Photograph by Helena Lopes via Pexels

Two Baptists sit down for breakfast

April 18, 2024

Two Baptists sit down for breakfast. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it happened at the National Prayer Breakfast. House Speaker Mike Johnson and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries differ widely on many policy issues, but they are both Baptists, the kind that actually go to church. You might think that would bring them closer together, but if you think that, you really don’t know Baptists. Johnson is a conservative Republican, and when asked about his views he said, “Go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it – that’s my world view.” Jeffries is a liberal Democrat and quotes the Bible on social media. With that common ground, how could they end up so far apart on the issues? I suppose it’s kind of a Baptist thing. It happens when you combine the Bible as your source of authority for faith and practice with a belief in the priesthood of all believers, the idea that the Holy Spirit can speak to and through every disciple. That approach can lead to fireworks at congregational meetings, in church parking lots, and in the halls of Congress.

How are we supposed to discern a Christian way through the issues of today…and still be brothers and sisters in Christ? St. Paul pleads with the Colossians: “We are asking God that you may see things, as it were, from God’s point of view by being given spiritual insight and understanding.” (Col 1:9, Phillips)

I am reminded of the opening chapters of Charles Sheldon’s 1897 classic, In His Steps. We know his big question: What Would Jesus Do? One hundred years later, that question was revived primarily as a personal faith question. You might still have a WWJD bracelet. We challenged our youth groups to examine their friendships, their dedication (or lack thereof) to schoolwork, their respect for parents, and their moral choices with WWJD.

In the 1890s, though, Sheldon’s focus was in a different direction. “What Would Jesus Do?” meant his characters wrestled with how to handle their wealth and address poverty, what can be done to address the effects of alcoholism, and the value of each human in God’s eyes. Leaders of industry addressed labor relations issues with workers in their companies and the newspaper editor questioned the place of reporting on boxing matches and scandals. Some even attempted to gain political office in the face of governmental corruption.

Both in the 1890s and the 1990s, asking what Jesus would do could quickly become complicated. Sheldon is remarkably honest about that struggle in the book when those willing to take the WWJD challenge for a year meet in the hall after worship.

First Rachel Winslow wants to know what would be “the source of our knowledge regarding what Jesus would do.”[i]Pastor Maxwell concludes that the only way to know would be through a study of the life of Jesus, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Sounds like a Baptist to me.)

The railroad superintendent wanted to know what to do if others say that Jesus would not do what we have chosen. Maxwell admits that will happen and you can only be honest with yourself and God. (Sounds like Baptist soul freedom).

Finally, President Marsh asks about uniformity. Will it be possible that everyone will reach the same conclusion? The response was “No. I don’t know that we can expect that.”[ii]

House Speaker Mike Johnson and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries differ widely on many policy issues, but they are both Baptists, the kind that actually go to church. With that common ground, how could they end up so far apart on the issues? I suppose it’s kind of a Baptist thing.

What do we do when sincere believers end up in different places? Charles Sheldon went west with those questions in mind to become the pastor at Central Congregational Church in Topeka, KS and get away from the formality and stodginess of the East. He arrived at a time of enormous industrial growth, as the Great Migration was beginning, and witnessed visible effects of alcoholism on families. He was known for “boarding around.” He would pack up and live among various groups (streetcar operators, college students, railroad workers, newspaper men) in Topeka to find out the real problems and possible solutions. In response to unemployment, after church one Sunday, he put on work clothes and spent a week trying to find a job. He spent three weeks living in Tennesseetown, a Black section of the city, to better understand their poverty and experience of prejudice. Along the way, he heard Christ’s call to start a Black Kindergarten so parents could work; to establish job training programs to dispel the common thought that poor people were lazy; to start a newspaper that followed WWJD principles. These and more became the concerns of the characters in his books. Charles Sheldon championed a social gospel that implored Christians to hear Christ’s call to meet the needs of those around them even though an echo might be, “Jesus would not do that.”

Church historians Norman Maring and Winthrop Hudson noted that, “Early Baptists advocated a responsible freedom which had certain recognized limits…” Soul liberty did not mean Christians are free to adopt any view they want. That would lead to chaos.[iii] In Sheldon’s book, Pastor Maxwell mentions two boundaries. They would not all agree on what Jesus would do, but it “must be free of fanaticism on the one hand and too much caution on the other.”[iv]

I remember congregational meetings where people wrestled over the Vietnam War and becoming convicted over racism. I don’t remember the specific arguments. I do remember that the meetings were often followed by communion, not because we felt like it, but because it was what Jesus would do. And it made all the difference. It brought us back home.

We cannot expect this conflicted culture to understand such things. Their question is simply WDIW: What do I want? Or Who is on my side? For them, when things get bloody, there is nothing to wash it away and restore any type of unity. Mike Johnson and Hakeem Jeffries may never agree on anything but Jesus, but I like to think they may be asking the questions because they are listening for “God’s point of view” in a battle over power and love. And so should we.

Rev. Dr. Paul Bailey retired in 2021 from the Eastwood Baptist Church in Syracuse, NY. In addition to over 40 years of pastoral ministry, he was an adjunct instructor in Communications at Onondaga Community College for 15 years.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Charles Sheldon, In His Steps (Adventure Edition). Nashville: W Publishing, 1988, p. 17.

[ii] Ibid., 18.

[iii] Norman Maring and Winthrop Hudson, A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1963, p. 5.

[iv] Sheldon, 18.

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This