Photograph by Clay Banks via Unsplash

Unity through diversity

June 20, 2024

I recently listened to VOX’s Today, Explained podcast episode “Separation of Church and Church,” which discussed the recent vote by the United Methodist Church to repeal its long-standing ban on gay and lesbian pastors and officiating gay marriages. Host Noel King and Methodist historian Ashley Boggan discussed the theory that “As go the Methodists, so goes America.” This idea suggests that every significant social issue the United States has faced since its founding has also been reflected in the theological and ecclesiological conversations within the Methodist Church during similar moments in history. The podcast concluded that while the Methodist Church has undergone significant change at a great cost, it did so without violence—a stark contrast to the historical shifts in the United States, which have often been marked by violence.

While the episode focused on the Methodist Church, it’s important to note that the intertwining of denominations, local churches, and American history is not unique. This experience is shared by any ecclesial body meaningfully engaged in contextual ministry. No church or denomination exists in isolation from the societal and cultural contexts in which they operate. If we are truly living in the love of Christ, we must engage with Scripture, history, and context with wisdom and grace.

American Baptist Churches USA, its ministry partners, and local churches also have a rich history of wrestling with difficult conversations, matters of justice, and contextual dynamics. We, too, could claim, “As go the Baptists, so goes America.” Our Baptist cloud of witnesses reminds us of moments when we pioneered and faithfully modeled religious freedom, the modern mission movement, access to education, racial and ethnic equality, the commissioning of male and female clergy, and the provision of care for the homeless, the sick, and the elderly. We have planted churches, mission sites, hospitals, and senior adult living centers, founded colleges and seminaries, and published countless millions of pages of Christian content. We can be proud of these moments and should celebrate those who have gone before us.

Like America and the Methodist Church, we can also reflect on the times we failed to live up to the best version of the church and Christlikeness in all these issues and more.

Our 2023 ABCUSA Biennial Mission Summit theme was “For Such a Time as This.” Every workshop, speaker, and activity centered around reflections on this advice for Esther, who had to make a courageous decision fraught with danger. It was a beautiful display of how American Baptists can gather together in the unity of Christ without forced uniformity of identical theological and social perspectives. We prayed, sang, and celebrated the work God is doing in and through the many tributaries of American Baptist life.

However, even after courageously facing down her enemy using every resource available to her, Esther’s story ends with deeply complicated, revenge-soaked genocide. While modern church disagreements in the United States may not rise to the level of genocide, they can inflict spiritual, emotional, and mental scars. Many disagreements are navigated on the sandy foundation of false dualities—biblical vs. unbiblical, in vs. out, right vs. wrong. Equally unfortunate is our tendency to equate a democratic vote with discerning the work of the Holy Spirit. This has been especially visible since our shared experience with COVID-19. If we vote 51-49 on whether to mask or not mask at church, sell or not sell our building, or hire or fire a staff member, we often consider it the work of the Holy Spirit.

And yet, here we are, for such a time as this.

What if we took this season of political and social uncertainty to bear witness to Christ while living in a pluralistic society? What would it look like to elevate our Baptist principles, demonstrating what a life with God looks like when held in healthy tension?

The United Methodist Church will take final and definitive action this summer to change its internal polity. This decision has already caused 25% of their congregations to leave, with more likely to follow. This public and grievous split of Christian unity cannot serve as a foretaste of America, as the statement “As the Methodists go, so goes America” suggests. America cannot lose 25% of its people except through a sudden mass migration or other earth-shattering catastrophe.

But what if American Baptists took this moment in our shared history to lean into the possibility that “As American Baptists go, so goes America?” What if we took this season of political and social uncertainty to bear witness to Christ while living in a pluralistic society? What would it look like to elevate our Baptist principles, demonstrating what a life with God looks like when held in healthy tension?

What if we demonstrated to the Church and America how to submit to biblical authority while still debating scriptural interpretations within a church community? Can we extend autonomy to every local church and mission society while insisting on living in associational interdependence? Can we uphold the importance of separating church and state while meaningfully engaging in faithful citizenship? What if we did all this without sacrificing any of our churches, congregants, societies, Baptist distinctives, or our souls?

To engage in this level of conversation, we must trust one another in ways our cultural context, built upon suspicion, will not initially understand. But if we can have safe conversations for everyone involved, we can strengthen and forge new relationships without fear. We can navigate difficult conversations because false dualities are not the only way forward. We can explore new missions and ministries together because we will share mutual wisdom rooted in Scripture. What if we chose to express and joyfully experience love with, toward, and for others in the name of Christ? What if we refused to act as cosmic bouncers, deciding who is and is not worthy of coming to the Table where Jesus is the host?

The 2025 Biennial Mission Summit will be held for the first time in Omaha, Nebraska, a state and city filled with diversity and beauty. It is also a place of strong American Baptist distinctives held in tension with an ever-shifting missional landscape. I believe we can faithfully live into our theme, “Come Seek Living Water” together through our shared convictions about Christian truth, love, and Baptist distinctives. With Christ as our foundation, Scripture as our guide, trust in God’s people, reliance on our Baptist distinctives, and enough practice, we can be a community worthy of emulation.

In this, we could hope that someday others will say, “As go the American Baptists, so goes America.”

Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula is executive minister, American Baptist Churches of Nebraska. He is author of Table Life: An Invitation to Everyday Discipleship, published by Judson Press. Visit to learn more about his ministry and writing projects.

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

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