The Southern Baptist Convention is being changed. As I look at the rich history of the SBC, our strength has been our unity that has been centered around the Cooperative Program. While there have been significant differences in our theological positions, we have always been able in varying degrees to work together for a common cause of taking the gospel message to our neighborhoods and then to the world.
Today things are decidedly different. Theology and not cooperation is now the focus. The problem the SBC is facing is not Calvinism or Arminianism. It is not inerrancy or liberalism. The problem the SBC is facing today is not theology; the problem we are now facing is the need to define who we are today and who we will not be tomorrow. While theology itself is not the problem, it will be the focus of the identity problem that is inevitable. We as a convention have managed to cooperate for missions and all the while, theology has been for the most part a secondary issue. Today theology has moved to the forefront and cooperation has taken the back seat and that is the problem. Before the scud missiles begin to fly, remember something. The SBC is not a church. While theology is essential to the church, that is not necessarily the primary focus of the SBC, The primary purpose of the SBC is to do collectively as a convention of churches what individual churches cannot do on their own. While theology is important to the SBC, cooperation is the principle characteristic that holds it together. This theological battle that the SBC is embroiled in now will see as an unanticipated result, a convention that will begin to force limits on its ability to cooperate together and that is the real problem we are facing as a convention.
I have looked at this theological issue and have said, “Calvinists cannot continue down the road they are headed for if they are allowed to do so, the face of the convention will be forever changed.” Here is the reality of it all. Calvinists have managed to do the same thing today the Liberals did in the 70’s and 80’s. This liberal group of Southern Baptists saw the Scriptures differently than the majority of Southern Baptists. They were able to position themselves in the seminaries and graduates were becoming more liberal in their interpretation and application of the Scriptures. This became unacceptable to many and a few took the reigns to lead a conservative resurgence to get “Back to the Bible” and to establish what they decided would be an inerrant view of the Scriptures. Calvinists led with non-Calvinists in this resurgence. Liberals were expelled from the seminaries and entity positions and Calvinists stepped up and gradually over the next 20 years took their place in the seminaries and then began to fill key positions in SBC entities just as the liberals did a couple decades before. This in and of itself is not even the problem. Many today argue, Calvinists have always been a part of the convention and they deserve to lead as they believe God would have them do. While I do not agree with Calvinism, I do agree with this sentiment.
Many, including myself have looked at Calvinism as a threat to the current landscape of SBC. I am beginning to realize that this in and of itself is really not the case. So, what is the problem? The problem as I see it, is the inevitable move that the SBC must now take to identify itself theologically, namely Calvinist or non-Calvinist. This will have an indelible effect on the most basic Baptist identities of the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church, for this move of the convention to identify itself will have its effect on those who choose to cooperate. The move to establish just who the SBC will be in the future will almost definitely isolate those who lose the identity battle. I have argued that this would definitely be the case if the Reformed position continued it current course. Those leading the reformed revival are obviously not at all pleased with the non-Calvinist position that still virtually dominates the SBC today. One argument is that as the Reformers manage to gain control of the convention, it can be expected that those leading the charge will make changes that will solidify the Reformed position so that this problem will never again be repeated. I would expect nothing less. This is the fear that originally caught my attention.
If the non-Calvinist contingency were to manage to hold onto the convention, the same problems would still exist. In this case, the convention would almost by necessity be forced to identify itself in non-Calvinist terms so that it would be more difficult for Calvinist leaders to be able to hold key positions of leadership and influence in the convention. Either way, the ramifications of the convention’s attempt to settle this theological battle will have disastrous results.
The BF&M is headed for change. That is now inevitable. It will be changed to settle the issue of regeneration with respect to repentance and saving faith. Some will suggest the issue of church government must be addressed. Once this step is taken, the SBC will be forever changed because the priesthood of the believer and autonomy of the local church will be usurped by the convention’s new theological stance. One could argue against this citing the conservative resurgence and the battle of the 80’s. The liberals did leave the SBC and it survived. The major difference can be seen in the battles themselves. Inerrancy was a winnable battle for Southern Baptists. The issue we are currently embroiled in is much more detrimental and controversial. The battle lines are not so clearly defined. Calvinists cannot even decide among themselves who is or is not Reformed enough. Non-Calvinists have never really cared. Once the SBC takes a stand on this issue, everyone loses.
Following the release of the BF&M 2000, there was a move by some to modify it because of some of the language use and it is my understanding Dr. Al Mohler stood at the convention and in effect said, if we start changing the BF&M people, especially our critics in the world, will see us as unstable and unsure of what we actually believe. (My interpretation of his retort.) His argument or that argument in general, whether he made it or not, is exactly where the SBC is today.
The only possible caveat may be what some call the apathy in the pew. There is an argument that regardless of what takes place with respect to control of the entities of the SBC, the people in the pew will adapt and churches will conform and the CP will continue to work as it has always done. I do not believe that will be the case this time. This divide is too deep and too ill defined and this inevitable attempt at a resolution will be disastrous and those who feel polarized will in all likelihood lead their churches to leave the convention. Those who remain will have no choice but face an endless barrage of ongoing theological nuances that will no doubt continue to plague the convention as new power players seek to lead the convention and force further division among its churches and the people who are in the pew. Actually, this problem will plague both sides as each seeks to establish itself in its new found attempt to maintain a viable identity.
Richard A. Spears in McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs speaks about Matthew 26:52, “Live by the sword, die by the sword” and he warns, “You can expect to become a victim of whatever means you use to get what you want.” I am afraid this statement tragically describes the inevitable plight of the SBC. I for one am saddened by these prospects and hope that I am wrong.
Here is an editorial note on the day after this post.
The following is a personal response to a series of questions posed by Dave Miller at SBC Voices. Dave’s article can be accessed by CLICKING HERE.
Is the Southern Baptist Convention a united community filled with people with a passion to serve Christ, honor him and walk in the fruit of the Spirit?
We are not a united community. That is sad but true. Are we a community with a passion to serve Christ? I believe we have a number of churches in our convention that this would describe. I also believe there are unfortunately a large number of churches who do not have this “passion”. They have other priorities and would admit they need this passion but they have simply not be taught the importance of walking and talking with the Lord and establishing a personal relationship with Him as a goal for their lives and the life of their church. The truth a lot of churches are more focused on what goes on inside the church than they are outside the church. The problem plagues churches of all sizes and theological underpinnings.
Is the Southern Baptist Convention focused on the Great Commission and our divinely-ordained purpose to bring the gospel to the world?
I believe for the most part, that has been the overarching priority of the SBC in years past. That priority was cooperation. As long as the primary focus of the SBC was cooperation, I believe the potential was there for the purpose of carrying the gospel to the world. Have we done the most with what we had? No. Have we made mistakes in administrating the task set before us in our convention entities? Yes. Has the SBC been diligent in attempting to accomplish this task, yes.
Is the Southern Baptist Convention holding the line on theological orthodoxy?
I discuss this question in detail in an article I posted last night at SBC Issues. I believe this move to “hold the line on theological orthodoxy” has usurped the cooperation priority and that in and of itself has now moved the convention into uncharted waters that I am not sure it can navigate its way out of.
The convention is NOT a church; it is an organization that exists to assist churches in doing together what individual churches cannot do on their own. The theological positions of the convention itself are not as big a factor as some I believe might suggest, because the churches who cooperate together determine their level of cooperation, not the convention. It is the responsibility of the churches to direct the convention and not the other way around and that is now the troubling aspect of the current theological climate that exists in the SBC today.
As individuals and churches, we do not have today nor do we want tomorrow a convention that decides for us who we will be or what we will believe in order to cooperate together to accomplish the Great Commission. I know there are already very broad statements that we must adhere to and that is necessary. There is a major difference in what exists today and the call for “holding the line of theological orthodoxy” as a convention.
After thinking about Dave’s questions and my response, here is a second response I felt led to make.
As I think about these questions raised I am realizing the importance of putting some things in their proper perspective. Blogs give us the ability to be vocal, we sometimes take the mistaken idea that it also makes us experts. I have been abundantly guilty of this and I know better. We are all basically working things out in our own minds as we speak our minds and hopefully benefit from things others say as they are doing the same.
Here is the problem we all need to remember. Our opinions are like those of a 6 year old when it comes to asking what our priorities ought to be in our lives as adults. The 6 year old can no doubt give us a heartfelt honest and sincere answer; the problem is his perspective is way too limited. What we are arguing about is not really theology, at least where the SBC is concerned. We are looking at things like a 6 year old might. We have no real idea what the overall ramifications would be to the suggestions we are making because of our limited perspectives concerning what the reality actually is concerning what the SBC is and what it is doing.
In essence I am seeing some of these things as I write this comment. What we are actually doing is this; we are bringing our input into discussions that have been taking place in the Executive Committee and trustee meetings of the various entities for decades. The questions that we are really asking have more to do with the entities of the SBC and what they do and how they do it than anything. Who is qualified to lead them; who is qualified to go; what should they do when they get there and how should they do it?
We can all be great mail room managers; that does not qualify us to be the CEO. We all have opinions about play calling in our favorite sports and can be expert arm chair quarterbacks and coaches. That does not qualify us as experts on the field and in the game where it all counts. I suppose the same thing needs to be said in our discussions regarding the SBC and how it ought to operate and what is ought to be.
Do we have a right to have a say in what takes place and do we have a right to be critical, maybe. The problem with our answers to both of these questions again must be kept in check because of our limited perspective of what is actually going on as opposed to what we think ought to be going on. I may do things today that appear to be leading in one direction but in reality it is only a step that is necessary to get me from where I am today to the place I want to be in the future. Sometimes, we have to go south to get on the interstate to go north.
I need to remind myself of that fact as I speak my mind especially where I am being critical in analyzing what I see as the “priorities of the SBC” and the ramifications of decisions and actions being taken by it. One thing is consistently true; Things are almost never what they seem.
It is easy for any organization to get off track. It is easy as individuals to get off track. It is easy for us all to lose our focus and our overall best intentions. Hopefully we can all learn from each other and benefit from one another even with our differences and know that we all share a common bond in Christ and a love for and an adherence to His precious Word.
That is my prayer for us all!