The Fault Lines in the Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) remains a major factor in American Christianity. But the decline of the SBC, in recent years, is alarming to anyone who cares about the overall health of Protestant Christianity in America. There are things to be learned here by all Christians.

Lemke Steve Lemke, provost at New Orleans Baptist Seminary, recently examined various points of divergence among Southern Baptists in a four-part series for the blog SBC Today (April 5, 7, 8 and 9 posts). Lemke offered two possible solutions. I am more than intrigued by what he wrote and find the attacks on Lemke on the Internet to be both sad and irresponsible.

Lemke says the SBC fault lines include points of contention such as:

  • Greater versus lesser Baptist identity.
  • Smaller versus larger churches.
  • Anti-Great Commission Resurgence verses pro-GCR.
  • Majority Baptist theology versus Reformed theology.
  • Association and convention advocates verses association and convention detractors.
  • Those who place great value on the Cooperation Program (the fund raising approach to the budget) versus those who place a lower value on the CP.

Lemke adds, “These fault lines are not identical, though they may be parallel and converge at times. But an eruption in one of the fault lines sets off shockwaves in each of these other fault lines, and hence a great deal of disagreement within the larger South Baptist fellowship.”

As one who was a Southern Baptist for the first twenty-three years of my life I remain deeply interested in the SBC. I have great regard for its history and impact on both American and world missions. I retain great respect for two major values that I took with me from the SBC. First, a deep respect for the liberty of conscience that I was given by my SBC influence. Second, a strong and clear understanding of the separation of church and state, which is a great Baptist contribution both to America and the whole world.

But I think the SBC was changed by human forces that created more than a few “fault lines” over the last thirty years or so. Knowing Baptist history I am quite aware that the SBC had major divisive battles in its past. But these battles were nothing compared to the battle over inerrancy and the control of the SBC in the 1980s and 90s. This battle changed the SBC like no previous battle in the 150-plus year history of the convention. Though the “conservatives” won the question remains, “What did they win and at what price in the end?” I am not sure of the right answer but of this I am persuaded – the SBC will never look like it did when I was a boy in the 1950s. It will never know the peace and mission focus it had then, at least not in the foreseeable future. It has been torn asunder and it cannot be simply patched-up by the good folks who now lead it. The spiritual blood that was shed destroyed people and this will not go away easily unless revival leads to humility and repentance. The SBC endured the equivalence of a civil war and the burned over sense of things that resulted will not be forgotten in my lifetime much as Reconstruction was not forgotten in the South I knew as a boy.

The SBC controversy was one of power versus power. People on both sides ought to be honest about this sad reality. Regardless of who was right and who was wrong, and I had friends on both sides though personally I had no horse in the race, the damage this schism did was immense. Schism always does damage thus it is almost never a good idea to fight church battles like this one, at least that is how I see it biblically and historically.

Dr. Lemke says that one way to achieve unity, going forward, is through division. In this option the debates continue and multiple splinters are the result. Perhaps a major split will finally come. Could the Calvinists and the non-Calvinists come to such a division? It has happened before and it could happen again.

Lemke also speaks about a “Baptist Babel” in which persons within each faction speak their own language and define terms differently, thus producing more confusion and frustration. He says the simple truth is that if one side wins we all lose. I really do share that perspective. He says that normally only a “win-win victory is a true victory in a Christian fellowship.” Amen to that!

The second way to deal with the “fault lines” is to seek “unity through cooperation.” This has been the way the SBC has kept its balance in the past and this actually helped to make it the largest and most influential Protestant body in America. This option, says Lemke, calls for more understanding as churches work to contextualize witness in their respective communities.

This option is important not only for the SBC but for all of the rest of us as well. Unless we can find ways to “contextualize our witness” and respect one another more deeply in the process divisions will remain the norm and likely increase. Lemke suggests something like a Jerusalem Council is needed. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I would like to see an international council of the whole church in the literal city of Jerusalem itself! Why not draw leaders of churches to the same place where the church first worked to identify and preserve its unity in the first century?

I have no idea if the SBC can survive all of these debates and not suffer more schisms and splinter groups. I am sure my fears are real but my hopes are fervent for better days ahead. Lemke says for his second option to work the mission of the church must come before all personal preferences. This is precisely what I mean by missional-ecumenism thus the SBC needs this vision too. From reading about Dr. Lemke on the Internet it seems almost impossible that his appeal would be heard in the present climate of things.

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