For Southern Baptists, a Lesson Learned

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.








From Your Friends, the Southern Baptists

The title of this article was taken from the tag line of a public service announcement that the SBC’s Radio and Television Commission once distributed to television stations.  A little character called “Jot” would deliver a short, Biblically focused message and invite people to make their way to a church, preferably a nearby Southern Baptist congregation.  I’m not sure if the effectiveness of it was ever measured, but it was catchy.

A Personal “Pedigree” 

I’m not big on having to establish a denominational “pedigree” in order to write about a denominational issue.  But I understand that there are those who need that in order to read what you write.  My attendance at a Southern Baptist church began when I was in the nursery.  I was baptized at six, can remember when the Sunday School classes were called Beginners, Primary and Intermediate, and when the missions group was called Sunbeams.  I went to a Southern Baptist college, graduated with a degree in secondary education, and finished a graduate degree in Christian education at the venerable Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  In all of that, I came under the conviction of the Spirit, and was redeemed by Jesus, who is my Lord and Savior.  I’m a theological conservative, not a fundamentalist by definition, but easily in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message.

In 2010, I accepted a position with an institution that belongs to another denomination, and moved to a county in the northeast where there isn’t an SBC congregation.  I remained connected to a ministry of one of the SBC agencies until last summer, when job requirements, and the physical slowdown that comes with getting older, caused me to give it up.  I still have an opinion, and maybe one that includes a sliver of objectivity that isn’t colored by a denominational pedigree.

On the Patterson Issue

I’m not going to argue, one way or another, whether Patterson’s view of women in abusive relationships is correct, or whether the advice and counsel he gave to a wife in an abusive relationship was right or wrong.  He’s explained his view, clarified his position, re-clarified it in concert with the trustees at Southwestern Seminary, and even apologized for the misunderstanding.  That’s not the issue surrounding Paige Patterson.

The problem is the deference, and continued extension of exception and privilege he receives from a segment of Southern Baptists that continue to express their admiration and adoration for him because of his role in leadership of the Conservative Resurgence.  This has included the use of his personal influence to gain posts as president of two of the denomination’s seminaries, Southeastern, which was known as one of the most liberal of the six schools prior to the resurgence, and Southwestern, which was the prize that he wanted from the outset.  But in his role as a self-appointed leader of the Conservative Resurgence, Patterson’s influence extended to boards and committees he wasn’t elected or invited to serve.  That was part of his role in pushing the conservative influence in the SBC forward, something he and his supporters considered necessary to reclaim the SBC.  But not all Southern Baptist conservatives were on board with doing it his way, and not all have accepted the unlimited perks card he carries.

Patterson has continued to use his methodology long after the conservative leadership of the SBC has been established, and continues to expect perks and privileges on the cooperative program’s dime.  The problem is now compounded by the fact that many of those in the conservative resurgence who ascended to leadership positions in the denomination no longer approve of continuing to push forward by the kind of influence peddling that is Patterson’s trademark and modus operandi.  And there are serious questions about his leadership at Southwestern, once the most influential of all Southern Baptist theological schools, and the largest one in the world.  A serious decline in the school’s enrollment, which produced a financial crisis and questions about specific unilateral actions Patterson has taken as President, has caused some Southern Baptists to question his ability to continue to lead the school, as well as the deference among some SBC leaders which allows him to call his own shots.  And so a conflict has erupted between Patterson’s staunchest supporters, those in the “he can do no wrong” camp, and other conservatives who feel that there is a level of accountability and responsibility required of all leaders, regardless of what they’ve done.

This has created a new reason to divide Southern Baptists on lines of religious/political support at a time when the crisis of an accelerating decline in membership and attendance is looming.


The New Theological Controversy

There’s a lot of caustic rhetoric going on between Reformed Baptists, and the “we’re not Calvinist in any way” group, the later of which is the largest and most influential group in the Southern Baptist Convention, represented by some of the “old guard” of the conservative resurgence.  Many of the moderate Baptists who were displaced by the resurgence leadership predicted that there would be ongoing disputes and fights in the denomination, once the threshold of controversy over doctrine was crossed, and this is apparent fulfillment of their prophecy.  From where I sit, this doesn’t look like a fully involved conflagration, at least not yet, but it is a brush fire that is destroying some sheds and outbuildings.

The very nature of a Baptist denomination, with the degree of church independence and autonomy that is present, and the loose confederation of the denominational apparatus, which applies perfectly to the SBC, means that there will always be the presence of various Reformation strains of theology and practice within the groups of voluntarily affiliated congregations.  Though most Southern Baptists are extremely comfortable with the blend of Anglican principle and Anabaptist theology that is at the core of Baptist formation, there are strains of almost all other Reformation-era influences in Baptist denominations, including a good dose of Lutheranism and Calvinism, and a sprinkling (no pun intended) of Wesleyan and New England Puritan/Congregational thought.

One of the specific elements that kept me linked to my own Baptist roots, which were only one generation deep in my family, was the fact that the Baptist church in which I grew up was more concerned with Christian fellowship than it was with some nebulous concept of theological and doctrinal purity with a Baptist label on it.  Not being located in an area where Southerners were particularly numerous, the church membership consisted of a fellowship of about 80 people whose ties to the congregation were relational, who were willing to set aside secondary and tertiary practices from their own backgrounds in order to be unified, and who made the church a spiritual home.  Since that time, I have been in several Southern Baptist churches that were so concerned with a distinctive, Southern Baptist identity that they were incapable of reaching into a population that wasn’t already steeped in that tradition.  I think that may explain why the SBC is seeing the decline in attendance and membership become so sharp and steep.  The low hanging fruit and fertile ground of culture in which the denomination was rooted no longer exists, and the “Southern-ness” and “Baptist-ness” of the churches is repulsive to people who aren’t familiar with it.  Those things are not, by the way, inherently Christian.

It’s clear that the denominational structure of the SBC has little appeal for what is now its youngest generation, mostly now in its 40’s and 50’s.  David Platt may be the best example of this.  Offered a position that most Southern Baptists would consider to be a lifetime career, he went back to what he was doing before in just four short years.  The interest in something that must be preserved by animosity and convention floor fights won’t appeal to the middle aged group that is the “younger” generation in the SBC.  Younger than that, well, they’re already gone.  Rather than seeking the prestige and prominence, and perks that go along with sugarplum denominational jobs, there’s more of an interest in effective ministry, a good thing of course, but not for interest in denominational institutions.

Denominations can kill ministries.  Even stepping outside the SBC for a while, to work for an educational institution in another denomination, I have discovered all of the baggage that comes with ownership by a denomination that has a large constituency of churches and self-appointed prominent individuals to please.  The nuances and habits may be different, but the obstacles are the same, reducing ministry effectiveness, and tagging the institution with labels and baggage that almost seem deliberately aimed at turning people off and excluding them.   We always say “everyone welcome” until they come with ideas, and want to help.

I think another theological controversy in the SBC will be a strong signal to any potential leadership that is still capable of helping bring growth that they are not welcome, and that the established way of doing things will not change to accommodate the times.  I’m not talking about any kind of compromise of the SBC’s conservative theological stance, I’m just saying that unless the SBC structure is open to change that is fed by the ideas of new leadership, it will never reverse the membership and attendance decline it is now experiencing, and it will continue to experience decline, and controversy that will shut down progress.

Update:  Since this post was made, Dr. Patterson was made “President Emeritus” of Southwestern Seminary, effective immediately, with salary and benefits, and will be moved into an apartment in the school’s new Baptist Heritage Center.  Since Southwestern is supported by Cooperative Program dollars, Southern Baptists will be paying for his retirement and housing out of their collection plates.  




Silence is Not the Right Thing to do

You adulterous people!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  James 4:4-5 ESV

This is a real mess, it’s complicated, and it will get worse.

We have a President who has hired an attorney to be his “fixer.”  That’s because he is corrupt, immoral, has a lot of money, wants to do whatever he pleases, and his public image needs protection, and cleaning up from time to time.  So his fixer, attorney Michael Cohen, whose morals and integrity are also up for serious debate, pays off a porn star just a few days prior to the election to keep her from spilling the beans about an affair she’d had with the President around the time his youngest child was born.

I expect the secular world to shrug this off indifferently.  Though that kind of attitude contributes to this sort of behavior continuing, and to the powerful and wealthy like Trump thinking they can live above the law, and above community standards, but, hey, it is a secular society after all, isn’t it.

What has been spectacularly shocking is the silence that is coming from the Evangelical Christian community.  Yep, chirping crickets and all of those illusory terms, those in our society who have been the most insistent about the character and behavior of politicians, and accountability, are silent.  And beyond the silence, they are excusing their inaction, and what can be rightly interpreted as an attitude that values politics far above faith, by catchy little phrases such as, “We’re electing a commander in chief, not a pastor in chief.”  As if there’s any theological correctness in holding pastors to higher standards than anyone else, or to avoiding holding the leader of the country to any standard, depending, of course, on his political affiliation.

You don’t need much imagination to figure out how loud the shrieking voices, pounding pulpits and caustic criticism would be if the behavior that the current President regularly indulges in, much of it since his convenience conversion prior to the 2016 election, had been done by a Democrat.  Most people can easily remember the high pitched shrieking and hollering during the Clinton administration, the nasty remarks, the complete dismissal of his regular church attendance, and the mockery made of the counsel he sought, privately and without a lot of fanfare, during a process of repentance.  All of that came from self-proclaimed, conservative, Evangelical, “religious right” leaders, and it was relentless.

There’s really not any way to compare bad behavior to bad behavior.  Immorality is immorality, and most of the Christian leaders who smacked Clinton over the head with a leather bound Bible would say so.  Trump is different in that he has openly admitted his affairs, including a ham-fisted, evolving and changing story with plenty of lies thrown in about the Daniels affair.  He’s bragged about it, and about sexually assaulting women, which is why those details are so well known.  You can’t claim ignorance, or blame what is known about Trump on the “liberal media.”  You can be as ignorant and blind about his politics as you want, but this stuff isn’t “fake news.”

And so this silence from the group of Evangelicals who are among Trump’s most loyal supporters is an indictment of their hypocrisy.  Within the scope of conservative, Evangelical teaching, there is no allowance at all for not taking a stand against the adultery and the lying, the demeaning disrespect shown for women, and toward anyone who calls him out, and the obvious lack of any kind of moral compass or respect for principles and teachings that Evangelicals claim have been revealed by God himself.  Such behavior, as the Bible says, demonstrates “enmity” toward God.  But most of the self-proclaimed Evangelicals who have traded their faith for politics have set their Bibles down in order to continue to support Trump.  What most of his more vocal, and high profile Evangelical supporters have in common with him is wealth, and the same attitude about the law not applying to them because of it.  Apparently, they don’t think the Bible applies to them, either.

Many of these same self-proclaimed leaders were some of Bill Clinton’s most caustic and vocal critics.  I can’t recall anyone distinguishing between a “commander in chief” and a “pastor in chief” when it came to Monica Lewinsky.  It wasn’t the conservative media that broke the story, and none of these leaders had any problem citing the mainstream media that did, nor did they shy away from appearing on it to voice their opinion and perspective, and call for his impeachment.

There is a segment of the Evangelical community in this country that hasn’t soiled its garments with secular politics.  Maybe they are contributing to the sense of silence on this issue, but I respect their desire to keep politics and politicians out of their pulpits and churches.  And there are a few who see this for exactly what it is, and who have spoken against the immorality, dishonesty, and total lack of character exhibited by this President.  Among their Christian brethren, some of them have paid a high price for it, because respect for a different political opinion doesn’t seem to be a core value exhibited by many Evangelicals, either.  What does it say about the spiritual condition of a soul that ignores the core principles of Christian faith to openly approve of immorality, and then breaks off fellowship with fellow Christians who have the moral courage and conviction to speak out?

I haven’t seen a lot of research, but I have little doubt that the downturn in the number of new converts won to Christ in Evangelical churches, and the sharp drop in attendance and membership that a vast majority of their churches are now experiencing is the result of disgusted Christians getting mixed messages about the worship of wealth and power over God.  Perhaps the blessing in this will be to separate the goats from the sheep among the Evangelical movement, and those who are in it for the ministry, not the money, will not be affected by the downturn in membership and attendance that is growing worse by the day.  God does have a way of protecting those who genuinely serve Him.

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  Psalm 146:3