Editor’s Journal: At the crossroads
“Church history is replete with examples of theologians changing their ecclesiology to suit political circumstance.”
Sunday evenings during the 1980s at 9 p.m. CST on the now defunct ACTS network found thousands of Southern Baptists watching the worship services of the North Phoenix Church. Richard A. Jackson, the church’s senior pastor, was widely known across the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) as a stalwart of preaching and provided a certain denominational identity as preacher for “The Baptist Hour”—the program that represented the SBC around the nation and the world. Under his leadership, the church’s membership swelled from 1,788 in 1967 to 20,979 in 1991. By June 1992, the 20,000th person was baptized under Jackson’s pastorate, and the congregation consistently gave at least 10 percent of its undesignated receipts to the SBC’s Cooperative Program (CP), topping $1 million during the years 1986-89.
Jackson’s popularity among Southern Baptists reached its apex in a run-up to the presidential election of the SBC in 1988 in San Antonio, Texas. He almost defeated Jerry Vines, then senior pastor of Jacksonville, Fla., First. The election between Vines and Jackson created a catharsis in the SBC. Biblical inerrancy was not necessarily at issue (both men were confessing inerrantists), but the preservation of the SBC’s program and institutions as structured around the Cooperative Program was.
At a press conference immediately following the announcement that Vines had won the election, the first question posed to him by a reporter was the fact that Jacksonville, First had given only 2.7 percent to the CP. The reporter then editorialized, never asking a question: “That doesn’t appear to be a very high amount.”
The reporter cleverly referenced an article written in 1987 when Vines had first assumed the office of the church’s co-pastor with Homer Lindsay, Jr. No matter. Vines had done his homework and responded, “the article you refer to was written in 1987 when our total (CP) gifts were $200,000.” Vines went on to clarify that the church had increased its CP giving “by 257 percent” to an amount of $255,000.
This was not the first time the CP had been a flashpoint in the overall discussion during the days of the conservative resurgence. The CP largely supported SBC entities and agencies, and the leaders of these institutions were not eager to reveal the open secret that they, as opposed to the churches, often controlled the operations of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In a candid admission of a group calling themselves “Baptists Committed to the Southern Baptist Convention,” this fraternity of moderates publicly identified the SBC agency heads as the leaders of the denomination before 1979. James Hefley’s research indicated “those who cooperated were elected and re-elected to boards, given green lights in career advancement and showered in praise for their commitment to the denominational cause.”
Paige Patterson publicly challenged the prevailing notion that the agencies controlled the Southern Baptist Convention. In a March 14, 1985 article in the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine, Patterson stated, “I thought (the denomination) belonged to the people, not denominational bureaucracy.”
In the same year, W.A. Criswell, senior pastor of Dallas’ First Church, said of the bureaucracy: “We’ve got a hierarchy more dominating than the Episcopal Church.”
Ongoing conversations about the Great Commission Resurgence and resistance from some entities within the Southern Baptist system of ministry seem to point to a particular phrase employed by Southeastern Seminary president Daniel Akin regarding the modern SBC bureaucracy. Statements from task force members (such as David Dockery) that clarified the value of Great Commission partners for the future of the SBC have not seemed to quell the angst among many who currently work in the Convention’s agencies (particularly at the state convention level). Consensus by and unanimity for the proposals of the task force seemed to indicate that the direction of the Great Commission Resurgence was one of unity across the SBC grounded on a newfound vision of reaching the nations with the Gospel. Evidently not.
According to Bob Rogers, vice-president for CP and stewardship with the Executive Committee of the SBC, what Southern Baptists really think is just the opposite of what was presented in “the early iterations” of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force. Cleverly, Rogers points to a 2007 Lifeway Research study for statistical support. Drawing from the report’s conclusions, Rogers indicates (in an undocumented quotation from an April 13 article from the Florida Baptist Witness) that Greg Wills, professor of church history at Southern Seminary, is exactly wrong when he stated, “Most Southern Baptists feel that at least 50 percent of our CP dollars should be going overseas, should be going to international missions.”
In Rogers’ May 21, editorial, his two primary misconceptions addressed the major areas of push-back in the GCRTF final report: state conventions and the IMB. A census is different from a sample in that absolutely everyone in the census universe is questioned as opposed to a small group from tightly defined criteria. Out of every Southern Baptist congregation (44,696—2007 statistics), a total of 9,020 Southern Baptists (out of 16,266,920 or 1.5 percent—2007 statistics) completed the 2007 on-line survey.
Rogers’ direct citation of data is nowhere presented in the report, but are compilations derived from a use of the methodological boundaries inherent in the research itself. The classification of respondents is pastors, other ministers and laity. Rogers combines the categories of pastors and other ministers to cite his overwhelming majority of support for the CP. Such is to be expected, as the CP remains the proven and preferred funding mechanism for SBC missionary outreach. Few SBC pastors (and “other ministers” and “laity” for that matter) would dispute the efficacy and ingenuity of the CP.
Yet, when more critical questions emerge regarding the allocation of contributions “among state, national, and global ministries, missions and entities” is appropriate, the percentage drops precipitously. Employing the taxonomy of the report itself, only 38 percent of pastors “strongly agree” that the division of CP contributions among SBC ministries is appropriate—hardly an encouraging reality given that 62 percent consider this issue of utmost importance to them. Overall, Southern Baptists desire that more money be directed toward missionary operations and outreach through the IMB and the NAMB than any other initiative or institution of the SBC—including the seminaries and the SBC operating budget.
Since the report’s release three years ago, Southern Baptists have been involved in a painful and downright political conversation that has tested the boundaries of friendship and denominational loyalty. Messengers to the 2010 meeting in Orlando face decisions that will shape the future of the SBC in ways that were not conceived even one year ago when the GCRTF began its research. The animus which dominates the Southern Baptist Convention at the moment eerily resembles past discussion surrounding the institutions and agencies of the SBC during the turmoil of the conservative resurgence.
Ultimately, the discussions at hand only matter if local congregations are engaged with vision of the SBC. While the polity of the denomination demands that the majority of Southern Baptists control the direction of the future of its agencies and institutions, the ecclesiology of the local Southern Baptist church requires that serious contemplation take place regarding the stewarding of all resources granted to her in this modern age. In short, the SBC is not a church.
Leeman, in his new book, The Church and the Surprising Influence of God’s Love, writes, “But doesn’t it stand to reason that, when a culture becomes accustomed to a particular form of government, churches will more likely adopt those same forms?” Observing the current political realities of government around the world and in the United States, there is great dissatisfaction with the status quo to such a degree that violent disagreements are emerging in ways that are shocking to the establishment.
The Southern Baptist Convention is at its best when denominational agencies remember their proper role and sphere of influence. The Southern Baptist Convention is a network of churches that voluntarily cooperate in limited and defined ways for the purpose of advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When SBC agencies change and become more prescriptive than descriptive of local church priorities, the great risk becomes not whether one side will lose and one will win a vote, but if any amount of unity can be preserved once the vote is taken.
Former Oklahoma Baptist pastor and retired senior pastor of Houston, First, John Bisagno, was correct when he commented on the potential split of the SBC in 1988: “The guys on the left realize they almost won, and the guys on the right realize they almost lost.” The question for a new generation of Southern Baptists remains not whether winning truly matters, but will losing areas of personal turf and preference actually result in gain for a people known more for controversy than unity.
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.