Every year just prior to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention bloggers fire up their keyboards and social media warriors stretch their thumbs in preparation for a raging, virtual street brawl. This unhealthy fist-fight between brothers and sisters in Christ is usually over second or third order doctrines: shades of difference in soteriology, application of complementarian principles, or the way an entity is applying the gospel to life.
In recent years, for example, there has been concern over the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission working for religious liberty in a case in New Jersey. (The primary concern was that this pertained to religious liberty for Muslims instead of for Baptists.) A few years ago, the biggest battle was over “Calvinism” in the SBC and the “Calvinist takeover.” (This is hilarious, because to someone within a denomination in the direct line of the Reformed tradition, no Baptist could ever really be a Calvinist. In contrast a Nazarene friend from Oklahoma referred to all Baptists as Calvinists because of the doctrine of eternal security.)
The reality is that the difference between the two factions in both of these fights is relatively minor, especially when considered by those outside the camp. The tragedy is that the divide is pitched as cause for a winner-take-all battle to the death, where the gospel will be irrevocably distorted if the “right” side doesn’t win right now.
Public Consequences for the Ongoing Civil War
Even if the substance of the fights is not terrifically significant, the consequences of this infighting are very great.
First, battles over relatively minor differences are often fought in such a way that reconciliation afterward is difficult. Most of the arguments made are not about substance, but about the character of those who do not agree.
Second, an in a related way, these battles tend to polarize the discussion because of the terms of the debate. People will defend their own position bitterly and stridently because they feel like they are personally under attack (and often are), which often pushes them farther away from the center and from their original position. Or, sometimes, it leads people to argue against the position they previously held because they can’t abide the vicious misrepresentations offered by others who hold it.
Third, the battles are conducted in public, allowing the name of Christ to publicly shamed. When people hurl literal slander and unwarranted anathemas at other believers, it is ugly. The public shame of believers arguing in public is, it seems, part of the reason Paul urged Christians not to sue one another:
If any of you has a dispute against another, how dare you take it to court before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Or don’t you know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the trivial cases? Don’t you know that we will judge angels—how much more matters of this life? So if you have such matters, do you appoint as your judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame! Can it be that there is not one wise person among you who is able to arbitrate between fellow believers? Instead, brother goes to court against brother, and that before unbelievers! As it is, to have legal disputes against one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves do wrong and cheat—and you do this to brothers and sisters! (1 Cor 5:1–8, CSB)
Fourth, the public nature of the battle, its vitriol, and its pettiness give support to the argument of the so-called Moderates who left the SBC that the fight was primarily over power, not Scripture as it was described. The Moderates point at the present squabbling and, by ignoring the historical reality of the debates during the Conservative Resurgence, say that the earlier battle is the same as these battles: Much ado about nothing.
Is Today’s Infighting like the Conservative Resurgence?
If I were someone outside the SBC, especially someone who believed that the so-called Moderates really had it right and the Conservative Resurgence was all the fault of the “Fundamentalists,” then I would see a whole lot to support my opinion. That would especially be the case if I were ignorant of the actual arguments during the Conservative Resurgence.
The Conservative Resurgence was a battle waged over the nature of Scripture and its place within the church. The Conservatives were those who argued for the inerrancy of Scripture––that the Bible is truthful and, in the original manuscripts, entirely accurate; Scripture is thus authoritative for doctrine and life for the local church. The so-called Moderates espoused a range of views from a non-confrontational inerrancy (i.e., Scripture is wholly true, but there is room for disagreement) to various stages of modernistic denials of the truthfulness and authority of Scripture.
One of the most significant differences between the Conservative Resurgence and the ongoing fight is that there is almost no doctrinal space between those on either side of the debate. For example, in the recent intra-complementarian debate in the SBC, both parties agree that the role of pastor is reserved for males. They disagree about the degree to which women can participate on the platform during congregational worship.
In another fight, there is vitriolic anger being hurled against individuals and groups that argue there is racial injustice in some systems in the United States and that the gospel has implications for fighting against those injustices. The opposite side seems to be most opposed to engaging the topic using language grounded in the Christian tradition and from within distinctly gospel-centric organizations; the major point of contention seems to be the overlap between non-Christian (and sometimes anti-Christian) language about systemic racism and concern that a focus on the implications of the gospel (which may be debated) will overshadow the actual gospel.
There are good concerns on both sides for both of these issues. For example, whether women should preach on Sundays is an important debate to have. However, it would be helpful to have a debate about it rather than simply attacking those that disagree as departing from foundational doctrines of the church without significant evidence. Given that figures like Bertha Smith (who pushed Adrian Rogers to engage in the Conservative Resurgence) and Lottie Moon (who lamented the lack of male missionaries) both were theological conservatives who valued the inerrancy of Scripture and sometimes spoke to churches on Sunday, the issue for the SBC is not as clear cut as it might seem on its face.
It may be that there is a means to gain knowledge from women in a congregational setting without violating the holy writ. However, the debate is being pitched as if the only two options are an absolute denial of the differences between males and females functionally or that women may contribute to congregational worship only as backup singers for the worship band. Both positions are caricatures.
Most of the current debates––whether over the ERLC’s work on religious liberty, the pursuit of a more just society, or a woman speaking in a local church––are about the way Scripture ought to be applied rather than a foundational debate about the nature of Scripture. This is not another Conservative Resurgence.
Double-Talk and the Current Controversies
Another major difference between the ongoing infighting and the Conservative Resurgence is that during the Conservative Resurgence the institutions of the SBC were aligned in positions that were fundamentally opposed to the majority of the individual members of churches aligned with the SBC. This disparity was no more apparent than in the use of Double-Talk by the seminary faculty when speaking in local churches: there was a fundamental difference between the actual doctrine the professors held and what they communicated to the people in the pews who had not been (in their minds) sufficiently enlightened to appropriate progressive doctrine.
There is no question that many of the faculty at SBC seminaries during the middle of the 20th century had abandoned basic biblical doctrines and appropriated a modernistic, progressive form of Christianity. Ralph Elliot, the professor who wrote the Genesis commentary that catalyzed the Conservative Resurgence, has admitted that he and others intentionally obfuscated what they really mean when speaking to congregations. This was called Double-Talk or, in Orwellian fashion, doublespeak.
Recently accusations about the same issue have arisen regarding discussions of social justice at my alma mater, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This was particularly accelerated when a New York Times article was edited in such a way to make it sound like Walter Strickland was using double-talk to import controversial ideas of James Cone into his conservative-sounding teaching, particularly with regard to the idea of liberation within Black Theology.
Strickland wrote his dissertation on different schools of Black Theology, some of which are theological problematic and some of which are not (or at least much less so). As much as James Cone got wrong about Christianity, there are elements in Cone’s approach to race as a distinct social issue that are helpful in highlighting ways the Church (broadly speaking) has failed to appropriately engage in racial reconciliation.
To read the backlash over a quote in a newspaper, it would seem that Walter Strickland must be teaching Critical Race Theory and espousing distinctly progressive doctrines from his lectern each time he leads a class at the seminary. That is distinctly not the case; he and I have had conversations about the topic and, even if we disagree on terms (particularly redeeming the use of the term “liberation theology” in light of the negative connection with a revisionist school of theology), we agree on substance. More importantly, Strickland fully supports the BF&M 2000 and orthodox Christian beliefs about identity and anthropology.
The real substance of concerns over the recent media article is that Strickland might be leading his students to interact critically and thoughtfully with people that espouse theology incompatible to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
However, engaging with other theological traditions in a confessional environment is what healthy denominational seminaries do. It is much better to build a scaffold to understand the distinctions between our understanding of Scripture and other traditions in an environment where expert help is available. It would be tragic to lead people to believe Baptist theology has nothing to say about race. This could leave them to look for a way to deal with racial injustice from sources that undermine Christianity, believing those sources to have the only means to engage the issue. If certain themes from controversial theologians (like Cone) make it into the seminary classroom through men like Strickland, it is almost certainly in the form of “he got this right, but there are some problematic issues over here.”
A critical approach to different theological traditions in the seminary classroom is not double-speak like the bad old days. We become better theologians when we interact with dissenting voices critically, but respectfully. For example, the fact that I have been influenced in some ways by progressive theologians, especially since I write and think about environmental ethics a great deal, does not take away from my criticality when they apply incorrect doctrines to the issues.
Common grace is real. Sometimes non-Christians and even progressive Christians see things in a way that can illuminate our own blind spots. Engaging with them critically is not double-talk, it is the essence of scholarship. That is what good seminary professors are supposed to do.
Proving the Moderates Right
Controversies often draw battle lines in odd places, and they can tend to push people to defend positions they would not otherwise tolerate. In fact, the ongoing bile being spewed against Southern Baptists who lean toward a softer complementarianism has cause me to want to defend the position, even though I do not agree with it. There is a certain dishonesty in the misrepresentation of their position as “liberal” or “egalitarianism.”
As someone who loves truth, I want to step in and clarify the position, because what they are really saying is something less than the error of functional egalitarianism, which denies that God-given gender differences have implications for our roles in embodied service to God. Hard egalitarianism denies the functional differences called out in Scripture (or redefines them as specific to the patriarchal cultures in which the authors of Scripture lived and worked), whereas the current debate merely broadens the opportunities for females to teach within the local church setting under the authority of male overseers. One need not agree with either position to see there are clear differences between them.
The inability of many opponents of this softer complementarianism to deal with the actual arguments being made by those that hold those views is a mark of intellectual laziness and, in many cases, blatant dishonesty.
The so-called Moderates during the Conservative Resurgence argued that Conservatives were (1) reactionary, (2) mean-spirited, (3) anti-intellectual, and (4) more concerned about power than truth. If the ongoing debates are any sign, then they may have been correct, if not about the original participants in the Conservative Resurgence, then certainly about the warrior children of the conservative resurgence.
Truth is a worthwhile pursuit. In fact, I hope my life is defined by the pursuit of truth. However, sometimes the quest for truth is merely a poorly disguised excuse to fight. Once one victory is achieved over one issue it is easy to seek the next fight with the person closest to hand that holds any different positions. The sad result is often perpetual warfare and a continual splintering of formerly healthy alliances.
John Frame wrote an engaging chapter in a Festschrift for Alister McGrath called “Machen’s Warrior Children.” In that essay Frame outlines 21 different schisms that have occurred among conservative Presbyterians. He notes that what started out as a worthwhile battle––the battle over Modernism––morphed into a street brawl over relatively minor theological differences. He also explains that the nature of the debates has been one largely characterized by anathematizing one another when disagreement happens. In other words, Christianity is defined so narrowly that to disagree about anything is to be unorthodox. Frame recounts the sad fact that those who had initially been allied to push back against clear error continued to tear each other apart all in the name of finer and finer points of “truth.”
Right now Southern Baptists are facing their own train of schisms with anathemas hurled over points that should be debated rather than divided. In recent years we’ve seen arguments about the relative role of Calvinism in the SBC, over support for religious liberty beyond Christianity, regarding the need for racial reconciliation, dealing with the possibility of private prayer languages, surrounding the selection of material to sell in the LifeWay stores, and on and on. There have even been pitched battles over the size, complexity, and financial burden of State Conventions.
All of these issues deserve consideration and I have positions on all of them, but none of them actually divide Christians from non-Christians. And, oddly enough, I find myself in agreement with different clusters of Southern Baptists on several of the issues. The problem is not a fairly clear delineation over whether Scripture is true and authoritative for church practice, as it was during the Conservative Resurgence, but over how we live out our mission in the world. Certainly, this is important, but I do not believe it warrants the level of argument currently being offered.
At this point, the warrior children of the Conservative Resurgence are proving the “Moderates” correct: For some people, it’s more about the fight than it is about truth and the furtherance of the gospel.
If we are to continue as a convention––that is, a relatively loose coalition of churches centered on cooperation for missions––we have to value the gospel over worldly victory.
It might also help if those on either side of the debates took a moment to consider Paul’s words to the church in Corinth:
But actually, I wrote you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. (1 Cor 5:11)
There are a whole lot of people who have fallen into the category of “verbally abusive” in these latest debates, which makes one wonder if fellowship with them is wise, or, as Paul seems to indicate here, consistent with biblical Christianity.
NOTE: This article has been edited since the original post for clarity and to correct a few typographical errors. No changes to substance or content have been made.