In 1982, James Leo Garrett and E. Glenn Hinson debated the relationship between Southern Baptists and evangelicals. At the time of the debate, the SBC was embroiled in bitter controversy over the nature of the Bible. Luminaries in the evangelical movement – men like Francis Schaeffer, Harold Lindsell, and Carl Henry – were offering crucial support to conservatives in the SBC who were fighting for the inerrantist cause. Seeing that the convention was adrift, many Southern Baptists looked outside the SBC for energy and support in the “battle for the Bible.”

In the Garrett/Hinson debate over Southern Baptist identity, it’s not surprising that Hinson, a moderate Baptist scholar at Southern Seminary, would argue forcefully against linking Southern Baptists with the evangelical movement. According to Hinson, evangelicalism was a northern phenomenon that resembled fundamentalism more than mainline Protestantism. Garrett, on the other hand, saw Southern Baptists largely as evangelicals, albeit evangelicals with a Southern Baptist denominational identity.

Thirty years later, the situation is reversed. The neo-evangelical consensus is breaking down. A series of recent earthquakes over theology and ethics, Scripture and the gospel, have revealed fault lines that challenge the ability for evangelicalism to exist as a cohesive movement of like-minded Christians. When Phyllis Tickle can label Brian McLaren a “modern-day Luther” and still consider herself (and Brian) to be evangelical, it is clear that the word “evangelical” no longer means what it used to.

Evangelicals are facing an identity crisis, and even if most members in evangelical churches have not yet felt the aftershocks, many are already aware that the ground is shifting. Churches built more on pragmatic philosophy than biblical theology and confessional identity will soon be faced with significant challenges. As the earthquakes increase and the fault lines become more apparent, it is possible that a tidal wave of cultural capitulation will carry off a good number of institutions and churches that have historically flown under the “evangelical” banner.

Sensing the coming tsunami, many evangelicals have begun to rally with like-minded Christians in order to bolster their defense against the rising tide. Coalitions have formed. Church-planting movements are on the rise. New denominations have begun. Several publishers are reconsidering their role in the fast-changing landscape of evangelicalism. And of course, there is the Southern Baptist Convention, which represents a staggeringly large number of churches that are doctrinally conservative.

Thirty years ago, Southern Baptists needed help from evangelicals. Today, evangelicals need help from Southern Baptists. This is the time for Southern Baptist leaders to extend the hand of fellowship to like-minded evangelicals, to strengthen the growing number of coalitions, encourage gospel-proclaiming denominations, and cheer on various church-planting movements. Conservative evangelicals need strength and support in their efforts to reclaim the center of evangelical identity.

Unfortunately, some Southern Baptists feel threatened by what this sort of evangelical networking might mean for the future of the Convention. There are some who feel that the purity of Southern Baptist identity will be polluted if we join coalitions or encourage other networks. Instead of extending the hand of fellowship to like-minded evangelicals, we should pull up the drawbridge, hunker down on our hill, and refuse temporary shelter for the evangelical homeless. After all, new partnerships and networks may allow foreign methods and practices (not to mention unorthodox theological convictions) to seep into Southern Baptist churches.

At the heart of this discussion about the SBC is the question: What is the center of Southern Baptist identity? Many point to the Baptist Faith & Message as the confessional consensus that determines our cooperation within denominational boundaries. Others point to a number of traditional Southern Baptist markers of loyalty: giving to the Cooperative Program, style of preaching, or church practices, revival services, involvement at the association and state levels, etc.

Those who emphasize markers of loyalty rather than our common confession adopt a posture of being Southern Baptist over against other evangelicals. “This is who we are. Those outside our denomination are not like us. Therefore, Southern Baptists who network with others are suspect. Their Baptist credentials are called into question.”

On the other hand, those who emphasize our common confession adopt a posture of being Southern Baptist on behalf of other evangelicals. As the tidal wave looms over the horizon, the Baptist Faith and Message is a bulwark of confessional, biblical identity that unites Southern Baptists.

There are evangelicals who do not subscribe to our confessional distinctives and therefore cannot be part of the Convention. But if we as Southern Baptists are right on the gospel, then we should be free to strengthen others who are also right on the gospel. Evangelicalism needs a resurgence of attention on the evangel. Confessional Southern Baptists can and should play a key role in that discussion.

Now is not the time to water down our Baptist distinctives, seek unity at the level of ecclesiology, and pretend that all evangelicals are the same. Allies in WWII did not give up their sovereignty or their countries’ distinctive traits. But neither did they treat each other as opponents. They built bridges in order to see freedom advanced beyond their countries’ borders. Likewise, this is the time for Southern Baptists to maintain the bridges, not tear them down. We stand with evangelical allies. We are in a position to do for evangelicals what evangelicals once did for Southern Baptists.

So let’s be convictional, confessional Southern Baptists with a heart to get the gospel to our neighbors and to the nations. Now is not the time to close our fists and cast aspersion on Baptists willing to stand with those outside our denominational borders. The situation is too dire for infighting and turf wars. Let’s be Southern Baptist – not against other evangelicals, but for the good of evangelicals.

—–

For additional thoughts along these lines, I highly recommend David Dockery’s introductory essay in the recently-released Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism.

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Comments:


15 thoughts on “Being Southern Baptist Among and For Evangelicals”

  1. Duke Taber says:

    Let me first of say that I am not part of the SBC, although I was asked to join once, but there has always been a place in my heart for the SBC, due to the love that was shown towards me by one SBC pastor in Carlin Nevada named Rev. Tim Shields who reached out to a broken and hurting former Foursquare pastor. In our day and age, do we really have the luxury to strain every jot and tiddle of conformity and make ourselves exclusive? I think not. But do we have to give up our distinctives in order to have fellowship and cooperation? Again I think not. In my community I live across the street from the SBC pastor of a neighboring community and we work in cooperation. The same Jesus he preaches is the same Jesus I preach although our forms of worship and distinctives are different. Heaven forbid if I let my personal tastes and traditions get in the way of winning my community for Christ.

    God Bless all of you and thank you for being there when I needed someone who knew Jesus to reach out to me in my hour of need.

    Pastor Duke Taber

  2. Roger D Duke says:

    As always my young friend, you have “hit the nail on the head!” I applaud you as God seems to have given you a “more excellent spirit” like Daniel of old. I am proud to call you my friend. God’s blessing on you and yours. “Stay by the stuff!”
    sdg
    rd

  3. Steve Martin says:

    God bless all of you who have the honesty to call yuorself Southern Baptists.

    So many Evangelicals (such as the so-called non-denominationals)will hide behind their cloak of non-religion, but are in fact every bit what they claim not to be.

  4. Thanks. I read the book for a seminary class- I graduated in 1987 with an MDiv from Golden Gate. I wrote a paper replying that Southern Baptists ARE evangelicals and should identify. Almost 25 years later I still agree. After 30 yrs of serving in the Northwest it is imperative that we identify with like minded Kingdom citizens regardless of the label. Of course my thoughts in 1987 were not kindly received by some of the prof’s even at Golden Gate.
    Thanks for the article. I would hope most younger southern baptist’s would identify with their kingdom minded folks in their community. Let’s reach the world with the gospel…
    Steve

  5. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Excellent remarks, Trevin. I fully agree with your diagnosis and prescription.

  6. Derek says:

    I’ve never had to experience a tsunami or significant tidal wave, but I’ve seen enough movies to get the idea.

    I remember in 2012, the scene with the East Indian scientist standing helplessly with his family in the shadow of a tsunami which was about to crush the continent.

    This is the fear we Evangelicals are facing, as we look up from within the shadow of the tsunami of liberal theology.

    I appreciate your call for SBC to help us out (heaven knows, we need it). But there is perhaps an apprehension from us outsiders to receive that help because there are loud, dominant voices in the SBC who unequivocally equate “Evangelicalism” with “5-Point Calvinism” (as you know from Hanson’s book).

  7. Ben Simpson says:

    Trevin, I really appreciate what you’ve put forth here. I love the positive, Kingdom-focused nature of your blog. Due to my recent writing for the “Baptist & Reflector” and Baptist Press on SBC issues, I’ve began to look at some of the high traffic SBC blogs. Unfortunately, the two that I’m most aware of (SBC Today & SBC Tomorrow) are like walking through a denominational sewer. There’s almost NOTHING positive in them. It’s not that I disagree with what’s being said, but the tone of the posts and the discussion are saddening. Do you know some SBC blogs other than yours & Stetzers that are positive and not virulent?

    Also, my good friend Dr. Jeremy Vanatta has begun a blog series he’s calling the “The Ephesians 4 Project,” which is a call for SBC unity around the Baptist Faith & Message. He’ll take each article of the BF&M & do a blog post on it, pointing out how Southern Baptists of all stripes should rally around these consensus doctrines for the sake of the gospel and theological education. Check it out at here.

    Blessings!

  8. Trevin Wax says:

    Ben,

    Thanks for the encouraging words. Regarding other SBC blogs, there aren’t many that are focused primarily on SBC issues. (SBC Today, SBC Voices, SBC Tomorrow, SBC Plodder, SBC Impact).

    That said, there are plenty of blogs by Southern Baptists that focus on ministry and Scripture, without being “all SBC, all the time.”

    I doubt that most people reading my blog think of it as an SBC blog, though I am openly thankful to be a Southern Baptist by conviction. Same with Ed Stetzer and others.

    It would be interesting if someone put together a list of blogs written by Southern Baptists, ranked their traffic, and then summarized the main gist of each one. Les Puryear did something like that a couple years ago, and I added several to my feedreader. I, for one, would love to connect with other Southern Baptists who blog, but preferably those who blog about Scripture and ministry from a SB perspective, not just SBC issues.

  9. Charlie Dale says:

    I pastor an innercity SBC church in New Orleans. I got my M/Div at NOBTS.

    I’ve often wondered, instead of charging three different rates for “Southern Baptists”, “non-SBC Baptists”, and “non-Baptists”, what kind of influence would we have on the wider independent Evangelical churches if we just tried to keep the cost down for everyone? Our professors are required to be within the BF&M2000. The state of evangelical leadership within the innercity churches are pretty bad. Even if these guys never “join” us, we should be influencing them with good theology and spirituality.

    The objection, of course, is the fact that our SBC churches support the seminaries through the CP while the other churches don’t. I find that small minded. If the seminaries that I support through the CP are really providing solid theology and ministry training, then let’s use it to influence the non-SBC evangelical world.

    Just one way to do what I think you’re saying here.

  10. Bob Ford says:

    Bro. Trevin,
    I’m a disabled/retired So. Bapt. pastor…been outta the loop since May 2, 06. My heart is deeply saddened over christianity in America. Henry Balcaby in his study “Fresh Encounter” notes that when God’s people begin to move away from God it begins with a suttle heartshift and then a slow drift begins to take place and then before we know it, we’re no longer in God’s presence, substituting the worlds ways for God’s ways. Then there appears no evidence of a real Godly relationship for the world to see. Interesting to me, just moments ago, I finished reading your comments. I then read The Navigators Daily Discipleship by Leroy Eims. Ironically, for me, it addressed the very thing you spoke to, I leave it here.
    Thank you, Bob Ford, Martinsville, VA:

    taken from: http://www.navlists.org/dailydiscipleship/

    This Little Light of Mine

    Today’s Scripture: Jeremiah 7-10
    Read it online at the Bible Gateway: (NIV) (NASB) (KJV) (The Message)

    “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” – Hebrews 6:14

    A lot of people look around today and feel like Jeremiah did nearly three thousand years ago. As he watched the moral and spiritual decline of his country, Jeremiah wondered if anything could be done to heal the sin of his people and prevent the judgment of God. Had the darkness become so great that it could not be overcome? Could the condition of the people be set right? The answer to the latter question was yes, and that’s the answer for us today. Something can be done about the darkness if we’re willing to let the work begin in and through us.

    Every year a few weeks before Christmas, we have a candlelighting service in our church. The entire sanctuary is dark except for one candle at the front. As a few people light their candles from that one, and then pass the flame to the candles around them, the entire sanctuary is lighted. To me, it’s a beautiful picture of God’s plan for conquering the spiritual darkness of the world.

    In Jeremiah 9:24, we read: “‘But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.”

    You see, we get the light for our candle from knowing the Lord Himself. And the greatest thing we can do for our world is to share that light with others, one at a time. So don’t be discouraged or frustrated by the darkness of the world around you. Thank God that He has given you the light, and pass it on.

    Prayer

    Lord, help me to realize my influence on the darkness around me. Amen.

    To Ponder

    One of the most deadly attitudes among Christians today is that their little flame of light doesn’t matter.

  11. Bob Ford says:

    p.s. spelling correction, in my recent post,
    ” Henry Balcaby” should have read “Henry Blackaby.” Sorry Bro. Henry.
    Bob Ford
    Martinsville, VA

  12. Peter Mahoney says:

    As a younger Southern Baptist (not “young” anymore at 41), I don’t think I’ve ever really perceived the line dividing the SBC with the greater evangelical community. I also don’t spend a great deal of time with people who are militantly SBC. I guess I’ve never seen the SBC as the “end all, be all” as some maybe do. That said, and my perspective may be unique, I don’t see the SBC as a denomination… never have. For me, we don’t fit mold. Our ecclesiology inherently flows against what a denomination is by definition. I know it’s just semantics, but what does the SBC have in common ecclesiologically with Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodists, or Presbyterians? Not much. I’m not knocking those models of church governance and I am absolutely committed to linking arms with ALL like-minded evangelicals whenever possible. Rather than seeing the SBC as a denomination, we ought to see ourselves as what we genuinely are… a network of freely associating evangelical congregations that have joined together to pool our time, talent, and treasure in partnership to see the God glorified and the Great Commission fulfilled. For us, we don’t do this with a “top down” model of leadership in terms of structure, taking our marching orders from a central governing authority, rather we “submit ourselves one to another” and struggle along the best we can. It may not be perceived to be efficient, but having come back to the SBC from the non-denominational world, I will say this… it’s good to be home!

    All that said, while I love the SBC and what we are at least on paper, we are certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. We are also part of a greater community of evangelical Christ-Followers, and while we may never plant churches together, we need to be intentionally building those bridges Trevin mentioned with other churches and networks. To distance or disassociate ourselves from others over secondary or tertiary theological issues might be “old school” but from where I sit, it has never been “good school” to take our ball and go home.

    Thanks Trevin for your continued ministry and influence!

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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