They both grew up in the South, and for much of their lives both have been Southern Baptists. Both have studied the Bible extensively, yet both preach a gospel which is foreign to today’s Southern Baptist leaders. One is well known within Baptist academic circles, the other is one of the most recognizable world figures of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
“Our faith does not require that we believe that God permits no knowledge of God except through Jesus,” one says. “We should not ever try to limit how God can speak. God acts creatively and redemptively in the world. We should let God draw the boundaries of creation, judgment and redemption…. God will never abandon…. God will never close the door…. God’s love will prevail.”
“Those are decisions only the Lord will make,” echoes the other, addressing the issue of whether heaven is closed to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christians. “It would be foolish for me to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”
Yet despite their shared view that salvation exists beyond Christendom, one of the two is dismissed as a heretic by fundamentalist Baptists, while the other is embraced as a hero.
After decades of opposing Kirby Godsey, fundamentalist leaders of the Georgia Baptist Convention purified themselves from any association with Godsey’s “liberal” beliefs by defunding Mercer University in the fall of 2005.
The same year, after decades of claiming evangelist Billy Graham as one of their own, fundamentalist leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention led their constituency to vote to commission a huge statue in Graham’s honor. “There is no better-known name in the entire world, when it comes to being a person of faith, than Billy Graham,” SBC president Bobby Welch proclaimed of the evangelist for which Southern Baptist Theological Seminary named a school.
It is seemingly bizarre that two well-known Baptists who publicly acknowledge salvation beyond Christendom are treated so differently by fundamentalists.
The story of how Godsey (the author of the first quotation in this article, published in his 1996 volume, When We Talk About God … Let’s Be Honest) became a heretic and Graham (the author of the second quotation, in the Aug. 14, 2006, edition of Newsweek) became a hero is a reflection of how a once-dynamic and growing denomination has been transformed into a declining, culturally bound, politically captive and increasingly irrelevant body.
In light of decades of failed evangelistic and baptismal efforts, the Southern Baptist Convention needs the name, if not the theology, of the world’s greatest evangelist. When the statue of Graham was unveiled in June 2006 at the annual SBC meeting, Southern Baptist leaders applauded his “evangelistic fervor,” “impassioned preaching style,” and “innovative use” of media, but they were noticeably silent regarding Graham’s theology.
In the Newsweek interview Graham expressed regret for not pursuing graduate education. Yet if the world’s greatest evangelist had pursued an academic career instead of holding revivals in stadiums worldwide, he would not have been honored by a convention which despises open scholarly inquiry and scoffs at honest reflection upon the mysteries of God. Billy Graham recognizes, now more than ever, the inclusive nature of God’s love and the freedom that is the very heart of the Gospel he has faithfully preached to hundreds of millions of persons over six decades.
Moderate Baptists would do well to learn from his evangelistic fervor; fundamentalist Baptists would do well to learn from his inclusive theology.