Life always gets in the way of blogging, and it has happened again. I started a series a few weeks ago called “Building Better Baptists.” My premise is that our problems are not denominational or structural, but heart problems. Today, I read a Facebook post in which a pastor accused our president of defunding the IMB. If you know anything about J.D. Greear, you know his church is our most active in sending missionaries and funding the IMB, yet this pastor had no guilt about publicly posting an accusation against the character and integrity of this man of God. This kind of false accusation is repeated dozens of times daily on social media.
We lie, we falsely accuse, we fuss and feud, we walk in the flesh instead of the Spirit, and we wonder why the SBC isn’t prospering.
My first post was an allegory, written perhaps with a brickbat and wholly lacking in subtlety, but making the point that our problems are personal and local, not national or structural. We have heart problems that must be dealt with. In my second post, I traced the decline of the SBC since 1950, evidenced by Ed Stetzer’s statistical analysis. We were a denomination built on a cultural symbiosis with Southern White culture of the post-Civil War era and we grew. I am not denigrating all our forebears. God uses flawed servants, like our slavery-loving founders or their segregation-loving descendants, and this old, fat Iowa preacher who has his own set of flaws which I’d rather not talk about, thank you.
The main problem in the SBC, in my opinion, is a lack of denominational identity. We used to know who we were – Southern folks with Baptist beliefs, but that began to change. Our Baptist beliefs are constantly under attack and we must keep fighting that fight even though the Conservative Resurgence. The Southern culture began to change but the culture in SBC churches did not. We tended to hold onto an idealized version of the 50s and 60s as if they were an almost perfect representation of the New Testament church and held out a return to the “old ways” as the solution to our problems.
When the Southern Culture that held us together fractured, we began to fly apart. Some people found identity in some things, others found identity in other things. Often, groups of Baptists asserted that their identity was Baptist identity and demanded others to conform or face ostracism, censure, or marginalization.
Some groups have formed on doctrinal grounds, laying claim to true Baptist identity. Their theology WAS Baptist theology. Perhaps the first to do this the Founders, a group whose name lays claim to the heritage of those who established the denomination. It is inaccurate since our founding Baptists were both Calvinist and non-Calvinist. A group that self-described as Traditionalists also sought this mantle. They were the inheritors of Baptist “tradition,” the true Baptists. Other groups, such as 1689ers and others have also sought to define their doctrine as true doctrine and the genuine basis of Baptist Identity.
Some groups have advocated for a more political twist to our theological identity. The recently formed Conservative Baptist Network is committed to cementing the SBC’s ties to Republican politics. Their name accuses other Baptists, who hold to inerrancy and the Gospel of grace, of not being conservative. Their primary sin is not fully supporting Trump and the GOP. To many, the identity of the SBC needs to be political conservatism and loyalty to the GOP.
There are strategic and ideological identities. Some want to return to the good old days while others are more focuses on new methods, contemporary worship, and modern strategies.
The simple fact is that if you ask 100 Southern Baptists what makes a Southern Baptist and they will give 107 different answers. We have no unifying principle, no glue that holds us together.
If we do not forge a new and shared identity for Southern Baptists (Great Commission Baptists) then we will fracture permanently and fatally.
What do we do?
1. We must construct a new identity for the SBC that unites us in an era when our culture no longer does.
The days of monolithic Southern culture are gone and they aren’t coming back. We must build something new, something more biblical.
That is the purpose of this series of posts. I will attempt to define what we need to do to “Build Better Baptists” – at a personal level, at a church level, and at a convention level.
2. We must properly diagnose the problem.
That is what the last post was all about; If you didn’t read that, please do so. It is central to my thesis.
3. We have to look to the future, not simply long for the past.
The SBC is a past-loving convention and we need to become forward-looking,. Much in our past is noble and worth remembering, especially our doctrinal forebears who built Baptist theology and practice. They should be remembered, honored, and learned from, but we cannot simply look to the past.
You cannot drive if you only look in the rearview mirror. This is a changing world and we must be looking forward. Our gospel cannot change or it is no gospel. We need not change our biblically-formed convictions. Many of our cultural, social, and traditional stances, though, can change. We can change the way we relate to minorities.
Is there any tradition we wouldn’t be willing to change to better reach the world in the future?
4. We must distinguish what is Gospel and what is culture.
I was shocked today to read a criticism of the optional name-change. Our name, Southern Baptist, reflects a cultural history that is gone, but people were clucking that changing to “Great Commission Baptists” was a sign we were abandoning our biblical ways for cultural things. Say what?
I am one of the last holdouts in my area having a Sunday Night service, and some seem to think that it is a biblical imperative. It isn’t. Sunday School didn’t start until the middle of the 19th Century. We tend to make optional things into absolutes and absolutes into options. That is a problem.
5. We must remember our duty is to please God, not culture.
In 2 Timothy 4, Paul warned that there would come a time when people would not abide sound doctrine, but would simply want their ears tickled with soothing words, words that buttressed their beliefs. It is easy to do that in flag-waving, culture-warrior churches and it is easy to do in left-leaning, woman-preacher-loving, gay-affirming churches.
It isn’t about pleasing our culture, whether it is a left-wing culture or a right-wing culture. It is about preaching God’s word.
Part 1 of this series was Building Better Baptists: An Allegory