It is possible to arrive in this world as a result of sin and accidentally, and yet for the ensuing years of your life to be marked by godliness and the certainty that God intended all along for you to be here.
Consider, by way of illustration, the life of Gianna Jessen (see also personal site). Her conception was by means of an act of fornication, her birth by means of a botched saline abortion, which left her inflicted with Cerebral Palsy. Jessen's earliest childhood experiences took place within the foster care system, while doctors were predicting that she would never walk nor be able even to lift her own head. Her entire story of coming to be is stamped with the imprint of sin and accident.
But today, Jessen runs marathons. She loves the Lord and sings Christian music. The Supreme Court of the United States has heard her story in official testimony, and she has appeared on major national news programs. It would be incorrect to assert that the evil in attendance at her birth has been swept away—the circumstances of each of those sins still affect everything that Gianna does—but in the great mysterious ways of our God, even these circumstances of evil God has made into His own triumph and used to accomplish His own good will.
We must draw similar conclusions about the Southern Baptist Convention. Our convention came to be as a result of sin—it does us no good to sidestep or whitewash it. At least two sinful aspects of our inception are worthy of note.
The Sin of Racism
Most prominent is our congenital support of the Southern system of racial slavery. However, there is much clarification that needs to be made on this topic. This moment in our history is a favorite citation employed by those who say that they are inerrantists, but they are not. They will remind us that our Southern Baptist forefathers supported slavery. They will remind us that they justified their support of slavery based upon the acceptance of slavery in the Bible. They will generally NOT state what they have forcefully and deliberately implied: that the Bible is not inerrant where it speaks about human slavery. Nevertheless, they will then depend upon that conclusion to insist (carefully avoiding the employ of these particular words) that other portions of the Bible are likewise in error—scriptural injunctions against homosexuality or radical feminism or whatever other sort of "liberty" they wish to advocate for the moment—and that any who would seek to be obedient to the Bible are no different than the patriarchs of the SBC who surely lusted after the blood, sweat, and tears of the oppressed African slaves on the cotton plantations of the South.
All of this comes about when we make no effort to show how, specifically, Southern Baptists were in error on the question of slavery in 1845.
The proprietor of a local financial planning business conducts a weekend radio show (read, "hour-long commercial for his business camouflaged in the garb of actual radio programming"). Last weekend he engaged in a lengthy diatribe asserting that most American citizens working a 9-to-5 job are actually no different from slaves. They are forced to perform labor that they find unpleasant, he said. They are tied down by debt, and do not actually "own" any property. If they do not succeed in paying their taxes, they can wind up in jail. How free are they, really?
I think that this particular radio host gets too caught up in his own rhetoric. Certainly there are differences between a modern American working shift work and an ancient slave, but mustn't we admit that these are differences of degree rather than differences of essential nature. Was the life of Joseph so much worse than theirs when he was the servant of Potiphar? How about of Gehazi, the servant of Elisha? Eliezer, the servant of Abraham? More to the point, what about each of us as Christian believers, aptly described as slaves of the Lord? Does God sin against us by putting us into such a relationship with Him?
Slavery as an economic arrangement is worse than many economic arrangements (e.g., free enterprise) and better than some others (e.g., being left destitute without any work to do nor any food, shelter, water, or charity). With the explicit command of the New Testament we must concur, "if you are able also to become free, rather do that" (1 Corinthians 7;21, NASB). Freedom is to be preferred to slavery, but the Bible does not condemn slavery ipso facto.
Where the founders of the SBC erred is in equating what was transpiring in the American South in 1845 with the lives of Joseph, Gehazi, and Eliezer. They were debating slavery; they should have been debating racism. The system of slavery in the American South meant, apart from a very few exceptions, that every black person was condemned to slavery by simple virtue of being black. Africans were kidnapped into slavery: They did not enter slavery because of debt, criminal activity, or the fortunes of war. Far too often and embarrassingly, Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery by other black Africans. Once in the USA, black babies were born slaves. Black families were separated under this system of enslavement. Manumission was simply not the realistic hope of people caught up in the nineteenth-century African slave trade.
So deeply pervasive was the racism of this system that I, born some 125 years later, have heard with my own ears in the community of my childhood otherwise good and normal people speculating as to whether black people have souls. Unlike the situations of Joseph, Gehazi, and Eliezer, Antebellum American slavery was not just an economic matter of what certain people did; it was a theological error concerning what people are. It was a refusal to recognize that every person, regardless of race or continent of birth, is the special and beloved creation of God.
This is the system that the earliest patriarchs of the SBC defended. We do ourselves no favors to shy away from the plain fact that they were, at this point, wrong.
The Sin of Uncooperative Belligerence
In the early-nineteenth-century jostling that took place between abolitionists and the defenders of racism among Baptists in America, Southern Baptists took a provocative and uncooperative tone in the 1840s. In particular, they adopted a sentiment that always marks the death-knell of Baptist cooperation: The notion that my convention has to endorse whatever my local church endorses.
The only way for cooperation to succeed among Baptists is for local congregations to agree to pursue corporately those things that we have affirmed corporately by fair and due process. We will, at the conclusion of these processes, have remaining differences from congregation to congregation over what we do or do not approve. Where my local congregation is in agreement with the corporate actions of our fellowship, we pursue our objectives through that fellowship. Where we are out of step, in those matters we are free to act either independently or through other affiliations.
It is tyranny to demand that, if my congregation accepts somebody's baptism as valid, all Southern Baptist churches must accept it as valid. It is tyranny to demand that, if my congregation affirms a person's qualifications to serve as a missionary, all Southern Baptist churches must affirm and support that missionary candidate. This sort of tyranny, allowed to propagate, is always a deadly poison to inter-congregational cooperation. It certainly proved to be so in the 1840s.
Aggrieved pro-slavery Baptists in the South forwarded James Reeve's application to serve as a missionary with the Triennial Convention. Georgia Baptists did so making it plain that Reeve was a slaveholder. They further indicated that they had raised all of Reeve's support. They demanded that the Board approve Reeve as a missionary. We have come to refer to Reeve's application as "The Georgia Test Case."
It seems to me that Georgia Baptists and James Reeve had several options open to them:
- Nobody was holding a gun to James Reeve's head to require him to remain a slaveholder. Knowing full well that this was a matter of contention among Baptists, if Reeve's true desire was to serve as a missionary, he might easily have sold his slaves and gone on to the mission field undeterred. Doubtless, he (wrongly) regarded slaveholding as his right and regarded his financial means to own a slave (as well as his "liberty" to do so) as the blessing and gift of God. He was, in view of the repugnant system of Southern slavery, wrong on at least some of these points, but even if he had been right, would he not have been even more right to set aside these rights and gifts in order to pursue his calling in harmony? After all, nobody believes that it is disobedient to God not to own slaves.
- If Georgia Baptists had the necessary funds to support James Reeve as a missionary, they could have sent him themselves. Supporting Reeve independently would not have prevented them from sending through the Triennial Convention those candidates who enjoyed the corporate blessing of the Triennial Convention. Just as FBC Farmersville pursues some mission projects independently, but pursues its main missions strategy through support of the Cooperative Program, the Baptists of Georgia could have sent Reeve on their own.
- They could try to bully Baptist abolitionists into supporting their view, and if they failed in that attempt, they could withdraw, protest that their rights had been violated, and start their own separate group.
Of course, you already know that they chose the last option, somehow asserting with a straight face that their decision to approve of a slaveholding missionary somehow bound the Triennial Convention to an obligation to support slaveholding missionaries as well. Their tyranny failed, and they had to start their own separate convention.
How We Ended Up
As it turned out, Southern Baptists did not institute any grand and long-lived tradition of sending out slaveholding missionaries. They did, however, establish a convention with a structure superior to that of Baptists in the North. Southern Baptists have maintained a greater fidelity to the truth of the Bible, generally speaking, than has the ABC (the present Northern Baptist group).
We were birthed in racism and xenophobia, but today a variegated array of colors, ethnicities, language, and socio-economic statuses convene each week in the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. We were birthed a contentious and uncooperative lot, but we have maintained a healthy cooperative organization for more than a century and a half. We still struggle, yes we do, with the sins of our ancestors, but by the grace of God we generally overcome them (although we may not fare quite so well with the peculiar weaknesses of our own generation).
Every human endeavor is in some manner tainted by sin. It is not only a "trustworthy statement"; it is the good news of God. Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, and He remains at work in this world to redeem the tainted enterprises of sinners saved by grace, using us in spite of ourselves to accomplish His purposes and to give glory to Himself.