Steve Lemke, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
The Fault Lines in Southern Baptist Life
In the first three 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.” I tried to flesh out this distinction in the first section of my post (Part A). I then described several other interconnected fault lines, particularly the small church/megachurch fault line, in the second section of this post (Part B). I made the case that these partially overlapping fault lines are disintegrating the “center” of Southern Baptist life, and that splinters or a split within the SBC fellowship seem almost inevitable.
In the third post (Part C), I attempted to describe two possible futures I see for the SBC, which I believe to be the only viable options. In Way One, because of our fallenness “in Adam,” 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. Obviously, I do not regard this as God’s ideal. Today I will propose the second alternative, what I am labeling the “in Christ” option: Unity through Cooperation.
Way Two: Unity through Cooperation
(the “in Christ” option)
The other possible future for the SBC is one of greater tolerance and cooperation. In this possible future, all these fissures and fault lines would still exist and be recognized, but they would be downplayed in the interest of the greater good. We cannot pretend that these differences do not exist. They are real, and they matter. But it might be possible that each of us could “do church” in the way we felt led by the Spirit, while at the same time allowing others to “do church” differently in their own fellowship.
In this future, the contemporary churches would celebrate their freedom and their relevance to their particular audience without calling (directly or by implication) traditional churches “irrelevant” (as Whitt’s article addressed) or “stuck in the 19th century” (as I saw on a Facebook post this week). This is an important point that Brad Whitt made in his article that many have missed or refused to see – that the smaller and traditionalist churches are fed up with being marginalized and trivialized. These churches are contextualized in their own setting, just as the contemporary churches are in theirs. They are demanding respect by fellow believers, not being berated daily in popular blogs and Pastor’s Conference sermons. At the same time, traditionalist churches need to allow contemporary churches the freedom to “do church” as they feel led by God. We need “niche” churches who minister to people who may not feel comfortable in traditionalist churches.
How can such a coming together happen? The only way I know that this can happen is by a mighty work of God, and indeed, the Lord touching down among Southern Baptists is our most desperate need. We need revival. We need the touch of God’s Spirit. God wants us to be unified in Spirit. Without shallow devotionalizing, if we are all truly one in Christ we will be one with each other (John 17:11, 21-23; Eph. 4:1-6; Phil. 1:27, 2:2, 4:2-3).
But as absolutely crucial and necessary as revival is to this future, we need still something more as well. We need a Jerusalem Council. Acts 15 details how the two opposing parties (the Judaizers and those on mission to the Gentiles) had two different visions of “doing church.” The church came together and everyone expressed their views. The Judaizers expressed frustration at the ungodly actions of the Gentiles. Those reaching out to the Gentiles reminded those present of the Great Commission to reach all persons, and told of the hurt experienced by these Gentile Christians because the Jerusalem church was not accepting them as fellow believers. At the end of the Council, James stood up and offered a compromise that resonated with everyone. It required the Jewish Christians to accept some distasteful things from the Gentiles that they would otherwise not have accepted in their own fellowship. James said, let’s stop “troubling” the Gentile churches (v. 19) with our own Jewish requirements of circumcision and obedience to all the Old Testament Law (v. 24). However, there were some theological and ethical non-negotiables: they asked the Gentiles to stop some of the practices that they viewed as most egregious – idol worship, fornication, partaking of blood, and partaking of meat from an animal that had been strangled (vv. 20, 29). It really didn’t seem like they were asking for much, but it was the price for peace. And so the church was unified.
I don’t know who “James” is for Southern Baptists – perhaps Frank Page or some other much-needed Baptist statesman like John Sullivan. I don’t know where or how a Council like Jerusalem could be held, especially among Baptists with our strong sense of local church autonomy. I’m not sure (though I have some opinions) about how to express what the theological and ethical non-negotiables need to be. But for us to move forward together in a unified way, the Baptist identity/traditionalist churches are going to have to “cut some slack” for the moderate Baptist identity/contemporary churches regarding methodology, and the contemporary churches are going to have to respect and honor the concerns about faith and practice of the more traditional churches. They are going to have to stop the more egregious practices that high Baptist identity believers find repugnant. And we’re all going to have to speak with and about each other more respectfully.
If this cooperation were to take place, we will have to move toward each other rather than away from each other. We are going to have to tone down our rhetoric and respect each other more as fellow believers. We must learn to celebrate God’s work in ways that we would not have done ourselves. And we are going to have to acknowledge that our own preferred way of “doing church” may not be the only legitimate way of “doing church.” We would have to put the mission of the Great Commission above our preferences. But we would also have to abide by some non-negotiables with which we might not resonate personally.
I call this the “in Christ” option because only God can do it. No human or group of humans can accomplish it without divine intervention. But God won’t do it without our cooperation. It’s a long shot, but God specializes in long shots.
What future do you see for the SBC? To which future are you willing to pray and work? Which future do you think God wants? May God give us wisdom as we move forward into His future!