This post is the fourth in a series based on the book, “Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future,” edited by David Dockery. The previous post, “Southern Baptist Identity: Southern Baptists in the 21st Century” (link – https://sbcvoices.com/southern-baptist-identity-southern-baptists-in-the-21st-century/) discussed Dockery’s introduction to the book.
On the surface, it seems like a silly question. The SBC is still the largest non-Catholic denomination in America (the world?) and our statistical problems pale in comparison to those that other denominations experience. We have good seminaries, a fantastic worldwide missions program, a successful publishing house and other reasons for optimism. A friend talked to me about their state convention and remarked that it was basically a senior adult convention, but such was not the case at the SBC in New Orleans in 2012. Young whippersnappers were everywhere. There seems to be good reason for optimism concerning the SBC’s future.
However, Al Mohler’s question, in Chapter 1 of “Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future” is legitimate. Is there a future for Southern Baptists? The answer is cloudy. As I tried to establish in previous posts in this series, the glue that held Southern Baptists together in its glory days in the middle years of the 20th Century tended to be cultural and methodological more than it was theological. Southern Baptists rode a perfect storm of Southern Culture to become the dominant faith of the South and to begin their expansion outside that region. But the storm passed and new winds have blown. The CR scrambled the denomination’s omelet and a new culture grew up that is systemically different and even inimical to the culture in which my father’s and grandfather’s SBC prospered.
We are now in the unenviable position of seeking to find a new identity in a new century, without giving up those things that matter most – our biblical fidelity, our congregational polity and our missional passion. I believe that we must redefine ourselves and reestablish our identity in a way that brings the disparate elements of the modern SBC together in a united message, or in 50 years the SBC will be a shadow of what it once was or (more likely) the progenitor of several smaller splinter groups.
Mohler addresses these issues in his typical insightful and comprehensive way. It is my intent in each of these posts to give a summary of each chapter, but summarizing the 15 pages of this chapter will not be easy.
Mohler begins the chapter detailing his journey from cultural SBC legacy to a convictional Baptist and makes a compelling argument that Baptists have always debated our identity. The monolithic era of the 50s, 60s and early 70s was more of an aberration from Baptist history than representative of it. Mohler’s summary of Baptist history is worth the cost of the book.
He identifies three key principles that formed the basis of Baptist identity in history (even before the SBC was established).
- Regenerate church membership: Only those who have professed faith in Christ and been subsequently baptized are members of the church. This stood in contrast to the other Reformation churches.
- Believer’s baptism: tied closely to the first. Baptism is only for those who have professed faith in Christ and not for infants.
- Congregational church government: While there have always been disagreements about how this works, Baptists historically have held that the “covenanted community must take responsibility for ordering the church.”
Issues That Face the SBC
Having defined these historical principles, Mohler then examines five sets of issues that we must face as we define our identity for the future – theological issues, organizational issues, parachurch, technological and demographic issues, cultural and moral issues, and financial issues. Each of these sections would be worthy of a post in and of itself (and I have not yet decided whether to do that). But the first section, theological issues, is the one I found the most fascinating, and will be the focus of this post.
Theological Issues in the SBC
Mohler traces the history of the controversy that erupted in 1979 at the Houston SBC and is now known as the Conservative Resurgence. The flashpoint in 1979 was not the beginning of the struggle, but the result of decades of tension between two conflicting parties, which he calls the truth party and the liberty party. The liberal theology that had come to dominate many seminaries began to filter into SBC life and raise concerns among grassroots Baptists. By the early 1970s these two parties had emerged within our denomination, and the CR forced people to take sides.
- The truth party believed that doctrine was the key issue facing us and was concerned about what it perceived to be the intrusion of liberalism and heterodoxy into the SBC. This grassroots movement among concerned Southern Baptists became an organized effort when a couple of men met at the Cafe du Monde.
- The liberty party valued individual freedom and was suspicious of the efforts to impose doctrinal standards as an imposition on soul competency and the priesthood of believers.
As one who lived through this era, I think this is a fitting description of the heart of the denominational battle of the 70s and 80s, which devolved to the state convention level in the 90s. Mohler makes it clear that these parties were a matter of priority. Those in the truth party also valued freedom, but thought that liberty within the SBC had to be limited. Most in the liberty party also valued truth, but resisted imposition of doctrinal parameters which would limit that freedom. The SBC pendulum swung through the years as the truth and liberty parties vied to capture the heart and set the direction of our denomination. Eventually, the truth party won the day (at the national level, at least) and the leaders of the liberty party headed for the exits.
The elements of the modern SBC have all descended from the truth party. Calvinists were part of the truth party, as were the non-Calvinists. SBC (cultural) traditionalists and contemporarians are likewise the offspring of the truth party. There are a few elements of the liberty party who remain within the SBC but they do not have a significant place at the table.
Mohler makes a passionate plea for the SBC to embrace its commitment to truth. We live in a world that is gradually devaluing truth and doctrine to embrace a squishy and weak theology, averse to the division that doctrinal debates often cause. In this world, it is more important than ever that we stand against he tide of theological compromise and stand strong in our doctrinal integrity. In this vein, Mohler makes four important points.
1) The SBC must fully embrace classical orthodoxy.
I have been amazed as I presented my series (called “Brick Walls and Picket Fences”) at how many Southern Baptists recoil from the idea of building a wall of protection against unorthodox teachings that undermine the gospel. I have always advocated for Southern Baptists to have as big a tent as we can possibly have for our denomination – one that included Calvinists, modified Arminians and every point along the continuum between them, that welcomes traditionalists with their ties and coats, hymnals, and organs and pianos as well as those young whippersnappers with their drums, electric guitars and light shows. But that big tent cannot be an infinite tent. There has to be a limit. We must embrace classical orthodoxy.
His discussion of the “democracy of the dead” was intriguing. We must realize that Bible study did not begin with us. While there has always been heterodoxy and heteropraxy in the church, there have also been faithful students of God’s word who have established a corpus of truth to which we must align ourselves. It is a modern arrogance that many think we can discover truth that no one has every seen in the history of the church. Our allegiance is to the Word of God, but we must also hear the voices of those faithful students of the Word of God in history.
What is required for classical orthodoxy? We must believe that the Bible is completely trustworthy and authoritative, that the trinitarian God is the creator and sovereign ruler of the world, that Jesus Christ is the God-man who lived a perfect life and died a substitutionary death for us and physically rose as Lord of all, that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone and that Jesus will return to consummate the world in glory.
Here we stand.
2) The SBC must embrace a “robust confessionalism.”
It was amazing during the 80s to hear Southern Baptists argue that holding our seminary professors and other denomination servants doctrinally accountable was somehow inappropriate and a violation of Baptist history and tradition.
Mohler took over a seminary that had been the home of what he calls “thin confessionalism.” I had a lot of personal experience in college with graduates of Southern Seminary and the teachings of some of their professors. One such professor spoke at our college’s spiritual emphasis week and maintained that Jesus did not intend to die, but that he was the victim of forces beyond his control. One Southern professor advocated the doctrine of apostasy – that Christians could lose their salvation. Yet these professors, and others of their ilk, signed the Abstract of Principles, a strongly conservative and Reformed doctrinal statement. They could only do this by maintaining a thin confessionalism (and thin ethics), finding creative ways to justify signing a doctrinal statement to which they did not, in reality, give assent.
Mohler wants a “thick confessionalism” which demands more than just a creative assent to doctrinal standards, but a passionate embrace of that body of truth that defines us as Baptists. It ought to be a privilege, he argues, for people to say:
“I stand on these truths with this covenanted community. ad as a matter of mutual accountability before God, and under the authority of Scripture, we join together to hold ourselves accountable to contend faithfully for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, even as we address the urgent issues of the contemporary hour.”
Of course, application of this concept is more difficult that its theoretical statement. We have such a thick confessionalism at the denominational level. No one has to subscribe to the 2000 BF&M to be a good Christian, but if you do not subscribe to that document in principle, you ought not draw your living from our entities or institutions. Bringing this to the church level is a much more difficult process.
It would be easy to forget principles of soul competency and the priesthood of believers and impose a sort of creedal authority. But neither is the “believe whatever you want and be a Baptist” ethic of the liberty party healthy for churches. We must find a way to embrace this robust confessionalism without straying into creedalism.
Lots more thought and discussion needs to go into this one.
3) The SBC must seek a recovery of Baptist principles.
The three principles defined earlier need to be reestablished among us – regenerate church membership, the importance of baptism, and the importance of congregational polity.
4) The SBC must embrace theological triage.
That term infuriates some people, but every one of us practices it. In my series of posts, “Brick Walls and Picket Fences,” I delineate four levels of truth. Mohler’s theological triage (very similar) identifies three levels. But such triage is absolutely essential to the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Every Baptist practices triage at some level, even those who bristle at the concept. If someone denied the Trinity, would you invite him to fill your pulpit. I would not and I hope you would not. But would you invite someone who believes differently about the details of the Second Coming? My youth pastor holds a different position on this than I do. We hired him knowing that! Doctrinal disagreements are not all the same.
It is not that some doctrines don’t matter, but that we must respond differently to disagreements on different doctrines. Using Mohler’s rubric, First-order issues are those which define Christians. If you do not believe first-order truths, you are outside the boundaries of classically orthodox Christianity. If you believe that it is possible to find salvation without faith in Jesus Christ, you are not part of us! Second-order issues are those who define us as Baptists. You can be a classically orthodox Christian but not believe in the Baptist distinctives like biblical baptism (of believers by immersion as a symbol of salvation) or congregational church government, but you are not a Baptist, or more particularly, a Southern Baptist. Third-order issues are those that we can disagree on and be both Christian and Baptist.
- You can be a Calvinist, a modified Arminian, or anything in between and be a Baptist.
- You can believe in strict tithing or not and be a Baptist.
- You can believe in abstinence or moderation in terms of alcohol consumption and be a Baptist.
- You can have a pastor led, deacon led, or elder led church, as long as their is healthy congregational oversight, and still be a Baptist.
- You can prefer tradition or contemporary worship and be a Baptist.
List the issues that we argue over in the SBC and few of them (very few!) are either first-order or second-order. That does not make them unimportant, but it does put our discussions in perspective. We need to realize that these are family discussions, not “us against them,” “Baptists vs non-Baptists” arguments. One of the fundamental mistakes many have made in these discussions is to define their position as “the” Baptist view, intimating that those who hold other positions are not legitimately Baptist.
Our tendency to make first or second-order doctrines of third-order issues is unfortunate.
If Southern Baptists are going to go forward and prosper in the future, we must heed these calls from Dr. Mohler and define our theology carefully while agreeing to accept as fellow-soldiers and Baptist partners those who disagree on tertiary issues.
I am not sure if I will do another post on the other issues in this chapter. Again, I encourage you to get this book and read it. If I were the Baptist Pope, every SBC employee and pastor would read this book and we would have an extensive discussion to define our identity as we face the future.