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.
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.