James Sullivan was the longtime leader of the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, from 1953-1975. He was considered an expert on Baptist polity and wrote on it extensively. His book “Baptist Polity As I See It” is a great resource for those wanting to learn more. But one part of the book caught my attention, as he asked what was the ideal position for the SBC in regards to conservatives and liberals. He seemed to accept that there would always be some Baptists who were more liberal than others, and that historically the SBC has been made up of centrists. He also encourages the SBC to avoid extremists and welcome and encourage debate. The graphic on the left is from the same book by Sullivan to illustrate his viewpoint. This is from the updated version of the book, published in 1998. Below is the section presented without comment.
What Is the Ideal Position?
When is our denomination in its healthiest position? It is when about 10 percent of the messengers to an annual Convention are looked upon by Southern Baptists themselves as being more progressive than the masses, with only a sprinkling of those who might be called liberal theologically. It should be emphasized that it is highly unlikely that there are many “real liberals” in the Southern Baptist Convention.
When Southern Baptists are compared with the total sweep of American Christianity, even those who are toward the left in our denomination are still very close to the center of Christian theology (see chart above). Real liberals simply cannot fit into the Baptist concept. By the chart you will see that there is likewise a 10 percent group identified at the right who feel that everything is moving too rapidly to the left for them. They are continuously trying to slow things down or pull every movement toward a rightist direction. Some of these seem to consider themselves as being pulled at times by some unseen gravity which they are resisting continuously. It is actually a pull toward center that they feel, because the bulk of our denomination has never been at the extreme end of conservatism. The Convention can be thought of as having a football shape: larger in the center than at either end. Historically we have been centrists. Certainly that is where the masses of our people are today.
These two groups of about 10 percent each are the ones who debate every controversial issue that comes up on the floor of the Convention. The 80 percent in the Silent Middle listen intently and, by the ensuing discussions, are able to separate truth from error and often can present a motion that will be generally acceptable to Southern Baptists before the vote is taken. This is a healthy process. It is even a necessary process if democracy is to function as intended. While extremists outside the denomination are to be avoided, those smaller extremists within the denomination can render an indispensable service to the democratic process.
It is a situation that encourages vigorous debate, out of which can come more correct answers. This process of precipitating debate on major issues is a welcome and healthy one unless the opposite extremes within the Convention begin to lose their tempers and seek to disenfranchise those who oppose them.
If my observations are correct, the Convention is essentially in the same position in the theological world that it has been over the past several decades. The Convention itself is fairly well locked into a solid position and seeks to make sure that its decisions are corrected by encouraging debate on the part of those who have different viewpoints. It is unfortunate that some people do not like to hear debating. To them it seems like an un-Christian argument. But it needs to be remembered that discussion is the vehicle of correction in a democratic process.
Each side of an argument ought to be considered seriously in the sincere effort to separate truth from error in the minds of all messengers. These free discussions should be encouraged, not silenced.