It’s impossible to study about Baptists without talking about division. The old joke that if you ask 4 Baptists you will get 5 opinions seems remarkably true to anyone who’s spent much time around a group of Baptists. As long as there have been baptists there have been splinter groups of Baptists, but some take on different forms than others.
The earliest Baptists were themselves an off split of other groups of Protestants. Men like Roger Smyth, John Spilsbury, and others were some of the earliest Baptist leaders. In England, Baptists were split into Particular Baptists and General Baptists, which divided Baptists over Calvinism and general or limited atonement, if you can believe that Baptists would divide over such a thing. Skip a few hundred years and the Southern Baptist Convention was formed over a division from Baptists in the north over the right to appoint slaveholders as missionaries. Baptists have split over almost every issue you can think of. Atonement, slavery, race, baptism, Landmarkism, missions, and more. The Baptist family tree holds at least a dozen groups that have split over the years, including American Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Progressive National Baptists, and many more. Other groups split to form their own new denominations like Seventh Day Adventists and the Church of Christ.
But to turn the focus back to the Southern Baptist Convention, there is a long-standing tradition of groups that find disagreement over some aspect of SBC life forming groups that work as coalitions of like-minded people, work for “reform”, or elect leaders that support the same things they do. One of the earliest examples of this is JR Graves who infamously fought in public with his pastor RBC Howell at FBC Nashville in a conflict so big that it made it to the pages of his own newspaper, the floor of the Triennial Convention, and later the fracture of cooperation among Tennessee Baptists. From there, men like Benjamin Boggard in Arkansas and Doss Jackson in Texas led churches to form their own associations of like-minded churches which later became the American Baptist Association, which split again in the 1950s.
Studying division among Baptists is enough to make your head spin. Many groups left to form their own associations or conventions, but others stayed in the SBC and sought reform from within. During the Conservative Resurgence in the 1980’s many groups formed on both sides of the issues. The “Gatlinburg Gang” was a group of prominent pastors and leaders who came together at the call of Cecil Sherman to elect a moderate for president during the 1981 SBC Convention. Lay groups also formed like “Baptists Committed to Fairness” which filed a lawsuit to enforce the existing bylaws of the SBC and “Denominational Loyalists” who wanted to elect people of all viewpoints to serve as trustees to the entities.
In 1984 a group of pastors announced that there would be another pre-convention meeting for pastors and others called the “The Forum,” which would be an alternative to the Pastors Conference. Groups and newspapers that promoted their viewpoints popped up everywhere. With names like The Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship, The Southern Baptist Journal, The Southern Baptist Advocate, The Southern Baptist Alliance, Southern Baptist Women in Ministry, and the Baptist Peace Fellowship each of them sought to preserve the Baptist way of life as they saw fit. Depending on their perspective they used scare words to warn others of the direction that the Convention was heading in. They warned about communism, fundamentalism, liberalism, socialism, the ordination of women, racism, and many other things. These splinter groups held events, sent out mass mailings, published newspapers, promoted conferences, sent out tapes, and more. They sought to influence (and did) elections of trustees, presidents, professors, and anyone else they could think of. In the states of Texas and Virginia the splits were so severe that they led to entirely new state conventions.
It’s worth noting that most people have never heard of these groups. Many of them never served a purpose beyond stoking fires one way or the other. Still others served a purpose for a short term and faded away. Only the largest of groups still exist, and those became their own denominations or conventions.
Having disagreements is as fundamental a Baptist principle as there is. The right to disagree is baked into our beliefs through the doctrine of religious liberty. There is nothing inherently wrong in disagreement, or even in dividing into groups over those divisions. The danger comes when we are not honest in our actions and transparent about our motives. It can lead to splits in fellowship, less support for missions, and turns our focus off of the call that God has for us. Baptists are constantly making decisions about how much cooperation is too much cooperation. How do we know when to draw the line in the sand? How can we tell if we are simply being stubborn about preferences and not principled about doctrine?
It’s not unusual for Baptists to be divided. But for too many Baptists division is a first response, not a last resort. In a world that is increasingly dividing itself Christians should stand out for our unity and focus on the task of taking the gospel to the world around us. How can we ensure that our differences don’t divide us?
Be transparent Nothing is ever gained from concealing things from general Southern Baptists. I understand there are sensitive issues about people, budgets, and even laws to follow regarding such issues. But transparency should be the standard for all Southern Baptist entities, churches, and people as much as possible. Don’t hide behind executive privilege, politics, or anything else. Just simply be honest about things. Baptist’s can handle it, I promise you. In his book on the CR, Grady Cothen notes that at one point in 1985 the Executive Committee went into executive session for the first time in 30 years! The old adage of “tell the truth and trust the people” stands truer than ever in the age of the internet. If the case that you are making has merit, then it should stand on its own two legs.
Give people the benefit of the doubt Just because we teach that every person is a sinner doesn’t mean we have to see the worst in everyone all the time. We should always give others the grace that we wish would be afforded to us. Not everything is a sinister plot set to destroy seminaries, allow liberalism, or destroy churches. Sometimes people just simply prefer things a different way. Often things really are as simple as they seem on the face of things. If you know Baptists then you know that’s not always the case, but we should be charitable as we encounter those who see things from a different perspective than us. Men and women can love God dearly, hold to the inerrancy of scripture, and the exclusivity of Jesus all while holding a different perspective on social issues than I do. Southern Baptists’ should not let the differences we have socially distract from the unity we have biblically.
Focus on the Bible For a people who promoted “the separation of church and state” to Thomas Jefferson we sure do like to mix politics and church. I’m not suggesting that Baptists withdraw from politics. Baptists need to engage in all levels of government. But Southern Baptists should be known as fighting for biblical fidelity not cultural faithfulness. The challenge is that everyone who has ever split from Baptists claimed they were doing so out of allegiance to the Bible. If you could gather JR Graves, Cecil Sherman, Paige Patterson, J Frank Norris, Ben Boggard, Alexander Campbell, and others in a room they would all claim to be standing for scripture. (And what a conversation that would be!) And each of them was standing for their own interpretation of scripture. I believe that to be true of those in the newest baptist network and those in the oldest Baptist split. Every Baptist believes they are standing for scripture. The duty lies with each Baptist to constantly and consistently bring our focus back to the gospel and off of politics and preference. We must make sure that if there is division it is over the Bible.
There has been division in Baptist life in the past, and there will be in the future. It’s too early to tell where the new networks and emphases will go. But it’s not too late to be transparent and honest with each other and ourselves. And it’s never too late to continue working together on the work of taking the gospel to the nations. We are Baptist’s after all. That’s what we do, and that’s what should unite us above all else.
Luke Holmes is pastor of FBC Tishomingo, Oklahoma, and contributor to For the Church, LifeWay Pastors, and Facts and Trends. We welcome Luke aboard as a contributor to SBC Voices.