How Southern Baptists are Destroying Their Distinctives – Sort Of (by Nick Graves)

I received this submission anonymously a couple of days ago. I thought it was worthy of posting, but am reluctant to post anonymously, unless there is a good reason. So I emailed the anonymous “Baptist Person” who submitted it. Lo and behold, he identified himself a Nicholas Graves. He was posting anonymously because his mother and my sister are the same person. Be nice to Nick. With his family background, he deserves sympathy.
As a layman who has interest in my favorite denomination, I have some observations about Southern Baptist distinctives and ways we may be shifting away from them. I’m not usually all doom-and-gloom about the SBC, but I’m going to try today because it makes for more interesting reading. I’ll do my best to not be too hopeful. Since this is a blog post and not a scholarly article, I’ll speak in generalizations and refrain from posting my sources. If you want to call me out on something feel free to do so, and I will frantically search Google to find a source that backs my claim. I also think I made up at least three words in this post.
1. Congregationalism
A growing trend in American evangelical churches is the multi-site church. This trend is also growing in the Southern Baptist Convention. Some of the SBC’s largest churches are multi-site churches. They usually have a lead pastor and centralized administration that oversees the different campuses or churches. Aside from terminology, how is this different from episcopacy? This is certainly more pronounced in cases where there are different preachers a the campuses (rather than the video-conferenced sermon or the traveling preacher) and in cases where sermon material or content is unified throughout the campuses. In what way is this different from a bishop passing down a standardized liturgy? If Southern Baptists are committed congregationalists, they should reject the multi-site trend.
On the other hand, it’s probably good that churches re-evaluate the pastor-and-deacon-board-and-sometimes-whole-congregational church government that was popular in the twentieth century. Is it biblical? Are there other biblical forms of church government? Although I don’t agree with the multi-site church phenomenon, I do think that a re-evaluation of the standard Baptist church government is in order. Like most card-carrying members of the YRR, I’ve come to believe that multiple elders in one church is the most biblical position. 
This is not to say that I believe that the churches that have adopted the trend of one elder for multiple church campuses should be excluded from the Southern Baptist tent, unless they’ve also decided to reject the Resurrection or some other essential.

2. Religious Liberty
Baptists have always been advocates of religious liberty, and some of the most important advocates of religious liberty in America were Baptists, including Roger Williams and John Leland. It is such a major part of Baptist identity that some Baptist liberals decided that it was the only Baptist distinctive and that it should be applied internally as well. This is part of the reason that we had the conservative resurgence. Conservatives recognize that religious liberty should not apply inside the church, only in the governmental sphere. Since the 1980s, conservative Christians gained some political power in the United States. It helped keep conversation alive on some of the important culture-wars issues, such as gay marriage and abortion. Unfortunately, we may also have developed a Ameri-Christian utopia complex.
Trevin Wax, in a recent  post about young Southern Baptists said, “Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon.” It’s not a matter of perspective, though. The U.S. is sliding further and further from both its Deist-Jewish-Christian roots and the nominal Christian culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Looking solely at the issue of homosexuality, American culture has come to a place of light persecution of conservative evangelical Christians. Excepting only a radical divine intervention, it doesn’t seem that this is heading in the right direction.
Conservative American Christians (including Southern Baptists) are on the defense now. It’s not ideal, but it certainly doesn’t help to hold on to the good ol’ days of widespread nominal Christianity.? We need to learn to re-claim the idea of religious liberty and defend it. We need to defend it 
I know I said I wasn’t going to sound hopeful, but I think that Russell Moore and the ERLC are taking the right steps to guide that institution the right way.
?3. Theology & Cooperation
Theology is really important. Biblical theology should be taught in every Sunday School, small group, sermon, hymn, and Bible study. We should live that theology out in our daily lives. Unfortunately, I think that theological discussion in the SBC is confused about the distinction between essential and important.
The Southern Baptist Convention has a mission: “to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world and to make disciples of all the nations.” It is important for the SBC and recipients of its resources to have correct theology, otherwise the gospel being spread is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is why the conservative resurgence was both right and necessary. But it seems like some got so caught up in the fight against liberal theology that when the liberal threat was diminished, they turned their rhetorical war-machines to people who disagreed with them on other matters. The vague areas of the BFM are the new battleground, with the Calvinism-Armininism, continuationist-cessationist, and the worship wars. It is important to have discussions on these issues, and it is good to have a position (so long as it is backed by Scripture). It is not good to try to exclude people from the cooperation and mission of the SBC based on these matters. What separates Christians from non-Christians and Baptists from non-Baptists are essential to the work of the SBC. Calvinism and worship music are important, but should not be grounds for exclusion.
There are also debates (well, they’re usually one-sided) which are both non-essential and non-important. Let’s focus on the Gospel and not bother with these.
With the exception of very few, I think that this problem is actually on the decline. Oh, there I am being hopeful again! I’ll stop now, though.
4. Regenerate Church Membership
“Can I be a member?” “Sure!” 
Liberal doctrinelessness, 1950s programism, super-individualism, and seeker-sensitivity combined forces to conspire to make church membership as streamlined as possible. Conservative Southern Baptists should work to make it more difficult. It doesn’t do any good to have a non-Christian church member. It provides false assurance to the unbeliever, and it’s like the herd providing the wolf with the sheep’s clothing.
I know that I promised that I wouldn’t be too hopeful, but I will say that I’ve noticed that no-requirements membership is on the decline. In two of the last three churches that I’ve been a member of, I’ve had to take a class and tell leaders my testimony before joining. (I hope that the fact that I’ve had several inter-state moves in the past five years will combat my reputation as a church-hopper.)
Bonus Comment! Many people lately have been talking about millennials or YRR or young Southern Baptists. I’ve quoted one above, and I know that Rachel Held Evans claims to speak for my whole generation. While I generally would fall into all three of these categories, lists of our attributes sometimes seem way off.  For example, I love hymns, and I think every Christian song written in the past 50 years except “In Christ Alone” is horrible. Doesn’t sound very millennial, does it? It needs to be said that all of these generational characteristics are very generalized. If not, it becomes a kind of mass astrological paradigm.


  1. Dave Miller says

    Hey, Nick, I thought this was pretty good even before I knew you wrote it!

    By the way, don’t be too influenced by Gramps. There are some pretty good songs out there today besides “In Christ Alone.”

    • says

      Nick, if you have a Gramps who doesn’t like much of the contemporary music, please be influenced by him. I think he outranks Dave. 😉
      (My father was “Gramps” in our family, so I have a sentimental attachment as well.)

      I really enjoyed your article. I would quibble with a few things (such as taking class for church membership), but your warnings and encouragement are well stated. It is good to hear from a Baptist layman. We need to hear more from them. I encourage you to keep writing.

  2. Dave Miller says

    And I found Trevin’s line fascinating, “Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon.”

  3. Dale Pugh says

    So what does it say about me if I see the U. S. as Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile? (Or even Israel at the time of the Assyrian conquest?)

  4. Dave Miller says

    Anyone have any thoughts on the piece itself, not just Dale’s silly gravatar?

  5. says

    I think these are things that are being lost among SB, as distinctives at least. It used to be that any SB church from Georgia to Texas to Oklahoma would feel the same, but not so anymore.

    But the question is this a good thing or a bad thing? I would venture to say it’s neither, if I can ride the fence a little bit. As long as we maintain our hold on the Bible as our sole source, we will be okay.

    Some of those things are responsible for getting us in the spot we are in today. Like all ideas, they are fine in theory, but in practice over many decades they become distorted from the original vision, and may be due for a course correction.

    • Nicholas Graves says

      I really believe that the Bible should be the only certain and final source for Baptist theology and practice, but we don’t do anyone any favors by keeping that as the only Baptist distinctive. Baptists need to clarify their interpretation of the Bible, and stick by it. I have respect for a lot of Presbyterians, and I believe that they hold to sola scriptura, but they shouldn’t be called Baptists. We need certain distinctives (including believer’s baptism) to differentiate us from Presbyterians and Lutherans and so on.

  6. says

    I think you have a point. Let me pose a question. Re. your last paragraph, what are some particular things that started good but may now be in need of a correction?

    I offered this question to Luke but would be interested in anyone who would reply.

    • says

      “what are some particular things that started good but may now be in need of a correction?”

      Well, I think it’s always healthy to evaluate all things once in a while, even things that appear to be working well. As for some of the things that could use some correction, I would go with many of the thing mentioned on this site in various places:

      -The Invitation system
      -The CP – Can there be a “fix” to raise giving?
      -Cooperation among other churches
      – Lifetime Membership in the church
      -There has been a push, for a while, to change how messengers are seated at the SBC, with membership and giving and what not.

      And even theology. Sometimes our theology can be influenced by the times and culture, so it would be good to go back and make sure we are on point biblically.

  7. says

    I am going to make a bold statement. The Southern Baptist Convention as it exists today will not exist when I am reaching retirement age unless there are some major changes. The way theology is taught and argued, the way the incumbents treat the emerging, the way the emerging react to incombants, the divides that exist will tear the SBC into 2 or 3 denominations in 50 years if pride and ego isn’t set aside, we stop using Cooperage models of success, the pastor with the biggest church is in charge and we don’t start considering what is best for the small, rural, not Southern church. As a 37 year old Southern Baptist who is not in ministry by no choice of my own, I can tell you that many of my generation and those behind me will walk away, will begin smaller denominations, local groups and join networks. Like it or not, the more time passes, the less tied to this denomination they will become, and unless we adjust now, we will cause our own demise.

    • says


      Will you prove to be a prophet or not I will not speculate. As a 70 year old SB who has pastor and been a DOM for 50 years, I will say that 50 years ago I said the same thing.

      What you have described is not new. It was that way when I was a young pastor and we are still here.

      The question: “Will God have His hand on SB for the next 50 years?” If He does then no force from hell will destroy us. If He does not, does it really make any difference whether or not we are here?

    • Nicholas Graves says

      I disagree with you, Dan, but I’m more curious with what you think needs to be changed in order to prevent the dissolving of the SBC.

      Also, I tried looking up “Cooperage models of success”, and I couldn’t find anything except barrels and hot tubs. What are you referring to?

  8. Bart Barber says

    Preparing to induct him into the Baptist Identity Brotherhood. He just has to promise not to show the secret handshake to his uncle.

      • volfan007 says


        I was thinking the same thing. And, I was gonna ask Nick if he was related to anyone in TN, who is now dead, who had the initials, JRG? But then, I saw where he was related to Dave Miller, and lived in Iowa. So, I figured there was no way Dave could be related to anyone related to JR Graves.

        What about it, Nick? Are you kin to the ole Landmarker?

        And, all of us, Baptist Identity guys, are soooo glad to see that you’re related to Dave Miller!!!!



        • Dave Miller says

          I’m pretty sure there is no attachment between my brother-in-law and the ancient Baptist. I’ve done enough genealogical work on our family tree to state that with some confidence.

          And you are all liberals.

        • Nicholas Graves says

          No relation as far as I know, and I don’t think I’m related to the first President of Baylor either.

  9. dr. james willingham says

    Dear Nick: Permit me to allay your worry about multi-site churches not being congregational. The multi-site church is no new innovation. The first example (that I know of in Baptist history) was Sandy Creek Baptist Church; they some times called them arms, but they were really multi-sites for the same church. They just had some members living in one area and some in another and some in a third. Sandy Creek Church had its original site on the Sandy Creek after which it was named, and then there was Rocky River and Rock Springs (which might have been called Haw River at that time) and a fourth one (but I can’t recall its name). I have had the privilege of preaching in one of the sites, the Rock Springs Church from whence came one of the famous Southern Baptist leaders – no less than Basil Manley, Sr. He was baptized in the Haw River. O, and by the way, I preached in the Southern Baptist Sandy Creek Church building to the pastors of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association (twice, if memory serves). I have also stood in the Sandy Creek Church building now owned by the Primitive Baptists which was built before the split.

    The theology of the Association, regardless of what some think they know, was Calvinism (really Sovereign Grace would be a more biblical term), and there are about 8 lines of evidence which establish that. However, it was the Separate Baptists, especially in Virginia and Kentucky (and, likely, along with those in North Carolina among other states), who made provision for the variance on the issue of Christ tasting death for every man (preaching that will be no bar to communion). You can read about that in the history of Virginia Baptists. There are those who do not want to hear it, but the reality is that there was no allowance for variances on Total Depravity/Inability, Unconditional Election, and the other Doctrines of Grace. Fifty years after the agreement was made (1787), churches were being founded on that basis as far West as Missouri. As time passed and Southern Baptists mellowed more, they allowed for more variations, but there is no real grounds for a departure from Sovereign Grace until the 1900s. There were those who were beginning question the theology, but generally Dr. James Petigru Boyce was able to help many of them to see the light. I know of at least one who never did and who wound up pastoring a noted church in North Carolina.

    The real reason for the ability to deal with doctrinal differences is due to the structure of the biblical precepts which underlay our doctrines, that is, every doctrine involves two poles, two apparently contradictory ideas, which are not meant to be reconciled. On the contrary, they are meant to be held and believed in order to produce the tension in the believer’s mind in order to enable him or her to be able to respond to situations as they arise in a manner appropriate to the event.

    I think we will survive the vicissitudes of our problems today, and we will go on to greater and better things. Of course, I could be wrong as I am sure D.L. will be happy to tell you about the many instances he knows.

    Hey, David, send me your email for a blog submission, and I will write a blog about that dog mentioned in another instance which might humor the folks needing a laugh. At least, D.L. might laugh, if he had not heard it so many times.

    • Dave Miller says

      Frankly, knowing the home life he had growing up, I’m surprised he writes this well.

    • Andy Miller says

      Curiously, I think he’s my uncle’s sister’s son. I do hope the Graves name doesn’t throw too many off toward 19th Century Trail of Blood theories.

      • Andy Miller says

        And Nick, I agree on much of what you’re saying. I would comment more, but this sister of mine from Dallas is flying in and needs me to go pick her up.

      • Nicholas Graves says

        All these relatives! I’ll go with it, but I do like some of the medieval Catholics. Is that bad?