This picturesque metaphor is used to talk about forces that are so large and obvious that they demand our attention. If the gorilla comes our way the best strategy is to move out of the way quickly. What the gorilla wants, the gorilla gets. A quick Google search this morning find the image used for corporations, departments within a company, the US, etc. When faced with the 800 pound gorilla, the most common strategies seem to be denial (“What gorilla? I don’t see any gorilla.” or “He’s so harmless he wouldn’t hurt a flea.”) or belligerence and attack (which, if you’re also an 800 pound gorilla may or may not work).
Here in East Texas the 800 pound gorilla is the Baptist Church. Even most of the non-church attenders are baptist by excuse. Since baptists are not only the most numerous, but quite often the most articulate about their faith, their understanding of the nature of Christianity has become the de facto standard to which all others must reply.
Some within my church tell me we need to go on the attack. They hear that certain baptists are telling our students at the high school that they’re not real Christians because they’re not baptist. Sometimes this claim comes in different formulations: “Real Christians follow Jesus’ commands. Jesus plainly commands baptism. Baptism means immersion. You haven’t been immersed, therefore you haven’t really been baptized, therefore you’re not a real Christian;” or, “Are you saved? What? You don’t use that terminology? Come to my church and we’ll tell you how to get saved.” I’m told that I should go talk to those baptists and tell them to leave our kids alone. In other words, I need to go confront the 800 pound gorilla.
I don’t think attack is an effective strategy – for several reasons. First, the idea that baptists are the bad guys is simply wrong from a Christian perspective. Some might be overzealous. Some might be too narrow minded. Some might have drunk too deeply of modern individualism. But if we think that the baptist who says the non-baptist is worthy of attack because of his sub-Christian theology, and respond with a tu quoque type of argument (“You too!”) we’re not doing any better.
Second, I have great appreciation for baptists. I’m not sure I would be a Christian today if it hadn’t been for the influence of various baptists during my high school years. Their evangelistic passion and labor is not only an example for us all, but it is a blessing to us also. I wish United Methodists had as much as they did. If we did, we’d be a lot closer to our founder John Wesley.
I also appreciate baptists for their ability to articulate their faith. Ask a United Methodist what he or she believes and chances are you’ll get a vague answer about the love of God, and maybe a little more. Ask a baptist and chances are they’ll not only tell you about the love of God, but also about the problem of sin and how Jesus came and died for the sins of the world and how through faith in him we can be forgiven and have eternal life.
Because of our fear of the 800 pound gorilla, we’ve too often made the mistake of defining ourselves negatively in relation to the gorilla. We’re not sure what exactly we believe, but we know we’re not baptists. Since evangelistic passion is associated with baptists we eschew it. Oh, we’ll do “church growth” – clean restrooms, modern nursery, plenty of parking, and an effective follow-up strategy for visitors, but passionate evangelism? That’s for baptists. Fear has caused us to forget our heritage. We’ve forgotten the bold evangelistic passion of early American Methodists like Peter Cartwright. We’ve forgotten John Wesley who told his preachers (all lay preachers, by the way), “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work.”
Certainly we may have a different take on evangelism than the baptists. But it’s not as different as our avoidance of it indicates. (I remember an incident with William Booth. A woman came up to him once and said, “Sir, I don’t care for your methods of doing evangelism.” Booth replied, “I don’t care for your methods of not doing evangelism.”) The baptist mistake is the tendency to assume no one is saved – so they’re always preaching basic Christianity and the need to get saved. The methodist (Since I’m Methodist I can speak for my own tradition) mistake is the tendency to assume everyone is saved. We’ll preach growth, we’ll preach the need to be nice, to be socially active, but totally avoid the issue of whether people actually have faith in Jesus.
We’re also being motivated by fear when we identify articulacy as a “baptist” trait. If we were to learn to define ourselves over against the world (and all identity work requires the use of the via negativa, the willingness to say what we’re not) instead of baptists – and other groups for that matter – we’d be making major progress. I’d much rather ground our kids in the bible and in solid theology grounded in it than teach them to settle for inarticulate mutterings. The bible says we’re to love God not only with our heart and soul but with our mind. The objective is not dogmatism, but understanding and the ability to articulate that understanding.
SO that’s my third reason for not going on the attack. Attack is a strategy of fear. “Mr. Gorilla, I’m so scared. You’re such a bully. Won’t you please leave me alone? Pretty please with sugar on top?” And this is supposed to accomplish what? My abject surrender?
So, if I refuse to go on the attack, is denial my only option? I’m I forced to say that there is no problem? Nope. Instead I choose to operate from a position of strength and responsibility. First, even though I’m more committed to the Christian tradition than I am to the United Methodist tradition, I think the latter is worth standing for. Now my commitment to the former leads me to much difficult work with the latter, but I’m convinced it is worth it. Since baptists (and presbyterians, and catholics and orthodox, etc.) are also part of the larger Christian tradition I and my tradition can learn from them also. Since I see us as part of the same larger tradition I also think they can learn from us and act accordingly. Participants in other Christian traditions may not think they can learn from us, but that’s their problem not mine. I’m going to loving act like God intends us to mutually bless each other.
This is a primary action of taking responsibility. We are responsible for our own tradition. We are responsible for developing our articulacy. We are responsible for winning our kids to Christ. We are responsible for grounding them in the Word. We’re responsible for living before them an exemplary Christian life. We’re responsible for reaching our community for Christ. Saying “The baptist will do that” or “The baptists made me not do that” are simply excuses for disobedience. Worse, they’re denials of our Methodist heritage.
So as for me, I plan to continue standing up for myself and being responsible to God regardless of what anyone else thinks. I’ll continue to pray for God to bless my church and the baptist churches. If others choose to be dopey, ignorant or rude, that’s their problem. They are responsible for themselves.