I have friends who believe that the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC was a work of God that turned a denomination from the path of ruin which other denominations have followed. I have other friends who think the CR was a political shenanigan, a power-grab that had little to do with theology. They do not admit that there was a genuine problem with liberalism and see the CR as a tragedy which has ruined our denomination.
I think there is some truth on both sides.
I was a foot soldier in the CR. I attended the Houston convention in 1979 and was thrilled when Adrian Rogers was elected president, a turning point in our denominational life. I attended a few of the conventions during the 80s, as time and money allowed. I was there at the 1990 SBC when Morris Chapman won a landslide victory in an election many thought would reverse the history of conservative victories. After that decisive victory, the CBF was formed and the moderates threw in the towel as far as the national SBC was concerned and took the battle to the state conventions. All I ever did for the CR was cast my vote and speak to my church about the issues. I was never one of the leaders (I was a young whippersnapper back then) nor was I an organizer. I just attended and voted my conscience.
I checked out of national SBC life soon after that 1990 convention. I moved to Iowa where we had bigger fish to fry, just trying to survive as SOUTHERN Baptists in the frozen north. Our state convention and state paper intentionally left national SBC political information out because we did not wish to be divided by the things like that. I attended a couple of conventions in the years I was in Cedar Rapids (1991-2005) but usually only because they were in Orlando, where my parents lived (Kissimmee) and it was an excuse to take some vacation time.
Then, the IMB controversy hit in 2005 and I got interested in national politics again. I had just finished a 2 1/2 year term as president of the Baptist Convention of Iowa and had moved to Sioux City, so my focus on state convention life waned and I became involved in national Baptist life again, through blogging.
The CR was the kind of war you do not soon forget. Those of you who are young whippersnappers cannot, perhaps, understand how it was back then. It was war, bloody war! On both sides. (Moderates like to present it as an attack from conservatives on innocent and peace-loving moderates, but that is historical revisionism at best – both sides brought out the big guns.) It was a war that left an imprint on this denomination and has continued to affect us more than 20 years after the shooting war ended.
(For those who object to the militaristic wording, all I can say is I think it is an apt description of SBC life in the 80s.)
Here are some of my persectives, nearly 25 years later, on the CR and its effects on our denomination.
1) The CR was a battle that had to be fought.
It was an ugly epoch in the life of the SBC, but I am thrilled that it happened. I would not be SBC anymore if it had not. I have heard more than one person assert that there was not really a liberalism problem in the SBC. Others have said that inerrancy was not a significant issue, or was a smoke screen.
I saw liberalism first hand. I attended a small Baptist college and I experienced the effects of liberalism. I saw the debilitating spiritual legacy of liberal teaching on the lives of those I entered school with and who were my friends. All of our professors were from Southern Seminary except one who came from SEBTS. They undermined or ridiculed every doctrine I had ever been taught in church. The complete truthfulness of scripture. The uniqueness of Christ. The existence of the devil as a real entity. The substitutionary atonement of Christ.
One OT professor started class by saying that there was no such thing as predictive prophecy. Any such prophecies in scripture were actually written later and falsely claimed as prophecies. In a Hebrew class, he said these words, “Let’s face it men, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammend; they are all just different flags under which God flies his name.” Overhearing a conversation I was having with another student, he recommended that we correct our theology by watching the John Denver movie, “Oh, God!”
We had a well-known professor at our Spiritual Emphasis week tell us that Jesus did not actually come to earth intending to die, but that his death was the result of political miscalculations.
When my school cleaned up the religion department the year after I left, the OT prof went to teach at Midwestern Seminary, until he finally settled in a Virginia Baptist college. Another of my profs became president at one of the CBF-affiliated seminaries that formed after the CR.
I went to SWBTS after a couple of years at Dallas Seminary, and I encountered a mix of conservative and moderate profs.
No one can tell me that there was no real liberalism problem. I saw it firsthand. I sat under the tutelage of men who were not just moderate; they were Bible-doubting, Blood-denying, faith-crumbling false teachers, and I did not want their kind to spread in the SBC. I went to conventions not for any desire for political power. I loved the Word and was committed to Christ, and I was then, as I am today, convinced that doing nothing in terms of liberalism in the SBC was far more damaging that joining the fight.
2) The CR had too much collateral damage.
From my observations, the number of liberals in the SBC was relatively small. I think there were three primary groups during the conflict. First, there were liberals who were undermining the faith. There were conservatives who joined the fray and were determined to root the liberals out of the SBC. The third group was a significant group. They were conservatives who believed everything other conservatives believed, but did not see the need for the war or did not like the way the war was being carried out.
It was my belief then and I remain convinced today that my side, the conservative side, made a huge mistake in drawing the orthodoxy line at the political level. Those who believed what we believed but did not join in the battle against liberalism were viewed as enemies of the faith. Better that we had tried to win them than target them.
Too many genuinely conservative men were labeled as liberals because they did not support the tactics of the Conservative Resurgence.
3) The CR created a warrior class.
The fact is, though, it was war and it was easy to think that if you were not with us, you were against us. If you voted for the other side, you were the enemy. I thought that was a mistake, but it was an understandable mistake in the middle of a pitched battle such as was being waged in the 1980s.
But, unfortunately, that warrior spirit has survived and there is a tendency, especially among some of those of my generation and older, to carry that into many of our modern denominational battles. The CR was over a fundamental issue of the faith. Most of our battles today are between groups which fully affirm the BF&M and are committed to Baptist theology.
But that warrior mentality, the us-against-them, we-are-fighting-for-our lives mentality is not easily left behind. I’m a pretty conservative guy in every way, but I have been labeled a moderate more than once by bloggers who disagreed with positions on denominational issues. I am afraid that many of the controversies we face today are the spiritual children of the warrior mentality we developed in the 1970s and 80s.
Anyone ever noticed that churches that start out of splits tend to be prone to splits in their existence – something in the spiritual DNA of the church. I am afraid that the CR left something in the DNA of the modern SBC that leaves us prone to fighting and splintering over issues that do not matter.
4) CR Warriors sometimes fought with fleshly tactics.
Paul told the Corinthians that believers had weapons of warfare that were spiritual, not carnal.
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:3–5
I am afraid that too often we adapted the weapons of the flesh to fight this battle. If, as I believe, the battle was righteous, we could have eschewed some of the more extreme tactics that were used and eventually accomplished the same aim with less collateral damage. It is easy to say that now with 25 years of space, but I said that (to the four people who listened to me) back in the days of the battle. I sometimes did not like the weapons my side chose, even though I agreed with the aims for which we fought.
There was a tendency common then which is still seen commonly today – the “fight fire with fire” mentality. The other side was political, scheming in secret meetings, and we must do the same. I never accepted that argument. We are told to return good for evil and are specifically prevent by scripture from fighting fire with fire.
I am thrilled with the results of the CR. I am not proud of all the tactics that were used.
5) The CR won the war, but did we lose the peace?
Today, Japan and Germany are our allies. Why? Because when we defeated them in WWII, we then set about rebuilding them. We not only won the war, but we won the peace as well. The USA prospered because we made our enemies into allies.
There were a significant number of true conservatives who either stayed out of the war or even sided with the moderate/liberal side. When the shooting war was over and the reformation well under way, we should have reached out intentionally to the non-aligned conservatives and made them welcome in the SBC.
Too often, we continued to ostracize and view with suspicion those who did not join the cause. If the USA can turn enemies into allies, could not the SBC (with the help of the Holy Spirit) have done the same?
Those are my reflections on the CR in the SBC. I am glad the battle was fought and won. I think the SBC is healthier today than it would have been had we done nothing. I shudder to think where we would be today if the CR had not happened. On the other hand, just because the goal was worthy does not mean that everything we did was right. Some of our tactics were fleshly and extreme and this has left an imprint on our denomination.
I am thrilled that we can today move forward as a conservative, inerrantist denomination. I hope that never changes. But we must also deal with the effects of the CR on our denominational life.
One man’s opinion.