Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 8: What Do We Mean by “Resurgence?”

The idea of a Great Commission Resurgence should call to mind at least two concepts with which many Southern Baptists will readily identify: mission and the Conservative Resurgence. My colleague Bruce Ashford has already done a fine job of explaining what we mean when we use the term Great Commission (see his articles here and here). My task is to define the word resurgence and shed some light on why we have chosen this particular word to help cast a vision for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a resurgence could be defined as “a continuing after interruption; a renewal.” Think about this definition in the context of the past thirty or so years of SBC history. The theological-political movement that began in the late 1970s has been called at least three things: a takeover, a controversy, and a resurgence. There is some truth to each of these descriptions, though we need to be clear just what we mean.

The movement was surely a takeover because conservative dissenters successfully replaced the denomination’s leadership by mastering the Convention’s polity, winning democratic elections, and selecting trustees who were sympathetic to the movement’s conservative theological aims. The movement was also undoubtedly a controversy-just ask anyone who was there. But neither of these phrases do the movement full justice; surely it was more than a mere political movement or just another denominational melee.

Despite the political means employed and the controversy generated by all parties involved, the movement that gained control of the SBC during the last quarter of the 20th century is best defined as a resurgence. Since at least the 1940s, SBC denominational leaders downplayed and sometimes rejected conservative theology. Our traditional Baptist distinctives were redefined so that they would be consistent with a hyper-individualistic understanding of the Christian life. This new understanding of Baptist identity fit neatly with a neo-orthodox view of Scripture and a pietistic de-emphasis on doctrinal commitments. Furthermore, it was shielded by a bureaucracy that was intent on defining cooperation as mere financial stewardship, with doctrinal commonality taking a back seat. The basic theological consensus that had existed in the SBC of 1850 had been gradually replaced with a commitment to theological diversity by 1950. Our commitment to conservative theology had been interrupted by pragmatic cooperation and a fascination with progressive theological trends.

Conservatives felt mostly shut out of SBC life and they feared for the future of the Convention, so they formed alternative schools, publications, and networks that functioned as alternatives to the denomination’s ministries. But by the mid-1970s, conservatives were galvanized by the discovery that the Convention’s polity was such that the face of the denomination could be changed through a strategic use of the appointive powers of the denomination’s presidency. Under the leadership of Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, a grassroots movement was launched in 1979 that consistently elected movement conservatives to the Convention presidency. During the next two decades, moderates increasingly disengaged from denominational life, conservatives restructured the bureaucracy, and in 2000 a thoroughly conservative revision of the Baptist Faith and Message was adopted by the Convention.

This movement was a Conservative Resurgence because the conservative theology that had been eclipsed (or at least downplayed) by many denominational leaders during the mid-20th century was restored to a place of prominence in the Convention’s seminaries, commissions, and boards. There was continuation after interruption, and after years of focusing on other things-primarily financial stewardship, bureaucratic efficiency, denominational growth, and a more progressive approach to theology-the Convention’s elected and appointed leaders were again committed to a biblically and theologically conservative faith and practice. There was a renewal of historic Baptist theology in the halls of leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention.

The contemporary SBC is the product of the Conservative Resurgence. This is a very good thing. Every Southern Baptist agency head, missionary, professor, and other denominational employee who has been hired in recent years is a theological conservative. Our mission boards are appointing sound missionaries, our seminaries are educating sound students, and our publishing house is producing sound curricula, books, and other resources. Our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is contending for traditional family values. Southern Baptists should be thankful for the Conservative Resurgence because these things were not always the case two decades ago.

But there is at least a potential a downside to the Conservative Resurgence, albeit an unintentional one. A generation and a half of Southern Baptists was involved in a pitched battle for the future of the SBC. Many are still involved in such battles in their state conventions and associations. These battles are important because truth matters. Nevertheless, we must recognize it is possible to become so accustomed to fighting during times of war that one does not know how to live peaceably with like minded brothers and sisters once the battles are over.

The above scenario is not mythical. It actually happened to many of the separatist fundamentalists in the 20th century. After they lost the battles for their denominations and withdrew from those groups, they turned on each other. Within a generation, fundamentalists were shooting each other and often fracturing over matters such as cultural engagement, degrees of cooperation with and separation from other believers (even other conservatives), Calvinism, Landmarkism, the timing of the rapture, charismatic gifts, the age of the earth, and Bible translations. To this day, there are Independent Baptists who have as difficult a time getting along with some of their fellow fundamentalists as they do the liberal Episcopal priest down the street.

Though I hate to admit this, I sense a tendency toward this very type of infighting among some contemporary Southern Baptists. We are even fighting about some of the same issues over which our fundamentalist friends divided. Southern Baptists must be careful that we do not become too preoccupied with secondary and tertiary matters, lest these issues distract us from the task at hand. According to the original constitution of the SBC our Convention exists for the purpose of “eliciting, combining and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel.” Mission is in our denominational DNA. It always has been.

Conservatives frequently criticize the pre-1979 SBC for emphasizing mission work-and the financing thereof-to the exclusion of sound doctrine. This type of pragmatism created an atmosphere wherein aberrant theology was tolerated and at times even encouraged so long as missionary enlistment increased and the Cooperative Program kept growing. Conservatives rightly rejected this paradigm, arguing that one cannot do authentic mission without being committed to biblical theology and practice. This is a conviction that we must never surrender.

At our present moment in SBC history, it is important to remind ourselves not to confuse the ends with the means. If we are content with simply having theological conservatives leading our various ministries, then the Conservative Resurgence was only a half-victory. Our Conservative Resurgence must give birth to a Great Commission Resurgence. Our use of the word resurgence is deliberate. Just as our commitment to conservative theology was interrupted during the generation prior to the Conservative Resurgence, our commitment to the primacy of mission was interrupted during the Conservative Resurgence, at least in practice. There were important battles being fought within our denomination, battles that conservatives honestly believed would ultimately lead to theological renewal.

With the success of the Conservative Resurgence, that theological renewal is underway (though its completion is surely reserved for the eschaton!). The time has come for a missional renewal that flows from our doctrinal convictions. Zeal for the Great Commission needs to be restored to its place of prominence in Southern Baptist life, not just in theory and rhetoric, but in practice. No matter how much work still needs to be done to bring about further theological renewal in the Convention, we cannot lose sight of the “one sacred effort” that has united us since our earliest days. The interruption is over. The distractions must be set aside. God is at work reconciling the world unto himself, and Southern Baptists need to get serious again about making ourselves available to the Lord to use in his great work of bringing salvation to people from every corner of the earth. Theology and mission go hand in hand. One without the other is an incomplete agenda. One without the other is destined to fall short of what our Lord intends.

God’s Guidelines for the “Gray Areas” of Life: Wise Decision-Making in a Wicked World, Part 4

Ethical and moral decision-making presents a great challenge for devoted followers of Jesus in the 21st century context. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides helpful guidelines for navigating what could be called “the gray areas” of the Christian life.

These biblical principles are true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. They are extremely helpful in leading us to be wise decision-makers as we live out a gospel-centered ethic.

5). Is this action consistent with my new life in Christ?
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. Some of you were like this; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Cor. 6:9-11

Do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own… – 1 Cor. 6:19

Followers of Jesus are brand new creatures. We are now temples of the Holy Spirit corporately (1 Cor. 3:16) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19). One aspect of this “newness” is that we honor God and bring Him glory in our bodies (1Cor. 6:20). This is a Pauline way of saying glorify God all the time in every way with all that you are. Body, mind, will, and emotions are all to be brought under His Lordship and control. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget this and tragic consequences follow. Christ is hidden rather than displayed in our lives. Let me illustrate. Sometimes in our desire to communicate the gospel clearly and without unnecessary baggage, we go too far and actually miscommunicate the message and send an uncertain sound. To gain a hearing from our “cultural despisers” we adjust our vocabulary, compromise purity and holiness, and we are reckless with what we do with our bodies and thereby cloud or even hide the glorious gospel that transforms and changes life. German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in a First Things article entitled, “How to Think About Secularism” provides needed words of wisdom in this context:

The absolutely worst way to respond to the challenge of secularism is to adapt to secular standards in language, thought, and way of life. If members of a secularist society turn to religion at all, they do so because they are looking for something other than what that culture already provides. It is counter productive to offer them religion in a secular mode that is carefully trimmed in order not to offend their secular sensibilities.

Christians should not shy away from the fact that our lives are centered on the divine things. We offer a different way of making sense of reality and a different way of living, which go against the grain of what modern society offers as the norm. We also should not shy away from referring to the wrath of God against human sin even though most moderns ignore, disbelieve, or sweeten the pill with deceptions about God’s complaisance over sin (Wolfhart Pannenberg, “How to Think About Secularism,” First Things 64 (June/July 1996), 31).

Tim Keller wisely informs us, “All of our personal problems and church problems come because we don’t come continually back to the gospel to work it out and live it out….Christians are enormously bold to tell the truth, but without a shred of superiority [remember 6:9-11!], because you are sinners saved by grace. The balance of boldness and utter humility, truth and love-is not somewhere in the middle between legalistic fundamentalism and relativistic liberalism. It is actually off the charts” (Tim Keller, “Being the Church in Our Culture”). When considering how to live for Christ in the 21st century, our new life demands that we proclaim and live the message with great boldness, holiness and humility. We are to live a life that is in harmony with who we are as new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

6). Will this action violate my conscience?
Eat everything that is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake, for the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. If one of the unbelievers invites you over and you want to go, eat everything that is set before you, without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you,” This is food offered to an idol,” do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake. I do not mean your own conscience, but the other person’s. For why is my freedom judged by another person’s conscience? – 1 Cor. 10:25-29

It is risky, even dangerous, to ignore the inner voice of conscience. It is God-given and under redemptive-reconstruction thru the Spirit, Word and fellowship of the Christian community. A well-informed, Scripture-saturated, Spirit-sensitive conscience will be an asset in warning us of things that are sinful, evil, and unwise.

Now, I do not think Paul would say, “Let your conscience be your guide,” as if conscience by itself is a sufficient umpire or arbitrator when it comes to good decision-making. Rather he would say, “Let your conscience guided by Scripture and controlled by love be your guide.” This will involve some tension in your lifestyle preferences, but it will also result in God conforming you more to the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5). We must get used to living with this tension. While most would love for every decision to be crystal clear (I certainly would!), that is naïve and simplistic. It would also stunt spiritual growth and maturity as we grow in Christ. Thus, Christians must know what is going on in their own cultural context. The internal voice of a believer’s conscience can be a great aid when guided by Scripture and controlled by the ethic of love. It can give you peace in what you are doing and joy in the doing. Romans 14:23 reminds us, “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” Living with a clear conscience before Christ and others is a worthy goal for all of us to pursue.