Word read and proclaimed; to study the Bible; to baptize and observe Communion (quarterly); to break bread (and fried chicken and meatloaf and vegetables and desserts) at the “Family Night Supper.” We had church-wide camp meetings and we held revivals; we attended missions conferences at larger churches nearby; and we participated in the ecumenical services in Newton - even at St. Joseph Catholic Church (Vatican II had an effect!). Baptists locate ecclesia in locality.
There was, however, a catholicity to my experience – though a parochial catholicity (!) to be sure. That is, the ecclesial life that I described could fit many, many Southern Baptist congregations of the same time with variations, of course.
Lest I make this sound idyllic, I hasten to add that, given the fact that I’m a “PK” (“preacher’s kid”), church and family melding led to tensions. On one hand, the church was a source of nurture. I will always remember the way in which church folk took care of my family when Dad experienced significant heart problems at age 40 and was in intensive care for over a week. They were so genuinely good to us. On the other hand, church always constituted the undefined “responsibilities” Dad invoked as he missed some of my significant moments while growing up. I found that I also had “responsibilities” toward the church – not those required of all believers, but special responsibilities of exemplary behavior because “you’re the pastor’s son.” And there were times when church folk, as we say in the South, “acted ugly” and caused pain to our family.
I must confess that sensing my own vocation was complicated by being the son of a beloved pastor. “You’re just like your daddy,” people would say. “You’ll ‘make preacher’ someday, I imagine.” But I’m not just like my father (as wonderful a mentor as he’s been over the years of my ministry!). And preaching was never something I saw myself doing (though I eventually did it for six years). Galatians 1.10 speaks of seeking to please God rather than “men.” For many, surrendering to the call to ministry indicated one was seeking to please God. But was I? Would going into ministry be precisely the sort of “men pleasing” against which Scripture cautions? Coming to peace with a call that I believe is not simply “genetic” is another story. Suffice it to say, I have been a pastor, and now teach in a theological seminary.
Throughout, my path to and in ministry has had as a companion the enduring pain of ecclesial loss. The church of my childhood and youth was the casualty of significant changes in the Southern Baptist Convention. The church I had known growing up became for me ecclesia abscondita. While it was painful, I will not bemoan this, and really ought not. It brought about a loss of innocence. Yet, to paraphrase Irenaeus, innocence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Though I began my education in the “SBC program,” I had to step away in the middle of seminary, transferring to a Presbyterian school (Union), and from there going to Emory. In my sojourn, I discovered the old SBC Zion was not really the city on a hill. Had I not left Baptist institutions, I may never have had need to turn to the Baptist sources from the seventeenth century and fall in love with their ecclesial vision. Nor would I have made the simple realization that Baptists used to speak and sing about church in ways that differ vastly from Baptists today.
So now, I teach in such a way to introduce my students to the vision and convictions of the earlier Baptists. Perhaps I can help reestablish a sounder ecclesial vision. It’s not revolutionary - but I can see some leavening effect here and there. Yet I sense a continual longing, even as I immerse myself (no pun intended) in what is good in Baptist life today – and there is much good. A maverick Baptist of the 1960's, Carlyle Marney, was once asked why he remained Baptist if he was so critical them. His reply was that being Baptist is like being in a cold, slimy well. He admitted that for years he had struggled to climb up and get out. When he finally surfaced, however, he looked around at all the other denominations - and dropped back into the well. I don’t know if I’m so content to remain in the well. Do I entertain illusions that other ecclesial communions are perfect? Of course not. Yet I harbor concerns about Evangelicalism (especially in light of the current presidential race), even as I “live and move and do my teaching” here. But such is the life of faith. As the Second London Confession of 1677 once said, “The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; . . . nevertheless Christ always has had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.” Thanks be to God.
Philip E. Thompson, email@example.com
Sioux Falls Seminary