Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, made history last week during its annual conference—though not in the way many people thought. 


Meeting in New Orleans, some 10,000 messengers representing 45,000 churches and 16 million members did what they typically do at these conventions. They heard reports from various agencies, debated resolutions, adopted budgets and elected leaders.

Here are a few highlights:
·         The convention adopted a name-change-that-isn’t-a-name-change. After years of study and national publicity that pretty well exposed the silliness of the entire endeavor, the convention decided to change its name, sort of. Instead of the “Southern Baptist Convention” the messengers approved a new “descriptor”—what, exactly is a “descriptor” anyway?—and, if individual churches so choose, they may now designate themselves as part of the “Southern Baptist Convention—Great Commission Baptists.” The idea is to position the denomination as less regional, which is a good idea. But the cumbersome new name is just, well, dumb. Being loyal Southern Baptists, though, the usual leaders were trotted out in front of the entire assembly to endorse the change and it narrowly passed. Just a passing thought: to publicize the new name will require churches to purchase much larger signs.
·         A resolution was passed clarifying the denomination’s stance on homosexual marriage. "We deny that the effort to legalize 'same-sex marriage' qualifies as a civil rights issue since homosexuality does not qualify as a class meriting special protections, like race and gender," the resolution said. As the nation wrestles with this issue, the SBC continues to take a strong stance supporting biblical marriage.
·         The messengers heard reports that indicate the denomination’s slow decline in membership continues, even with a slight uptick in numbers of baptisms and church starts.

It’s fascinating to see Baptists taking care of business because the process is the same regardless of the size of the meeting. Imagine a small, rural Baptist church holding a monthly business meeting. Sometimes it’s argumentative and awkward, with differing groups within the congregation trying to impress the group as a whole to adopt one position or another. Sometimes the group breaks into a squabble and gets angry with each other. That always shocks some people; although I’m rarely surprised by it. It’s just Baptists being Baptists. Or, as my father loves to say: Baptists are like cats; you think they’re fighting when they’re really multiplying.

The large conventions follow the same pattern, with recommendations from committees, debate and voting. Baptist decision-making is democracy in action. Last week’s meeting was the typical routine. Except for two issues that weren’t routine at all. One was an official item on the agenda that’s already sending shock waves throughout the nation in a good way. The other wasn’t on the agenda at all but was the underground talk of the convention. It will almost certainly result in open conflict that will determine the future of the denomination.

First, the official item. The biggest news from the convention was the election of Dr. Fred Luter as president. Luter, 55, serves as pastor of the 5000-member Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans and has long been one of the nation’s most prominent Baptist leaders. He’s also African-American. For the SBC—founded by slave-owners prior to the Civil War—to elect a black man as leader is tantamount to a cultural revolution. Just a few years ago, such an act would have been unthinkable. But now the denomination has announced to the world—in a way something as superficial as a name change never could—that it’s no longer a backwater religious group. Luter’s election is arguably the most positive and significant action the SBC has taken in many years.

The second item of great importance wasn’t even on the convention’s official agenda. Instead, it took the form of an open letter published two weeks before. With the imposing title of  A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, (find the full text at http://www.sbctoday.com/) the document seeks to mobilize opposition to the growth of Calvinism in Southern Baptist churches. While it wasn’t an item of business, A Statement was surely the main object of conversation in the hallways and meeting rooms—for good reason.

Here’s some background. Since its beginnings in the nineteenth century, the SBC has maintained a “big tent” where people of slightly differing theological convictions could minister together.  Regarding the two main streams of thought concerning the plan of salvation—Arminians and Calvinists, to use their most basic designations—Southern Baptists maintained what might be called a gentleman’s agreement that ran something like this: I won’t condemn you for being a Calvinist if you don’t condemn me for being an Arminian.

Calvinism takes its name from John Calvin, the reformer who believed God predestines people to either heaven or hell. Arminians, on the other hand, take their direction from Jacobus Arminius, who believed that individuals freely choose whether to receive salvation or not. In its most basic form—although there are many theological implications to each position—the difference comes down to predestination vs. free will.

The two strands have always been interwoven in Southern Baptist life. James Petigru Boyce and John Broadus, two instrumental leaders in the early days of the convention, were both Calvinists. Billy Graham, on the other hand, is strongly Arminian.

Over the last couple of decades, though, the delicate balance has been disturbed by the rise of a younger group of Calvinists led by Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY.  

Mohler is leading a resurgence of classical reformed theology making huge inroads into modern Southern Baptist life. Southern’s graduates are spreading throughout the denomination and bringing with them the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. A recent survey by Lifeway Publishing, the SBC’s official publishing house, found that about 10 percent of Southern Baptist leaders identify themselves as five-point Calvinists, while about 30 percent of recent seminary graduates identify themselves as such.

Mohler recently signed an agreement with the denomination’s publishing house, Lifeway, to produce educational material from a distinctively reformed perspective. Tellingly, this material is geared to younger church members and so will set the stage for even more reformed theology being promulgated throughout the rank and file of Southern Baptist churches.

Calvinist influence in Southern Baptist life is large, deliberate and growing.

The other side of the conflict is led by Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Seminary in Dallas, TX. Patterson is the ying to Mohler’s yang. Southwestern’s theological persuasion  historically has been much more Arminian than Calvinist. During the tenures of both presidents, Southwestern’s enrollment has sharply declined while Southern’s has exploded; it's today the largest seminary in the world of any denomination. 

The two men and their respective theologies were bound to collide. You could hear the impact when A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation was published just prior to the convention. It sounded like the old physics problem: What happens when an irresistible force meets an unmoveable object? Answer: an unimaginable concussion.  

While Patterson didn’t write the document, he’s the most visible and vocal supporter of it. To date, hundreds of Southern Baptist leaders have publicly signed on with many more hundreds to follow.

Mohler quickly responded on his blog, http://www.almohler.com/ , and now we have the invigorating experience of a full-blown theological conflict. While both men profess Christian love for one another, you can still hear the venom behind their writings. They seem prepared to burn down each others’ houses—although they would certainly pray before doing so.

It’s actually refreshing to see this kind of passion in a theological dispute. The fact is theology is important because it deals with matters of eternal significance. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said that when he heard a sermon, he liked for the preacher to preach as though he was fighting off a swarm of bees. President Lincoln would have loved this one.

I’m not really trying to make light of it all. The reality is that the Calvinist/Arminian dispute is having a great impact in local church life as well. Across the denomination, churches that have been historically Arminian or comfortable with both persuasions, are finding themselves in conflict with newer pastors who are strongly Calvinist. The resulting conflict is ripping apart many more congregations than we’re aware of.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make. With all the good vibes flowing from the election of Fred Luter as the SBC president, the future of the denomination is more questionable now than it’s been in a long while. It’s hard to see how the Calvinist/Arminian conflict can be resolved in a way that keeps everyone sitting together at the same table.  

Unlike the previous generation’s struggle over biblical inerrancy, which resulted in the denomination being more united in theology and mission than it had been for decades, this controversy has the capacity to rip the fabric of the convention from top to bottom. When combined with fewer financial resources, declining membership and shifting demographic patterns, the theological conflict has the potential to be the tipping point for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

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