Steve Lemke, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
The Fault Lines in Southern Baptist Life
In the first two parts of this article, I have been reflecting on Brad Whitt’s article “Young, Southern Baptist, . . . and Irrelevant?,” which was published and discussed widely in state Baptist papers, various blogs, and Facebook discussions. Whitt’s response to these many comments has now been posted on his blog, which he entitled, “The Challenge for Contributing, Committed Southern Baptists.”
Whitt’s article obviously touched a nerve in Southern Baptist life. I described it as one of the deepest fault lines in the SBC – between what Whitt suggested were those who have a “high Baptist identity” and those who have a “low to moderate Baptist identity.” Attempting to describe this real but somewhat difficult-to-define fault line, which involves a cluster of theological/ecclesiological/methodological issues but may be primarily more a matter of ethos, was the subject of the first section of my post.
I also suggested that the “Baptist identify” fault line is just one fault line in Southern Baptist life. In fact, there is a series of other interconnected, partially overlapping, and partially converging fault lines in the SBC – 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. An eruption in one of the fault lines sets off shockwaves in each of these other interconnected fault lines. In the second section of this post, I attempted to unpack another of these fault lines in SBC life, and one that is sometimes overlooked – between the smaller churches and the megachurches.
So, as a result of all these interconnected fault lines, I suggested that we have more fragmentation than integration, and the “center” of Southern Baptist life is getting smaller and smaller. Each of the interest groups talks with people in their own group (and we all agree that the other side is wrong). We may talk to or at other groups, but we do not talk with other groups. I remarked that something must change if we are to have a future. In fact, it appears to me that there are just two possible futures or “solutions” for the divisions and fault lines within the SBC. To that part of my long-promised task I now turn.
The “Two Ways” — Toward a Solution and a Future
Let me say first that continuing in our current path indefinitely is not an option. If our fault lines were just dormant old volcanoes that had not erupted in thousands of years, we would be fine. But these are fault lines with almost weekly activity. They are always erupting, always stirring things up. The rhetoric between the various sides is truly believed by its speakers, on the one hand, and truly hurtful to its recipients, on the other. Our current path can only lead to decline and division.
Although most of the churches in which I have served as pastor, interim pastor, or church member were unified and positive, I have served as interim or supply preacher in one or two churches who had a history of arguing within the fellowship. It became immediately obvious to me that people would not join that church because they did not want to be involved in an argument. Denominations aren’t that different. Church and denominational fights are fascinating to watch (like that car accident you can’t take your eyes off of), but no fun to be a participant in. So, if the current path we are on has no future, what are our options? The Old Testament wisdom literature often speaks of the “two ways” of life that are open to a person. Basically, as best I can see, there are only two possible divergent futures for the SBC.
Way One: The Way of Unity through Division
(the “in Adam” option)
One direction is that we continue bickering over issues until we either have a series of splinters or one big split. The truth is, we cannot continue in the path we are going without this as a logical result. Some might have the illusion of “winning” the other side over, but I regard that option as simply impossible. I myself have strong opinions on many of these issues, as most of us do regarding these fault lines. I believe that the Bible teaches what I believe, just as people do who see these issues differently. I cannot imagine me being won over to the other side, and I cannot imagine me winning over many people from the opposite side. In fact, the truth is that if one side “wins” (even “my” side), we all lose. A pastor who “wins” a narrow vote but embitters many key members of the congregation has not won. Sometimes we must take a courageous and unpopular stand on a matter of conscience or principle, but normally only a “win/win” victory is a true victory in a Christian fellowship. One side “winning” in the SBC will almost inevitably produce splinters or a split.
In many ways, splintering or splitting the SBC would be a tragedy, but in some sense it might be a good thing. If two people can’t walk together unless they agree (Amos 3:3), it seems to me that people on either side of these divides cannot easily walk together and serve together, either. The chasms in Baptist life are deep, with persons holding deeply held beliefs on either side. If we cannot agree, or agree to disagree, it would be better to break into two or more groups than to continue battling over these points.
The SBC/Cooperative Baptist Fellowship situation is a case in point. In the mid-1980s, a significant battle was going on in the SBC between “conservatives” and “moderates.” Many harsh things were said back and forth. Finally, the CBF churches began to have their own meetings, print their own literature, collect their own offerings, support their own educational institutions, and send their own missionaries. While many CBF churches may still be technically present in the SBC, they now function essentially as a separate group. How has that worked out? The CBF is happier working with like-minded persons, and the SBC is happier working with like-minded persons. So, what was once a major point of contention in the SBC in the 1980s has now yielded two groups who are happier being separate than together.
Applied to our current setting, it might mean that either several splinters need to happen in order for people to “get happy,” or perhaps a single significant split. Any of the fault lines that I have mentioned are candidates for splinters or a split. I’m not smart enough to know which splinters or splits would happen in actuality, but the high/low Baptist identity fault line, the traditional/contemporary fault line, and the majority Baptist/Reformed theology fault line appear to me to be the most likely candidates.
That is one possible future – not the best future, I believe, but a possible and an acceptable one. If you’ll allow me an analogy from Romans 5, I’ll describe this option as an “in Adam” option – that is, I think such splinters or splits would be a reflection of our only partially sanctified natural human nature and fallenness, and would be essentially a confession of our inability to work together in one spirit. In fact, one might trace this Adamic lineage back to the Tower of Babel in Genesis 10 – people speaking different languages and becoming confounded with each other. (It might be objected that the analogy breaks down, as indeed it does, in that it was God who introduced the languages as punishment for human arrogance and pride for building a great edifice into the heaven…. Well, perhaps the analogy is not that far off after all…). In fact, there may be no better analogy to contemporary Baptist life. In our Baptist Babel, we are speaking different languages in our various groups, not the same language. We use terms in different ways, confounding and frustrating each other. However, as negative as Babel was, each tongue and people group continued to exist and thrive. So it can be with us.
Might God permit such a division? I think He would. Like the bill of divorcement (Mark 10:2-9), which falls short of His ideal of marriage being “one,” this division would separate what God has joined together in the church. But God might permit it because of the hardness of our hearts as a concession to human weakness, just as He did the bill of divorcement. It might also be that this option becomes necessary because the two sides of a chasm simply have “irreconcilable differences” – i.e., they believe such different things about crucial issues that they simply cannot in good conscience continue to walk together. So it might be that a split or series of splinters might produce more unity in the long run than struggling to hold hands across a chasm over which there appears to be no bridge. Through division, each group can achieve unity with like-minded believers.
I have described “Way One” as an expression of our natural human inclinations “in Adam,” and as a functionally necessary tragedy. In Way One, the only way to unity and peace is through division. I also likened it to a Baptist Babel, in that we are being divided into camps speaking different languages. Although I believe God might allow this option, I obviously do not regard this as God’s ideal. Tomorrow, I will propose the second alternative, what I am labeling the “in Christ” option: Unity through Cooperation.