When a great tree splinters, it loses the strength to stand and eventually it crashes to the ground. Is that the future of the Southern Baptist Convention?
There can be little doubt that the SBC is splintering. In a Baptist Press article yesterday, Gary D. Myers referenced a series of articles by Steve Lemke, the provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which were published recently at SBC Today. The articles explored the doctrinal and stylistic divides that are pulling Southern Baptists apart. I wrote an article last October at sbcIMPACT that touched on many of the same splinters that Lemke mentions in his article. That article is the basis for what I am writing here, though essentially rewritten.
We have two options right now. We must either find a basis for unity, something bigger than our divisions which will unite us, or we will splinter first into factions and then into a dozen much smaller and probably less effective denominations.
I believe the future of the SBC is on the line. I do not think that is hyperbole at all. Many disdain both denominationalism and our convention itself. Not me. I love the SBC though I think there is much wrong with it. I want it to survive and succeed. I think it would be unfortunate if the current impetus toward divisiveness, exclusion and schism is allowed to continue to the point where our fault lines become fractures.
There are two bases of unity around which the Southern Baptist Convention must unite. First, we must have a unified theology. We do. Southern Baptists have decided that we are a convention of inerrantists who believe that those who profess faith in Christ should be baptized by immersion. The problem comes when people try to add doctrinal definitions to that ground of unity. We must, as a denomination, define the lowest common denominator of our fellowship. “What d0es someone have to believe to be a Southern Baptist?”
We also need to unite around a common purpose. That purpose, of course, is the Great Commission Jesus gave us. But last year, when our leaders attempted to inspire a “Great Commission Resurgence” it did more to reveal our fault lines than to heal them. It is clear that we do not agree on how to obey the Commission given us by our Lord. We must decide how methodologically monolithic we want to be. Will we work together in spite of our different convictions, styles, approaches and strategies. Can the megachurch movement and those who disdain it coexist? Can traditionalists and the culturally relevant find a way to respect each other and work together in one denomination?
We were once united by common opposition to a greater threat. Many of us were concerned about the heterodoxy developing in the SBC, especially in our seminaries. We united to say “no” to the impotence of liberalism. We did not let our divisions over secondary doctrine divide us when we were united in our stand for fundamental and essential doctrine. When that battle was won, the secondary issues suddenly came to the forefront. Once the Battle for the Bible was won we began to fight the Battle for My Interpretation of the Bible.
Now, we are a fractured denomination. No one can deny that. I think we all realize that we are stuck in the mud, spinning our tires and going nowhere. The problem is that we are all pushing and pulling in different directions. Some are trying to push the denomination forward and some are trying to push us backward. Some want to push to the right, others to the left. We are pushing in all directions and the car stays stuck.
What are these different constituencies? What are the key groups that are pushing and pulling to set the direction of our denomination for the future?
Key SBC Constituencies
Obviously, these groups are not as clearly defined as they will seem in this discussion. There is a lot of overlapping and group-sharing going on. But from my observations of the SBC and especially the blogging world I would identify the following groups. They are largely the same groups that Dr. Lemke identified as well. I will try to describe these groups as fairly as possible, though I am sure some of my preferences will come through.
The Calvinism Continuum
Who can doubt that one of the most divisive elements in the SBC in the last 20 years has been the rise of Calvinism. When Calvinism was a distinct minority, it was tolerated if not respected. But then came the Mohlerama! Southern Seminary’s fidelity to the Abstract of Principles was restored and Calvinism began to spread quickly. As it spread those who disdain Calvinism became alarmed and began to push back.
I’m guessing that everyone is mad at me now. I am not trying to be pejorative here but descriptive. I think we all have to agree that the Calvinism question is our most obvious fault-line right now. There are, of course, two key constituencies here.
In 1993, Al Mohler became president at Southern Seminary. There has always been a Calvinist faction in the SBC, but Dr. Mohler brought the doctrines of grace into the mainstream. Suddenly, Calvinism was cool. Southern is producing young pastors who love God’s Word and who take the task of expositional preaching seriously. As they have moved into churches in greater numbers, Calvinism has moved from the sidelines to the headlines in the SBC. Along with what they call “the doctrines of grace” Calvinists have also brought some ecclesiological issues into the SBC, such as the plurality of elders.
2) Anti-Calvinism (non-Calvinism)
With the rise of the young Calvinists movement came a push-back. There are many, some in prominent positions of leadership, who see Calvinism as a deterrent to evangelism and a threat to the vibrancy of our convention. As Calvinism has grown more common, anti-Calvinism has also grown.
As Calvinists are not monolithic, either are non-Calvinists. There are people who disagree with Calvinism and there are others who seem passionately and irrevocably committed to chasing Calvinists from our convention.
It is my belief that the Calvinism debate tends to be defined by the extremes. Passionate and evangelistic Calvinists debate passionate and evangelistic anti-Calvinists. Most of us fall into that broad middle. Howell Scott says, “I’m Calvinist but I’m just not mad about it.” I like that. Most of us hold positions between the extremes.
The Baptist Identity Continuum
A while back I posted a question here. I asked people to define what a Southern Baptist is. Simply put, no one really knew. We do not understand our identity. What unifies us? What must define us? What doctrines must we believe? What doctrines, if believed, eliminate us from participation in the denomination?
3) The Baptist Identity Movement.
The Baptist Identity movement was at the heart and soul of the IMB conflict in 2005 and 2006 that led to the explosion of Baptist blogging. BI adherents believe that the key to grow of our denomination is to restore the practices and doctrinal stands that have historically defined Baptists. They use phrases like “Baptist is Biblical” and believe that the historic Baptist positions represent most clearly the New Testament church. They are not Landmarkists, though they do share some viewpoints and convictions. They believe that what we need is not to downplay our denominational distinctives, but to reemphasize them.
The BI movement was prominent a few years back, but has become less vocal in recent years as many of their prominent voices have stepped away from their keyboards.
4) The Big Tent Baptists
We don’t hear much about the “Big Tent” anymore, but in the days of the IMB controversy, this was a significant issue. Many of us warned of the “narrowing of parameters of cooperation” in the SBC. They maintained that the SBC should define itself as broadly as possible while maintaining inerrancy and core Baptist doctrine as requirements of fellowship. We should unite and cooperate with all those who believe in the full truthfulness of God’s Word and who believe in baptism by immersion of believers and other basic Baptist distinctives.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have been and continue to be a “Big Tent Baptist.” To preserve the SBC we need to define our core elements of cooperation and then participate with others in missions even if they disagree on secondary and tertiary items.
5) The Moderate Restoration Movement.
When the Big Tent Baptists opposed the policies adopted by the IMB, there was a lot of backlash. Frankly, it was a nasty time in the SBC blog world. Some in the Big Tent Group began to disdain the leaders of the CR and began to reevaluate the Conservative Resurgence. There was a movement to reopen a place for moderates in the SBC and the downplaying of the doctrine of inerrancy.
I have always regretted the treatment of true moderates by SBC conservatives. There were a lot of people who were truly inerrantists at heart but who did not believe that the CR was warranted or disagreed with the conduct of the campaign. I disagreed with their assessment of the need for the CR, but I agree fully with their concerns about the conduct of some conservatives. I wish we could have found a path to rapprochement with true conservatives who did not support the CR.
But I have no desire to turn back the clock. I want no part of a denomination that quibbles on the inerrancy of scripture.
The Stylistic Continuum
We have a lot of differences and disagreements about stylistic issues and ministry strategy. Brad Whitt wrote an article a few weeks ago in which he claimed that traditionalists were being systematically excluded from SBC life. He definitely stirred up a hornet’s nest. The simple fact is that we have a lot of stylistic differences. This is a true continuum. I will define the extremes of this, but most of us fall at some place in the middle.
In the 50’s and 60’s, the SBC was booming. According to the traditionalists, if we just did things the way we did them in those decades, we’d have the same results. In Sioux City, most people simply do not want you to come knocking on their doors. But the traditionalist would say that door to door evangelism is the way. It worked 40 years ago and it will work today. What we need is to sing hymns to piano and organ accompaniment, have revivals in the fall and spring, sing 4 stanzas of “Just As I Am” at the end of every sermon – leave all this modern mumbo-jumbo behind and go back to the tried and true methods of yesteryear.
Obviously, that is an extreme. But traditionalists believe that the key to the future is the past and that many of our modern innovations are destructive and ineffective.
7) The Cultural Relevance Movement
Many Southern Baptists believe that if we are going to grow, we need to leave behind the traditions of the past and embrace more culturally-relevant ministry styles and strategies. Few SBC churches are truly Emergent, since most refused to accept the denial of the gospel that has marked many of the key national leaders of that movement.
Most SBC churches in this movement would say that we need to maintain the same gospel message as in the past, but embrace new methods and strategies to move toward the future.
The Cooperative Program Continuum.
Since the GCR dominated our discussions last year, this fault line has grown more prominent. This is really a fiscal representation of the traditionalist/cultural relevance debate in some ways.
Obviously, though the GCR was adopted by an overwhelming majority at the SBC Annual Meeting in 201o, it’s implementation has been less decisive and more devisive.
8.) Cooperative Program loyalists.
CP loyalists believe that if the SBC is going to survive, we must reemphasize missions giving through our Cooperative Program. They bemoan the decrease in CP percentages and are uncomfortable with the prominence of newer leaders in the SBC who have shown little support for the Cooperative Program in their churches.
9) GCR Supporters-CP Revisionists
Some, while expressing support for the CP, also believe that we need to tweak or even rework the CP to give local churches more freedom and control. Bryant Wright’s church bypassed the state convention with part of its missions dollars. Kevin Ezell, whose church focused more on its own missions efforts and less on cooperative missions was elected president of NAMB.
It is not clear what the future holds, but it is clear that the future of the CP is in doubt and that whatever the CP is in 10 or 20 years, it will probably be very different from what it was when I was a kid.
There are some miscellaneous constituencies that do not fit easily into these categories.
10) The Megachurch Movement.
Obviously, the SBC has devoted itself to building megachurches and those who build such churches become stars in the SBC galaxy.
There can be little doubt that one of the most significant changes in the American church in the last 50 years has been the “walmartization” of the church and the rise of the megachurch. The mega-church tends to be less dependent on the fellowship and cooperation of the convention. They tend to be more independent and more likely to want to do things their own way. There are certainly some positives about mega-churches. There are also some negatives.
Actually, the megachurch movement is probably at the root of some of the other debates. By and large, CP loyalists are in smaller churches and the GCR was driven by the megachurch constituency. Many of the megachurches have moved toward cultural relevance and away from traditionalism. Not all, of course, but many.
11) The Political Constituencies
As we have seen in the comment streams of this website recently, there is great division as to what it means to be a Christian and an American. Some believe that patriotism in Christian worship is idolatry. Others believe that rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar means that some level of patriotism is warranted and that giving thanks to God for the blessings of our nation is biblically justified, even in corporate worship. Obviously, passions have run pretty high on this one.
We disagree on how politically-motivated and involved the church should be.
12) The “You-Fill-in-the-Blank” movement
There are so many more, and you can feel free to name them in the comment stream. I may, in fact, alter this list if I am particularly impressed at the categorization of constituencies by some in our discussion.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Here is the simple truth. We are a fractured, splintered denomination right now. If we do not find a way to unite around core doctrine and the Great C0mmission, the SBC will continue to dwindle and die. We will be 5 or 8 or 11 different, smaller denominations and the greatest missions effort in the history of the church will grind to a halt.
I think there is still an opportunity to turn things around. The SBC is worth preserving, worth saving. In my next post, I will share how I think that can happen, how we can graft the various splinters back together. .