This article is a reflection on “Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future,” edited by David S. Dockery. This post is based on the Introduction, “Southern Baptists in the 21st Century,” also by David Dockery. The introduction to this series appeared yesterday.
How important is your rear-view mirror?
It is an important aid in driving, but you cannot make progress through busy streets if all you do is stare behind you!
I’ve known a few Baptists who are trying to steer toward the future by gazing only in their rear-view mirrors! Every problem we face has arisen because we stopped doing what we did back in the 50s and 60s and the solution is to revert to the way things used to be. Preachers in suits and ties, standing behind pulpits flanked by a piano and organ, leading singing from the hymnal, preaching 3 point topical sermons (alliterated to at least the second subpoint!) from the King James Bible, holding spring and fall revivals, maintaining an outreach-based Sunday School (using the principles of the Sunday School Growth Spiral), having RAs and GAs and operating broad-based SBC-approved programs for all ages. If we would simply do today what we did then, we would see today what they saw then!
On the other hand, there are many who want to throw out the rear-view mirror completely. What is past is past and should be rejected as we engage the future. We need to leave behind the outdated relics of Southern Baptists’ (somewhat proud and somewhat shameful) past and move forward with a bright, shiny new SBC that looks nothing like my father’s SBC.
Both of these are mistakes. We cannot drive forward looking only in the rear-view mirror, but neither can we navigate the heavy traffic of today easily while throwing away our rear-view mirror and completely ignoring the past. There is a balance that we need to find here.
But it is a tricky balance. How does the traditionalistic SBC, which once had a monolithic and almost universal cultural bond, face the future where those cultural bonds have been shattered? This is, I believe, the key issue that faces us. Since I have been blogging, we have had our share of major kerfuffles, some of which became brouhahas, and a few turned into ruckuses – one or two even became all-out melees. We have argued over IMB policies about baptism and private prayer language, about tithing, about social consumption of alcohol, about the GCR and the GCB, and of course, the granddaddy of them all, Calvinism. But I think that each of these blogging brawls was a symptom of a deeper question – who are we in this modern age? Are we traditional or culturally progressive? Are we cessationist or continuationist? Calvinist or not? Who are we today?
At the risk of opening a can of rotten worms, I would make an observation about the Calvinism debate. The most noted organization of Calvinists in the SBC calls itself the Founders. A few months ago, a document was published which identified its signatories as “Traditionalist Baptists.” I think it is fair to say that both of these names are seeking to accomplish the same thing – laying claim to the heart of Southern Baptist Identity. As the uniform culture of days gone by has faded, there is an uncertainty concerning who we really are and we all want to lay claim to being the mavens of our denominational heritage.
The monolithic SBC culture of the 50s, 60s and 70s has crumbled. I reflected on this in an article called, “The Tie That Binds? The Sea-Change in Southern Baptist Culture.” In that article I traced the forces that broke down the monolithic culture of the days gone by and made some suggestions about how we could go forward. Much of what I wrote there was based on my reading of this introduction to Dockery’s book.
But, here we are. Bemoan it or rejoice in it, the fact is that our monolithic SBC culture is gone (or at least rapidly going!). There is little profit in complaining about it or wishing it were not so. We are no longer joined by denominational loyalty and cultural similarity. We need to define a new basis for our denominational existence or the process of fracturing will continue until we are a dozen smaller groups that used to be the Southern Baptist Convention and the once powerful SBC is a subject for church history books. We have to find a new basis for cooperation as a denomination that is not founded on cultural uniformity.
We need to figure out who we are, to engage in a process of denominational self-discovery that defines our identity.
Dockery gives some important insights about how we might go about doing that in the introduction to this book.
Summary of “Southern Baptists in the 21st Century” (pages 13-21)
Dockery begins with a discussion of the now-crumbled monolithic SBC culture I have already reflected on and makes the following observation (pg 14):
Today, Southern Baptists seem to be a gathering of loosely connected, if not balkanized, groups. By and large, we don’t know our heritage, our history, or our theological identity.
He then identifies our great need, building a consensus on Southern Baptist Identity that can unite and renew us as a denomination. But he also gives a warning, one that I believe is crucial.
We will need to distinguish between markers of Southern Baptist identity and markers of Southern Baptist consistency. In doing so, we can emphasize primary and core convictions.
The danger to our denomination, he argues, is not in those minor things that separate us, but in our common enemies – the rising tide of “liberalism, neo-paganism, and postmodernism that threaten to swamp Southern Baptist identity in cultural accommodation.”
Having defined the problems we face, he then establishes two broad categories of identity that ought to unite us as Southern Baptists.
First, Southern Baptists must be united by our “Convictional and Confessional Beliefs”
In a culture that eschews even the idea of an identifiable body of truth, we need to hold to a “normative, doctrinal confession.”
What is needed today is a renewed commitment to confess and teach the truth in congregations, academic institutions, and agencies across the SBC and literally around the world.
Of course, this is easier said than done. We have a doctrinal confession, the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000. But many either disagree with the confession (especially on the issues of biblical definitions of gender roles and family life) or are finding the confession to be inadequate. The IMB trustees did not think that the BF&M adequately defined baptism or excluded people with charismatic leanings, and so they added policies that went well beyond what is justified in the BF&M. Some of the resolutions and motions offered at the SBC, especially in NOLA this year, as an attempt to establish a non-Calvinist view as the proper Baptist interpretation. And, of course, LifeWay recently came out with a study that demonstrated that the majority of Southern Baptists are ignoring the BF&M in their Lord’s Supper practices at the local level.
All of that is not to pick fights on those issues, but simply to observe that we have a lot of work to do in defining the basis of our cooperation in doctrinal and theological terms. It is my belief that Southern Baptists need to say, “I am willing to cooperate with anyone whose doctrine and practice conforms to the BF&M 2000, regardless of disagreements on other issues.” I am convinced that Calvinists and non-Calvinists can do more than coexist – we can cooperate in missions and ministry! Of course, Calvinistic crusaders and anti-Calvinist campaigners will never coexist easily, but the rest of us (Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike) can form a broad middle of cooperation in spite of the warring extremes. Cultural traditionalists and progressives can unite around our common doctrine while approaching ministry in vastly different ways – and respect and bless one another in the process.
But, as Dockery notes, it would be a horrible mistake for us return to the days when doctrinal heterodoxy was permitted in the name of Southern Baptist unity. We need to unite around a perfect Bible, a Risen Lord, and Baptist convictions – as defined in (and only in) our common confession, the Baptist Faith and Message.
Second, we must unite around “Collaborative and Cooperative Service.”
We can no longer unite around “programmatic pragmatism or a cultural homogeneity” but must join together in cooperation as an increasingly diverse group. Here is what he says:
Southern Baptist in the twenty-first century are rapidly changing. A quick look reveals that we are Asian, Hispanic, black, brown and white. We have dark skin and light, we are young and old, our churches are small and large , and we worship in rural communities and in sprawling metropolitan areas. We are educated and uneducated, well known and anonymous, bloggers and non-bloggers, rich and poor, theologians and practitioners, and while we remain predominately Southerners, SBC congregations are found across this land in the West, East and North as well. One of the things, however, that gets the attention of the wold and authenticates our confession is the way Christians love each other, celebrate our diversity and serve together in harmony. I believe the absence of such love and cooperation breaks our Savior’s heart.
Wow. Let that one ferment a while, folks.
He continues that we need to have both streams, “collaborative cooperation” and “convictional confessionalism” and not to choose between the two. Our witness to the world and our denominational effectiveness is heavily compromised when our interactions are marked by cantankerousness instead of love for one another.
Initial Steps for Renewal
Dockery closes the introduction with list of twelve initial steps toward SBC renewal.
- Appreciate the best of Baptist history and heritage.
- Balance a commitment to the material principle of the gospel and the formal principle of inspired Scripture.
- Maintain a full-orbed doctrine of Scripture.
- Refrain from imposing doctrinal straitjackets on issues that do not warrant such.
- Recognize that a confession of the Bible’s truthfulness is an important safeguard against the pressure to conform in a rapidly changing culture.
- Reclaim a model of dynamic orthodoxy, rooted in the consensus fidei of the church.
- Remember that Southern Baptists have historically reflected considerable diversity.
- Take seriously the biblical call to unity.
- Remind ourselves where we might be if it were not for the Conservative Resurgence.
- Develop a new spirit of mutual respect and humility as we serve God together.
- Build a new consensus around the gospel of Jesus Christ (as was present at the first Triennial Convention of 1814 and the inaugural Southern Baptist Convention of 1845).
- Trust God to bring renewal to the SBC as we do theology, church and personal relationships as they were intended to be.
I think this last point is key. Our biggest problems are not the things we fight about. They are the symptoms of the problems. Our biggest problems are heart problems that can only be solved by repentance and a return to God’s Word, his will and his ways in all we do.
What a shame it would be, Southern Baptists, if having been rescued from the slow death caused by the poison of theological liberalism that other denominations have ingested, we would commit denominational suicide through division and fleshly behavior.
I encourage you to get Dockery’s book and read it (pages 13-21 for this post), then join in the conversation.
Let me end with my fundamental belief. Most of the stuff we argue over in blogs is evidence of a deep problem among Southern Baptists. We have no idea who we are. The cultural basis of our unity has washed away and we are left wondering what unites us and even in many cases, if it is worth being united at all.
What say you?
- The next discussion will be of Chapter 1, entitled Southern Baptist Identity: Is There a Future? by R. Albert Mohler, beginning on page 25.
- Trevin Wax live-blogged a conference that was held at Union University, October 6-9, 2009, called “Southern Baptists, Evangelicalism and the Future of Denominationalism” which dealt with many of the same issues that were raised in the Southern Baptist Identity book. His summaries are good additional reading if this topic of our identity as a denomination interests you.