Not many moderates will be found at this week’s Southern Baptist Convention, which marks the 25th anniversary of what is alternately called the “conservative resurgence” or “fundamentalist takeover” of the nation’s largest Protestant faith group.
Conservatives in Indianapolis celebrated a reunion on the eve of the two-day convention, which opens today, of what proponents call a course correction that saved the SBC from drifting into liberalism.
Moderates say the resurgence was less about theology than methodology, manipulating the convention’s appointment process to repress diversity and impose a fundamentalist view.
“Over the past 25 years the plague of Fundamentalism has undermined every antibody that previous generations of Baptists used to inoculate their churches from spiritual disease,” said Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists.
“Liberty of conscience has given way to creedalism, local church autonomy has succumbed to hierarchy, soul competency has morphed into church competency, the Bible has been elevated above Jesus, and our proud legacy as champions of religious liberty for all is rapidly being replaced by the cancerous lunacy of dominion theology,” Prescott said. “All Baptists should heed warnings to boost their immune systems by injecting strong doses of historic Baptist principles and keeping their congregations isolated from contact with the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Yet even moderates say some good has come from the struggle, which has resulted in new alliances and a recovery of Baptist principles.
Jack Glasgow, pastor of Zebulon Baptist Church in North Carolina, said his church has grown and prospered during the 25 years of controversy. “Our members have a clear sense of identity and focus on mission. We have carried forward a passion for Baptist life that has seen us partner in the creation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, in new mission endeavor and in marvelous new theological schools.”
The struggle has been “painful and difficult,” Glasgow said, but it “has led to growth and maturity.”
Larry McSwain, a teacher at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, said few moderates 25 years ago would have believed it was possible for the coalition led by Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler to transform the Southern Baptist Convention. All but a few thought “the denominational pendulum would swing to the right for a few years and swing right back to the middle in a decade or so,” McSwain said.
While some are still hoping for the pendulum swing back toward moderation, McSwain said “it’s not going to happen.”
“Most of us have moved on,” McSwain said.
McSwain said moderates can celebrate “the emergence of networks of conversation, ministry, learning and missions that are doing things never possible in the old SBC.”
“We have new schools of theology which are much more person-centered, diverse, women and ethnic affirming, committed to classic principles of Baptist heritage than any of the large, factory-style seminaries of the past.” McSwain said. “Decentralized networks are popping up all over the place and those who are frustrated with the lack of one cohesive replacement of the SBC ought to rejoice in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Baptist Mainstream and the Baptist Alliance as smaller, diverse and uncontrollable entities for Baptists to gather, talk, worship and minister.”
Catherine Allen, a former executive with Woman’s Missionary Union, said the schism has helped moderates move forward in areas of gender equality. “I think the attitudes toward women within the moderate wing of the SBC are approaching the mind of Christ in a coherent way that would be impossible if the moderates had submitted to the anti-woman heresies of the SBC,” she said.
The SBC meanwhile, has moved in the opposite direction, defining women in roles of homemakers and as submitting to their husbands. “It’s good to see the lines clearly drawn, so that today’s people can make their choices with a clarity in options,” Allen said.
Former Florida Baptist Witness editor Jack Brymer called celebrating the takeover “an exercise in self-aggrandizement, as the movement has merely added to the chaos of the times which created it rather than provide valid solutions and hope.”
Brymer said major events between 1965 and 1975 led to the conservative mood that overwhelmed the nation and the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Yet, after a quarter-century of supposed conservative leadership, what is there to celebrate?” Brymer asked. “Our nation is at war. Corporate scandal is at an all-time high. Racism is less violent physically but more lethal economically and socially. Civil rights are still denied in the marketplace, as well as schools and society. And the technological explosion has created not only the electronic church and its strange theology but the Internet which provides pornography as never seen or known before?
“And what of the Southern Baptist Convention itself? The ‘slippery slope of conservatism’ has taken it to pre-Baptist days when the faithful were excommunicated, imprisoned or burned at the stake if they didn’t subscribe to the ruling authority. Is that worth celebrating?”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com