In 1998, shortly after I graduated from East Texas Baptist University, I was invited to attend a meeting in Dallas of Southern Baptist pastors and denominational leaders. The gathering, dubbed a “reconciliation convocation,” was an attempt to stave off the next round of fractures within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. 

The particulars of what happened in Baptist life during the previous decades that led to that moment are all “Inside Baseball” type details. For those who were a part of that world, there is often a false assumption that everyone is as conversant in “The Controversy” as they are. 

If you are an outsider, here is a short primer: 

  • Some Baptists wanted their churches to be free to do what they wanted, particularly ordain women to ministry, because Baptists believe in freedom.
  • Other Baptists said, “Sure, you are free to do that. But if you do, we are free to no longer allow you to be a part of us.” 
  • Meanwhile, the second group decided to change the Baptist Creed (which is purportedly not a creed because Baptists don’t believe in creeds) to say the order of nature as created by God places men above women in every institution, including the church and marriage. 
  • Looming in the balance were large, multi-million-dollar institutions created over the years to train ministers, spread the gospel and organize relationships between churches.

By the late ’90s, the second group had established control over most of these institutions. The exceptions were a small number of state conventions. Texas was one of them, which brought us to Dallas for what ended up being the (spoiler) failed “reconciliation convocation.” 

As a young, recent graduate of a Texas Baptist university, I knew very little about the details of the longstanding battle. I had a vague awareness of some of the terms being used–moderate, conservative, fundamentalist–but had somehow evaded learning which one I was “supposed” to be.

I was one of several younger people invited to the event. We were told our role was to provide perspective on the controversy from a new generation of Baptists. 

During a breakout session, several pastors stood up and spoke about the pain the previous few years had inflicted on them. Their stories were primarily about broken relationships. 

Some accused friends they had gone to seminary and done ministry with of spreading lies about them. Others warned fellow ministers of falling down a “slippery slope” away from “biblical truth.”

I have since learned the most powerful (and extreme) players in the impending fracture weren’t even at the event, but as a kid in my early 20s, I had no way of knowing that. 

After heated words were exchanged, it became clear that everyone in the room needed an emotional break, and attention was focused on the younger people. A small handful of us, who were either students or recent graduates of Baptist universities, were spread out among the various breakout rooms. 

Someone asked what we thought. As a young male with a freshly minted theology degree, I had no shortage of thoughts.

I told them no one outside the room knew or cared what they had been fighting about. I said they must stop bickering and “keep the main thing the main thing.” (I can’t remember if I used those exact words, but I was an annoying know-it-all, so it is possible.) 

I awaited the dramatic moment of repentance, where both sides, tears welling up in their eyes, admitted, “You are so right. We do need to stop fighting and keep the main thing the main thing. What have we been thinking?” 

In my mind, they would embrace, collapse into sobs of regret and change their ways. I would be known for generations as the young hero who saved the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Instead, the room leader yawned, looked at their watch and decided it was time for a break before the next session. The convocation ended without reconciliation. The SBC splintered but survived. 

I don’t know if I was invited to that event for my youthful perspective or to be a token “young person.” I had no actual wisdom to offer. While not altogether untrue, my pithy aphorisms were designed to mask my ignorance and lack of curiosity about the contours of the controversy. 

It is possible the other young people and I were there to be groomed as toy soldiers in the decades-long battle. 

A few in my generation of Baptists became leaders in the SBC. Others of us proved the conservatives were right about the slippery slope. 

That is to say, once you open the door to affirming women in ministry, a belief in the radically inclusive, expansive kin-dom of God is rarely far behind. Most of us, though, have little emotional connection at all to denominational life. 

Regardless, on this side of failed reconciliation, I understand some of the grief and sorrow the pastors in that meeting felt. Of course, much of what went on during those battles was about power and who would retain control over the institutions. 

But it was also about feelings of betrayal and broken relationships. 

This became an unfortunate inheritance for us toy soldiers. Friends we assumed would grow old together grew apart instead. 

Some of us were shunned when our prayerful reflection on scripture and following of the Spirit opened the door for the inclusion of women and LGBTQ+ individuals in all areas of church life. Some of us assumed the worst of others when their prayerful reflection on scripture and following the Spirit didn’t lead them to the same conclusions.  

If I could go back in time and give my thoughts to that room of pastors, knowing what I now know, it would be this: 

If you can stop pretending your argument is about autonomy and just admit it is about dismantling or upholding patriarchy, you can get past the painful part quicker. There will be winners and losers in the battle for your beloved institutions. 

Accept that and move on. The death of their relevance is rapidly approaching anyway. 

Your pain and loss is something to grieve. I am so sorry. But your battle is not our battle. Lick your wounds and move on. 

Schedule a lunch with your estranged brothers and sisters ten years down the road. Then, get together and laugh about it like you knew what would happen all along.  

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