Can the Southern Baptist Convention be saved?
“The Southern Baptist Convention is a good old ship that has taken on much water and is slowly sinking. The choices seemed to be to abandon the ship or to man the pumps.” This is how the late Dr. Adrian Rogers described his concerns for the convention to which he would eventually be elected president and go on to serve three two-year terms.
Whether the SBC is once again taking on water and sinking is a source of contention among many in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Due to increased tensions and unresolved issues, this year’s annual convention, to be held in Nashville June 15-16, will likely reveal what the people are really thinking.
The top leaders don’t seem concerned. According to an article published in Baptist Press in August 2019, two SBC seminary presidents, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina both “dispute [the] claim of SBC liberal drift.” While addressing the SBC’s Executive Committee (EC) in February 2020, SBC president J.D. Greear insisted there is no liberal drift, and at the same meeting EC president and CEO Ronnie Floyd remarked, “Some say we’re going liberal…No we are not!”
One has to wonder if these leaders hear from SBC members outside the elite circles in which they run. Consider this comment from former SBC president James Merritt: He tweeted on February 22, 2020, “…I have learned and seen firsthand … when little people are put in big positions the result is always chaos, consternation, confusion, and conflict.”
I’m not certain as to whom Merritt was referring. It is true that if immature people are put in positions for which they are not ready, chaos may ensue. But Dr. Merritt didn’t say immature people; he said “little people.”
Many of us SB pastors who lead small churches and preach to a faithful few each week wonder if we are those “little people.” Regardless of whom the comment was directed, it’s certainly not kind or charitable language from a prominent evangelical leader.
The point is, there seems to be a disconnect between those in positions of prominence, and the many pastors and church members (who pay their salaries) who have recently begun voicing their concerns over an undeniable drift toward liberalism.
Is the ship taking on water?
Here are a few examples of what’s been happening in the SBC. Make up your own mind as to the direction the denomination is headed.
For the past eight years, Moore has served as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the SBC. While his doctrinal statements and positions seem sound, a look at his words and actions proves otherwise. In “Russell Moore vs. conservatives,” the most informative article I’ve read about Moore, Janet Mefferd outlines eight examples of Moore’s actions and comments over the years that prove quite troubling to true conservatives within the SBC.
Mefferd shows where Moore has caricatured and discredited conservatives, chastised them for embracing politics at the expense of the gospel, said he would attend a same-sex wedding reception, repudiates same-sex attraction reparative therapy, and led the ERLC in helping the Obama administration bully a New Jersey township into allowing a mosque to be built. On May 18, Moore announced on his website that he had accepted a position with Christianity Today and would be leaving the ERLC. The fact that he stayed with the SBC so long, was so influential, and held a great deal of support, however, is telling.
Greear, the current three-term president of the SBC, in an ask me anything podcast was asked what pronoun one should use when talking with a transgender person. Greear said it comes down to two thoughts: “generosity of spirit” vs “telling the truth,” in which case he said he personally leans toward “generosity of spirit” and “pronoun hospitality,” meaning he would use their preferred pronoun.
While preaching a message dealing with the topic of homosexuality Greear said, “the Bible appears more to whisper when it comes to sexual sin.”
At North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., in an interfaith dialogue on March 5, 2020, Greear shared the stage with Muslim Imam Omar Suleiman. Suleiman has openly promoted jihad against Israel and thinks it’s appropriate to call Jews pigs and apes. In the conversation, Greear said
“Really what Christ-like service is when Omar feels like I’m fighting for the blessing and rights of his family and his rights as much as my own, because that’s what we believe Jesus did.”
Mohler, who has a well-documented history of political expediency, and is in the running for the SBC presidency this year, rightly says “the main consequence of critical race theory and intersectionality is identity politics, and identity politics can only rightly be described, as antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have to see identity politics as disastrous for the culture and nothing less than devastating for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Why then does Mohler employ men at his seminary who promote critical race theory and intersectionality?
A beloved and once-respected women’s Bible teacher, Moore in recent years seems to be wavering on doctrinal issues important to Southern Baptists, one being her position in the complementarianism vs. egalitarianism debate.
Her admission to preaching a Mother’s Day service in 2019 drew criticism and resulted in a Twitter altercation where both supporters and opponents of Moore spoke up. Several days later, she posted to Twitter a defense for her position and claimed she finally realized why many have a complementarian view of Scripture. She said that for many years she had given people the benefit of the doubt over the issue, believing they were truly trying to be obedient to Scripture.
“Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all,” Moore said. “It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses and misuses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep.”
Moore has also recently removed commentary about the sinfulness of homosexuality from an online version of her 2009 book, Praying God’s Word.
Like Russell Moore (unrelated), she surprised the SBC when she announced in March that she was leaving the SBC and ending her publishing partnership with Lifeway. “I am still a Baptist,” Moore said. “But I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists.” In spite of her departure, however, her impact and influence will likely last.
At the 2019 SBC annual convention, Resolution 9, On Critical Race Theory And Intersectionality, was adopted, stating that the frameworks of Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality could be employed as useful “analytical tools” in understanding racial issues in both society and the church. For those not aware, CRT is a godless ideology whose roots can be traced back to Marxist philosophy. CRT is essentially a framework that divides people into groups of oppressors and oppressed, thus creating a perpetual victim class. It’s a completely unbiblical worldview that is untenable and incompatible with biblical Christianity and has no business being in a Christian denomination’s list of resolutions unless to be repudiated.
To be fair, neither these prominent figures nor Resolution 9, truly represent the vast majority of SBC church members.
For example, I spoke with a prominent SBC evangelist who was present when Resolution 9 was voted on. He explained that by the time the resolution was adopted, most people had already left the convention, and the ones remaining simply voted in favor of it because of good faith in the resolution committee. He suggested that almost no one there, including himself, had ever heard of, nor knew what CRT was, and would have rejected it had they known.
Tennessee Baptists did just that only a few months later at their state annual meeting, overwhelming adopting a resolution denouncing CRT and intersectionality.
A number of churches have reduced or ended their funding to the SBC over these issues – my church included.
Now that CRT has become mainstream and part of public discourse, and the theology and ideologies of the prominent figures can be clearly seen, it will be interesting to see what happens in Nashville next month.
We’ve been here before
The Southern Baptist Convention has needed course corrections in the past. The SBC organized in 1845, and by the late 1800s, liberalism had already begun to creep in.
By the 1950’s and 60’s the SBC had been corrupted by leaders that questioned the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. One such leader who was in the spotlight during this time was Ralph Elliott, an Old Testament professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when he published his 1961 book, Message of Genesis.
In his book, Elliott challenged the historicity of chapters 1-11 of Genesis, denying Moses’ authorship, and suggested that many of the stories were merely symbolic and were not to be taken literally. Among other things, he challenged whether or not Adam and Eve were actual historical figures, whether there was a worldwide flood and even the supernatural destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
By the fall of 1962, Elliott was dismissed from MBTS for refusing to remove a second edition of the book from the press. Years later, in his 1996 memoir, Elliott claimed that though he was in the spotlight over the controversy, many other seminary professors at the time held similar theological beliefs but simply feared to voice them.
A clash between theological conservatives and liberals had been brewing for some time, and Elliott’s book served as the tipping point. In the following years, conservatives began calling for drastic measures, fearing their denomination would go the way of many others that fully embraced liberalism.
Bill Powell, editor of a periodical called The Southern Baptist Journal, with his writing began to give a voice to the conservatives. “We have a cancer in our denomination,” Powell wrote in 1973, speaking of the leaders who believed the Bible contained errors. “This cancer will destroy our great denomination unless it’s removed.”
Powell assured conservatives the SBC could be taken back, but it would require work. Two years later Powell warned, the “liberals are taking control while the conservatives are only taking a stand.” Conservatives, he said, “must take action!”
Around that same time, two other men concerned with the state of the SBC were busy working on a plan to take control of the ship and steer it back in the right direction. Texas lawyer Paul Pressler and prominent Baptist leader Paige Patterson were diligently studying the constitution and bylaws of the SBC and traveling across the nation finding men in each state that would get on board with a conservative takeover.
In their efforts one thing became clear, a strong conservative would need to be elected SBC president, and that president would need to understand his appointment powers and use them.
By 1979 Dr. Patterson had a loose-knit network organized and knew it was time to act. It was clear to him that a young Dr. Adrian Rogers was the man for the hour, though Rogers was unaware of the underlying plan. Pastoring Bellevue Baptist in Memphis, TN since 1972, Dr. Rogers had established himself as a theological conservative and biblical inerrantist.
There was one problem though, Dr. Rogers had no ambition of becoming SBC president, and initially said he would not even allow his name to be placed in nomination. However, after praying that night and on into the early morning hours about it with his wife, as well as Dr. Patterson and Dr. Jerry Vines, Dr. Rogers finally felt at ease with accepting the nomination. Later that afternoon he won the vote and became the SBC president. The plan had come together, and what is known now as the Conservative Resurgence had truly begun.
The efforts to remove theological liberalism with the election of conservative presidents to the convention who would appoint conservative committees who would then appoint conservative trustee boards for the various SBC agencies was a success for nearly two decades.
Men with unwavering commitments to the Lord and His Word made the course correction possible and Dr. Rogers certainly set the example.
During one of the many deliberations over the Bible’s inspiration, someone from the moderate camp said to Rogers, “Adrian, if you don’t compromise, we will never get together.” Dr. Rogers stood strong and lovingly replied with these unforgettable words:
“I’m willing to compromise about many things, but not the Word of God. So far as getting together is concerned, we don’t have to get together. The Southern Baptist Convention, as it is, does not have to survive. I don’t have to be the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church. I don’t have to be loved; I don’t even have to live. But I will not compromise the Word of God.”
I believe the “good old ship” of the SBC is once again taking on water. The question is, “Are there any good men left to ‘man the pumps?’”
Are there any Dr. Rogers left? Where are the men of courage who’ll boldly and without compromise stand on the Word of God?