I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1979 when two momentous events occurred. First, I was able to attend my first SBC Annual Meeting, one that was in every way historic. Adrian Rogers was elected president and the denomination began several years of struggle and transformation. Another event transpired that year – the Chicago Council on Biblical Inerrancy convened to define the term that has become such a political and theological hot potato.
Back at school in the fall, my theology prof was talking about the findings of the Chicago Council. I asked him a question. “Dr. Blum, will the Chicago Statement have any effect on the conflict going on among Southern Baptists?”
He looked at me. “I doubt it,” he said. “Southern Baptists live in their own world and do not, as a rule, interact with the broader evangelical world.” I think that at the time, it was an accurate assessment of SBC life. We had our own schools, our own publishing house, our own missionary agencies. Most importantly, we had our identity, our culture, and our ways.
There were always oddball churches in the SBC. You’d hear of a formal, liturgical SBC church or one that, from time to time, “went charismatic.” But by and large, you could be magically transported into the pews of a Baptist church and tell if it was SBC or not. We sang the same songs from the same hymnal with the same instruments. Our sermons were well-alliterated three-pointers (no, not that kind) with flourishes of poetry and a clear gospel message followed by an invitation. We had Sunday School at around 10, worship at 11, Training union at 6 and evening worship at 7. On Wednesday night you had prayer meeting and RAs and GAs for the kids. The pastor wore a dark suit with a white shirt and a spiffy tie. Churches took up offerings and a strong percentage of 10% or more probably went to the Cooperative Program. We had little thermometers or light-up boards to track our goals for Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. Our preachers all had degrees from one of our seminaries.
Even when travelling you could find the nearest SBC church and feel like you were part of the family. We had a culture and an identity.
Then, everything changed. First of all, our world changed around us. I doubt that there has ever been a fifty year window of time in which cultural attitudes have changed as much as they have in the last fifty years. Think about the world of 1961 (if you can). This is not your mother’s USA! I was watching footage of a sporting event from some time ago. Almost everyone in the stands had on formal wear. For a tennis match! Music has changed. In 1961, parents were moaning about this new-fangled rock and roll. No one envisioned death metal or gangsta rap at the time. TV? I was floored a few years ago to be channel-surfing and find Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in on Nickelodeon, a channel for children. Folks, when Laugh-in first came on it was considered somewhat scandalous and inappropriate for adults. Ten years ago, it was considered suitable children’s programming.
And the Baptist world has changed. I’m not a sociologist, but in my experience Promise-Keepers was one of the Christian world’s defining moments – at least for Baptists. Men went to large stadiums and were led in what we now call contemporary worship – which before had been the sole domain of the charismatics. And they liked it. They came back to their churches lifting their hands in worship and asking for a drum beat and some electric guitars at their churches. Now, according H.B. London of Focus on the Family, studies have shown that musical style is the top priority for people as they search for churches.
In our world, denominational loyalty and brand identity have waned, even among Southern Baptists. Recently I saw a story in the national news about a Baptist church. I wondered it they were Southern Baptist. I went to their website. Honestly, folks, on many Baptist church websites today it is almost impossible to find out if they are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention or not. We hide denominational affiliation like a state secret.
The world has changed and that has left Southern Baptists with an identity crisis. Who are we? What is a Southern Baptist? I have written several articles recently on this, and Howell Scott has also written well on it (though from a slightly different perspective). I think it is time that we made some definitive steps toward defining our identity and the parameters of both fellowship and leadership.
(Note: I will use the term Southern Baptist Identity to describe who we are. I am not referring to the so-called Baptist Identity movement in any of this post, unless I use that term specifically).
Once there was a distinctive Southern Baptist Identity that united us; an evangelistic, missions-minded, theological, social and cultural identity. It does not unite us any longer. Frankly, the concept of the “Southern Baptist Identity” divides us into camps, causing the splintering I have mentioned (and Dr. Lemke mentioned in his series). Many groups lay claim to the mantle of “Keepers of the SBC Identity.” The “Founders” seem to advocate that true Baptist heritage demands that we embrace Calvinism. Others, obviously, say that Calvinism is a departure from the SBC culture we grew up in. Both have a point, by the way. Growing up as a Calvinist in the SBC, I can tell you that we were a lonely bunch back in the 60s and 70s. But there can be little doubt that many of our key founders embraced Calvinism.
But I wonder if the key divide is not more cultural than it is theological. The Calvinism thing is a biggie, no doubt. But I have a suspicion that some of the angst about Calvinism may be focused not so much on the tenets of the doctrine, but the trappings of it. Elder leadership in churches. The Acts 29 network. Moderationism. A more hip, culturally-relevant focus.
We are in a quandary about what it means to be a Southern Baptist. In the middle of the quandary, many voices are stepping in to define the denomination for us.
Howell Scott said this today in a comment.
This is part of the bigger picture and the ongoing struggle for the heart and soul of the SBC and where we head in the future. As to determining who is and who is not a “true SB,” that is an open question that you and others have asked.
I think he is spot-on in that comment – we are in an “ongoing struggle for the heart and soul of the SBC and where we head in the future.” The problem is determining a direction. We all have an idea where we should go, but there is no consensus position.
Here is my thesis: The Southern Baptist Convention needs to define its parameters of fellowship and leadership.
In a sense, this is contrary to Baptist tradition. A church has been a Southern Baptist church by giving to the CP, being in general doctrinal assent to the BF&M and by filing an ACP. In reality, if you give money, even a few dollars, your church is SBC. For over a century and a half we did not really define what it meant to be SBC.
1) It is not contrary to autonomy for the SBC to define the boundaries of fellowship. If we told churches, “this is what you have to believe and do,” that would be a breach of autonomy. But if we say, “this is the basic requirement for inclusion in SBC life,” the church is then free to decide whether it wants to be SBC or not. No church and no person has to be SBC to be blessed by God. The SBC has every right to define the parameters of fellowship, service and leadership as it so chooses.
2) Most of our key constituencies are too large for them to be forced out or marginalized. If we tried to force out any particular segment, we would essentially destroy the SBC. When I was in college and seminary, SBC Calvinists were a rare breed. But now they are everywhere. Will that segment continue to grow? I don’t know. But the Calvinist branch of the SBC cannot be excised without bringing our missions effort to a grinding halt. Current SBC life demands both sides. And the traditionalist/”new way” divide breaks down the same. If the GCR debate and subsequent discussion has told us anything, it is that neither side has a controlling majority. Neither side can force the other out without ham-stringing SBC work. Megachurch vs Minichurch? As Les Puryear has demonstrated, the minichurches (I hope the term offends no one – I just mean churches under 200) make up about 80% of Baptists. On the other hand, the majority of Baptists attend churches that are considered megachurches.
I remember counseling a couple that was having marital problems. But they were also strapped financially. I told them, “You cannot afford to split and divorce, you might as well learn to get along.” That is the SBC. We can bicker and quarrel, but the SBC needs its various constituencies to keep the missions and educations programs we support rolling. If we make some of the splits we have heard discussed, the entire missions program will likely come crashing down.
We simply cannot afford to splinter.
3) So, if we cannot divide, we must learn to get along, to coexist in Christ. Many have pointed out how hard it will be to bring these disparate factions together. I agree. It will not be easy. But it must happen.
Alan Cross made a statement (at least I think it was him) that struck me to the core. The ground of all Christian unity is Jesus Christ. The more we love Jesus, the more we honor him and the more we serve him, the less time we have for some of the quarrels that we engage in. To me, the divisive state of affairs in the SB
Oh, I am not saying that the doctrines of Calvinism don’t matter. We should study, discuss, debate and perhaps even argue these points out. But when we are filled with Jesus we will keep that doctrine (pro or con) in its proper place. We will put serving Jesus together in a higher priority than winning the doctrinal battle. If we are consumed with the love of Jesus, then megachurches and smaller churches will walk together in grace.
We will never be monolithic (and in some ways, we never were.) The SBC is never going to have a single culture again, not unless it is willing to become a small denomination with a small missions program. If we are going to do anything, we have to define who we are and then work together.
I know the “Big Tent” is going to be hard, but I don’t see any other way for the SBC to survive and more than that, to prosper.
Here is my attempt to define the “Bigger Tent” parameters for the future of the SBC.
Note: I’m using denomination and convention interchangeably. I know that some prefer not to use the designation denomination, but maybe we could argue that one another day.
A Proposal for Parameters of Fellowship for the SBC
1) We are Biblical (and Inerrantist) Denomination.
Like it or hate it, the SBC has decided that we are going to be a convention of churches committed to inerrancy and that the belief in the perfection of scripture and its absolute authority over us is going to be mandatory in our seminaries an leadership.
2) We are a Doctrinal Denomination
We are not creedal, but there are some doctrinal standards to which we are accountable. We have set up the Baptist Faith & Messsage statement to further define our doctrinal consensus. And even on some of those issues there is wide dissent. For instance, in Iowa I don’t know of many churches that do not practice open communion. The BF&M defines a form of close communion as our standard. We may need to think through this and figure out what we are going to do about issues like that. A lot of people who have been forced to sign the document have done so with caveats – a practice that others have severely criticized.
Of course, there is a difference between what is required for fellowship in the SBC and what is required to be an employee or a professor. We need to define just exactly what our doctrinal parameters are.
- I believe that the BF&M statement currently adopted by the SBC (2000) should be the sole doctrinal parameter of fellowship in the SBC. No entity or person should be allowed to require participation above that which has been
- I also believe (and yes, some won’t like this) that for churches, the standard is “general agreement” to the BF&M. The document is not scripture and inerrancy does not apply to our doctrinal confession. One needs to be in essential agreement with the SBC doctrinal position. (Duck, Dave. Incoming!)
3) We are a Baptist Denomination
But that means something. It means that we believe in baptism by immersion of believers. Simple as that. Are there other doctrines that are endemic to SBC Identity? Some would say that those who elect elders to lead their churches are outside the Baptist fold. Do Baptist churches have to have flags and give invitations. We have had discussions of each of these in recent months.
I have an opinion. I believe each church should be allowed to decide its own polity and this is not a huge issue with me. For others, these things matter.
My point is that we need to decide. If a church has elders, are we going to disfellowship them? Ask them to stand in the corner? We must decide.
4) We are a Great Commission Denomination
No, lets leave the GCR and its task force out of the discussion for now. We are a missionary sending denomination. In fact, I would say that this the primary reason to even have a denomination today. Simply put, we can do more together than we can do separately.
Now, here is the rub. How much is enough? I really don’t know. We have never set a minimum standard. But times are different now and maybe we need to take some sort of new approach.
- It seems silly that the dollar amount for messengers is the same now it was when I was wearing diapers. Back then, giving $250 per messenger meant a little more than it means today.
- Maybe we should not grant messengers on the basis of dollars, but on the basis of percentage of undesignated gifts. A church that gives up to 1% gets one messenger. Giving up to 2% gives you two messengers, up to the total of 10 messengers.
- I do not think that we can set a specific amount of CP giving for elected office in the SBC, but I can tell you it matters to me when I vote. I had no idea who Frank Page was when I voted for him in Greensboro. But I voted for him largely because of his CP percentage. It is an issue to me.
5) On everything else*, we have freedom
*Those issues on which we do not define participation. I am sure my list here is not complete or exhaustive. I would hope that the discussion will help us define things more clearly.
We can argue any issue, but we must do so as fellow-sharers of the SBC House. We can be Calvinistic Southern Baptists and non-Calvinistic Southern Baptists. We can have big churches and small. We can have hipsters and old fogeys. If we agree that Jesus is the only hope of salvation in this world, that the Word of God is truth without any mixture of error, and if we are committed to making Christ known in this world, we can walk together – even if each of us has a slightly different gait.
This “in Christ” option that Dr. Lemke has defined so well is the solution. We need to walk together in agreement about the Bible, the Gospel, and the Great Commission. And we need to learn to love one another and accept one another on other issues.
We cannot afford to divorce, so we need to learn to live together.