SBC Values In Conflict
Why Our Theology Is Not The Only Issue
Abraham Maslow has been credited with the observation that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” When looking for a solution, we project our own interests and expertise onto the problem itself. In the TV show House, for example, it was a common occurence in the diagnostic team for the neurologist to suggest a brain issue, the immunologist to suggest disease and the surgeon to suggest an operation.
Southern Baptists are all about theology. Gather a group of ministers together to discuss a problem and they will more than likely seek a theological answer. After all, God is the source of all knowledge. In seeking to know Him better we can find all the direction and guidance we need to move forward. Certainly, theological debate and discourse can be a healthy and profitable pursuit. May this quest for knowledge continue forever.
But what if the thorniest weeds that have cropped up in our Southern Baptist garden ironically have little to do with one’s perspective on God’s Plan of Salvation? What if the tensions we currently observe between Calvinists and Traditionalists have less to do with our admittedly differing theologies than with the practical matters of ministry philosophy each group tends to embrace as core values?
Having spent no small amount of time and energy engaged on these issues, I have come to a few conclusions. First, this is not primarily an interpersonal conflict. On some occasions, people do get out of line and throw out accusations, making things personal, attributing false motives and otherwise engaging in embarrassing personal misconduct. But these exchanges are not really at the heart of the matter. Most Southern Baptists are people of good will who are simply passionate about their beliefs. Although occasional misconduct arises, we need so much more than a denomination-wide time out.
Some voices will call on us to be quiet and charitable, to ignore all our issues in the interest of unity so they will soon go away. This is, of course, is the way of the ostrich who sticks his head in the sand. It does not change the situation, only the viewpoint. To be even more precise, it is probably a mistake for us to use the word unity as our goal. Clearly, we are capable of harmony as we cooperate together despite our differences, but to suggest that we have unity is inaccurate. We do not, and neither side is to blame. When there are real and substantial differences to work out, one cannot merely snap one’s fingers and say, “Brothers, have unity!” Peacemaking is simply harder than that.
My second conclusion is that this is not primarily a theological conflict. I realize how absurd that must sound on the face of it. I do not deny that there is a raging debate over soteriology in the Southern Baptist Convention. I simply disaffirm that (a) we are going to resolve this centuries old issue in our day and time, or that (b) untangling this messy theological knot will restore the harmony we have enjoyed in previous generations.
Frankly, the theological part of our disagreement has existed for many years without all of this present consternation. Whatever it is about our current situation that differs from that of previous years, it is not the existence of two distinct soteriological systems. There must be something else associated with each of these two theological positions that is primarily responsible for the tension.
My third and most important conclusion is that we have misidentified our conflict in theological terms when in fact we are primarily witnessing a series of conflicting core values which happen to be associated with each view. Thus, although these core values are connected to theological disagreements, and may at times result in personality conflicts, we may trace the root of our problems to fault lines that have been formed on the basis of ministry philosophies concerning at least four sets of core values. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the following value pairs is that, to a certain degree, most of us believe in both. However, they do not equally contribute to a healthy denomination.
1. Denominationalism vs. Ecumenism
Denominationalists embrace SBC structures, such as local associations and state conventions, in carrying out their work, while Ecumenists may find in such groups the existence of a needlessly bloated bureaucracy. Traditionalists might attend a State Pastor’s Conference or an Evangelism Conference in which nearly all of the participants are Southern Baptists, while Ecumenists might avoid such a meeting in favor of a T4G Conference or The Gospel Coalition Conference, in which they encounter a broader group of evangelicals not limited to those of Southern Baptist persuasion.
Denominationalists will encourage attendance at Ridgecrest, send their youth to Fuge, purchase resources from LifeWay, and select mostly Southern Baptist Pastors to preach at meetings and events. Ecumenists might seek training at an Acts 29 boot camp, send their youth to the Founders Youth Conference, purchase resources from John Piper and Desiring God Ministries, and select from a broad range of popular evangelical pastors those who will preach at meetings and events.
The core value among Denominationalists is to support all things Southern Baptist. It is not that we are the only ones who are saved, but that we understand we are a team and we are team players who are bound together with very close ties. On the other hand, the core value among Ecumenists is a perspective on the broader Kingdom of God. This person rightly observes that if the Southern Baptist Convention were gone tomorrow we would still press on as Christians in carrying out the Great Commission. One gets the impression that such a tragedy would not really faze the Ecumenist in the least. After all, the conferences, resources, speakers and associations that matter to this person the most are not really found within the structures of the Southern Baptist Convention.
2. Cooperatism vs. Societalism
Cooperatists embrace the cooperative missions funding strategy best exemplified in the Cooperative Program, while societalists primarily favor more direct funding channels that often bypass historic denominational structures. Cooperatists generally donate a very healthy proportion (in the vicinity of ten percent of their local church budget) through denominational missions channels, including the local association, the state convention and national Southern Baptist entities and organizations.
Societalists prefer to pick and choose the organizations they will support, believing that they can better provide funding if they concentrate on certain areas, such as church planting and international missions. Societalists may still give around ten percent through missions, but the receiving organizations might be short term mission trip teams, Acts 29 church plants, overseas missionaries through a direct relationship with IMB or even overseas missionaries not affiliated with IMB at all.
I believe in “hands on” missions work. As I write this article, I am preparing to lead a team to Mexico in a few weeks. I also support a variety of parachurch organizations which raise their funding through personal appeals and sponsorships. So it is not as though I only see one way to provide financial support for the Lord’s work. But I believe these efforts were always intended to be supported through gifts “above and beyond” a certain baseline Cooperative Program level.
Though ten percent missions giving through denominational channels is not mandatory, it is a cooperation level both historic and sufficient to sustain our efforts. The current societal trend is absolutely weakening our denomination. It is certainly not limited to Calvinists. Many megachurches prefer to look at the raw dollars they give rather than the percentages. Who can blame them? If every Southern Baptist Church gave on a percentage basis what our megachurches give, we would be forced to decommission thousands of North American and International missionaries. The Cooperative Program is the foundation for Southern Baptist missions support. If we continue down this road toward weaker cooperatism and stronger societalism, our missionary efforts will suffer.
3. Loyalty vs. Autonomy
Loyalists provide meals for the local Baptist Campus Ministries. They conduct a Vacation Bible School using LifeWay resources. They keep the name Baptist on the church sign and work hard to show others that the name represents people who love Jesus and love others. They are happy to report their statistical data to denominational leadership in order to track attendance, membership, evangelism and financial trends along with the other churches of the denomination. They are not ashamed to do things the Southern Baptist way, although that way obviously changes gradually over time.
Autonomists are quick to say, “No Southern Baptist can tell our Southern Baptist Church how to do it.” Of course, they are right. We believe each church has autonomy. However, without forcing any other church to do certain things, we have traditionally cooperated with an extraordinary consistency that is now fracturing beyond recognition.
It is one thing for a church to possess a certain hypothetical autonomy to do things their own way. It is another to exercise that autonomy without any real regard for the effect such decisions will have upon the denomination as a whole. Historically, Southern Baptists might have summarized our actions this way: “Our church can do whatever it wants to do, but what we want to do is to support strongly the Cooperative Program and the various institutions of our denomination.” The fact that we could opt to do otherwise was technically true but largely irrelevant for we possessed no such desire to do our own thing or go our own way.
Today’s celebration of autonomy has weakened the ties that bind. As churches form their own allegiances and partnerships, send their own missionaries, designate their own gifts, bypass historic SBC channels and even press the boundaries of theological commitments, our convention fractures more and more. Some of our Southern Baptist congregations openly embrace a moderationist position regarding beverage alcohol. Some flirt with the acceptance of members who have never been immersed. Some are actively challenging certain methods of decisional evangelism we have practiced for generations. Whether in organizational structures, theological beliefs or ministry practices, SBC churches are spreading their wings of autonomy and flying free from the rest of the flock like never before. Such independence would never have even crossed the minds of Southern Baptists only a generation ago.
4. Inclusivism vs. Exclusivism
Inclusivists believe in pitching a very wide tent for Southern Baptists, welcoming to the table those who may disagree on minor matters of theology. For example, the local Baptist association normally includes churches representing the entire soteriological spectrum from Calvinism to Traditionalism. So do the state conventions and the national convention. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is designed to be an inclusive confessional statement, one that church members of various persuasions could affirm.
Exclusivists, however, have drawn lines in the sand, and will not receive as members and partners those whose theological convictions do not line up with theirs. Those who attend a Founders Ministries luncheon identify as Calvinists. Presumably, they would serve lunch to a Traditionalist, but practically speaking, such a person is excluded from their group, disqualified doctrinally from joining. In the same way, if one wishes to receive church planting financial support from the non-Southern Baptist Acts 29 Network, one must adhere to Calvinist doctrine. Traditionalists need not apply. The Abstract of Principles at Southern Seminary is viewed as a document favoring Calvinism over Traditionalism. Few Calvinists seem to recognize the elitist nature of their clubs.
Any partnership between inclusivist and exclusivist organizations is an unequal merger, regardless of denominational affiliation. Southern Baptist Calvinists are welcome at certain lunch counters, such as Acts 29 and 20 Schemes, where Traditionalists are not allowed to sit down. Whenever I point out this inequity, my Calvinist friends simply challenge me to start our own Traditionalist Network as a counterpart to Acts 29. But starting a Mission 316, for example, would not only fight fire with fire strategically, it would frankly represent a betrayal of the core values of inclusivism and cooperatism.
In conclusion, there are clearly two parties in the conflict we currently face in Southern Baptist life. Unfortunately, we have identified them by their theological labels, resulting in a predictable continuation of the theological debate that has raged for centuries without resolution. My thesis does not deny the existence of this theological conflict, but it does deny that theology is truly at the core of our denominational division.
I suggest that what we are truly dealing with is nothing other than a conflict between the various Southern Baptist core value pairs listed above as they compete with one another. That which we label as Traditionalist theology is often associated with the core values of denominationalism, cooperatism, loyalty and inclusivism. That which we label as Calvinist theology is often associated with the core values of ecumenism, societalism, autonomy and exclusivism.
One final disclaimer is necessary. Although I assigned the first value in each pair to the Traditionalist side and the second value in each pair to the Calvinist side, and then labored to provide my reasons for doing so, I do realize the existence of a fair amount of crossover between the two. In fact, I would go so far as to say that any Calvinists who join me in embracing more fully the first value in each of the four pairs above are actually closer to my position denominationally than are those Traditionalists who embrace more fully the second value in each of the four pairs.
Because Southern Baptists have been discussing this same theological debate forever, it is reasonable to conclude that something else must have changed to create the current imbroglio. I suggest that what has changed is a growing identification with the second core value listed in each of the pairs above, especially among the next generation of Calvinists currently spreading their wings and advancing their views in the SBC.