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Coming Apart in the Southern Baptist Convention

Earlier this month, eight bishops in the United Methodist Church—the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the country—called for a denominational split. The statement from the bishops laments the “brokenness” of United Methodism. Per the authors of the statement, the animating issues relate to LGBTQ+-identifying clergy, the performance of same-gender weddings, and broader questions of human sexuality and gender. Paradoxically, the bishops place a positive spin on the whole ordeal, calling for multiple “expressions” of the Methodist witness:

We believe God can use our current brokenness as a springboard to multiply our Wesleyan DNA through different expressions of Methodism that will allow our diversity of theological thought and contextual practice to flourish untethered from conflict.

This past spring, many conservative Methodists had reason for optimism. The UMC’s highest court upheld the traditional view of marriage in opposition to calls for affirming LGBTQ+ ordination. The ruling approved what was called “The Traditional Plan,” which was adopted at the UMC’s General Conference a few months prior. In brief, the petitions in the Plan asserted that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained to the ministry or be married in the UMC.

The apparent despair of the eight bishops mentioned above seems to be connected to the fact that this ruling, controversial and narrowly adopted at the time, is not being respected in all UMC parishes; and there is a growing call of protest, the statement notes, of any and all complaints regarding LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex weddings performed by clergy at the upcoming 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.

Interestingly, in a separate ruling given in April 2019, the Judicial Council upheld a UMC policy known as the “gracious exit,” which allows congregations that disagree with the traditional UMC stance on sexuality to leave the denomination with their property and buildings, which legally belong to the UMC and not the congregations. As it turns out, it appears that it will be the endorsers of official UMC policy who will be graciously exiting.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president, Al Mohler, commenting at the time, foresaw the now clearly manifested fracture. Pointing to the evidently conflicting views on human sexuality, gender identity, and the rest, Mohler said on his podcast, The Briefing, “The United Methodist Church is not going to be able to hold together . . . It is not going to be a united Methodist Church. The polarities within the denomination are simply too great.”

This development in the Methodist Church should be disquieting to Southern Baptists, because it may offer a glimpse into their own future. My prediction is that something similar will soon emerge in the Southern Baptist Convention, namely, an irreconcilable impasse resulting in the denomination’s fracture. I hope I’m wrong. 

Beyond the Battle for the Bible

J.I. Packer, prescient as always, in his Beyond the Battle for the Bible, published in 1980 as (in part) a response to Harold Lindsell, identified the real issue at stake. It was well and good, make no mistake, for evangelicals to heartily agree about the inerrancy and veracity of Scripture. But the real battle, then yet to take shape, which had transcended (in Paker’s estimation) the momentary debate on inerrancy was that of interpretation. Put another way, without inerrancy, Scripture has limited authority. But the question remains what the words of the supreme authority mean.

Thank you, Harold Lindsell, for having the guts to do what you have done. To have the inerrancy question out in the open, where your writing has set it, is clarifying and catalytic.

But now it really is important that we inerrantists move on to crystallize an a posteriori hermeneutic which does full justice to the character and content of the infallible written word as communication, life-embracing, and divinely authoritative… Otherwise, we could win ‘the battle for the Bible’ and still lose the greater battle for the knowledge of Christ and of God in our churches, and in men’s hearts.

In brief, “it’s the hermeneutics, stupid!” To be fair, Lindsell and others were, in their polemics, rejecting a higher critical interpretative approach, but only directly, because said approach denied at the outset the inerrancy and inspiration (two terms that were often used synonymously then) of the text.

Packer was following John Owen on this point. In his writings against the Socinians and Quakers, Owen frequently argued that it was not simply the words of Scripture that must be believed by a Christian, but their meaning. All parties involved in the late seventeenth-century debates (one internal, one external from Owen’s perspective) agreed that Scripture was the supreme authority. The question remained—on doctrines as basic as the Trinity—what did the text mean?

For decades since the battle for the Bible was won, evangelicals at large, but especially those in the SBC, have been resting on their laurels rather than preparing for the subsequent challenges. Well, now the chickens have come home to roost. 

Pressure Points

The issues that have sprouted controversy in the SBC may seem at first to be strictly socio-political or something of a cultural spill-over; and indeed, that is partly the case. The #MeToo movement, startling reports of sexual abuse in the convention, racial tensions, identity politics, and debates about women’s leaderhship in the church are all in play here. The complimentarian v. egalitarian squabble has become particularly heated over the past few months, but many of these issues have been noticeably incubating since at least 2015, exacerbated (like so much else) by the 2016 election. Nearly all of them have diminished confidence in denominational leadership. 

The complementarianism debate was jump-started by Beth Moore’s open letter to SBC pastors, drawing awareness to what she perceived as abusive leadership practices and misogyny. Her letter eventually spawned heated exchanges on women preaching and on biblical gender roles. Recent statements from John MacArthur (not a member of the SBC) have not served to calm things down. 

Those issues existing in the orbit of race relations and identity politics are difficult for anyone to parse. What is clear is that in the SBC context, concerns have been raised by some over the influence (real or perceived) of the social justice movement within the denomination. The Statement on Social Justice, drafted by evangelicals both within and without the SBC, seems to have gotten this facet of the debate rolling. 

Connected to the concerns voiced in that statement is more recent anxiety that centers on the language and analytical concepts being inserted into the discussion. Resolution 9, adopted at the 2019 annual SBC meeting, put a face to the name—so to speak—for many worried parties. The Resolution, which has received a mixed reception, addresses Critical Race Theory and intersectionality, describing both as analytical tools rather than transcendent ideologies that can be helpfully and appropriately applied in Scriptural interpretation and application, without compromising traditional Southern Baptist commitments to the doctrine of Scripture. Indeed, ideas drawn from the well of contemporary critical theory have been making a showing of late in evangelical circles and even in Southern Baptist seminaries. It is now common to hear evangelical (and SBC) professors and pastors alike invoking ideas like white privilege, white fragility, patriarchal oppression, and more. Robert Delgado and Robin DeAngelo, two of the foremost popular-level scholars of the critical theory tradition, are regularly mentioned. 

The matter of critical theory’s place in the evangelical world remains unresolved one way or the other, but its presence and influence are indisputable. Compounding the fears of some Southern Baptists, has been the renewed interest in Liberation Theology in certain corners of the denomination. 

I mentioned earlier that one could categorize the aforementioned issues as cultural or social or political questions that need to be addressed by the Church. They are certainly no less than that. But I think them merely the occasion or circumstance of a more fundamental issue. It is upon this deeper problem—one that is, on some level, baked into the system—that I base my prediction of a coming SBC split of some sort. 

All of the questions related to the topics above are more or less connected to more fundamental, interpretive, or hermeneutical questions: How (if at all) does Scripture speak to these issues? How do we discern it? What interpretive helps can be applied? 

Whilst everyone party to the multifaceted debate ensuing in the SBC would (presumably) affirm the supremacy, infallibility, and sufficiency of Scripture—indeed, Resolution 9 states as much—this rather tacit affirmation ultimately does not satisfy. Remembering John Owen, we should say, “Yes, but what does the text mean?” This requires a good deal more work, and no doubt many in the SBC possess the fortitude to do it. 

What I doubt is that the denomination is equipped, on both a cultural and institutional level, to survive the present challenges for two simple reasons. First, a lax confessional tradition and culture undermines the ability to maintain not only doctrine but principles of interpretation and right use of secondary authority. Second, meager institutional mechanisms of control and enforcement make it nearly impossible to enforce a confessional standard when the denominational culture has begun to lose confidence therein, looking elsewhere for guidance. The pressure now being applied by the challenges outlined above, will press these weaknesses to the breaking point, such that I fear the SBC will not endure in its present form. 

Lax Confessional Tradition

Distrust of authority and skepticism of extra-biblical source material is, I would argue, a deeply imbedded feature of evangelicalism. Carl Trueman pointed out this collective character trait in his work, The Creedal Imperative. It is no less the case in the SBC. Though the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) purportedly serves as the unifying doctrinal statement of the denomination, you are more likely to hear appeals to “sola scriptura” and “the priesthood of all believers” in SBC churches than to any article of said statement.

This attitude contains several problems. First, there is little regard for secondary authority of any kind, much less that which would dictate the reading of Scriptural texts. Second, as much as people might like to think themselves autonomous, everyone is influenced by some kind of extra-canonical data when reading the Bible. No one begins their daily devotions a tabula rasa. “No creed but the Bible” is indeed a creed, just not a very good one.

Interpretation is done within an ecclesiastical context. It has been the conviction of the heirs of the Reformation that it is a confessional context that best serves the maintenance of sound interpretation. The encyclopedic confessions of the seventeenth century, like the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Second Helvetic Confession, The London Baptist Confession, or the Belgic Confession set parameters on both doctrine and interpretation. And the authors of the confessions attempted to do this with a large measure of catholicity, self-consciously positioning themselves in continuity with the whole of the Western Christian tradition.

Without a robust confessional standard and concomitant confessional culture, bare appeal to sola scriptura will do little to maintain sound, catholic doctrine or established standards of Scriptural interpretation. And, indeed, when a strong confessional culture is not fostered in a group of Christians, the ability to discern good secondary authority atrophies. Without a renewed confessionalism, the SBC cannot hope to persevere through the present unfolding crisis.

The Big Tent Problem

The lax confessional culture in the SBC coincides with a “big tent” (compromise) mentality. Compromises on polarizing issues often present but a frail unity. Edward Stillingfleet, a seventeenth century Anglican bishop, condemned overeager toleration as a “Trojan Horse, which brings in our enemies without being seen, and which after a long Siege they hope to bring in at last under a pretense of setting our Gates wide enough open to let in all our friends.” The point is that toleration pursued for the sake of unity ironically frustrates any meaningful unity and sows the seeds of contempt. Stillingfleet’s great fear was that eventually, people would get weary of infighting and would turn back to Rome, so that they could once again rest in order and unity. Have not the myriad testimonials of evangelicals-turned-Catholic (many of whom were Southern Baptists) illustrated Stillingfleet’s point? The big tent is an unsustainable band-aid solution, usually one of appeasement.

Weak Institutional Mechanisms 

In his magisterial study of New England Puritanism, Perry Miller recounted the string of controversies over the course of the first three decades of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. With each controversy, the weaknesses of the Congregational Way were incrementally exposed. 

In the antinomian crisis and the Anne Hutchinson trial (1637), New England Congregationalism “achieved unity by exiling Dissenters.” In 1648, at the Cambridge Synod, the clergy simply sidestepped the thorny questions on everyone’s mind. In 1662, with the establishment of the Half-Way Covenant, the synod won by “brute force of majority vote.” Slowly, the New England establishment began to realize that it had no “machinery” for navigating controversy, expelling unsound doctrine, and bolstering the established order. That the Errand into the Wilderness, as Miller called it, hung on for so long, was due to the genuine zeal of the founders, the broad doctrinal agreement during most of the century, and the relative insulation from the hostile political climate abroad. Nevertheless, as controversy mounted, weaknesses were exposed. As Miller suggests, without the proper institutional machinery for both handling disagreement and maintaining orthodoxy, a church will not long continue. This proved all the more true in the 1740s with the advent of the Great Awakening, a movement that split Congregationalists churches right down the middle. 

Like the New England Congregationalists, I fear the SBC, by nature of their polity and culture, do not now have the institutional glue to weather the present storm. For these reasons—a lax confessional tradition and weak institutional enforcement mechanisms—I am not confident that the SBC will continue through the present controversies without some significant fracture. I pray that I eat Baptist crow on this one, but I doubt it.



Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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