“I found the idea that faith must be owned very compelling,” Freeman said. “That was something I had never experienced before.”
Freeman’s early track led him directly into theology and the pulpit. He attended Baylor University and then Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, graduating in 1980. He completed a Ph.D. at Baylor in 1990 while also serving as pastor of several churches in and around Waco. From 1987 to 2001, Freeman taught in the Department of Christianity and Philosophy at Houston Baptist University.
Never static in his beliefs or his style, Freeman often found himself in tension with established practices in the church. Although he was a Baptist, he continued to appreciate the history, structure and liturgy he had learned in the Episcopal Church. And as his scholarship and reading of the Bible changed, Freeman saw that he didn’t fit neatly into the Baptist Church—especially in the South.
The fit became even less comfortable in 1988 as political divisions in the Southern Baptist Convention took the national stage in San Antonio, Texas.
W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and an influential voice among Southern Baptists, preached at a pre-convention pastor’s conference on “the curse of liberalism” in America and among Baptists. “Because of the opprobrious epithet ‘liberal,’ today they call themselves ‘moderates,’ ” Criswell said to the gathering of thousands of Baptists. “A skunk by any other name still stinks.”
“I was horrified,” says Freeman, who attended the conference with a small group from a church in Eagle Lake, Texas. “I realized that there was no point trying to fight a political battle between left and right. I wanted to find a direction that articulated the faith in a positive way that wasn’t just the negation of fundamentalism.”
Realizing that neither his theology nor his politics would be welcomed in the Southern Baptist Convention, Freeman took to calling himself an “Other Baptist” as he continued to explore his beliefs. Although he has refined the idea of what it means to be an Other Baptist, much of his initial premise has remained intact.
“I find myself happy with neither lukewarm liberalism nor hyper-fundamentalism,” Freeman says of the Other Baptist perspective. “I am committed to following the teachings of the Bible that I understand, but I am also open to receive more light and truth that I don’t yet understand.”
Freeman practiced what he preached at West End Baptist Church, a small, racially diverse congregation in Houston where he held the misleading title of interim pastor for eight years.
Church members were rich, poor and middle class. Some were Republicans, some were Democrats and some had no political affiliation. But all worked together to support a thriving food pantry that, at its peak, served 400 families a week; to develop a strong youth ministry and mentoring program that helped prepare 13 Hispanic youths for college; and to revitalize worship services to the point where Freeman was preaching four times each week.
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