By Tim Rogers, Pastor, Ebeneezer Baptist Church, Indian Trail, NC
In a recent “SBC Discussion” article for Baptist Press Trevin Wax discussed how Southern Baptists were needed by evangelicals in order to overcome splintering within the evangelical community. I have many concerns about this approach, but the main concern is a denominational employee suggesting Southern Baptists move into areas many are not willing to go. Lest we forget, Wax is employed with Lifeway, which is an entity charged with producing educational material.
In Wax’s article, Being Southern Baptist among & for Evangelicals, he relied on some phantoms as he presented his facts. It is the phantoms and facts that I want to address in an effort to offer an objective critique of the article.
1. “Many Southern Baptists looked outside the SBC for energy and support in the "battle for the Bible
While I would agree with respect to “energy,” I would argue that “support” is his phantom. Certainly there were evangelical scholars, such as the ones Wax named, that were very articulate in debating inerrancy, and many of these were in print at the time. However, the support for this battle did not come from outside of the SBC; it came from within. Grass roots Southern Baptist pastors and laymen were the catalysts. Men like Bob Tenery, who was willing to jeopardize his own ministry and who invested his own money to begin the SBC Advocate, gave the underlying support needed. The SBC Advocate was a periodical that informed pastors and laymen about the issues. Pastors of churches large and small realized if they did not make a move, it was just a matter of time before we were going to have neo-orthodoxy filtering from pulpits to the people in the pew. In some cases, such was already happening. This “support” came from many pastors whose churches could not afford to send them to conventions, yet they came on their own nickel and voted.
This “support” from outside the convention simply cannot be documented. What evangelical invested his/her own funds to see the Southern Baptist Convention turn around? Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell did feature some of the SBC conservative leaders in a program. The biggest endorsement for the conservatives came from Billy Graham. However, Billy Graham retained his church membership at FBC Dallas, which would make him a Southern Baptist not an evangelical outside the SBC orbit. It also might be pointed out that outside support for the Moderates came from people who are today considered by many as evangelicals, such as Bill Moyers.
2. “Good number of institutions and churches that have historically flown under the ‘evangelical’ banner.”
Wax’s phantom here is one that I just do not understand. His argument about these “evangelical” institutions and churches about to be taken out of evangelicalism simply does not resonate. The fault lines in the evangelical world are there because evangelicalism is so loosely defined. There is no clear confession that evangelical institutions and churches affirm. Thus, to say they “fly under the evangelical banner” really is not completely accurate. One will find that a church’s theological position usually is that of the pastor, except for the SBC. That is the reason we have a clearly defined confession of faith.
3. “Coalitions have formed. . . . This is the time for Southern Baptist leaders to extend the hand of fellowship to like-minded evangelicals, to strengthen the growing number of coalitions.”
Once again we have a phantom floating in the statement. What coalitions have been formed? Are we talking about Together for the Gospel or Acts 29? If so, these organizations have no formal connection with the SBC. In addition, why should our Southern Baptist leaders extend a hand of fellowship to strengthen a coalition that clearly does not affirm a confession of faith? To form coalitions and then attempt to make ourselves a part of this coalition is, well, proselytizing, which Southern Baptists do not want to do.
4. “There are some who feel that the purity of Southern Baptist identity will be polluted if we join coalitions or encourage other networks.”
Who are these “some?” This is another phantom that is bantered about seemingly in order to put down anyone who disagrees. One thing is certain: It is not about keeping the purity of a Southern Baptist identity as much as it is about remaining scripturally vigilant. Many evangelical churches do not promote baptism by immersion. Am I concerned that forming coalitions with other evangelical networks will weaken our Southern Baptist identity? Not on your life. Am I concerned that forming coalitions with other evangelical networks will open the door for SBC churches to disavow believer’s baptism by immersion as the only valid scriptural baptism? Bingo!!!
5. “Others point to a number of traditional Southern Baptist markers of loyalty: giving to the Cooperative Program, style of preaching, church practices, revival services, involvement at the association and state levels, etc.”
We see yet another phantom. First, we need to tease out the “etc.” What are these other “etc.” markers? Second, it appears that Wax has now offended Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists (COSBE). COSBE is the one calling on churches in the SBC to use evangelists and to promote revival services. Third, most, if not all, of our seminary presidents might be offended since they are among those calling for expositional preaching as being the preaching style we should be doing (assuming by “style” this is what Wax has in mind). Dr. Brad Whitt has called attention to church practices concerning church government. However, he has done this with his basis being that of the BF&M. Thus, he is not hinging his argument on a “traditional Southern Baptist marker of loyalty” but on our own Southern Baptist confessional statement—something Wax affirms and says is needed. Wax also presents a phantom within a phantom. While he makes it appear the things mentioned are merely personal preferences that old traditionalists want to see, it is his list he terms as Southern Baptist markers.
When Wax presents the phantom of Cooperative Program giving, he seems to forget our SBC documents and state convention documents clearly define a cooperating Southern Baptist congregation. Giving to the Cooperative Program is part of what makes a church a Southern Baptist church, both in regard to state conventions and the SBC. If a church were to give money only to the IMB they may be considered a Southern Baptist church but not be considered a cooperating Southern Baptist. They would be considered a church that gives to the IMB. The Southern Baptist Convention does not recognize a church as an SBC church unless they receive at least $250 from them. According to the Southern Baptist Convention Constitution an SBC church is one that “Is in friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work. And, (2) Has been a bona fide contributor to the Convention's work during the fiscal year preceding.” (Bold emphasis mine) Thus, one can say until the cows come home they are a cooperating Southern Baptist church, but until funds are sent in through the Cooperative Program; a church is not a cooperating Southern Baptist congregation.
6. “Conservative evangelicals need strength and support in their efforts to reclaim the center of evangelical identity.”
This final phantom seems to indicate that Wax is more concerned with reclaiming the center of “evangelical identity” than he is Southern Baptist identity. It is not about an “evangelical identity”; it is about adhering to the inerrancy of the Word of God. Remember, as go Southern Baptists, so go evangelicals. A case can be made that the reason evangelicals need to reclaim their center is due to Southern Baptists losing theirs. I believe the reason Southern Baptists might be losing their own center is this strange courtship she appears to be entering into with splintering evangelicalism. However, Southern Baptists have remained strong historically by refusing to compromise their doctrines. Why would we now want to water down our doctrines to make them acceptable to others who have lost or are losing their evangelical identity?
1. “As the tidal wave looms over the horizon, the Baptist Faith and Message is a bulwark of confessional, biblical identity that unites Southern Baptists.”
Wax is correct with this assessment. The BF&M is a “bulwark of confessional, biblical identity.” We affirm this and we look forward to accepting churches and people that can also affirm this confession. In SBC life, however, it appears that some may want to treat the BF&M as a buffet line at Golden Corral. They seem to pick and choose the parts they agree with and pay much less attention to the parts which don’t fit their theology. If the BF&M is a bulwark, it protects in all areas it covers. One cannot choose to have it as a doctrinal protector in the area of “The Scriptures” but refuse its protection by adding caveats in the area of “The Church.”
2. What is the center of Southern Baptist identity?
This is, for me, the heart of the issue. Referencing oneself as a Southern Baptist is not about wearing a suit and tie, or about the style of music one has in worship services. The center of Southern Baptist identity is found in the written word of God as articulated in the Baptist Faith and Message. Wax is absolutely correct in this approach. But, he has so many phantoms floating around this statement it makes one weary in trying to express concerns.
Where does this leave us? While, as a member of a local Southern Baptist church, Wax is free to express his understanding of the denomination/convention working with outside groups; yet as a paid denominational employee, he should tread very carefully when it comes to suggesting that Southern Baptists work with outside groups.
In Wax’s concluding comments he presents two more phantoms. First, no one that I have known has cast aspersions on any church that is willing to partner with evangelicals outside of the Southern Baptist Convention. Second, as Southern Baptists, no one I know is against “other evangelicals.” But, neither should we be willing to lock arms with the CBF in order to plant churches. One may say that Wax never presented the CBF in his article. Correct. However, Wax clearly pointed out that Brian McLaren was considered an evangelical. Thus, Wax’s last phantom is the one of choosing which evangelicals are worthy of our fellowship and which ones are not.
If evangelicals, who believe like Southern Baptists, can affirm the Baptist Faith & Message without caveats, and desire to give to Southern Baptist causes, want to be part of the Southern Baptist Convention, I say; “LET’S LOCK ARM-IN-ARM AND MOVE FORWARD!!” However, if evangelicals desire to come into the Southern Baptist Convention and, as an example, begin telling us public invitations are not scriptural, or infant baptism is something we should accept, or even setting dress codes for the annual SBC meeting, I say; “LET’S LOCK HORNS BECAUSE I WILL NOT BE MOVED!!”