Southern Baptists have achieved remarkable unity

With conservatives in control, controversies that vex other churches are avoided

Jun 23, 2014 by and

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With the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Baltimore June 10-11, objective analysis of the SBC’s achievements and challenges is elusive.

Convention insiders see their world through rose-colored glasses, preferring a version of their own history that is selective, if not outright revisionist. They have slick public relations operations, but their Baptist Press lacks editorial independence. Dissent is discouraged and sometimes forbidden, and SBC communications read like self-congratulatory commercials.

Opponents fare no better in assessing Baptist life. The SBC has many detractors, including liberals, gays and ex-Baptists. These critics often exhibit a visceral loathing of the SBC, making analysis and even conversation impossible.

My experience with Southern Baptists falls between these extremes. Long sympathetic to the moderates who were systematically forced out of positions of leadership and influence a generation ago, I assumed the worst: SBC leaders must be anti-intellectual, homophobic and possibly even racist authoritarians who cared mostly about their own power.

Then I got to know some of them. I found these men to be thoughtful, kind and good-humored pastors, teachers and advocates. Their ideological commitments stem from conviction, not from animus. There was indeed a great battle in the 1980s, and their side won.

A generation after the “Conservative Resurgence,” the SBC has capitalized on its remarkable unity. While there remains considerable variation in local congregations, the institutional SBC is as streamlined, efficient and focused as ever.

This is not to say there are no matters of controversy, but the nature and scope of disagreements make doctrinal and ideological cohesion — not infighting — hallmarks of today’s Southern Baptist Convention.

Salvation, not sexuality

The best-known and most public debate concerns the doctrines of Reformed theology (Calvinism), which a growing number of the SBC’s most influential figures now embrace. SBC leaders are pleased that the convention is having a robust debate about the doctrine of salvation and not, like many other Protestant bodies, about same-sex marriage and LGBT issues. There is no evidence that the SBC is opening the door to accepting homosexuality.

Last month, a Southern Baptist congregation in California affirmed same-sex relationships. If and when state and national Baptist bodies move to expel that congregation, it will be a strong signal to other pastors and churches: Homosexuality is not up for debate.

Southern Baptist laypeople have not accepted homosexuality as quickly as the general public, but they face strong and compelling impulses to reconsider their religious opposition — from the broader culture and from their own experiences with gay co-workers, neighbors and relatives who do not seem like especially vile sinners living in defiant rebellion against God.

The SBC is committed to meeting these objections with clear reminders that homosexuality is non-negotiable. Baptist leaders are fully prepared to part company with insufficiently “convictional” Christians who, they say, have themselves parted company with the clear teaching of Scripture and 2,000 years of church tradition.

For a denomination founded in 1845 on support for slavery and with a less-than-stellar civil rights record, the SBC has made significant strides in race relations. Fred Luter of New Orleans is finishing a two-year stint as its first black president.

In the political arena, Russell Moore has impressed many in his first year as president of the convention’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore’s top priority has been Hobby Lobby’s challenge to the federal government’s contraceptive mandate. He has also emphasized traditional marriage and protecting unborn human life. Yet the ERLC has also lobbied on behalf of immigration reform and against gambling and payday lending.

The SBC faces many challenges. Declining baptism and membership figures raise questions about mission and strategy.

The SBC is a spiritual home for nearly 16 million Americans. Its place in the scope of Baptist history, in Republican politics and in the broader context of U.S. evangelicalism will be worth watching for many years to come.

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