I would like to break from form for just a bit. What is to follow is a random layman assortment of thoughts and observations on the potential split happening in the Southern Baptist Convention. There is no order to these, and I doubt that any of my musings on this subject will cause anything to happen. With the possible exception that perhaps if you are in the midst of this particular kerfuffle then maybe you will get a few more ideas to kick around. I claim no expertise in this and am not aiming with precision, you are free to take it or leave it.
There has for the past ten-ish, maybe closer to fifteen, years at this point been a rift occurring in the SBC*. This rift is of some interest because there are some of us who had a vested theological interest in the original debate. Then ideologically things shifted in rapid succession creating some strange bedfellows indeed. Or, depending on how you read the tealeaves, one crack split into several fractures.
In my broad understanding the facts of the case are thus. For some time now a growing percent of the SBC has been returning to a robust understanding of The Doctrines of Grace. This was largely the work of the Young Restless and Reformed community. Key figures in the movement were men like Mark Dever, David Platt, Russell Moore, Matt Chandler, and (though he is not in the SBC) John Piper. On the fringes it was encouraged by the likes of Paul Washer, and Mark Driscoll**. This movement was innovative, theological, and largely young. They set about reforming the SBC and were met with opposition from the “Old Guard.”
Now as far as the old guard is concerned let me say they don’t get near enough credit for the battles they fought which made it possible for the YRR group to blossom as they did. The war over Biblical inerrancy was a squeaker possibly only won because of the last charge lead by W.A. Criswell in his Weather We Live or Die sermon at the convention. The Broadman Commentary battle alone was pitched and in the grace of God won by the current old guard. They deserve far more respect than they have received. I call them the Old Guard because they are guarding the convention, The Baptist Faith and Message. These old soldiers have fought before and don’t want to see what they gave years of their lives, prayers, energy, and passion go to seed. I don’t blame them. Where I think the first error came in was in keeping the sensor on what might be heresy on a hair trigger. Anything new was automatically treated with suspicion of not immediately dismissed out of hand. This lead to a rigidity that the budding YRR found constricting. It became a problem when the Arminian theology the convention had fallen into was challenged by these upstart young Calvinists.
In my estimation neither side handled the differences well. The young were, as to be expected, arrogant, rude, and angry. The old, condescending, inflexible, and smug. These are not exactly the fruits of The Spirit that lead the church to be “Known by our love for one another.” For a while something of a cold war existed. As long as the old guard were in charge not much changed. Occasionally there would be a skirmish of words started by some young Calvinist and Leighton Flowers would be sent out to deal with it. But things changed when it was brought into sharp relief that the YRR crowed had gained ground numerically. At the 2016 Annual Meeting the race for SBC president was headed to a tie between J.D. Grear, a Calvinist; and Steve Gains, Arminian. At the last minute Grear bowed out. But the awakening had happened it no longer was the case that there were a few rogue churches running around drinking beer, and reading Berkhoff. A near majority of the denomination had shifted to being reformed. Gaines did his level best to try and make free will attractive again, but to no avail. And then the wheels came off the carriage.
The outside world came charging in through the persons of Donald Trump and Michael Brown from just a few years before. Suddenly those pesky little history problems of the convention came back into the spotlight. Slave owners breaking from the general Baptist and forming a separate southern denomination. And the political machinations of “The Moral Majority” that had become engrained (And still are in the form of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) in the SBC psyche. Were now brought to the fore. The growing majority had thoughts on these issues and they were not, “traditional.” Two years later they won out with the election of J.D. Grear to the SBC presidency. Though Gaines had put up a terrific battle in the form of inviting Donald Trump (But getting Mike Pence) to address the convention at the annual meeting. He ended up galvanizing the Reformed crowd against him. And at first things looked good. But Trump would Trump and cause political division in all churches. And slowly but surely the opinion of Critical Race Theory(CRT) has seeped its way into the convention as well. Grear has tried to appease all sides but they will not be satiated by compromise.
There is now a bizarre few groups that make for an interesting diagram. Calvinists find themselves in agreement with Arminians who reject CRT. And there are supporters of Trump who hold to predestination and supporters of Trump that would die for free will. Bring in a healthy dose of idolatry to any of these, or any number of smaller positions that people are clinging too, and you have the powder keg that can lead to a denominational split.
In light of all of this I proffer a few thoughts on what is happening and how to respond.
For starters while a split in the convention leading to a separate denomination would be unfortunate it would not be a tragedy. Unless you are still clutching at the idea that having the largest denomination is somehow important to the morals of the nation or your eschatology. Then put not your faith in denominations. Baptists historically split and create new Baptist denominations. And sometimes this is for good. A prime example was the break by the Primitive Baptists from the larger denomination. They were hyper calvinists and anti-missions. Today they are a minor cult of hillbilly music worshiping weirdos. I don’t think anyone has been missing them.
As well there is something to be said for a clean break as opposed to a continuing cold war with sniping and jockeying on both sides. The Reformers were called just that because they wanted to correct the egregious errors of Rome, but they eventually realized that Rome could not be saved. It may be that declaring our differences and going our separate ways will allow for later repentance and reconciliation. But as of now it feels like two fighting siblings who sit at the dinner table with murder in their hearts because their mother made them, Apologize and be nice to each other.”
That said, and I am not trying to contradict myself but to be thorough. Splitting is not to be preferred. The Reformers really did give it the old college try with Rome. But after the pope has so many people set on fire you really do have to draw a line somewhere. And, as far as I know, Grear has not ordered the burning of Franklin Graham Jr. at the stake. And it is not a good look to have multiple churches on the same street all claiming to to serve the Lord but separate because we can’t get along over who used to live in the White House. For years I used to drive down a street in West Memphis once a week that within five blocks had Old St. Paul Baptist Church, New Old St. Paul Baptist Church. Greater St. Paul Baptist Church. New Freedom Baptist Church. All in decreasing size. Having such a stark visual does make you think about learning to overlook some offenses.
On a coldly practical level, I agree with Mark Dever about the incredible good that a denomination can do by pooling so many resources. A split would probably irrevocably damage the Mission Board that is already strapped for cash. Just a couple of years ago David Platt had to make some incredibly painful decisions to balance that budget. And while I fully hold to God is sovereign and will not be hindered by the loss of the mission board, it alone presents a very strong argument to stay together. IF, and you had to know that was coming, all of the churches in the SBC are fulfilling their membership commitments. If I had to guess from statistics, left leaning churches are not supporting missionaries and their departure would probably not effect the work of the faithful too much.
Finally, I wonder at which point in this it might be considered that perhaps it is not the denominations place to elevate anything but Christ and Him crucified? I’m not trying to oversimplify, however I do think that the vast majority of our problems is that in our misguided attempts to be relevant or current that we have allowed idols into our church bodies. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other…” you can not serve God and Critical Race Theory, or Donald Trump. I remember sitting as Bryan Loritts rebuked the cage stage Calvinists in our church saying, “For some of you J.C. does not mean Jesus Christ but John Calvin.” Our intellectual leanings must submit to Christ. Christ can not go through the filter of our preferred ideologies. Our thinking must flow from Him***. Too many churches have anemic ecclesiology which has lead to what one writer called “whack a mole preaching.” Rather than insist their people be present on the Lords Day to worship the creator of Heaven and Earth who is forever to be praised. The minds of the people are brought down to current events. They have no eternal perspective, they are both in and of this world. Is it any wonder then when preaching is dictated by the world the people are worldly? There are natural divisions, Heaven and Hell, the Justified and the un justified.
My Dog in the Fight
I lean more towards the idea that a split would be good for the SBC. Partly because I think the cancers have gone too deep and there must be some painful surgery. Also because I myself left some time ago****. I would hope one day to return but I fear it will not happen. I follow closely the goings on of what I would consider my home, but I am in exile. At the end of the day I find myself in the position of being a credo baptist who holds dearly to the Doctrines of Grace. I see these as flowing directly from the inspired Word of God. As such I reject both Critical Race Theory and Moral Majority thinking. I do not see voting as a sacrament but merely a civic duty, I submit my principals to Scripture and not a candidate. As a result I look in on the SBC with concern. Should they cure the cancer I will rejoice. But my hope does not lie in the denomination of Baptists. It lies in Jesus Christ.
*Now called, technically, Great Commission Baptists. But I don’t think anyone really cares.
**Can you even imagine how those two would react to being mentioned sided by side in a sentence?
***Wait till the conclusions before reading into this too much.
****Leaving the convention does not mean leaving the church. I am an active member of a non denominational local church. And as something of a sabbatarian it is the rare Lords Day that I am not present. I can not abide people who leave committed membership of a local church over emotional or intellectual issues. Church membership and regular attendance is required, no matter what The Gospel Coalition reasons away.