In light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it’s good to consider what we can learn from the recent reformation in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). With so much focus on the Reformation, we’re reminded that we need to read church history in a careful and particular way, learning the lessons available to us there. We encounter honorable and dishonorable characters, and we find the same pattern as we read the Scriptures.
We look to church history even as we’re taught by reading Scripture to learn from all, and to remember that the Bible has only one true hero—the one true and living God. We learn from the patriarchs and all other honored biblical characters. We learn from their faithfulness, and from their moments of unfaithfulness, too.
History has much to teach us.
The Rise of Theological Liberalism
To understand our present predicament, we must understand the line between the Reformation and where we now stand. That great dividing line is modernity. After the Enlightenment, an open denial or suspicion of the supernatural arose. Theological truth claims were either undermined or rejected out of hand. Higher criticism of the Scripture said the Bible should be considered just like any other book from antiquity. From the perspective of the intellectual leadership of the age, you can have intellectual respectability or doctrinal Christianity, but not both.
How did churches respond? The first to succumb to theological liberalism were the state churches of Europe and the mainstream Protestant churches in the United States. They understood their identity as standing in the center of culture. Once they defined themselves in that way, as the intellectual culture changed, they had to change with it to maintain their place in the center of society.
The second response was that of pietism. The pietist churches effectively redefined Christianity in terms of feeling rather than truth claims. They were able to absorb theological liberalism, but for a long time maintained their pietistic forms. The change was less visible than what took place in the liberal churches, but after a century or even less of the modern age, pietism had largely abandoned all its theological truth claims.
The third pattern was that of the separatists or the free churches and some of the most clearly confessional churches. What makes these churches distinct from the state churches or the mainline churches is that they never, self-consciously, believed they were at the center of society. Thus, these churches were in a better position to be a minority over against the larger society.
Orthodoxy survived longer in these churches, but these churches weren’t at all immune from the challenge of theological liberalism. One of the clearest examples is the British Baptist Union. In the middle decades of the 19th century, it was still overwhelmingly orthodox. In fact, they were so sure they were orthodox that they didn’t detect the liberalism beginning in their own churches and schools. Yet by the end of the 19th century, the stage was set for a total liberal victory.
The great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon fought a valiant fight to stop theological liberalism within the British Baptist Union. We now know, however, that theological liberalism had already become more widespread. Spurgeon fought bravely, but it was too late.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Response
We can learn lessons from similar situations in the SBC. Like Spurgeon, many conservative Southern Baptists were late to see the problem. Many Southern Baptists assumed our schools and our pastors couldn’t be liberal. Our own form of pietism was widespread, and many Southern Baptists assumed we couldn’t have that kind of theological problem.
But beginning even in the early decades of the 20th century, on a slower timeframe than that of the state churches, theological liberalism came into our schools. Just a few professors given to theological liberalism influenced generations to come, and Southern Baptists learned to their own surprise that theological liberalism had moved from the schools into the pulpits.
The SBC was in its own doctrinal downgrade. By the 1970s, the question was, “Are we already too late?” The SBC was following the pattern of mainline Protestantism, just much more slowly. So the question was, “Is there time to recover the denomination?” There was a clear core of leaders who understood the problem, but they were outside the denominational power structure. Still, they began networking among pastors and laypeople who shared their theological concerns.
They also studied carefully the polity of the convention. After reading the constitution, they realized recovery might be possible. So they committed themselves to convince Southern Baptists of the truth—that theological liberalism had infected our schools, but that the schools and the denomination could be recovered by electing new presidents and appointing new faculty who would be unquestionably committed to the doctrine.
Most observers inside and outside the SBC warned that it was already too late, but these on-the-ground leaders committed themselves and their personal reputations to this cause. The first test came in the early 1970s. There had been several controversies in the 1960s, and the denominational leaders had protected the theological liberals. But in the 1970s, conservatives began to organize in such a way that the more liberal denominational leaders understood they were about to have a battle.
The more liberal leaders assumed they’d surely win. That’s what had happened in other churches. That’s what happened in the British Baptist Union. But in 1979, conservatives won their first battle in the SBC. From 1979 until 1990, conservatives won every election, and that opened the door to recover the denomination. It required another decade of conservative leaders to bring about these changes. But from 1979 to 1995, there was a complete change of the leadership and the faculties in our seminaries and mission boards and eventually, throughout the leadership of the entire denomination. In God’s gracious providence, it’s the largest recovery of a Christian denomination in history.
I’d like to suggest 10 lessons from the experiences of the SBC.
1. Isolation Never Lasts
Churches more conservative by culture, and maybe more isolated from the cultural elites, can live in false comfort that theological liberalism won’t arrive. But isolation is no protection; it doesn’t last.
One of the ways we see this now is in the mass culture that especially affects the young. Every single 20-year-old on the planet is, in some sense, part of this mass culture. I exaggerate only minimally. The reality is we can’t protect our churches and children from outside influence (nor should we want to). We should never believe that we are, somehow, isolated behind a wall.
2. Pietism Is No Protector of Orthodoxy
Though we understand the central importance of Christian piety, we also understand that piety is built on doctrine. Once those doctrinal beliefs are gone, piety is emptied of the gospel. It becomes a form without content and can be seductive.
In the SBC, we had our own form of pietism. The question would be, “How could this person be a liberal? Look how committed he is to the church!” But pietism is no protector of doctrine.
3. Pragmatism Undermines Doctrine
The SBC was overwhelmingly pragmatic. During the middle decades of the 20th century, the SBC became preoccupied with growth—and we were good at it. The SBC grew, overtaking every other denomination in the United States. When Southern Baptist pastors got together, they basically assumed orthodoxy, and all their conversations were about program, pragmatism, and growth.
But pragmatism undermines orthodoxy. You simply measure your health by program, attendance, and growth, but that means you’ll do whatever it takes to get a crowd. Pragmatism means you minimize the theology and maximize the program—a recipe that led to liberalism inside our churches. Many Southern Baptists believed that if we were growing, we couldn’t possibly be liberal. It was a form of self-blindness.
4. Confessionalism Is Necessary, But Not Sufficient
Southern Baptists also said to themselves, We can’t be liberal because we have a confession of faith. But it wasn’t enforced. Having a confession of faith is necessary; that’s how we protect what Paul described as the pattern of sound words (2 Tim. 1:13). But it must be required and regulated. It must have force, not merely symbolic power. And leaders must be chosen and maintained on the basis of confessional faithfulness. This has to be the instinct of the entire denomination.
5. Reformation Requires Great Effort and Conviction
Those who led the reformation in the SBC had to put their personal reputations at risk. They had to be willing to be called troublemakers. They had to put at risk any future opportunity for leadership and influence. They had to come to the conclusion that if the SBC couldn’t be recovered, then they’d have to leave. But they felt the responsibility to do their best.
Such a reformation requires massive conviction, because those who lead it have to say over and over again, “This is false teaching that must be removed.”
I’m able to share these lessons because men and women a generation before me were willing to put everything they had at stake to recover our churches and denomination.
6. Recovery Is Extremely Costly
This kind of theological controversy uses up enormous energy. It takes a long time. It’s not just going to one meeting and casting one vote; it’s showing up at every meeting for every vote. It required men going to preach in other churches, and having endless conversations about their hopes and fears for the denomination. And it was costly in terms of relationships. The deepest scars borne by most are certain relationships totally lost.
Many of those who were my closest friends in seminary were on the other side of this theological battle. These issues are so deep and so important that several of the relationships were forever broken. At the human level, that’s difficult. But a church unwilling to break relationships for the cause of truth is a church that will embrace liberalism and abdicate the faith.
A church unwilling to break relationships for the cause of truth is a church that will embrace liberalism and abdicate the faith.
We must be careful to understand this issue divides between the true church and the false church. We aren’t saying that the theological liberals are themselves immoral people, that they aren’t highly gifted, or that they don’t love their children. We’re saying that they can’t be in leadership in our denomination, that they can’t teach in our schools, and that they can’t serve as the pastors of our churches. That’s extremely costly.
Jesus himself warned his disciples to count the cost, and this cost must be counted. But the cost of giving up our churches and our denominations to liberalism is an infinitely greater one. It’s handing over our churches to unbelief and successive generations to hearing no gospel. You must be willing to count the cost and to pay the cost.
7. The Greatest Opposition to Reformation Comes from the Middle
The greatest enemies of reformation aren’t the most liberal, nor the most heretical. The greatest opposition to reformation comes from the middle—those who don’t want to take a definite position, who want to preserve denominational peace and don’t want to pay the cost. In the SBC, this was the key question: Who would actually persist until the vote? Throughout the entire 20th century, those who primarily sought to preserve peace had won every major battle. But by the late 1970s, it was clear that grassroots Southern Baptists were no longer willing to maintain the peace.
The greatest heroes and heroines of the SBC’s reformation are insurance salesman and public school teachers and others who came to our conventions and gave up days of work and family vacations to vote for conservative candidates who would preserve the truth.
John Shelton Reed, an Anglican historian, once came to speak at Southern Seminary about the reformation in the SBC. He observed that, to an outsider, it looked like a pitchfork rebellion. It wasn’t elites making the decisions; it was peasants with pitchforks who made the difference. And he was right. I asked him why there was no such reformation within his denomination, and he said: “The answer is easy. We have no peasants.” By God’s grace, the peasants showed up and defended the truth.
8. The Greatest Challenge Is the Transfer from Generation to Generation
We can now see that this is how liberalism crept in. At key moments of generational transition, the younger generation is far more liberal than their parents.
Parents in the SBC didn’t recognize it, and they bore some responsibility. They had failed to ground their children in Scripture and doctrine. They sent them off to universities and graduate schools, and pietism led them to assume their children believed just as they believed. But it wasn’t true. Liberalism became more widespread in every generation after the beginning of the 20th century. That’s also a warning to us in the present.
Every generation faces the same ultimate challenge: Will we pass on the faith intact and pure?
9. Reformations Sometimes Fail
While we celebrate the Reformation of the 16th century, and see the providence of God in that reformation, we remember that there were reformers before Luther who called for reformation in the church. In them we see at least some early doctrines Luther would later preach; but those efforts of reform were extinguished. Some of those earlier voices were murdered.
Spurgeon’s valiant effort for the British Baptist Union failed. The same is true of conservatives in the major Protestant denominations in the United States. Those denominations weren’t lost without a fight, but those fights were sometimes lost anyway.
That raises the crucial and unavoidable question: When must we leave? Once there’s no reasonable hope for recovery; once the constitution or the rules of the denomination allow for no reformation; once the church either commits heresy or denies the authority of the confession; once remaining in the denomination is to commit apostasy and to enable and to fund heresy, and to grant respectability to unbelief, then it’s time to leave.
Spurgeon left the British Baptist Union the same way Luther left the Roman Catholic Church; he was kicked out. It wasn’t easy for him, and he felt the hatred of many in the denomination the rest of his life. It split his own family and separated him, for a time, from his own brother. But he never, for a moment, wavered in his belief that it was necessary. We honor Spurgeon today because he never wavered. Now, more than a century later, it’s clear not only that Spurgeon was right, but he was righter than even he knew.
10. Our Confidence Is in No One But Christ
Our confidence is in Christ’s promise to his church. In Matthew 16:18, he declared, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That’s not a promise to any denomination. It’s not a promise to any theological seminary, to any missionary society, or to any fellowship of churches.
Insofar as any of these serve the gospel, they build up the church and honor the Lord. But the moment they fail to uphold the truth, these churches no longer serve Christ. But regardless of the unfaithfulness of some churches, the true gospel will still ring out. The Lord Jesus Christ said, “Upon this rock, I will build my church.” He does, and he will.
Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” reminds us in whom we have our confidence. He reminds us of the battle to which we’re called, but he also reminds us of something precious. We need to think not only in personal and family terms, but sometimes in denominational terms. There are moments in which we simply have to sing, “Let goods and kindred go.” It’s sometimes necessary, but “the body they may kill; his truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.