Trevin Wax has published an article at the Gospel Coalition blog, entitled “Southern Baptists and Conventional and Cosmopolitan Cultures” in which he lays out the cultural divide in the SBC in a clear, concise, understandable, and fair way. Any attempt to summarize a divide such as ours is going to be difficult, of course, and there are going to be those who don’t like his terminology (that’s always the problem), don’t agree with his descriptions, or don’t fit his categories. But this article encapsulates the present condition of our denomination as well as any I’ve seen and has the possibility of being formative in our discussions. He describes two dominant cultures in SBC life, which he terms as conventional and cosmopolitan, and defines them in terms that are clear, while avoiding pejoratives. Trevin’s irenic spirit comes through in the article and people will have to stretch to be offended at his descriptions of their cultural identity. Quibble and quarrel? Perhaps. No categorization is perfect. This article can begin a healthy discussion in the SBC that may help us as we forge a better future.
I want to interact with Trevin’s article, but if you are going to read what I have written or comment here, please read Trevin’s article first – completely! If you are Southern Baptist it is well worth your time.
I have believed for years that our primary divide in the SBC is cultural, not theological. Southern Baptists have always been Calvinists and non-Calvinists. The proportions have fluctuated. Since the Civil War, Calvinists have been a minority of fluctuating proportions. It is certainly a significant doctrinal issue, but we’ve managed to swim in the same denominational stream since the beginning. This recent brouhaha has often been more about corollary cultural issues than about the essential doctrinal points that divide Calvinists from those who are not.
Back in 2008, Trevin wrote an article, based on David Dockery’s book “Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal” that delineated 7 distinct SBC cultures, “Seven Types of Southern Baptists” – Fundamentalists, Revivalists, Orthodox Evangelicals, Traditionalists, Calvinists, Contemporary Church Practitioners, and Culture Warriors. He now postulates that these cultures have coalesced around these two broad cultural categories – Conventionalists and Cosmopolitans. The Conventionalists have drawn mostly from the Fundamentalists, Revivalists, Traditionalists, and the Culture Warriors, while the Cosmopolitans formed from the Orthodox Evangelicals, Calvinists, and Contemporary Church folks.
The terms will be the issue, as is always true.
Cosmopolitan means, according to Trevin, “familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures.” While Cosmopolitans see themselves “as Christian first, Protestant or evangelical second, and then Southern Baptist in their particular expression of evangelical Christianity.” They are not bothered by working with those outside the SBC who share their convictions. They are breaking with the cultural past of the SBC in many ways. Social conservatives, they are increasingly wary of identification with the GOP.
A Conventionalist is far more tied to the culture of the SBC. They place a much higher priority on their Baptist identity so as to see the “Christian first, evangelical second, Baptist third” rubric as meaningless. They “love the SBC for the heritage it has delivered, for the culture it has created, and for the convictions it sustains.” Their loyalty is to the SBC, seeing denominational boundaries as clarifying, not stifling. They are much more likely to be culture warriors and loyal Republicans. They do not see the SBC’s history and culture in the negative light that Cosmopolitans often do.
Again, the reader is encouraged to read Trevin’s article if he or she has not. He gives a complete definition of these two conflicting cultures. While no terms are perfect, these are accurate designations, free of the good guys and bad guys implications inherent in so many.
1. I find these categories helpful and accurate. They are not designed to show one side as superior to the other and I think people on both sides will see them as essentially accurate, if not perfect. In our most recent issue, the Russell Moore-Jack Graham dust-up, the Cosmopolitan and Conventionalist sides were clearly in evidence.
2. As with any such rubric, there are exceptions. I would fit in the Cosmopolitan category in many ways, but have roots in and some sympathies with the Conventionalist culture. Bart Barber might say the same thing in reverse. He’s foursquare Conventionalist but has some Cosmopolitan leanings in a few areas (though saying such a thing may lead to a breach in our friendship).
Recognizing exceptions to the categories does not nullify the value of the generalization.
3. It will to our advantage to admit the cultural soil in which our controversies grow. When we act as if each quarrel is rooted in theology, it makes it hard to find solutions. Our issues become good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness. Recognizing the role of culture helps us to solve some of the issues.
One key to the future of the SBC is figuring out which issues matter and which are just cultural baggage that can be jettisoned as time moves forward.
4. Trevin is right that our divides are real and significant. However, I maintain they are not irreparable unless we choose to make them so. The more we enforce conformity on cultural issues the more divided we will be. If we emphasize doctrinal integrity, fidelity to a core of Baptist doctrine and practice, while allowing diversity on cultural and other issues, we can forge a cooperative future.
5. I see these issues as key to our future.
- Will Calvinists and non-Calvinists learn to get along? Calvinists have to accept that someone can be both intelligent and biblically literate and not a Calvinist. Non-Calvinists have to accept that Calvinists are not biblical bogeymen come to steal our convention and put an end to evangelism and missions. Yes, those are extreme caricatures. But they are not wholly without merit.
- What lifestyle issues will we enforce and what divergence will we accept? Let me address the elephant in the denominational room. Moderate consumption of alcohol is not going away as an issue. Will we accept that one can be a faithful Southern Baptist moderationist?
(Note: if there is a discussion of this issue on this comment stream, I want to limit it to THIS question – will we accept both prohibitionists and moderationists in the SBC fold? We have hammered the “does the Bible prohibit alcohol?” debate to death and doing it again will solve nothing.)
- How will the SBC approach political involvement? Obviously, the Trump campaign exposed a deep rift (didn’t cause it, exposed it) in the SBC. How tied to the GOP will the SBC be? Will we continue in the culture warrior tradition or transition to something new? Or will we allow variety under the SBC tent?
- How will we fund SBC missions and ministries? Will we continue to use the Cooperative Program as our main funding source (Please, Lord, I hope so!) or will we find a new way? The movement among Cosmopolitans, especially megachurch Cosmopolitans, seems to be toward designated giving, what has come to be called “Great Commission Giving.” They may give to NAMB or to the IMB. Maybe they bypass their state convention to give to the national SBC. Some of those Cosmopolitans now lead our entities and often become CP fans when they become part of the system. What will the future hold?
- The key question: What is a Southern Baptist? I defy you to define that in a tweet length sentence. I remember a post I put up years ago asking people to define the term. No one could – not definitively or authoritatively. I have said for years that our biggest problem is a massive identity crisis. In the 50s and 60s, we knew who we were. There was a Southern Baptist culture evidently in 95% of our churches across the country. That culture exploded in the cultural revolution of the 60s, which finally filtered into our churches in the 90s and 00s. Now, we don’t know who we are and we are competing for the right to define Southern Baptist Identity.
- The other key issue is perhaps the KEY key issue. Will we walk in the fruit of the Spirit or demonstrate the works of the flesh? Many of our problems do not root in our theologies or in our cultures, but in our sin natures and the fact that we walk in the flesh instead of under the Lordship of Christ. Being a blogger is a little like being a policeman – we tend to see people at their worst! But if we walk in the fullness of the Spirit, many of our problems will fade.
We are denomination with more questions than answers right now. But I still think there is something worth investing in here. Let’s keep trying.