Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Ideal Denomination

The Ideal Breeding Heifer Poster

"The Ideal Cow"

On the wall in my agriculture classroom of yesteryear hung a poster of "the ideal cow" similar to the image at the top of this post. The ideal cow has a strong, straight top line, doesn't fall off from her hooks to her pins, has a feminine head, isn't post-legged, has strong pasterns, is balanced, and blends well through the shoulders, ribs, and hips, among other things. Those are characteristics of the ideal cow.

There's one other very important characteristic of the ideal cow…

…she's not in your pasture and she's not for sale. The only place you can find her is on that poster in the classroom. Every real cow in the real world is an imperfect reality that is juxtaposed against all of our idealized abstractions.

Somewhere in Heaven there's a poster of the ideal family of churches. They are united in biblical orthodoxy (what they believe) from the start to the end of their statements of faith. Likewise, in their orthopraxy (what they do), they are faithful and pure, and consistently so. They have a zeal for the gospel and for their love for one another. They do not shrink back from correction of one another in the unlikely occasion that it is needed, but they never offer that correction in anything other than a humble acknowledgement of their own failures and a gentle eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. And when those occasions come, the churches that have fallen are quick to repent and are thankful for fraternal correction. Together they proclaim the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ, winning the lost to Christ and planting healthy churches like themselves, all while making sure to baptize them and to teach them all that Christ has commanded them.

Down here, there are no denominations like that. There are no churches like that. There are only imperfect realities juxtaposed against the idealized abstraction toward which we are striving and for which we are yearning.

That's not to equivocate. Not all churches and not all families of churches are equally close to the ideal. Not all churches are even making the attempt with equal effort. Some churches and some denominations are what we might fairly call apostate churches whose lampstands were long ago removed. There are differences, and the differences matter. But it is nonetheless worthwhile to acknowledge that if your favorite sport is criticizing the bride of Christ, you're going to be able to rack up some points, no matter which group of local churches you make your target.

All that just to say this: There are criticisms made of the Southern Baptist Convention and of the local churches who affiliate with her, and they are not all specious. Nevertheless, I believe that the Southern Baptist Convention bears the marks of a family of churches in which the Holy Spirit is still at work refining us, and that gives me hope and reason to stay, even in the light of our failures.

The Criticisms

So, let's look at some of the criticisms that are levied against the Southern Baptist Convention. Let's dare to measure the Southern Baptist Convention against the perfect cooperative structure for churches and see how she fares. Let's look unguardedly at her weaknesses. Let's do so fairly and with compassion.

Criticism 1. The Southern Baptist Convention doesn't manage well the appropriate level of accountability among member churches. Like most of these complaints, this one comes at the SBC from both sides. Some are uncomfortable that the SBC has grown too cavalier in hunting down wayward churches, having yielded too greatly to what I'll call the "root and branch" elements of the messenger body. Others are uncomfortable that the SBC has grown too latitudinarian, or perhaps just too lazy or incompetent, in failing to police vigilantly enough the doctrinal or behavioral variations among its affiliated churches.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. Alongside people who think the SBC is too stringent and people who think the SBC is too lax, there exist a substantial number of people who believe that the SBC is BOTH too stringent AND too lax. They may think that the convention should be quicker to disfellowship churches guilty of racism and sexual abuse and yet less hasty in disfellowshipping churches who call women as pastors and who keep people in membership who are unrepentantly engaged in homosexual sex. They may flip that situation on its head, being skeptical about haste in disfellowshipping those credibly accused of sexual abuse and yet ready to pull the trigger quickly on the church with a female Assistant Pastor to Junior High Girls.

What all of these positions share in common is an idea that the Southern Baptist Convention has a responsibility to hold local churches accountable to a standard of friendly cooperation alongside a responsibility to defer to the autonomy of local churches, that they know how to balance those two realities, and that the Convention isn't measuring up in this area.

Criticism 2. The Southern Baptist Convention doesn't practice enough transparency to ward off corruption or to discharge its duties to churches in friendly cooperation with the Convention. Sometimes this concern is offered regarding salary structures at entities. Sometimes it is connected with calls for independent audits of the various entities. Sometimes it isn't necessarily connected with financial transparency, but is related to calls for greater and more detailed communication. This year's motion to explore structures for greater independence for Baptist Press would be an example of a call for greater transparency, in a way, seeking the opportunity for enhanced neutrality in the reporting of Convention-related news.

At its best, this criticism is rooted in a concern that messengers may not make the best decisions if they do not have the best information. Transparency, in such a case, is an important prerequisite for proper SBC governance. In this vein, sometimes the concern is that even SBC trustees are not the beneficiaries of sufficient transparency to do their jobs well—not every person calling for transparency is calling for tell-all exposés. At its worst, this criticism can be an element of conspiracy theories and allegations that are not well founded in credible sources (one trivial example: the allegation that B.H. Carroll's portrait at SWBTS formerly contained a cigar, but that anti-tobacco prudes had it painted out and covered up the story).

Separately, I should mention that cover-ups and other mishandling of sexual abuse that has happened in Southern Baptist churches have become an area of major concern when it comes to the need for transparency in the Convention.

Criticism 3. The Southern Baptist Convention has inappropriately devolved into an oligarchy, and the common people in the churches to whom the Convention apparatus should be accountable have lost their voices. Whether you call it the "elites," the "platform," or the "smoke-filled room," this criticism suggests that messenger governance at the Annual Meeting is a façade and that the Convention is actually under the control of a small group of powerful people.

This criticism is actually made by people on all sorts of different sides. The emergence of the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN) included the organizational involvement, undisclosed at first, of key SBCEC leadership like Mike Stone, and although it was denied for quite some time, eventually Paige Patterson acknowledged that the introductory videos were shot in his Parker, TX, home. Consequently, some people have portrayed the CBN as a group of disaffected power-brokers trying to control the Convention in opposition to the will of a messenger body over which they have lost control. Others have traced the movement of people formerly connected to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary into key positions of influence at SBC entities and have claimed that Dr. Mohler is the "Godfather" of the SBC, maintaining control from Louisville. Still others have pointed to Danny Akin, Russell Moore, JD Greear, Kevin Ezell, et al, and have found in them the true power-brokers of the SBC.

One related idea that deserves separate mention is the idea that the messenger body themselves are the "elites" and the "platform," and that the expense and difficulty of participation in the Annual Meeting shuts out any opportunity for the real rank-and-file of the SBC to influence decision-making.

Common in all of these perspectives is the idea that the rank-and-file Southern Baptists—curiously always understood to agree with the speaker—have been deprived of their rights to decide the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention. As a result, one hears, the Convention is being led to take positions that are antithetical to the interests of the common Southern Baptist.


I believe that the major criticisms that give rise to people's interest in leading their churches out of the Southern Baptist Convention have been mentioned in this article. But I want to make certain that the ensuing articles "scratch where it itches." With that in mind, can you think of major complaints, widely held, that are unrepresented here? Leave a comment or send a tweet or post if anything comes to mind.

Starting with the next post, I will begin to address these issues and demonstrate why I believe that, notwithstanding these complaints, continued participation in the Southern Baptist Convention is good for your church (if you match up with the criteria I have mentioned in the first post in this series). Also, I hope to show that, when you compare the SBC with your other available real-world options (instead of just comparing her against the "ideal cow"), there's a strong case for leaning in 100% to cooperation through the SBC and the Cooperative Program. This is true, I think, even given the fact that there are always VALID criticisms that can be lodged against the SBC.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Why the SBC Is Worth It

Kate Shellnutt at Christianity Today was the reporter who surprised me, and herself, with a question that touched upon my most profound personal thoughts about being elected as President of the Southern Baptist Convention (skip to 19:05 in the interview below).

In particular, I want to expand upon one statement that I made: "Every way that I've served Southern Baptists has left scars—every way that I've done it—but this family of churches is worth it." I have no desire to elaborate upon the scars, but I do want to take a few moments to talk about why the SBC is valuable to individual pastors, to member churches, and to the world outside the Southern Baptist Convention.

Why This Message Is Timely

It always matters to speak to the value of the SBC, because since the formation of this family of churches, there has never been a moment when there were not some individuals and churches contemplating departure from the Convention. Churches left to join the new Campbellite movement (which later became the Church of Christ denomination), the anti-missions ("hardshell") movement, T.P. Crawford's "Gospel Missions" movement, the "associational Baptist" denominations (the BMAA and the ABA), the Independent Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and a dozen other assorted destinations.

This moment in time is no different. Well-known Southern Baptists like Russell Moore and Beth Moore (unrelated) have recently left the Southern Baptist Convention, and their departures have received a significant amount of attention. Their departures were attributed to the idea that the Southern Baptist Convention is too strict, too dour, too hostile, too beholden to the politics of the far-Right in America, and too corrupt. Other Southern Baptists like Josh Buice have led their churches to depart from the Southern Baptist Convention because it is too lax, too winsome, too accommodating, too behloding to the politics of the far-Left in America, and too corrupt. Are these people looking at the same family of churches? They are, and they are all sincere in their observations, just as most of those who have left the SBC since 1845 have been.

Some people will no doubt point out that none of these departures have managed, over the course of nearly 185 years, to scuttle the ship of the SBC. Indeed, Southern Baptists have, by many measures, fared far better than any of the other outlets preferred by the departees. Right now, even in the midst of some controversy, Cooperatieve Program giving is strong and strengthening (although the nation's economic indicators are ominous). Sometimes in our history, the departures have arguably been the very cause of seasons of significant growth and improved effectiveness for Southern Baptists—controversy can be costly and distracting. Considering all of this evidence, some people might say, "Why argue the value of the SBC to those who want to leave?" Because there is always somewhere else to go, and because churches' decisions about affiliation with other churches should always be based upon the best way for those churches to pursue the Great Commission, those who see the value of the Southern Baptist Convention should never cease making the case for cooperation within this fellowship of churches.

Toward that end, over the next few days, I am going to be authoring a series of blog articles making the case for why affiliation with the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention is a reasonable and valuable partnership for your church. That is, the reasons I will be giving in this series of posts are reasons why your church should stay in the SBC.

But, Should Your Church Stay?

Well, hold on a minute. I don't know for sure that your church should stay, because a lot of people could be reading this post from a lot of different sorts of churches. The Southern Baptist Convention is a wonderful fellowship of churches, but it is not the right place for every church. Whether you belong here depends upon your church's theology, mission, and temperament.

If your church's theology fits within The Baptist Faith & Message, you can know for certain that you have a theological home in the Southern Baptist Convention. Our statement of faith is in some places deliberately precise and in some places deliberately vague. I grew up across the street from a godly Methodist woman. She was a blessing to me. She didn't belong in the Southern Baptist Convention. I attended school with a good friend who wound up serving in Anabaptist and Methodist churches because he did not belong in the Southern Baptist Convention. I received a congratulatory message after my recent election from a well-known Presbyterian. He does not belong in the Southern Baptist Convention. Sometimes, to say that a church does not belong in the Southern Baptist Convention is not an attempt to defame or insult anyone, or even an attempt to break personal fellowship with them; it's just an honest effort to describe them and seek a good ecclesiological home for them. Southern Baptist churches have in common some shared theological convictions that define boundaries for our cooperation and affiliation with one another.

If your church's mission includes cooperating with other churches to fund and otherwise support a variety of activities—activities that make all of our churches more effective in our Great-Commission work—then you can know for certain that you have a missiological home in the Southern Baptist Convention. Several of the departures that I mentioned above in this essay (for example, T.P. Crawford's "Gospel Missions" movement) involved people who shared the Convention's general theological beliefs but who did NOT think that individual local churches should cooperate with one another in quite the Southern Baptist way to send missionaries, train pastors, print Bibles, respond to disasters, or some of the other dozens of things that Southern Baptists cooperate with one another to do. Understand, they thought all of those things should be done, but they disagreed with the idea that multiple local churches could form a structure like the SBC through which to do it. Most Baptist churches have not had any qualms about cooperating in this way, but if your church does, you likely should not be affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

If your church's temperament is one of cooperation, then the Southern Baptist Convention is a good fit for the personality of your church. Some churches or believers just don't want to see value in other churches, other ministries, other pastors, and other believers as potential partners for gospel work. I'm reminded of what a family friend once said: "I've decided to become an Independent Baptist, and the first thing I've decided to be independent from is other Independent Baptists." There are people like that—good people sometimes—who just place a very low value on the idea of cooperation with other believers or churches who don't dot all their 'i's and cross all their 't's just the same way. Some of my readers will be familiar with the idea of secondary separation, often applied to minor doctrines, that have marked some of the more stringent Independent Baptist churches. This idea of separation, however, is not the exclusive property of groups like the Independent Baptists; sometimes the theological Left, especially in more strident forms of contemporary "cancel culture," can have its own disassociative strictures. If you or your church has a long list of doctrines or political positions that would mandate something like secondary separation, you're probably going to be happier somewhere other than the SBC.

But that's likely not most of you who are reading this essay. For you, the conservative, missions-minded Baptist in a church who can affirm The Baptist Faith & Message, I hope you'll find the forthcoming series of articles helpful.