The Sword of the Lord…and of John R Rice

John R. Rice was, arguably, the leading voice of Fundamentalism in the 20th century. At its peak in the early 1970’s, his weekly paper, The Sword of the Lord, boasted a circulation of over 130,000. Back in those days, as a young Southern Baptist disturbed by the direction of the Convention, I read the Sword faithfully. Articles such as “Southern Baptists–Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” “Death in the Pot at Furman University,” and “Liberalism at Southern Seminary Exposed” convinced me and others similarly concerned that something had to be done. For the last couple of years Joy Martin, one of Rice’s six daughters, has entrusted the Library at Southeastern with the task of being caretaker over Rice’s papers. As we finish the process of digitizing his letters, sermons, and other personal correspondence, Southeastern will transfer the papers to Southwestern Seminary, where Rice attended. Now Andrew Himes, one of Rice’s grandsons, has written a new biography about his grandfather, and it is not the hagiography one might expect.

Himes, by his own admission, was the black sheep of the Rice family. Though he made a profession of faith at an early age and surrendered to preach under the ministry of Rice, by the time he went to college in the late ’60s he had abandoned his faith. When Himes graduated from the University of Wisconsin he was an atheist and a communist, and he spent the next decade as a union organizer. By his own admission, Himes traded one fundamentalism for another. By the time of Rice’s death in 1980, Himes had realized the futility of Mao’s and Stalin’s utopia, and was at the end of his rope. In many ways Himes’ biography tells the story of how he went “from worshipping his famous grandfather, to hating him, and finally to loving him.”

Through the story of Rice’s life, Himes attempts to tell the wider story of Fundamentalism. In broad surveys he recounts the influences that birthed Fundamentalism–the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings, Reconstruction, the Scopes Monkey Trials–with varying degrees of success. But the best parts of the book are the portions which tell of Rice’s relationships with those who played such a significant role in the formation of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. John R. Rice got his start in evangelism in no small part due to J. Frank Norris. In turn, Rice would play a pivotal role in launching the career of Billy Graham. Rice and Graham’s eventual falling out illustrated the larger break up between Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. Himes had a front row seat to many of events which shaped Evangelicalism in general and Baptists in particular. You really want to read his account of having lunch with Jerry Falwell at his grandfather’s funeral (Falwell extolled to Himes, the communist, the Christian virtues of Ronald Reagan).

In many ways The Sword of the Lord is a very sad book. Himes’ regret over the broken relationship between Rice and him comes through often. This is no whitewash: Himes deals with Rice’s failure to deal properly with the race issue during the civil rights movement. But his days as an angry communist ideologue are over. Now approaching retirement age, Himes has come to admire his grandfather’s character and courage. Without endorsing every page, I recommend The Sword of the Lord as an insightful work about a crucial person and his role in modern church history.

Aspect 6(a): A Mission Centered on the Gospel (factionalism, non-fellowship, theological triage, liberalism, fundamentalism, Calvinism, contextualization)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

Paul warns the Corinthians about the danger of factional battles in the church. In our opinion, this also applies to seminary communities, agencies and institutions, and indeed to the whole of our convention. Sometimes, the battles we fight are necessary and we wage them in an appropriate manner. But sometimes the battles are unnecessary and/or they are waged inappropriately. Often, unnecessary battles are waged because a group of people are excited about a particular idea, movement, or tradition. They begin to condescend or castigate, and seek to exclude, anybody who doesn’t share their ideas, emphasis, jargon, or agenda. The idea, movement, or tradition becomes a virtual test of orthodoxy.[1]

Perhaps no person, church, network, or denomination is exempt from such a temptation, and Baptists are no exception. Sometimes we wage unnecessary wars and sometimes this stems from a doctrine of “separation” (sometimes known as the doctrine of non-fellowship). This doctrine is based upon such passages of Scripture as Amos 3:3: “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” For some, this doctrine means merely that we should separate ourselves from worldliness. For others, it means that we should separate ourselves from those who do not separate themselves from worldliness. Still others, however, would disallow fellowship (and sometimes friendship) with those who differ from them in any matter of theology (e.g. the particulars of one’s position on the rapture), physical life (e.g. preference in apparel or music), or social life (e.g. one’s friendship with a controversial person or preacher). The result is a flattening of all theological and practical categories as if they are of equal weight and importance. For a time, I (Bruce Ashford) walked in Independent Baptist circles where such “third degree separation” is practiced. Although I admire many of these men and am thankful for what I have learned from them, this doctrine is one of the primary reasons I left those circles.

Within the Southern Baptist Convention, there have been more than a few controversies since the Conservative Resurgence. There have been public disagreements over worship styles, contextualization, Calvinism, apparel, spiritual gifts, etc. These disagreements have sometimes become major battles. One thing that is needed is a way of determining which issues are worth fighting over and which are not, as well as how certain disagreements affect our ability to cooperate with one another at various levels.

Al Mohler has proposed that the hospital emergency room provides an apt analogy for how we might make such determinations.[2] We have applauded this model on numerous occasions. Those who are reading this blog might have had opportunity to see the goings-on of the “triage” unit of an emergency room. In triage, the doctors and nurses determine the priority of the diseases and injuries that will be treated. Shotgun wounds are treated before ankle sprains, and seizures before bunions. This is because certain diseases and injuries strike at the heart of one’s well being, while others are less life-threatening.

Pastors, theologians and missionaries would benefit from the same sort of triage. When deciding with whom we will partner and in what way, and when deciding which battles need to be fought and in what way, it is helpful to distinguish which doctrines are more primary and which are less so. Primary doctrines are those which are most essential to Christian faith. Without believing such doctrines as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and salvation by grace through faith alone, one’s belief is not Christian.

Secondary doctrines are those over which born-again believers may often disagree, but which do not strike as closely at the heart of the faith. Two examples are the meaning and mode of baptism, and gender roles in the church. Disagreement on these doctrines does significantly affect the way in which churches and believers relate to one another. For example, although Presbyterians and Baptists may evangelize together and form close friendships, a Baptist and a Presbyterian could not plant a church together precisely because of their differences on church government and on the meaning and mode of baptism. Some secondary doctrines bear more heavily on primary doctrines than others.

Apart from primary and secondary doctrines, there are those which we can call tertiary. These are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and yet keep the closest of fellowship between networks, between churches, and between individual Christians. An example of a tertiary doctrine would be the timing of the rapture during the period of tribulation.

This does not mean that we avoid controversy at all costs. As one theologian (in his better days) pointed out, lack of controversy is either a sign of theological death or theological maturity.[3] We hope to avoid the former and strive for the latter. Nor does this mean that we view secondary or tertiary doctrines as insignificant. “A structure of theological triage,” Mohler writes, “does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness. We are charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. There are no insignificant doctrines revealed in the Bible, but there is an essential foundation of truth that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth.”[4] It does, however, mean that we can have close fellowship with those who differ from us on tertiary issues but decreasing levels of fellowship when we disagree on secondary issues. The upshot of this whole discussion is that we must avoid the liberal extreme of refusing to admit that there are such things as primary doctrines, as well as the fundamentalist extreme of elevating tertiary issues to the status of primary importance.


[1] We owe this point to John Frame. See his booklet published by Reformed Theological Seminary: Studying Theology as a Servant of Jesus, p.18.

[2] See R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Has Theology a Future in the Southern Baptist Convention? Toward a Renewed Theological Framework,” in Beyond the Impasse? Ed. Robison B. James and David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 91-117, and R. Albert Mohler Jr., “The Pastor as Theologian,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H, 2007), 930-32.

[3] Clark Pinnock, “A New Reformation: A Challenge to Southern Baptists,” (New Orleans: NOBTS, 1968), 3.

[4] Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” http://www.albertmohler.com/commentary_read.php?cdate=2004-05-20.

Fifteen Factors That Have Changed the SBC since 1979, Part 1

The contemporary SBC is in many ways quite different from the 1979 version of the denomination. I think most readers would agree. I believe there are at least 15 factors that have influenced this change. These factors are not equal in influence, and some of them overlap. Furthermore, there are probably several other factors I have not considered (I welcome your thoughts on that). Over the next few days I will briefly discuss the factors that have helped to shape the contemporary SBC into the denomination that it is today. These thoughts are very preliminary, and I offer them in no particular order of importance.

1. The Conservative Resurgence

There is no doubt that the Conservative Resurgence has helped change the SBC. But I’m not sure it is the most influential factor, at least among local churches. Remember that a major goal of the CR was to remake our denominational ministries so that they better conformed to the convictions of the churches. For this reason, I would argue that the CR has shaped our agencies and boards more than our churches, though there are many, many churches that have been positively changed as a result of the CR. As our seminaries (and a growing number of state Baptist colleges and universities) continue to offer a thoroughly conservative education and as LifeWay continues to produce sound curricula and other resources, a greater number of churches will be affected, at least indirectly, by the CR.

2. The Decline of SBC Ethnicity

Greg Wills, David Dockery, and others have written quite a bit about SBC ethnicity or tribalism, those habits and tendencies that characterized Southern Baptists at a grassroots level. For a democratic denomination that prizes local church autonomy, there was a remarkable amount of consensus among mid-20th century Southern Baptist churches. Virtually all of our churches sang from the same hymnals, used the same Sunday School and Training Union literature, pursued evangelism through the Sunday School, cultivated active Brotherhood and WMU ministries, and nurtured their young through RA’s, GA’s, and Acteens. Virtually everyone had annual or biannual revival meetings.

SBC churches cooperated through a common denominational budget, the Cooperative Program, and participated in common offerings like Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong, and various state convention offerings. Collegians often attended Baptist colleges or signed on with the Baptist Student Union at a state school. Almost all ministerial candidates attended SBC seminaries. All of these habits resulted in a “brand loyalty” that ran deeply among Southern Baptists. Although vestiges of SBC ethnicity clearly remain, I think most would agree that there have been substantial changes over the last generation. Some of them will be further addressed below.

3. The Transformation of the Megachurch Culture

The CR was led by a particular megachurch culture that emphasized strong pulpit ministries, innovative and aggressive evangelism, a “baptized” version of Kewsick revivalism, a commitment to dispensational theology, and a discomfort with the progressive establishment within the Baptist bureaucracy. Some megachurches shared more affinity with (some) Independent Baptists than the SBC establishment. Many smaller churches often looked to one or more megachurches as their ecclesiastical role model, if you will. There were FBC Dallas-style churches, Bellevue-style churches, FBC Jacksonville-style churches, etc. I grew up in a medium-sized church in Southeast Georgia that self-consciously patterned much of our ministry after what we saw modeled under Homer Lindsay Jr. and Jerry Vines at FBC Jacksonville.

But the megachurch culture has been transformed. While the above-mentioned paradigm is alive and well, it is now but one model among many. The seeker-sensitive movement influenced many megachurches during the 1980s and 1990s. The emerging church movement(s) influenced some in the last decade. Megachurch pastors with SBC roots like Andy Stanley and Ed Young Jr. have helped shape the ministries of many megachurches. Many SBC megachurches, especially those found in the newer models, are only nominally Southern Baptist. And fewer churches look to the megachurch culture(s) as their role models than was the case a generation ago.

4. The Revival of Calvinism

Southern Baptists were a Calvinist-led denomination during the mid-19th century: almost all of the leading pastors, educators, and editors, with a handful of notable exceptions, were consistent (“five point”) Calvinists. If associational records and state paper articles are any clue, almost all of our churches seemed to be at least broadly Calvinistic, though there was clearly some debate about the extent of the atonement. By the late 1800s consistent Calvinism was on the wane among Southern Baptist leaders, and by about World War I it was relegated to a handful of small churches here and there.

Around World War II Calvinism began to undergo a revival among English-speaking evangelicals in general, and by the 1950s some heretofore non-Calvinistic Southern Baptist churches had embraced Calvinism. Fast forward to the 1980s and Calvinism began to become popular among some conservative collegians and seminarians. This trend picked up during the 1990s and 2000s. Now Calvinists make up a significant minority within the SBC, and the number continues to grow, especially among younger Southern Baptists. Several well-respected pastors, including some megachurch pastors, are Calvinists. One seminary president is a Calvinist. A number of Calvinist networks and fraternals, both formal and informal, exist within the Convention. And none of this is counting those who are broadly Calvinistic but reject particular atonement. This factor will continue to be a point of debate with the SBC for at least another generation.

5. Changing Relationships between Southern Baptists and Independent Baptists

During the 1940s and 1950s virtually the only difference between conservative SBC churches and Independent Baptist churches were that the former still gave money to the Cooperative Program. Both groups held to biblical inerrancy. Both groups focused on strong pulpit ministries and emphasized personal evangelism. Both groups abhorred progressive theology, especially in the SBC. Both groups were mostly dispensational. Both groups cultivated a generation of vocational evangelists who were among the most influential men within the respective movements. Independent Baptists even pioneered some ministries adopted in large numbers by SBC conservatives, most notably AWANAS and bus ministries. But all of that began to change in the 1960s and 1970s.

A growing number of Independent Baptists adopted a more strident view of “biblical separation” than most Southern Baptist conservatives could countenance. Many Independent Baptists made dispensationalism a test of fellowship, adopted King James-Only theology, and continued to promote racial segregation long after it had come to an end in the South. Southern Baptist conservatives rejected the “fundamentalist” moniker for these (and other) reasons. But some Independent Baptists, particularly those associated with men like John R. Rice, Jack Hyles, Lee Roberson, and Jerry Falwell, continued to cultivate relationships with individual Southern Baptist pastors and some (most notably Falwell) actually joined, or in some cases re-joined, the SBC. So the contemporary SBC is decidedly different than the strictest type of Independent Baptists, but close enough to “moderate” fundamentalists that some have even found a home among us. Many Southern Baptists are “fundamentalish” (if I can coin a term), but not necessarily fundamentalists.game mobile