As I read Cecil Sherman’s By My Own Reckoning, I was reminded of my own journey growing up in the Baptist culture of the South. Although I am a generation younger than Sherman, many of my experiences were similar to his. I grew up thinking that Southern Baptists were “God’s last and only hope” (a phrase chosen by Bill Leonard as a book title). I was active in the youth group at church, served as a summer missionary with the Home Mission Board, went to conferences at Ridgecrest and Glorieta, attended a Southern Baptist seminary, used the Sunday School Board curriculum (I even wrote some of it!), took the training, did the time, swallowed the Kool-Aid! When I discovered that denominational identity was not all it was cracked to be and could even be idolatry, I went through something of a crisis of faith.
Sherman’s memoir discusses very candidly his commitment to and ultimate disillusionment with the system that had nurtured him. He explains how it was necessary for him to leave one Baptist entity and begin another in order to maintain his integrity. Even though he was a major architect in the founding of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, you detect one who has been burned by an institution in this statement about the founding of CBF, “We knew what we were against; we were not agreed on what we were for, and, truthfully, that indecision still lurks around the edges of CBF” (p. 218) He has no illusions that the organization that he helped to create is infallible or perfect.
The experience of those of us who no longer call ourselves “Southern Baptists” is a warning that any humanly-created institution is inherently flawed and potentially dangerous. In an ordination message, I heard Loyd Allen say to the candidate, “Love God and serve the church.” The statement puts things in the right order. We should not let anything—even the church—become between ourselves and God. We are called into community, but we have a personal responsibility first to God. As believers we are called upon to serve God with faith, love, and integrity. Everything else is secondary. As a friend said to me when I was recovering from the 1990 meeting of the SBC in New Orleans, “Who do you serve anyway? Christ or the SBC?”
Sherman has reminded me that it is important to keep one’s priorities in order.