Something isn’t right in the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
I just got back from the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim. Progress was made as the convention took vital steps toward fixing its self-made sexual abuse crisis, made resolutions in several key areas, and elected strong conservative leaders. However, to be present was to sense that something just isn’t quite right among the nearly 50,000 SBC churches. In a convention built on gospel cooperation, there doesn’t seem to be overwhelming shared excitement about the future. In a convention that celebrated the sending of fifty-two missionaries by the International Mission Board on day one of the meetings, many weren’t in the mood to celebrate.
I’ve struggled this week to diagnose the problems. I spent several days having conversations with friends and strangers. I regrettably reinstalled Twitter for three days so that I could follow the fast-paced exchange of quick-hitting gotchas in real time (and I’ve already deleted it again). I listened to the groans and shouts of disgruntled messengers as well as the sighs of relief and applause from the other side. I think I’m beginning to put some things together. Here’s my best shot.
The SBC has a nuance problem.
American politics has a nuance problem so maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. In partisan battles, warring factions would rather “own” the other side than listen to what they’re trying to say. Pejorative labels get thrown around. Everything is black or white, good vs. evil. Politicians spend millions on publicity and ignore careful policy. Substance gets sacrificed in the name of winning the approval of the people who already agree with you.
Sadly, SBC life seems to be following along. To care about victims of sexual abuse or racism is to risk being labeled “woke” or “progressive.” To even entertain notions that racism is still a problem in our world means you’ve fallen for secular philosophies like Critical Race Theory (CRT) that no one ever bothers to define. I tell concerned Southern Baptists frequently that I’ve never met a seminary professor (and I know many) or pastor who advocate CRT, and no one I’ve met who accuses others of teaching CRT has been able even to define it. Nevertheless, a very loud minority of Southern Baptists believe that these philosophies have taken over and claim to see evidence everywhere.
On the other side, some believe that to affirm biblical complementarianism, a position that argues for distinction in roles and responsibilities between men and women, is tantamount to asserting the same “toxic masculinity” that led men in power in the SBC to cover up sexual abuse. But believing that God has limited certain roles within families and churches by gender is not “toxic masculinity”; it’s historic Christian theology that’s rooted in responsible exegesis of the Bible. True complementarianism doesn’t abuse, and it doesn’t cover-up abuse. True complementarianism calls the leader to lay down his life to protect and serve those under his care.
Few want to consider the complexity of life in a fallen world. Few want to listen as their brothers and sisters say, “Yes, but let me explain the differences,” or “No, I’m not saying that.” We’ve taken our cues from secular politicians who teach us that no one deserves the benefit of the doubt. We’ve been discipled by the likes of Maddow and Carlson to paint our enemies in the worst possible light. Somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that we’re still on the same team and that the world is supposed to recognize us by our love for one another. We’ve mistaken the RNC for the FBC.
The SBC has a pragmatism problem.
If you ask members of the Conservative Baptist Network, an organization established within the SBC in 2020, there’s a discernable “liberal drift” within the SBC. I followed along this week and considered the evidence presented. During one of the song portions of the convention, the word “sin” was replaced my “mistakes” in a well-known hymn. The ERLC led a talk on the vital topic of “Life after Roe” in which a speaker said that we need to work to “make abortion unnecessary.” Rick Warren, a controversial megachurch pastor who has female pastors on staff, received a loud ovation from messengers.
These instances might seem like small potatoes to anyone watching from the outside, but for those indoctrinated to sniff out liberal drift, it couldn’t be any clearer. If you’re looking for it hard enough, you’re going to find it. Confirmation bias is certainly in play here. Consider that there would be no need for the Conservative Baptist Network and the financial contributions this organization receives without a liberal drift. Liberal drift is needed to literally justify its existence.
However, if you consider the evidence without the presupposition of liberal drift, all of it can be explained quite easily. I’ll spare you my defense of the song lyric swap because it really seems like a nitpicky critique not worth our time. While I would not personally use “make abortion unnecessary” as the goal for the pro-life movement, the speaker was making a point. She wasn’t claiming that abortion is now necessary; she was arguing that our culture has made women believe the lie that abortion is necessary, and now the church needs to show women that it’s not by loving her and assisting her in caring for her baby. That might not have been the best way to say it, but it’s not liberalism.
Which brings us to Rick Warren. The applause he received had nothing to do with his theology or even his decision to ordain female pastors. He received applause after detailing all the success his church has had in reaching people. The messengers that applauded his speech aren’t liberals, but many of them are pragmatists. In other words, they believe that as long as people are being reached, means and methods don’t really matter. The end justifies the means. That’s a problem, but it’s also not new nor is it unique to one side or the other. The SBC doesn’t have a new liberalism problem; it has an old pragmatism problem.
Pragmatism should be familiar to us all. It dominates political thinking in our nation. It’s a commitment to pragmatism that leads one side to break rules before crying foul when the other side does the same. It’s pragmatism that argues for character as prerequisite for holding public office until our candidate lacks it.
The SBC has a mission problem.
Every year at the SBC annual meeting the IMB commissions missionaries, and for the duration of that commissioning service, virtually every faction is united in excitement. For the entirety of the SBC’s long and tumultuous history, the one thing that everyone has always agreed on is the need to reach our neighbors, both at home and abroad, with the gospel.
But there seems to be confusion about the precise nature of our mission these days. As I attended a panel discussion hosted by Baptist21, the CBN was hosting a different panel featuring Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA and an outspoken right-wing political spokesman who supported President Donald Trump’s claim of a stolen election. At the meeting Kirk addressed the threat of Critical Race Theory within the SBC and attacked “cowardly” pastors who only care about “budgets, buildings, and baptisms.”
Charlie Kirk’s views may or may not represent the CBN. Either way, his belittling of “budgets, buildings, and baptisms” indicates that, for Kirk at least, the real battle isn’t fought on the mission field but in the Culture War. How could the cowardly pastor preach the gospel to lost neighbors when we have all these liberals to own? Apparently, for some among us, Ephesians 6:12 has been inverted: we aren’t warring against “the rulers…authorities…cosmic powers…spiritual forces” by wielding the gospel but against “flesh and blood” by winning a culture war.
It’s hard to love your neighbor when you see your neighbor as an enemy that needs to be defeated. It’s hard to bear compassionate and bold witness when you identify with the “right” side of a culture war being fought between two flawed sides. Charlie Kirk will not lead the church toward faithfulness to Christ’s mission, but we follow a Savior whose kingdom is not of this world. Our politics revolves around the claim that “Jesus is Lord” and the local church entrusted with the keys of his kingdom—in other words, budgets, buildings, and baptisms.
The Bottom Line
Is it possible that the “liberal drift” discerned by many is simply disillusionment with politics and a rejection of the Republican party as representative of the Christian church? If you read my diagnosis above carefully, you will notice that every one of the problems I identified can be linked to the merger of church and partisan politics. It seems that many are still operating within a synthesis that places the Republican party on the same side as the evangelical church, while many others, post-Trump, have grown skeptical that loyalty to party has much to offer in our goal of accomplishing Christ’s mission and might even be an impediment. If we are going to move forward together, we’re going to have to unite around the essentials. Jesus is Lord, His Word is inerrant, and the world desperately needs to hear the good news.