Whither Southern Baptists? Unity and Controversy in Phoenix

Many readers know that I grew up a Southern Baptist (SBC). While I am not a Baptist now I have huge respect for my childhood church and my spiritual formation in this context. I tell some of this story in my book: Your Church Is Too Small.

I have expressed my concern about the direction of the SBC for some years. Much of that concern is not limited to Southern Baptists. In some ways, Southern Baptists ARE American evangelicalism in one large cantankerous and evangelistic group. You’ve never seen a real old-fashioned democratic shoot-out until you been in a Southern Baptist meeting with many different opinions being expressed. It is truly the best and the worst of congregational polity on a very big stage.

HOME20116164796 Over the course of the last thirty years the SBC engaged in a serious debate over the Bible. The buzz word was “inerrancy.” Eventually the more conservative party won. But a lot was lost in the process. The SBC affiliated seminaries were all impacted by this political change, some more than others. The state conventions and area associations were impacted in many very different ways.

When the controversy began it was ostensibly about the direction of the SBC. How would the largest Protestant denomination in America remain faithful to the Bible? The problem was, and is, that the issue(s) is not as clearly defined as both friends and foes alike want it to be. The word “inerrancy” became the battle field term. But a lot more followed over time. The Baptist Faith & Message (a doctrinal statement for a denomination that insisted it did not have a creed at all) was eventually revised and the changes included things like the role of wives and women in the family and church. This further damaged the tenuous unity enjoyed in the SBC. Labels like conservative, moderate and liberal became “curse” words in the hallways of schools, churches and conventions. The SBC I grew up in during the 1950s no longer looked the same.

While all of this was going on the church in America began to decline. For years the SBC declared its strength by citing its numbers of baptisms and new growth. But then, like virtually every church body in America, the decline began. Now the SBC knows that it has problems. But the answers are not yet clear.

The annual Southern Baptist Convention gathering, held June 14-15 in Phoenix, was the lowest-attended annual meeting in 67 years. There was just over 4,800 people in attendance. Yet the news reports say the substance of the meeting led plenty who attended it in 2011 to argue that it shouldn't be judged on numbers.

What has been called a historic report that encouraged ethnic diversity, witnessed dozens of leaders standing together in support of a landmark unity pledge. Hundreds of pastors and laypeople volunteered to lead their churches to embrace one of the world's 3,800 unengaged people groups. In addition the heads of the major ministries of the SBC appeared together in a further show of unity.

Convention President Bryant Wright noted: "I do believe it could prove to be the most spiritually significant convention over the last 50 years. Coming back to the authority of Scripture was a correcting point that had to take place [in the SBC], but the mission is to fulfill the Great Commission. I think this was the most unified convention around the Great Commission that I have experienced. People came here with anticipation of that unity."

I hope and pray that this is the case. Regardless of Wright’s statement about “coming back to the authority of Scripture” being a “correcting point” the multitudes of leaders and bright young people lost to the SBC has left untold damage on the overall witness of this great body of Christians. I have always been of the opinion that the corrections could have been made without all the damage and destruction that ensued. And the results are not of one type. A new fundamentalism is now entrenched in the SBC that tolerates little or no dissent. This is well known and formal debate about it is simply not tolerated by the present leadership. This is why unity in their mission is not an easy thing to bring about. Decades were spent gaining power and cleaning house and the results are simply not what we were told they would be. As I noted just a few weeks ago the contending parties and groups in the SBC are numerous, at times too numerous to identify clearly. Read the blogs and posts of the various groups if you have time or interest and you will see what I mean. The spirit of contention remains strong in the SBC.

Tomorrow: One Very Bad Resolution Passed at the 2011 SBC

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