Much ink has been spilled on the “conservative resurgence” or “fundamentalist takeover” of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 20th century.
What folks outside of Texas may not know as well, though, is that while the national bodies we know today were forming and reforming, Texas Baptists were working hard to make space for both more progressive and more conservative Baptists.
Famed Baptist historian H. Leon McBeth notes that by 1994, the Baptist General Convention of Texas allowed churches and individuals to designate their cooperative giving to the Southern Baptists, the Cooperative Baptists or to have the money stay within the state convention.
While the state convention remained a vital part of the SBC, a dedicated group of folks opposed to the rising tide of fundamentalism created institutional structures within Texas Baptist life so that Baptists across theological and political spectrums could work together in missional witness to the gospel.
By the end of the 1990s, these dedicated “moderates” had ensured such things as Baylor University reducing the number of board members appointed by denominational bodies, the creation of a moderate/progressive organization within the state convention (Texas Baptists Committed) and, perhaps most important, the founding of two moderate Baptist seminaries in the state: Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University and Logsdon Seminary at Hardin-Simmons University.
I had the privilege of being raised in the middle of this exciting period in Texas Baptist life.
Though my home church at the time allowed us to choose between designating our offerings to the CBF or the SBC, I clearly remember people in my church telling me no matter which national group I grew up to most closely identify with, the BGCT would always be the place we could meet to work together for the sake of the gospel.
I believed that and worked for that.
I participated in children’s and youth programs through the state convention. I went to one of their universities, becoming president of one of their Baptist Student Ministries before graduating to work in several BGCT churches and another Baptist Student Ministry.
In 2016, I was proud to accept a Texas Baptist Leadership Scholarship to attend a BGCT-affiliated seminary.
The communion table where Texas Baptists of more progressive and more conservative views could eat and drink together was working well. Until it didn’t.
Since I began seminary in 2016, Texas Baptist life has seemed to shift wildly, causing me, along with many others to ask, “What happened to Texas?”
In less than four years, the institutions built by the generation before us, intended to keep a spirit of inclusion in our state Baptist convention, have shown considerable decline.
In less than 48 months:
- At least four churches who have disagreed with the BGCT on secondary theological issues have been kicked out from the convention or left on their own, knowing it was coming soon.
- Texas Baptists Committed, the organization working to keep the BGCT moderate, closed.
- The BGCT executive board, without input from the convention, decided after 24 years to no longer facilitate giving to the CBF.
- On Feb. 7, 2020, Hardin-Simmons University announced it would no longer be funding or supporting the graduate programs of Logsdon Seminary.
What happened to Texas?
After close to three decades working together, when did our state convention decide there was no room for debate? No space to dissent?
In short, at what point did we decide that though we were against fundamentalism imposed on us from a national office in Nashville, that we would welcome it as it worked to divide and conquer us from within?
I mourn the loss of Logsdon Seminary, as the most recent death of a moderate Baptist institution in Texas.
I pray for courage, vision and funding that Logsdon might continue educating ministers in new ways without the control of Hardin-Simmons University or the input of a state convention.
The generation who came before us was faithful to create institutions that helped form a generation of thoughtful progressive Baptists.
As the church faces the largest structural changes we’ve seen since the Protestant Reformation, I’m convinced my generation has a similar calling.
Perhaps in this era of change, we aren’t called to establish more institutions, but instead capture that same brave, daring spirit of the faithful and free Baptists who came before us but build something more organic.
No matter what state or nation you live in, you will likely see institutions you grew up loving fail in the coming days. That’s OK. The gates of hell shall never prevail against the church of Jesus Christ.
Our earthly institutions may pass away, but Christ will always be at work in this world, liberating the oppressed, saving the sinner, raising the dead alongside a “called out” community.
The time has come now for us to take the same brave stands as the generation before us.
As we do, we must carry out the hard work of building organic communities, movements that can’t be stamped out by the vote of a board or leaders scared of their conservative donors.
After all, the early church had no steeples, no cooperative programs or executive committees.
They had folks from every section of society gathered around Scripture, baptism, bread and wine. They changed the world.
Brother, Sister, I’m naïve enough to think that through Jesus Christ we can do the same. It’s time to get to work.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. Learn more about EthicsDaily.com’s “Emerging Voices” and “U:21” series here.
Jacob Brenton is a May 2020 MDiv/MBA candidate from Baylor University’s Truett Seminary and Hankamer School of Business. He is currently the acting interim pastor at St. John United Church of Christ in Robinson, Texas.