The guest essay below is written by a conservative Southern Baptist in the Southwest. The insight is stunning, reflecting a deep understanding of what’s happening in the Southern Baptist Convention. Read and absorb it with care.
With that, I am…
In some ways, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) may be seen as a fractured set of special interest groups, none of whom share the same agenda but several of whom might have overlapping agendas. However, to oversimplify a bit, the Southern Baptist scene can be analyzed by noting three key groups, what I’ll call the Barbarians, the Bolsheviks, and the Baptists. All three groups are devoted Christians. All three groups believe the Bible. All three groups serve the Lord to the best of their ability. The difference between them boils down to who Baptists are and what means should be used to do the Lord’s work most effectively
The ancient Barbarians invaded and dominated the once-great Roman Empire. The ancient Barbarians were, for the most part, uneducated. But this is not true of the Barbarians in the SBC. Most have a seminary degree, and are fairly well-read and well-versed in one doctrinal convention, though they do not tend to read more broadly. In fact, they tend to be quite proud of their learning, often coming off to others as arrogant. The Barbarians have come into Southern Baptist empire from other traditions. The reason for their entrance into SBC life is varied. Some attended an SBC seminary and just flowed into the denomination. Some wanted to be associated with the size and prestige of the Southern Baptist name. Some came because of their affinity with our doctrine. But none of them are “heart” Southern Baptists. They fly the Southern Baptist flag as a “flag of convenience” without any real commitment to the SBC. The SBC is just a vehicle for advancing their own agenda. Indeed, their churches tend not to have “Baptist” in their names. They could just as easily take or leave being a Southern Baptist. The Barbarians are therefore usually more interested in what they can take from the SBC than what they can give to it.
Although the Barbarians have general agreement with most Southern Baptist doctrines, usually including a high view of biblical inspiration, they openly question others. They tend to be more Reformed in their theology than most Southern Baptists. They disagree with most Baptists on a collection of other issues, such as drinking alcoholic beverages. They tend to bring (consciously or unconsciously) aspects of a non-Southern Baptist ecclesiology with them into Baptist life. They know not Joseph, George W. Truett, M. E. Dodd, or Lottie Moon. They tend to be impatient and critical of most Southern Baptist traditions and customs, and they tend to attend non-Southern Baptist meetings rather than Southern Baptist meetings. They make jokes about or demean the Cooperative Program. They criticize the convention agencies as being ineffective. They are not interested at all in maintaining distinctive Baptist beliefs, but believe theology itself is “emergent” or “emerging” into something new. These people are not pillars you can build on but caterpillars who crawl around, and they won’t be around for long.
The Bolsheviks in Russia were not foreigners but Russians, yet they had virtually no “say” or control of the government. They fought for the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy. They wanted power for the people (meaning “their” people) instead of the old aristocracy. They represented those who were not in power, and they wanted to seize power. They wanted to usher in revolutionary change in the social system, economy, and governance of Russia. (The Bolsheviks were communists, but I have no pejorative intent in applying this nomenclature to persons in the SBC. I am simply focusing on the identity of Bolsheviks as revolutionaries).
The Bolsheviks in SBC life also feel disempowered, and they want to change that. Unlike the Barbarians, most of the Bolsheviks grew up in Southern Baptist life, or at least have been Southern Baptists for a longer period of time. But, like the Barbarians, they don’t like what is going on in SBC life, and want radical change. Some SBC Bolsheviks were lieutenants in the Conservative Resurgence, but they have never been promoted to the top level of power brokers. They share a high view of Scripture, but they want methodological change and a change in leadership. They believe it is their turn for the spotlight to shine on them. They consciously modeled the Great Commission Resurgence after the Conservative Resurgence (in some ways), and attempted to portray it as such.
Many other SBC Bolsheviks are too young to remember the Conservative Resurgence. Some are a mixture of Barbarian and Bolshevik. These younger Bolsheviks have a higher value for what is “cool,” what is the most recent fad in theology. They militantly insist on contemporary worship rather than traditional worship styles. They would rather start their own church plant and worship like they like than join a long existing SBC church staff and have to deal with adults. Many of them do not have a deep understanding or appreciation of SBC agencies and their work. Though they have been Southern Baptist for years, the Bolsheviks have ministered in the vacuum of their own ministries. They have been at the periphery of SBC life, or in the room while decisions were made, but they were not themselves the decision makers. Many Bolsheviks are associated with large churches that are so self-sufficient that they have little need for Baptist associations, state conventions, or even the national convention. They can write their own Bible study curriculum, develop their own music programs, train their own staff members, and send their own missionaries.
Perhaps in part to achieve their agenda, the SBC Bolsheviks have signed a peace treaty with Calvinists, though they may not be Calvinists themselves. They also partnered with many SBC Barbarians to further their agenda, particularly by developing large meetings with non-Southern Baptist speakers and attendees. Many Barbarians dressed with the same color t-shirts (so they could be more easily identified and manipulated by the power brokers) were brought into SBC convention meetings. The Bolsheviks have compromised some of their earlier stances regarding some of the practices of the Barbarians in order to secure their cooperation. The SBC Bolshevik revolution took place not in Red October, as with the Russian Bolsheviks, but in the June 2009 and 2010 SBC conventions with the adoption of the Great Commission Resurgence report.
Like the Russian Bolsheviks, what the SBC Bolsheviks want is revolutionary change. They want to overthrow the old SBC aristocracy and have a change in leadership (and put them in charge). They want to explode the “bloated bureaucracies” of the tsarist SBC, and bring more power back to their local church. They want local churches to send missionaries instead of mission agencies. They want to defund and close the old “ battleship” SBC agencies, and replace them with dozens of PT boats with no unified command. They eschew cooperation, that old deeply held Baptist core value, and want instead to make participation the key value (or, in their parlance, to eschew being “mission minded” and to become “missional”). They want each church to decide how they want to give their gifts, rather than contributing to a common pool which enables all SBC ministries.
Many Bolsheviks are on staff at megachurches in the midst of costly ongoing building programs, as well as supporting a highly paid staff and world class programs in the church. This has led to cutting Cooperative Program giving and keeping more in their church. However, the standard of Cooperative Program giving as a qualification for SBC leadership positions has frustrated them to the point of exasperation. The primary point of change in the GCR was and is the redefinition of Cooperative Program gifts so that pastors of churches giving a small percentage to the Cooperative Program could still be elected to convention leadership. Though they have not achieved total control, it is fair to say that the SBC Bolshevik revolution is in the ascendency and is likely to succeed.
Each of these groups is Baptist, of course, but it is “The Baptists” to whom that name really means something. It means a tradition to be conserved. It is a name to be proud of. They have watched over the last generation as Southern Baptists grew from a small regional denomination to become the largest Protestant denomination in America. They are somewhat bewildered, then, by the cries of the Barbarians and Bolsheviks to explode the entire system and start all over again. For the most part, the Baptists were in favor of the Conservative Resurgence (or at least were against liberals), though they didn’t necessarily like the politics involved or the subsequent control by a small cadre of leaders.
The Baptists grew up in Mission Friends, RAs, and GAs, and they were trained and bought into SBC missions. They’re proud of the Baptist empire and what it has accomplished for the Lord. They believe in the Cooperative Program. They believe that we can achieve more together than each church can achieve individually. They believe that funding career missionaries who stay on a mission field for decades, utilizing their knowledge of the language and culture, is a better investment of missions giving than sending untrained church folk, who have no knowledge of the language or culture of where they’re going, on what essentially becomes a discounted overseas vacation. That is not to say that volunteer missions is not good or needed, of course. It is to say that, in a world of limited resources, it is not the best investment of missions dollars. They have been convinced of the ineffectiveness of “faith” missions or the old Societal method, and convinced in the value of everyone sending gifts into a single Cooperative Program that distributes the gifts according to need by a vote of all Baptists, not according to emotions or “who you know” in a particular church.
The Baptists believe Baptist doctrine. They believe the Bible. They believe in evangelism. They believe in missions. They believe in living a holy, separated life, and are confused when they see Barbarians and Bolsheviks publicly advocating consumption of alcoholic beverages, cursing in sermons, or speaking graphically about sex in sermons. Most Southern Baptists aren’t Calvinists, and they don’t want a Calvinist pastor or youth minister who advocates doctrines foreign to what godly people have taught them all of their lives.
The Baptists aren’t perfect. Sometimes they’re a little too slow to change, a little too tied to Southern culture. They may have been too insistent on traditional worship and overly resistant to new developments in worship. At their worst, sometimes they’re racist. But they are people with a good heart. They contribute more to the church than Barbarians or Bolsheviks. They donate their own time and resources to help the needy or aid in disaster relief. They serve in ministries like Gideons , RAs, GAs, Awana, and Upward. They are good family people. They are “middle America.” They are the “Silent Majority.”
The Baptists aren’t going anywhere. They were raised Baptist, and they intend to stay Baptist all of their lives. They have a Baptist identity. In ways, they are the anchor that keeps Baptists moored to our roots and foundations. They are very concerned about what they hear about the Barbarians and Bolsheviks, although since those groups impact the convention level rather than the local church level, most Baptists don’t know that much about them. But when they do, it should be an interesting discussion.