The Southern Baptist Convention, Controversies, and Identity

I had a nostalgic moment last week. I walked into the living room and my children were watching the 1994 Disney film Blank Check. I arrived just in time to enjoy the moment in the plot when 11-year-old Preston comes to the realization that the identity he created for himself as the financial manager of a made-up millionaire named “MacIntosh” has been exposed. He had built a life of wealth and luxury for himself on a lie, and that life was now falling apart.

The fictional plot line of Blank Check has some parallels with a very real plot line I see transpiring within the Southern Baptist Convention. Before I explain the connections, let me provide some historical background.

In the 1970s, theological conservatives within the Southern Baptist Convention, concerned about theological liberalism within the convention’s seminaries and other entities, architected a plan to bring the enormous body of churches back to orthodoxy. Rallying under the banner of biblical inerrancy, conservatives won the presidency of the SBC every year from 1979 to the present. The plan involved using the appointive powers of the presidency to place conservatives on the boards of all denominational agencies and seminaries. Within fifteen years, theological liberals had been eradicated from leadership within the convention and the largest Protestant denomination in the world had been restored to biblical orthodoxy.

It has often been theorized that people accustomed to fighting need a clear enemy or they will turn on one another. Biblical inerrancy, the cause that united our convention a generation ago, is no longer sufficient for many Southern Baptists. In recent years, we have seen new battlelines being drawn among us over issues like Calvinism, the #MeToo movement, support for Donald Trump, and Critical Race Theory.

In fact, among some, signs of liberal drift are all around. Just this week, I was asked if I thought the Bible “whispers” about sexual sin. Since I’ve chosen to remove myself from the vitriol of Twitter, I had to do some research to determine the origination point of such a question. I knew it was loaded.

A quick Google search informed me of the latest controversy. Apparently, each of the last two SBC presidents, J.D Greear and Ed Litton, have utilized a quote from evangelical author Jen Wilken in recent sermons. Wilken writes, “We ought to whisper about what the Bible whispers about, and we ought to shout about what it shouts about.” Greear and Litton have added, “And the Bible appears more to whisper when it comes to sexual sin compared to its shouts about materialism and religious pride.”

My Google search revealed a host of alarmed “conservatives” pointing out yet another sign of the SBC’s evident downgrade. In every instance, the alarmed conservative watchdog had pulled this short clip from a much longer sermon to prove the point that these men are compromising what the Bible clearly says regarding homosexuality. However, when I went back and actually listened to the sermons, I found that both preachers clearly denounced homosexuality as sin. In fact, by some uncanny coincidence, they shared nearly identical outlines in which the preceding point was that God does, indeed, care about sexual sin and condemns it.

Do I find the “whisper” language helpful? No. Do I wish they had chosen a different way to make the point—one that I wholeheartedly agree with—that human beings, including conservative Baptists, love to focus on the sins “out there” while ignoring the ones in our own house? Yes. But are these men denying the Bible’s clear teaching on sexual sin? Absolutely not.

In fact, both men are on record affirming the inerrancy of the Bible and the Baptist Faith and Message (2000), the confessional statement that marks the boundaries for cooperation among conservative Southern Baptist churches and one that clearly upholds a biblical sexual ethic.

And that brings me back to my Blank Check analogy. In our digital age, it’s hard to resist the allure of online praise that results from an identity formed under the banner of “standing for truth.” But just as Preston formed his identity on a made-up millionaire, I fear that many within our ranks are making a name for themselves on made-up controversy. If you shout in front of 14 million Southern Baptists that there’s a theological downgrade, you are going to get support. We’ve been trained to root out heresy, and our denominational history keeps us on high alert.

But our eagerness to join the heresy witch hunt makes us cheap fodder for opportunistic “truth tellers” who are trying to make a name or a career through digital media. Consider this: the very existence of a watchdog blog or podcast demands justification for its existence. In other words, if someone has built an identity on spotting signs of liberal drift, what happens when liberal drift is absent? They invent controversy where none exists. Their very existence depends on heresy in the ranks. They get their likes and shares and listens and reviews only when their base perceives them as bold “truth tellers.” No liberal drift, no reward.

Such a system will only produce bad fruit. Suspicion and mistrust do not breed friendly cooperation. When controversy is everywhere, we will have a hard time discerning when a battle really needs to be fought. Most concerning of all, the very reason for our cooperation—the fulfillment of the Great Commission—takes a backseat when we’re busy fighting each other. In short, we need less online watchdog identities and more sinners finding their identities in Christ because of faithful gospel proclamation.

1 thought on “The Southern Baptist Convention, Controversies, and Identity”

  1. Casey such a good article. We all need to put our focus on Gospel proclamation. Love you my son.

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