Steve Lemke, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
Brad Whitt and “Southern Baptist Irrelevants”
Brad Whitt fired the shot heard ‘round the SBC about a month ago when he published his article “Young, Southern Baptist, . . . and Irrelevant?” in the South Carolina state Baptist Courier and on his own blog. In essence, Whitt expressed the concern that traditional Southern Baptist churches like his own were feeling marginalized and trivialized as “irrelevant” in many forums in Southern Baptist life. It created quite a furor, with some thanking Whitt for voicing “how I’ve felt for years,” while others criticizing him or saying that the concerns he voiced were unfounded. Six additional state Baptist papers published the article, and discussions in blogs and Facebook from all over the country weighed in on the validity of Whitt’s concerns. Whitt, a graduate of Union University, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, serves as Pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina, and has been the President of the South Carolina Baptist Pastor’s Conference. He has now posted his response to these many comments on his blog in an article entitled, “The Challenge for Contributing, Committed Southern Baptists.”
Whitt’s article appears to be a bit of a parody of a much ballyhooed article in the September 22, 2006 issue of Christianity Today, entitled “Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is Making a Comeback and Shaking Up the Church,” by Collin Hansen, which he later expanded into a book by a similar title, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. (I am quoted in both by Hansen, although he evidently wanted me to play the role in his article of naysayer against Calvinism, so the quotes he utilized did not reflect the more nuanced answers that I gave in both the paper he quoted and our brief telephone interview). Many of the “new Calvinists” or “neoCalvinists” of whom Hansen wrote befit the label provided by both Mark Driscoll and Ed Stetzer of “Reformed Relevants.” Driscoll defines “Reformed Relevants” as “theologically conservative evangelicals who are not as interested in reshaping theology as much as updating such things as worship styles, preaching styles, and church leadership structures” (Mark Driscoll, “A Pastoral Perspective on the Emergent Church,” Criswell Theological Review, n. s., 3, no. 2, Spring 2006, 89-90). If Whitt intended to reference Hansen’s article, you’ll note that he retained “young,” and substituted “Southern Baptist . . . Irrelevant?” instead of “Restless and Reformed” or “Reformed Relevants.” So, if this reading is correct, Whitt is a young pastor who is content (not restless) with a clear Southern Baptist identity, and he is resistant to the notion that only the “Reformed Relevants” corner the market on relevance. Rather, he is saying, he is a young pastor who is a “Southern Baptist . . . Irrelevant?” rather than a “Reformed Relevant.” Obviously, by the question mark, he does not consider himself to be as irrelevant as others might suggest.
Revealing the Fault Line
What do we make of the “Brad Whitt phenomenon”? Obviously, Brad has touched a nerve in Southern Baptist life. In fact, his article and its response may reveal one of the deepest fault lines in the SBC. If I understand Whitt correctly, that fault line would be between what might be called those who have a “high Baptist identity” and those who have a “low to moderate Baptist identity.” There may be better nomenclature than this, since those who fit the description of the “low to moderate Baptist identity” may not feel comfortable with that label, but it does seem to finger the distinction that Whitt has in mind. Though it varies from situation to situation, this fault line is manifested in many ways – commitment to Cooperative Program giving, prominent use of “Baptist” in the church name and identity, commitment to distinctively Baptist doctrinal beliefs, and a cluster of ecclesiological/methodological issues about how to “do church.” These two groups are difficult to define, in that they overlap each other at many points. Both sides are Bible-believing evangelicals with a Southern Baptist slant. The difference between them may be more of an ethos than clearly defined lines or labels, but it definitely does have theological implications, particularly with reference to Theology, Christology, Pneumatology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. Much of the “pushback” reaction expressed against Whitt’s original article zoned in on some of the specific illustrations he used about stylistic issues such as the pastor’s attire. The larger issue he was raising (be it theological, ethological, or traditional) seemed at times to get lost in the details. The problem is that it is hard to generalize or illustrate these differences of ethos without overstating the case or stereotyping. Hence, none of the illustrations which follow in the depiction of the contrast between the two perspectives are universally true, but are merely suggestive of the ethos of the two perspectives.
The contrast that Whitt appeared to be expressing was that the “high Baptist identity” churches tend to have a more traditional or blended worship style, and are very conservative on a cluster of ethical issues (with a focus on homosexuality, gender roles, and right to life issues). The “high Baptist identity” folk tend to be more appreciative of and involved in the associational and state convention work of Baptists, and to utilize the Baptist “name brand” materials (LifeWay, etc.) by default unless there is a reason not to do so. They tend to place a high premium on discipling their new members in “the Baptist way,” and normally structure their discipleship structures in programmatic ways recommended by the denomination. The “high Baptist identity” churches are scandalized by “low/moderate Baptist identity” pastors who curse, advocate moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages, who endorse different ethical agendas such as environmental and social justice issues, and who actively engage marginalized groups (such as homosexuals).
The “low Baptist identity” churches tend to be more contemporary in worship style, and more open to innovative methodologies and perspectives. They tend to have less brand loyalty, and to utilize what they perceive to the most effective or most affordable products or programs, regardless of the name brand, rather than necessarily being committed to Baptist published materials or institutions. They tend to have a somewhat more ecumenical approach, with a greater sense of identity with the broader Christian community, including other denominations. The “low/moderate Baptist identity” churches find “high Baptist identity” churches to be old-fashioned, out of touch, and irrelevant to the contemporary setting (and hence the title of Whitt’s original article).
Converging Fault Lines and a Solution
The “Baptist identity” fault line is by no means the only fault line in Southern Baptist life. It is connected with a series of other interconnected, overlapping, and converging fault lines – smaller churches vs. megachurches, anti-GCR vs. pro-GCR, majority Baptist theology vs. Reformed theology, advocates of associations and state convention vs. detractors of associations and state convention, Cooperative Program as a high value vs. Cooperative Program as a tertiary value, etc. These fault lines are not identical, though they may parallel and converge at times. But an earthquake in one of the fault lines sets off shockwaves in each of these other fault lines.
In Part B, of this article, I intend to “chase out” some of these additional fault lines in Southern Baptist life, and propose two possible futures or solutions for these fractures in SBC life.