The Low-Grade Fever in the Southern Baptist Convention
In my interactions with churches across North America, I don’t sense widespread division. But people do seem to be concerned, not about “bad guys” ruining the SBC, but about the presence of people who think there are “bad guys” ruining the SBC. I sense that many are concerned for the good of the Convention, that we hold it together and not splinter needlessly.
Every few years or so, the low-grade fever in the SBC takes on a new form. For a while, it was the church growth movement. Then, it was charismatic practices. Lately, it’s been Calvinism, Traditionalism and everything in between. Here are some personal reflections on our current situation.
1. We’re here because the Conservative Resurgence was successful.
This statement is true in two senses, one positive and one negative.
The positive side has often been cited as a sign of health. We are debating lesser issues because the central issues related to the authority of the Bible were settled during the Conservative Resurgence.
In other words, the reason we can spend time blogging about Calvinism or contemporary worship or differences in church polity or homiletics is because we are united on the first-tier issues related to biblical authority. Had the Conservative Resurgence not succeeded, our Convention would be debating homosexual clergy, the exclusivity of Christ, the authority of the Bible, etc.
And yet, there is a negative aspect as well. The Conservative Resurgence was so successful at excluding moderates from Convention leadership that many conservatives who once stood shoulder to shoulder are now suspicious of each other. In the post-CR era, we are less trusting and more suspicious than before.
Case in Point
At the Convention last year, I spent some time with a prominent signer of the Traditionalist statement on salvation. He told me the rationale for the document was to make sure that Traditionalists would not be forced out of Convention leadership and lose their place at the table.
I was stunned to hear this perspective. Most of my friends who are Calvinists harbor the same fear on the other side. Vastly outnumbered, they worry the Traditionalists would push them out.
I came to realize that everyone seems to distrust everyone. The Conservative Resurgence, which for some was an attempt to achieve “parity” became, for others, a movement to achieve “purity.” And while the fears of my friends on both sides may be exaggerated, any scenario seems plausible. The Conservative Resurgence was so successful that different kinds of conservatives are left looking around, wondering, “Are we next?”
2. We’re here because it’s easier this way.
A 99-degree temperature shouldn’t keep you from functioning like normal. You may feel lousy, but you’re going to be okay. Many times, however, we take the easy road and call in sick.
In the SBC, I wonder if one of the reasons for our low-grade fever is that it’s easier to deal with a small fever than to deal with the raging fires outside our holy huddle. It’s easier to debate small matters with people who see the world much like we do than it is to engage with a lost world that seems increasingly hostile to the Christian perspective.
Case in Point
I recently met with an SBC church planter. Our conversation never turned to SBC politics or the kinds of debates you find on blogs. He was burdened about how to reach the LGBT community in his city. How can we be unfailing in our love for lost people and uncompromising in our proclamation of the truth?
We talked about the difficulty of gaining a hearing for the gospel as antipathy toward traditional Christian teaching grows. We talked about being in uncharted territory, not knowing how to handle all the possible situations that could develop.
It was a tough conversation. We could have spent our time debating Calvinism or private prayer languages or alcohol, but that would’ve been too easy. The harder conversation is about getting the gospel to the lost in a world growing darker.
If, in the next generation, faithful Southern Baptists begin to go to prison for speaking the truth in love, I suspect we won’t be debating the finer points of soteriology or the role of elders on the way. We’ll be encouraging each other to stay the course, love the lost, and share the good news. So why don’t we do that now?
The theme of this year’s annual meeting is Unity. That’s encouraging to me. I’m looking forward to good conversations about important matters. But I hope we will not be so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of the world around us.
Watch someone dying with cancer and you’ll ignore your low-grade fever and give thanks for your health. It’s the same with the SBC. Once we stop taking our own temperature and start focusing on the lost and dying around us, I think our fever might go away.