This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit. Isaiah 66:2b, NIV
By now, most people are aware that Dr. Paige Patterson, one of the media-described “architects” of the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention, has been terminated from all connections with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The decision, made yesterday by the executive committee of the board of trustees, was a stunning reversal of a previous decision making him President Emeritus, and providing him with continued salary and on-campus housing. The issue had expanded from his previous remarks and handling of situations related to spousal abuse, to a specific incident which occurred at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary while he was still serving as President there. Any Baptist news media outlet will provide the details.
This isn’t a discussion of Patterson, or what he did. It is a discussion of how the Southern Baptist Convention, and by extension Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, got to this point, and where it goes from here. I’m a graduate of Southwestern. I have an M.A. in what they called “religious education” in the past, received in 1989 after two and a half years and 68 hours of graduate level courses in theological studies, educational pedagogy and behavioral science. I was one of more than 5,000 students at Southwestern when I enrolled, more than 4,000 on the same campus in Ft. Worth.
The “Conservative Resurgence” that began in 1979 was eight years into its announced task of replacing trustee board members with those who believed in Biblical inerrancy when I came to Ft. Worth. Though there was always talk about how that was affecting the SBC, at Southwestern, I never encountered a professor in a classroom who taught anything that resembled the “liberalism” I’d heard about as being prevalent in the SBC schools. Southwestern was a cradle of Baptist orthodoxy in its conservative form. It was not “fundamentalist” in that it insisted on prescribing specific details of specific interpretations of scripture, but I think you’d have been hard pressed to find any professor, or even staff member, who wouldn’t agree to the BFM’s statement that the Bible had, for its matter, “Truth, without any mixture of error.” [see the Baptist Faith and Message, 1963 version].
No Biblical Model for Exalting Leadership
There is not a model in scripture for a church or denomination to follow that allows for the exalting of leadership. Jesus was a servant leader, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” [Philippians 2:6-9, ESV] His church has no hierarchy, and no power structure. Its offices require one who is called to serve to submit to God’s authority, and to exercise spiritual gifts given by God, above any human reason, education or experience.
One of the most distinctive marks of Baptist identity is the nature of the Christian church. As it is described in the New Testament, Baptists believe that there is no hierarchy or power structure in the church, but that each congregation is independent and autonomous, accountable before God for fulfilling what it senses as its own ministry calling. Though highly critical of Catholics and some of the mainline Protestant denominations with a hierarchical structure, the Southern Baptist Convention has built a power structure into its own denominational apparatus that has created a hierarchy, based on prominence and influence, and on positions which have control over institutions and agencies, that is every bit as hierarchical as the Catholic priesthood. Getting there takes an investment of time, influence and visibility, especially in the Baptist-operated media. It takes either having friends who have managed to get themselves onto boards and committees, or making friends with those already there.
Then it was 1979, and there was the Conservative Resurgence.
Many Southern Baptists were already disenchanted with denominational leadership that appeared to be exclusive and entrenched, with a very narrow group of individuals, from a very small group of churches, rotating from board to board, committee to committee, appointing their friends to trustee boards and hiring their friends for top salaried denominational jobs. By using the theological issue of “creeping liberalism”, the rallying cry of fidelity to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, and the general “bust up the good-ole-boys club” attitude, the resurgence leadership succeeded in turning all of the trustee boards and committees over to members committed to inerrancy. They also succeeded in developing a network of loyal followers willing to violate all of the rules and protocols, and safeguards against nepotism to reward leaders with the positions they wanted.
I’ve heard the Conservative Resurgence described as a movement, of which Pressler and Patterson were considered “architects,” that “restored the Southern Baptist Convention to its conservative roots.” I don’t think it had to really go very far to do that. The vast majority of Southern Baptists were already conservative, and already believed in inerrancy. The movement could not have sustained itself, and gathered the messenger support that it needed over the course of more than a decade to turn over the boards and committees if that had not been the case. But when change happens, especially in a Christian denomination, great care must be exercised to keep ambition from getting in the way of principle. The goal of the Conservative Resurgence was to restore a great denomination to its Biblical foundations, not to use the power that would be gained in the process to secure denominational jobs and influence for those who were leading the movement.
So there is a tendency to want to show appreciation to those who have accomplished something that appears to be necessary by rewarding them in some way. Noting that the servant leadership model set by Jesus himself led him to crucifixion at the hands of pagans, there should not be any expectation of reward as a result of the accomplishment of some specific goal. And the fact of the matter is that not all Southern Baptists, by a long shot, and not all Southern Baptist theological conservatives, were necessarily on board with the methods used by the “architects” of the Conservative Resurgence. Nor have a majority of Southern Baptists been on board with handing over a good portion of the denominational “spoils” of the battle to them, ether.
What has happened to the denomination since the resurgence put its own people on the boards and committees has not been something to celebrate. Baptism numbers, which resurgence leaders claimed were tanking because of the “liberal” leadership of the SBC, continued to decline under their leadership, and are now well below half of what they were in 1978, prior to the first resurgence candidate being elected SBC president. Membership increases became smaller with each succeeding year, and the SBC has now lost a million members over the course of the last decade. Weekly worship attendance has declined by more than half a million, to a number below the 5 million mark for the first time since the 60’s. Sunday School enrollment and attendance are down 10% over the course of a decade. Seminary enrollment is half what it was at its peak in the 1980’s. NAMB has endured a financial and logistical disaster. The IMB is struggling. The venerable Cooperative Program is fluctuating, though the overall trend is showing a decrease, but there has been sustained pressure on state conventions to cut their own receipts to “give more.” Giving through the state conventions is down 10% over the course of a decade, though some states have experienced much more severe drops. By any measure of success, that’s not what it looks like.
Ambition Should Not Get in the Way of Principle
The goal of the conservative resurgence was to restore a Christian denomination to its Biblical roots. It would not have been possible for either Patterson or Pressler to accomplish this goal as an officer, denominational employee or trustee board member. Patterson didn’t make a run for the SBC presidency until long after control of the boards was secure. It is my belief that he first went to Southeastern before making the move to Ft. Worth to make sure that the move would not be seen as motivated by ambition and carried out by influence, because under any other circumstance, a move from a tiny, struggling Bible college to the SBC’s largest and most influential seminary wouldn’t have been considered likely. His supporters would insist that he was qualified for both seminary posts, though he was a major influence in trustee selection at both schools long before he went to either one. Prestige and influence aside, this ended very badly for Dr. Patterson. It also ended badly for Southwestern Seminary.
The Southern Baptist Convention itself has not been unified around a conservative banner. There was always a group opposed to the tactics being used by Patterson and Pressler to control the SBC, “a subversive and militaristic solution” as one friend describes it. Ironically, though both Patterson and Pressler were Texans, and belonged to some of the largest and most influential Baptist congregations in the state, Texas Baptists as a whole never really warmed up to either one of them. The result of their efforts in that state was a nasty quarrel that split the state convention, along with a lot of churches and associations. The majority, including a clear majority of conservatives, went to the side opposite Pressler and Patterson. Over a period of several years, the majority of the Texas contingent at Southwestern departed, and that has been a major factor in its enrollment and financial decline.
The divisions within the SBC during almost all of the period of time that it has been under the control of the conservative resurgence are sharpening and widening. The 2018 convention is shaping up to be one of the most contentious in a decade, and one of the noisiest factions is the group that still rallies around the old guard of the conservative resurgence. With the SBC experiencing declines across the board of the same proportion as some of the mainline Protestant denominations its leaders once scorned for the same reason, and with one of its seminaries in need of a major rebuilding and renewal, there is still a group spoiling for a fight.
The View from Seminary Hill
I’m still quite partial to Southwestern Seminary. It was a place where I experienced one of the most significant spiritual revivals in my life. In two and a half years, almost a lifetime’s worth of spiritual formation was poured in, resulting from the instruction of professors, fellowship with students and staff, and serving in practicums and internships in a variety of local churches. The campus was called Seminary Hill, but unless you were approaching it from another direction, you couldn’t really see it as a high point. From a spiritual perspective, though, it certainly was.
I believe that Southwestern Seminary is a bellwether of SBC institutional life, and that what happens there will have an effect on how things turn across the rest of the convention. It is worth the effort to restore it, and provide it with leadership that can make it a viable institution capable of training generations of future Christian leaders. This isn’t about one leader in its life, it is about the worth of the school as a place where pastors, missionaries and humble servants of God encounter the Holy Spirit, and experience personal revival. The SBC needs it to be what it once was.