“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. ” I Corinthians 13:12, RSV
It seems that there are many people within the scope of Evangelical Christianity, and within specific denominations who have appointed themselves as the doctrinal police. They have assumed the responsibility for correcting errors and putting people on the “right path” as far as God is concerned. It’s not a new thing. Claims by groups of Christians in this country to being the only agents of Biblical truth blessed by God based on the doctrine they’ve developed based on their particular interpretation of the Bible are as old as the divisiveness of American denominationalism, and of European sectarianism prior to that. Europe’s bloodiest and longest wars can be attributed to religious bigotry arising out of a blend of nationalism and religious fervor stirred up by those who believed they were right and that they were “fighting for the truth” with God holding their coattails and cheering them on.
We’re now forty years down the road from the initial movements that launched the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention. The whole impetus behind the resurgence was to pull the denomination “back” toward its “conservative theological roots” and rescue it from a dangerous “liberal” drift that included the abandonment of belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of the original autographs of the 66 books of the accepted Protestant canon. In so doing, the leaders of the resurgence would restore the teaching of sound Biblical doctrine in the seminaries which would then translate into the churches. The denomination would then be on the road to revival, not decline like the mainline denominations who, resurgence leaders claimed, had abandoned belief in scriptural authority.
Events that have transpired in the SBC since the initial movement of the Conservative Resurgence, led by Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler in 1979 show that the convention didn’t have far to go to get back to its “conservative roots.” Most of it was already there. A few tweaks to the doctrinal statement used as a general standard by the agencies and institutions developed into the “Baptist Faith and Message 2000” made the denomination’s perspective of “Biblical Inerrancy” clear. It also established the doctrine of “complementarianism” regarding the role of women in the church and family by stating that the office of “senior pastor” of a church is reserved exclusively for men. Over time, the few Southern Baptists who objected to these changes formed the loosely connected “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship,” made up at its peak of 1,800 churches, a fraction of the 45,000+ that make up the SBC and most of those churches never severed their denominational affiliation and remained Southern Baptist.
It should be expected, among Baptists, that there would be those who did not think the resurgence went far enough and who have continued to agitate for a form of doctrinal conformity that is far narrower, and imposes far more in the way of specific interpretations of scripture into what they believe the SBC should enforce among its churches. While Calvinism has never been a major influence in the SBC, at least one Calvinist-based group of churches, known as Founders Ministries, let by Florida Pastor Tom Ascol, continues to push the SBC toward a higher level of doctrinal conformity. They claim that the SBC is, once again, drifting to the theological left and needs a course correction specifically based on their particular interpretation of the scripture. They think that the walls of “complementarianism” are being broken down, due to an erosion of commitment to inerrancy. And the bottom line is that because they are reformed, they don’t have a framework for existing within a denomination that doesn’t enforce five-point Calvinism.
The SBC is already beset with problems. A major scandal involving sexual abuse on a wide scale by church leaders and pastors hit pretty hard, not just that it had been happening, but that up until recently, denominational leaders were complicit in shoving it under the rug and failing to deal with it, shielding themselves from responsibility with “local church autonomy.” Several of its entities, including the North American Mission Board and Southwestern Seminary, have gone through downsizing and major leadership changes because stacked trustee boards failed to hold leaders accountable until it was too late and the cost became high in terms of wasted funds at NAMB, and major loss of enrollment at Southwestern. On top of that, the SBC has lost more than a million members in just one decade, something that doesn’t sit well with denominational leaders who expected the doctrinal shift to the right to take care of the problem.
So how much more fine tuning can you do, doctrinally, in a Baptist denomination without losing a large constituency of churches and members? I’d say, not much.
Southern Baptists can be notoriously arrogant when it comes to doctrine and theology. Even though the Christian church has come to a fairly wide variety of beliefs on secondary and tertiary doctrine, including some disagreement as to what actually constitutes secondary and tertiary doctrine, among Southern Baptists is the widespread belief that there is just one interpretation closest to the truth of the word, and it is their’s. The love of Christ is seldom evident in comments, discussions and even sermons by prominent Southern Baptists, who are harshly critical and dismissive of theological perspectives that can be interpreted compatibly with belief in the inerrancy of scripture, abut different than the hard line literalist view of most Evangelicals.
The denomination itself cannot do anything about those churches that have differing perspectives on secondary and tertiary doctrinal beliefs. The SBC has excluded a few churches with a “welcoming and affirming” stance on gay, lesbian and transgender inclusion by claiming that their interpretation of scripture requires a departure from the Baptist Faith and Message’s declaration that the Bible is “truth without any mixture of error.” They have excluded churches which have called and ordained female pastors based on the statement in the BFM that declares the office of senior pastor to be reserved by men. But they can’t enforce their narrower complementarian view so there is some bullying going on in that churches which give much more open access to women in leadership are said to be part of a new “drift toward liberalism” along with those who give consideration to social justice issues.
So what Ascol and his Founders Ministry group bring to the SBC is controversy. There’s nothing wrong with standing by your convictions when it comes to the way you interpret the scripture. What is wrong is thinking that it is the only correct interpretation and feeling compelled to rebuke anyone who disagrees with you by using catch phrases and buzz words. There are nuances of difference in the way Christians of all kinds use the term and practice “social justice” and some churches get distracted from their Biblically defined function when they get involved in issues. But escalating controversy will be the result of attempts to force a much narrower view of these issues on churches by the denomination.
The SBC still doesn’t seem to have grasped the seriousness of their clergy sexual abuse scandal. Some major steps were taken at the Birmingham convention in June which will give the denomination the ability to take action against churches that don’t deal with accusations properly, especially when it comes to reporting abusers and making sure they aren’t passed along to another church, but there is resistance to acknowledge the perspective of many of the female victims who feel the abuse, in many cases, results from the strict complementarian views held by most Southern Baptists and Founders Ministries seems to articulate that resistance. Their post about the trailer, while somewhat conciliatory and which does express a desire to be truthful in representing the viewpoints of those whose comments they had previously included in the movie, seems to indicate that they were taking a more strident perspective at the outset.
Social justice means different things to different people. One of the reasons it is so controversial within the SBC is that so many Southern Baptists, like many other Evangelicals, have allowed conservative politics to interfere with and blend with their Christian beliefs and perspectives. We live in a country, under a constitution that theoretically guarantees equality of opportunity. How that is achieved is a matter that has created vastly different perspectives including whether or not the churches are obligated to participate and assist in ensuring that equality happens. There are Christians who think “social justice” is liberalism and apostasy because they believe the founding fathers created a “Christian” nation and that they should be privileged by government, not equally treated along with Muslims, Jews and Atheists. There are those who do not see advancing social justice as a Biblical function assigned to the church. And there are those who think that avoiding it runs counter to every principle that is revealed as God’s truth in his inerrant, infallible word. Southern Baptists hold all of those perspectives, so a group like Founders Ministries, which pushes for the first view, creates controversy when they do.
Even the “essentials” on which Southern Baptists and many other Christians agree upon are interpreted differently and terms do not always have the same meanings when they are used. When you say you believe in “salvation by grace through faith in Jesus,” that seems pretty clear theoretically. But within a denomination, or even a local church, you will find numerous explanations and exceptions as to how that is interpreted. Is repentance required first? Can someone just come to the conclusion that they are a sinner in need of grace without being convicted by the Holy Spirit and led to the cross? Does the Holy Spirit convict everyone at one point or another, or only a predestined, select group of people? You get the point. In hierarchical churches and groups, the answers to those questions are determined by those who have been given the mantle of leadership, along with the authority to direct the expression of churches when it comes to doctrine and theology. In the SBC, the authority for faith and practice is each individual congregation, so conformity at the denominational level has to be determined by the messengers from the churches and nothing the convention does is binding on the churches. Except now, on some points of interpretation, they’ve given authority to remove a church from denominational cooperation. Attempts to use denominational influence to enforce differences of opinion on doctrine generate unnecessary controversy which disrupts cooperative ministry.
The SBC needs efficient, effective leaders, not a narrower interpretation of its doctrinal position.