Where a power structure can be wielded for good, a power structure can be wielded for evil.
Friends, Baptists, countrymen, lend me your ears: I come to bury our past, not to praise it. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interrèd with their bones. So let it be with the Conservative Resurgence.
Being Southern Baptist is in my bones.
I professed faith and was baptized at age six in an SBC church, and my life since been decidedly SBC-centric. I remained a member at SBC churches through my adolescence. Then, I went to Italy with the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. After high school, I paid tens of thousands of dollars to graduate from an SBC institution, interned at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, worked multiple stints in Lifeway retail stores, and served as a NAMB Evangelism Catalyst as a group of us served as a launch team for a church plant in East Tennessee. I am now (somewhat hilariously) employed full-time by an SBC church. It’s like I can’t get away from it.
I cheekily wrote a blog post some time ago titled “Fifteen Years a Baptist.” It was my subtle homage to the late Carl Henry’s article on Baptist life with a similar title. In it, I talked about what encouraged me about being a young guy in the SBC. Having freshly arrived on MBTS’s shores, I thought maybe we could be the difference makers — that the group of young men I knew, along with their broader network, could breathe some life into a denomination that felt increasingly lifeless. I hoped we could undo what had been done poorly, and do better in the future.
I’ve since taken that article down.
Two of the men named in it have publicly disgraced themselves. A third has since left the SBC to teach at a more fundamentalist-minded institution. And, as we have learned this week, the fourth one named in it was all but pushed out of his role as an entity head because he was unwilling to cover for abuse and racism.
Making Our Beds at Café Du Monde
What has grown to be something of an origin story, Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson convened at Café Du Monde in 1978 to sketch a plot to take over the Southern Baptist Convention’s power structure. It would be put into action soon enough — they needed to elect a president who would preserve their tribe and allow them to keep power within the Convention.
Jerry Sutton recounts it this way:
“Bill Powell is credited for discovered the key to change in the Southern Baptist Convention, for he is the one who read and reread the Southern Baptist Convention’s constitution and bylaws and discovered that the elected president has appointive powers to the Committee on Committees and the other standing committees. By electing the right president, through the appointive process, slowly and deliberately over time the makeup of the trustees on boards and agencies could be changed. And if trustees changed, the boards and agencies would follow suit; and, in turn, the Convention itself could change.”
I want to suggest that the power struggles unfolding now are nothing more than the vindication of that very meeting in the French Quarter many years ago.
The SBC made its bed at Café Du Monde. Now, we’re sleeping in it — and we shouldn’t be surprised we can’t sleep soundly.
As I have matured, I have found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the way the Conservative Resurgence was celebrated throughout my education and various Baptist institutions. It feels like most of my theological life, I was told that the Conservative Resurgence was a miraculous re-taking of a wayward denomination, correcting the SBC from its ever-leftward drift. It was, according to Jerry Falwell, “the 25-year miracle that we never thought could happen.”
I never remember discussing the troubles of correcting theological problems with political processes in my Baptist history classes.
For a denomination whose primary focus is cooperation, we sure seem hellbent on making sure the “right people” keep all the power. It happened then, and it is happening now. The message in recent years has been loud and clear: if we do not get leadership that is theologically and politically uniform to ourselves, our churches will threaten to withhold our cooperation.
It happened in Morristown.
It happened at Prestonwood.
It is bound to happen again.
If money is power, then follow the power and see where it goes: if you disrupt our political strategy, we will defund you.
Our Superheroes Have Lost Their Capes
I want to be clear: I’m twenty-five. I wasn’t alive for the Conservative Resurgence and the renewed vision of Baptist life. I have no desire to burn everything down. But what I’m watching isn’t the Southern Baptist Convention I was taught to love by older men in the Convention. I was told that all our money was being given to further the Great Commission, not to prop up conmen. I was told that the Cooperative Program was about finding a way to prioritize evangelism amid tertiary theological differences — to, well, cooperate.
I was taught the Conservative Resurgence was about defending the authority of the Bible. I think this is a worthy cause, but only if we believe Scripture is sharper than a two-edged sword even when it pricks our own consciences. I fully support holding entity heads accountable, but I can’t get on board with leading them to the guillotine when they don’t serve our denominational, theological, or political interests.
I was taught these were men to be respected—that Patterson and Pressler should be revered for their role in the Conservative Resurgence, even if we disagreed with them. When people publicly criticized Patterson after his firing at Southwestern Seminary, responses such as this one from Founders were awfully eager to forgive the bad and keep the good.
For how widely celebrated the legacies of Pressler, Patterson, and their work in the Conservative Resurgence were in my coursework and assigned readings, it sure feels like there hasn’t been an appropriate asterisk placed in our history books yet. There should have been by now. Are the countless accusations against them — sexual abuse, mishandling reports of sexual abuse, racist comments, unethical possession of donor lists, and theft of seminary property — are they being written into our history, or will we let them be buried in their impenitence?
Our denominational superheroes have lost their capes, and it ought to be written into our history so it is never forgotten.
We need a new Resurgence that can bear the weight of theological change without requiring a cutthroat politicism. We need to demand better of our leaders. We need to be done with covering up our leaders’ disqualifications so that they may preserve their reputations and prolong their office. We need our hearts to be softened by the Spirit.
I’m not advocating for tearing down the system. I am, however, suggesting that maybe we ought to be more cautious when an entity head installs stained glass portraits of himself—that perhaps we made too much of a few so-called good men and didn’t make enough of the cooperation of churches seeking to equip one another to resource the mission of God.
I’m coming up on twenty years a Baptist, a number that Carl Henry seemed to find significant.
In these two decades, I have seen a lot firsthand.
I have seen multiple friends experience sexual abuse at the hands of their pastor. I have watched multiple mentors fall into extramarital affairs that were predicated on their positions of authority in the church. I have seen men misuse Cooperative Program money by using salaried and expenses-paid trips as opportunities to abuse others. Once my own personal Baptist superheroes, they, too, have lost their capes. And it is written into my personal history so that I never forget it. I never want to see that side of the SBC again.
The things I’ve seen over these two decades as a Baptist have taught me one lesson: where a power structure can be wielded for good, a power structure can be wielded for evil.
I pray to God we wield it for good in Nashville this year.
 Jerry Sutton, A Matter of Conviction, 223.
Cody Glen Barnhart is a Spurgeon College graduate and serves as the Director of Music and Media at First Baptist Alcoa in Alcoa, Tennessee. He previously interned at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and will soon be continuing his education at the University of Aberdeen.