This time of year, I usually share a few observations about the Convention of churches to which I belong. Two years have passed since the scandalous evil of sexual abuse by multiple Southern Baptist pastors came to light (as well as the egregious mishandling of these allegations in some of our churches over the past two decades). And, while many churches have taken steps to improve their procedures and systems to protect the vulnerable, and despite good signs here and there in the SBC census numbers (as reported through the Annual Church Profile), the overall picture of numerical decline for our Convention is discouraging, especially the number that should mean the most to Baptists who adopt the moniker “Great Commission”—baptisms.
Throw in a pandemic, a polarized political environment, and the ease with which many Baptist pastors engage poorly in controversy on social media, and it’s no surprise to see tensions run high before an annual meeting. We are ramping up for the best-attended annual meeting since the 1990s and a closely watched four-way presidential race. And right now, Southern Baptists are debating the boundaries for our cooperative efforts, everything from women receiving the title “pastor” on staff (or teaching in mixed-gender environments) to the potential use or abuse of race-related theories arising from secular ideologies.
A good marriage requires you to distinguish between the debate at hand and the substantive issues under the surface. To someone on the outside, an argument with your spouse may look petty or childish. Relational maturity requires you to dig until you unearth the deeper issues that erupted as controversy. Quarreling is the result of degenerated debate. And debates degenerate when a husband and wife focus only on the issues as they present themselves without addressing the relational distrust beneath the surface. The same is true for churches in partnership. Dig below the topics of debate and you’ll find different postures, competing visions, and broken trust.
My goal here is to uncover some of the fault lines in the SBC as I see them—the issues underneath the controversies. If you’re not part of the SBC, I hope to help you see past some of the headlines and news reports to the bigger questions leading to these debates. If you’re Southern Baptist, I hope to offer a fair representation of the questions behind the more contentious conversations so that you better understand brothers and sisters with whom you disagree.
Big Question #1: Do Southern Baptist churches unite primarily around doctrinal consensus or missional cooperation?
Underneath several of today’s debates is the meaning and purpose of The Baptist Faith and Message, our Convention’s statement of faith. The confession provides doctrinal parameters for our seminaries and other entities, but as it stands, it is not binding on any particular church (although we do exclude some churches deemed not to be in “friendly cooperation,” usually for denying Christianity’s sexual ethic, tolerating or engaging in racism, or failing to take seriously sexual abuse).
Our confession is decidedly Baptist, rooted in historic evangelical commitments, and deliberately broad enough to include different theological perspectives under the same umbrella (Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriologies, Dispensational and amillennial eschatologies, etc.). It envisions the church as active in promoting peace, justice, and religious liberty. It comes down firmly on the side of traditional Christian teaching regarding human sexuality, gender, and the role of men and women in the church and the home.
Southern Baptists have long debated the meaning and application of some of the BF&M’s positions.
- Does it prohibit open communion? (Surveys show open communion to be the majority practice of our churches.)
- Is the absence of the Trinitarian creedal formulation “one God in three persons” and the presence of the word “reveals” in the article on God enough to differentiate us from oneness Pentecostals and the heresy of modalism?
- Does the “office” of pastor, reserved for qualified men, require churches to take a particular position on women teaching men (most commonly, in a mixed-gender Sunday School class, or less frequently, from the platform on a Sunday morning)?
Debates over the meaning and application of a statement of faith can be good and healthy—a sign that as a convictional people we take seriously our core doctrinal commitments.
But some of these debates have degenerated, in part because a larger question remains beneath the surface: What is the primary source of our unity? To put it another way, Why do autonomous Southern Baptist churches unite in the first place? Is it our doctrinal confession that unites us? Or is it our desire to cooperate in international and domestic mission work?
To sum up: Does the BF&M unite us and point us to the mission? Or does the mission unite us, with the BF&M providing the guardrails for our cooperation?
Baptists in camp 1 naturally push for a greater measure of uniformity in doctrine and practice and are more alert to policing the boundaries. Baptists in camp 2 naturally give each other more leeway in interpreting and applying the confession and are more alert to decisions that would narrow our cooperative consensus.
Of course, it’s true that Southern Baptists unite both around a common confession and a common mission, since doctrine and mission are inevitably intertwined. Theological disaster awaits any denomination that requires a choice between “mission” and “theology.” Rightly understood, you won’t be effective on mission without sound theology, and biblical theology should lead to missional engagement.
The question for Southern Baptists however concerns the primary source of unity and cooperation in the SBC. Is it the BF&M that unites us, with the mission as an aftereffect? Or is it the mission that unites us, with the BF&M establishing parameters?
Either road comes with a set of potential problems. If you make confessional commitments the primary source of your unity, you may find yourself drifting towards an insular environment of never-ending debate, with separatism and legalism as a result. If you make the mission the primary source of your unity, you may find yourself drifting towards latitudinarianism (“the details of our doctrines don’t really matter as long as we do good”), with pragmatic methodologies and convictional compromise as a result.
Some of the hottest debates in the SBC today arise from this bigger question regarding the purpose and meaning of our confessional statement. How uniform must our churches be in order to cooperate together? Can church 1 partner with church 2 in missions and evangelism if church 2 permits a woman to teach a mixed-gender Sunday School class or exhort the congregation on a Sunday morning while church 1 does not? If mission is the primary source of unity and the reason for cooperation, you’ll likely say “yes, we don’t require uniformity at that level, and our confession of faith doesn’t get that specific.” If doctrine is the primary source of unity and the reason for cooperation, you may be more inclined to say “no” or feel uneasy about the partnership because “our willingness to cooperate with churches we believe to be in error could compromise our own doctrinal commitments.”
Like I said above, both missional passion and doctrinal alignment matter, so it’s no surprise we have cases in the SBC when a church’s doctrinal or ethical deviation is so substantial as to threaten the basis for cooperation in mission. The debate right now is over additional issues of misalignment, and whether or not we should narrow or expand our parameters for cooperation. The underlying question, however, is about the primary source of our cooperative unity.
Big Question #2: Should we engage secular sources of knowledge with a fundamentalist or an evangelical posture?
I do not use “fundamentalist” as a pejorative, but as a way of describing a posture toward culture that contrasts with the neo-evangelical movement that parted ways from classic fundamentalism in the mid twentieth century.
Over the years, evangelicals (especially northern ones) have adopted more of an Augustinian “plunder the Egyptians” approach that expects to find common grace everywhere, taking an “All truth is God’s truth” perspective toward secular sources of knowledge. Fundamentalists (especially southern ones) have tended toward Tertullian’s dichotomy between biblical theology and pagan philosophy (“What hath Jerusalem to do with Athens?!”), eschewing nuance in favor of making sharp distinctions between truth and error.
The current debate over Critical Race Theory is part of this bigger question regarding our overall posture to culture. Should CRT receive unqualified condemnation, since it originates from scholars whose ideologies are deeply unbiblical, or should it be engaged warily, expecting to find occasional “common grace” insights even if the ideological framework places it outside our confessional commitments?
CRT gets all the press, but for the last decade a quieter debate has been present in Southern Baptist academic circles: the extent to which we can benefit from secular psychology in biblical counseling. In a world conquered by “the triumph of the therapeutic” (Philip Rieff’s apt description), Christians naturally wrestle with what to make of psychological studies deeply at odds with Christianity due to their radically different diagnoses of relational and personal problems. (For example, there’s often no category for making moral judgments, as the very notion of sin has been redefined as “dysfunction” or a lack of self-actualization.)
Scholars with classical evangelical sensibilities have sought to integrate findings from secular psychology into a biblical framework wherever these insights are compatible with the Bible. Scholars with classical fundamentalist sensibilities have advocated a wholesale rejection of secular psychology due to its underlying unbiblical assumptions. (Some of the latter have even gone so far as to question whether the former remain truly committed to the “sufficiency of Scripture.” Of course that debate hinges on whether the Reformational principle of Scriptural sufficiency means we make Scripture our primary and supreme authority, or our only authority or legitimate source of knowledge.)
We could multiply the examples. Can pastors incorporate insights from the world of business and finance into how they lead? Is drawing from secular leadership studies legitimate, or do we run the risk of turning the people of God into another corporation modeled after pragmatic American consumerism? How should Christians engage studies of sociology and economics, etc.? When incorporating outside insights, how far is too far? When are we in danger of syncretism or theological compromise? Where do the dangers outweigh the benefits?
Most Southern Baptists are on neither the far end of classical fundamentalism nor the far end of classical evangelicalism regarding these matters (even if voices in those camps often sound the loudest online). We’re on a fundamentalist—evangelical spectrum, which is why the ordinary Southern Baptist pastor often feels uneasy when encountering evangelicals they believe to be too accommodating as well as fundamentalists they believe to be too knee-jerk.
What complicates this question about secular fields of study is the relational challenge of broken trust between black and white Southern Baptists. Many African-American brothers and sisters see Southern Baptists eager to adopt a more integrative approach to non-Christian sources of knowledge until the question concerns race, and then the fundamentalist reaction kicks in. And due to our Convention’s tainted history on slavery and segregation, many black Baptists worry that predominantly white churches appear more dedicated to rooting out problematic proposals for racial equality than to finding good and biblical ways to make progress in this area. The hurt expressed by many black Southern Baptists stems not from a desire for the Convention to embrace Critical Race Theory, but from concern over what signal a quick and dismissive response to this ideology sends, and the fear that some Southern Baptists are using the specter of CRT to shut down conversations about racial injustice altogether.
Big Question #3: How politically aligned must Southern Baptists be in order to cooperate together?
As the SBC grows more ethnically diverse (which, despite our public perception, is happening quickly, in contrast to rapidly shrinking, predominantly white mainline denominations), and as we plant more and more churches in bluer parts of the country, we will find ourselves in more and more conversations with brothers and sisters who don’t vote like we do.
Black voters who hold evangelical beliefs make up the largest churchgoing segment of the Democratic party. White evangelical voters make up the largest churchgoing segment of the Republican Party. The reasons for this unfortunate divide go back decades and would take more than a book to unpack, but it’s clear that, generally speaking, black and white evangelicals differ in their political calculations and policy priorities. It’s safe to assume that this partisan divide is unlikely to disappear in the immediate future.
And so we are faced with an important question: Can Southern Baptists partner together on mission, in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message, as a display of the ethnically diverse kingdom of God, and tolerate divergent views regarding political priorities?
Acknowledging divergent views doesn’t mean we should rule out discussion and debate over politics. We should not adopt a relativistic approach to these matters, as if all political choices are equally valid, or the two party platforms are morally equivalent (they’re not), or that “unity” requires us to avoid hard conversations intended to sharpen our ethical and moral reasoning. But right now, it is almost impossible to imagine the SBC growing significantly more diverse ethnically unless we accept the reality that we are likely to see less political conformity, at least in the short term. So, as we expand geographically and ethnically, the question remains: Can we partner together in missions and evangelism, in confessional alignment, without marching in lockstep politically?
Politically-invested Southern Baptists on both sides are pressing this issue. In recent years, some found it hard to partner with anyone whose political calculus led to support for Trump, while others found it hard to partner with anyone whose political calculations led to support for anyone other than Trump! The last four years have revealed how important political involvement and partisan conformity is to a good chunk of the SBC (on both right and left). (Meanwhile, there’s another notable trend: many younger Southern Baptists prioritize pastoral ways of responding to a rapidly secularizing culture rather than seeking to effect change through political levers.)
Pray for the SBC
In a couple weeks, you’ll probably see Southern Baptists in the news. We’ll make headlines for whatever we do or don’t do at our annual meeting in Nashville. Hopefully, the suspicions, spin, slander, lies, and personal attacks we’ve witnessed online this year won’t be part of our face-to-face meeting.
Whatever happens, as you watch the debates unfold, I hope this column has given you a better grasp of the underlying issues that precipitated these conflicts. Above all, I hope you’ll pray for Southern Baptists to engage in these discussions with genuine affection for one another, so that even in disagreement we might be a model to a watching world of what Christian love looks like.
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