On Southern Baptist Rivalries and the Need for Revival

[C]omplete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Phil. 2:2–3 ESV).

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on May 7, 2014.]

I have decided to blog about a topic that has frustrated me for many years. My friends—and not a few seminary students—will testify that I talk about this subject fairly regularly. This issue is the reason I mentally disengage from the SBC every July 1 and reengage around April 1, just in time to prepare for the SBC annual meeting. It is the reason I hardly ever read any blog posts related to the SBC and completely avoid several websites that seem to exist for the sole purpose of fostering controversy (my tolerance level for trolls is pretty low). To me, and I think to many others, Southern Baptists seem plagued with a spirit of unhealthy rivalry.

Rivalry2

Let me give you some real-life case studies that exemplify the sort of rivalries which concern me. The names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Case Study 1: A particular gentleman is the finalist to be the new president of a SBC agency. He is widely respected by everyone who knows him. The president of another agency seeks to undermine the process behind the scenes because the new president-to-be is not a close personal ally of his. This has happened a lot, not only in national agencies, but also in state conventions.

Case Study 2: An associational director of missions is meeting with a group of pastors in a Deep South state. He tells all the pastors that they need to go the SBC Annual Meeting and vote against the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force’s Report. When asked by a pastor what the GCR is all about, the DOM tells them that the seminary presidents are trying to take over the SBC and that it is up to the pastors to save the convention from the “fat cats” at the seminaries. In this case, religious politics mirror secular politics: alleged centralized control by suspicious elites at the expense of the virtuous ordinary citizens.

Case Study 3: A group of younger ministers are discussing the Great Commission Resurgence. Almost all of them voice their desire that state Baptist conventions be significantly downsized and send nearly all of their Cooperative Program receipts to the Executive Committee. Some express a desire to “blow up” the state conventions completely. Interestingly, the “fat cat” reference is used again, but this time is directed at state convention employees who want to control the dollars while promulgating outdated programs and not realizing that the real influence is in the national agencies. Of course, since most of these younger ministers have never been to a state convention meeting, they aren’t exactly experts on the work of state conventions.

Case Study 4: A leading pastor in the SBC is having a conversation with another pastor. The leading pastor signed the “Traditional Statement” and he thinks the other pastor should as well. The second pastor, though not a Calvinist, raises concerns about the potential political ramifications of the Traditional Statement. The first pastor responds that the Traditional Statement is necessary because the Calvinists control half the seminaries, LifeWay, and the mission boards. He further suggests the Calvinists must be silenced or “we” will lose the convention. Based upon the wide sweep of agencies mentioned, the leading pastor obviously has a pretty expansive definition of Calvinism.

Case Study 5: A group of Calvinists are involved in a group email discussion. They are complaining about some unkind public comments that certain non-Calvinists have made recently. One of the participants in the discussion suggests that the non-Calvinists are just mad because the Calvinists are winning. He has no doubt that orthodoxy—by which he means Calvinism—will be ultimately be vindicated when spiritual renewal comes to the SBC. This fellow represents at least one Calvinist who is thinking in terms of a denominational competition with winners and losers.

These case studies are just a smattering of stories I could tell, but I really don’t want to be too specific. Frankly, I don’t think that would be helpful. Instead, I want to point out an issue that I think most engaged Southern Baptists are aware of and, hopefully, concerned about—the selfish rivalries in the convention. Almost every debate, discussion, or controversy among us ultimately boils down to matters of power and influence. Everyone wants to see “their people” positioned so that they can be in the proverbial driver’s seat. They also want to see the “other guys” have a limited voice in convention affairs. You cannot convince me that this attitude glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am thankful for President Fred Luter, Ronnie Floyd, and others who have been calling upon Southern Baptists to pray for revival. We sure need it! But make no mistake, my friends: authentic revival is accompanied by repentance and results in transformation. To be clear, revival probably doesn’t mean all of our divisions and rivalries will disappear completely. As a friend pointed out to me recently, there is a fine line between sinful rivalry and the sort of brotherly competition that is centered upon vision for the future. In a mostly democratic denomination, some competition is inevitable. However, should the Lord grant us spiritual awakening, my hope is that our competitions would be kept in perspective rather than devolving into the selfish rivalries that so often seem to be present in our denominational life.

The question facing Southern Baptists today is whether or not we are willing to repent of our carnal rivalries. Do we really want to see things change? Do we really want to work together for the sake of gospel advance? Or, do we really just want “our side” to win and have more power and influence? Sometimes I wonder. Yet, I choose to remain hopeful. My prayer for this year’s SBC is that we really will see the beginnings of a spiritual awakening among our people. One sure sign of authentic revival will be the waning of the sinful rivalries among us. Join me in praying that the Lord will bring us to repentance, renew in us a genuine love for one another, and allow us to be more faithful in proclaiming Christ here, there, and everywhere.

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  11Comments

  1. John   •  

    Contentiousness in the Convention shouldn’t surprise us. We’re Southerners; we fight. As the science fiction author Jerry Pournelle said, “The Anglo-Saxon-Scots-Irish people are the most warlike people in history, and their enemies forget it at their peril.”

    This article by historian Walter Russell Mead, published in the “The National Interest,” helped me understand why the SBC will never overcome our need for conflict.

    http://www.denbeste.nu/external/Mead01.html

    From the article:

    “The Scots-Irish were a hardy and warlike people, with a culture and outlook formed by centuries of bitter warfare before they came to the United States. …. [T]rapped on the frontiers between England and Scotland, or planted as Protestant colonies in the hostile soil of Ireland, this culture was shaped through centuries of constant, bloody war. The Revolutionary struggle and generations of savage frontier conflict in the United States reproduced these conditions in the New World; the Civil War—fought with particular ferocity in the border states—renewed the cultural heritage of war.”

    “An honorable enemy is one who declares war before beginning combat; fights according to recognized rules of war, honoring such traditions as the flag of truce; treats civilians in occupied territory with due consideration; and—a crucial point—refrains from the mistreatment of prisoners of war. Those who surrender should be treated with generosity. Adversaries who honor the code will benefit from its protections, while those who want a dirty fight will get one.”

    You know the origins and inner workings of the SBC better than I. Mead’s conclusion won’t surprise you.

    Do I think this mentality will change? Not in our lifetimes. I’ve already begun working with the generations after me, the generations of my former students and my daughter. Perhaps, by then, they’ll serve a Convention committed to the gospel and not to total war against perceived enemies.

  2. Steve Schenewerk   •  

    Appreciate your observations. Are we really a democratic convention when the vast majority of our churches and pastors don’t participate- some like me because of distance and cost; others because of the very issues you raise?
    The infighting is wearying and at this time in my life(57 years old; serving a small town, small church) I don’t really see denominational agencies really focused on the kind of ministry to which I have committed my life(Send Cities…forget rural).

  3. Shane Anderson   •  

    Revivals among SBC’ers have done nothing to end “carnal rivalries” in the past. Why would we think they would now? It’s a popular concept, “revival would bring unity!” but one that lacks biblical or historical basis. In fact, I’d argue that the most contentious people in the SBC have been the most successful revivalists.

    A deep, biblical, practical, and widespread repentance and reformation—that may bring the spiritual fruit you desire. You hint that this is your definition of revival. But, such a revival would likely be seen by most SBC’ers as a major failure since it would likely end most of what they now call ministry.

  4. Jacob Lupfer   •  

    Very interesting and, I think, wise perspective. As an outsider to the SBC, I am often stunned at how united you seem compared to the Mainline denominations I follow. I see agencies that focus on their missions, leaders that do not step on each other’s toes, and clergy and laity that support the Convention’s common ministries and programs.

    These intramural rivalries seem to pale in comparison to the ones the SBC was having 20-30 years ago. Some people think your relative unity today is largely a function of having kicked out everyone who doesn’t agree. But maybe the Resurgence’s heirs are using the same heavy-handed rhetoric and tactics on less-Calvinist fellow conservatives that they used on moderates a generation ago… I hope that’s not the case. In any event, even outsiders who pay pretty close attention to Southern Baptist life are hard-pressed to detect rival factions and certainly do not see any threats of schism.

    Anyway, these are good observations. Best wishes.

    Anyway, best wishes.

  5. John   •  

    Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse than anything I’ve seen before, here’s a warning about this year’s Convention.

    http://thealabamabaptist.org/print-edition-article-detail.php?id_art=31533&pricat_art=10

    “Said another way, if a church openly disagrees with a position outlined in the latest version of the BF&M, that church can be excluded from participating in Southern Baptist life — its missions programs, its benevolent programs, its educational programs, etc.”

    The Cooperative Program “giving from the churches… declined significantly from $548 million in 2007–2008 to $488 million in 2010–2011” (http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/1234). I wouldn’t think we can afford to force anyone out of the Convention, but hey, I’m just a bi-vocational pastor in rural Alabama.

  6. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    John,

    I’ve seen these sorts of studies before, but I’m not sure how much credence they should receive. Psychological determinism is a scary thing. But your point is well taken.

    NAF

  7. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Shane,

    I’m sorry you feel that way. I do believe revival would bring unity, based upon my understanding of the Scripture and history. So we have a fundamental disagreement on this topic. I also think you have one of the most uncharitable assessments of “most SBC’ers” that I have read in awhile. I will continue to pray for revival.

    NAF

  8. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Jacob,

    I appreciate your helpful outsider perspective. It is encouraging to me. Thanks.

    NAF

  9. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    John,

    This will be a hot topic at the SBC this year, to be sure. I am doubtful it will be approved. LifeWay Research says that just over 50% of SBC churches practice open communion, even though the BF&M affirms close communion. Imagine what this motion would mean for them. Having said that, I doubt anyone was thinking about what the BF&M says about communion when this idea was hatched. And therein lies the problem.

    NAF

  10. Phillip   •  

    Mr. Finn

    I think you said that splendidly. I would say the best way to approach this unhealthy attitude and selfish mentality is to really get at the root of the sin that is causing the division. Although you Nathan have far more experience than I do and would have much more knowledge in this area. It seems to me as though usually this rivalry and division is caused by pride, and a lack of focus on the greater need thta is so evident in the country and world around us. This pride which causes well meaning Christians to treat their brother much worse than they would any unbeliever, also causes a me verse the world mentality. There is also a lack of Grace given in the internet and blogosphere, people will say things and call people names over the internet that in real life would be unimaginable. More often than not blogging is full of gossip which I hope anyone would recognize as sinful. One last thing, I also think if Christian’s, Pastor’s and Laity included, if they are given proper perspective they will see lostness in this country and this world.

    If people get the proper perspective and are able to get past their pride they will find that they all have the same passion of spreading the Great Commission.

    If this is not their passion…. Then that is a totally different problem….

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