Ed Stetzer once remarked that the Southern Baptist Convention had preached out its most creative leaders then turned and preached out its most thoughtful leaders. You do realize what is left? The SBC is bereft of creative, thinking leaders. I am sure that was not the intended conclusion Stetzer hoped we would draw. Instead, I believe he was saying enough is enough. The call for uniformity under the banner of unity would not win the day. And, it has not.
We now witness a growing number of younger leaders rising through the ranks to fill roles and be the public face of the SBC. Some are creative. Some are thoughtful. Some are both. But, they inherit roles that will require more. Of necessity they will need to trigger a move toward solidarity, not stridency.
Solidarity Not Stridency
Tom Ascol wrote a thoughtful reflection after this year’s Southern Baptist Convention. I have long admired Tom though we have never met, that I recall. My respect for Tom grew after his momentous encounter with lightning. Surprised? You see, what Tom illustrated in the aftermath of that event was how his system of theology informed his own interpretation of those events. You may disagree with his system, his convictions, but you cannot argue his consistency.
Reading his analysis of the SBC Family again left me both applauding his consistency and at the same time suspecting he did not look deep enough. Two things stood out to me. First, Tom couched his analysis in particular categories, all in some relationship to Calvinism. His analysis leads the reader to conclude the central issue in the SBC is Calvinism at varying points along a spectrum. An astute reader pointed out the way Tom set up his analysis problematized any person considered to be in the middle of his four points of distinction. Charitably Tom recognized how important phrasing and vocabulary are to the sort of unity he describes as intermittently present in the SBC. I do not believe Tom would want to contribute to an air of stridency knowing the delicacies and complexities of belief and the human beings that hold them.
Second, Tom revealed the deeper issue in his opening paragraph. He wrote,
Sadly, some others who have no doubts about such things [fault lines produced by questions about inerrancy and infallibility of the Scripture] also left because of weariness of political wrangling and ungodly behavior during the battle for the Bible.
The core issue rests in our manner more than our dogma. In fact, for some of we who observe the tit and tat in the SBC from the edge, this is the all-encompassing issue. Our manner undermines our doctrine on nearly every side of the multi-faceted denomination that is the SBC. There is something to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Ephesus, and Asia Minor. He instructs, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” Regardless how you outline the letter, Paul spends an equal amount of time on Christian decorum and ethics in relationships. We spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out our hierarchies and little time working out what mutual submission to one another looks like, especially in the SBC. We talk about humility and point to Jesus’ kenotic move but are still more instructed by our own egos and accompanying aspirations.
A friend and I were having a conversation over Tom’s article. If, we discussed, the issue in the SBC is something deeper than theological systems, how would we name it? I admit to struggling for jus the right way to frame the matter.
Maybe my Episcopalian/Theology Professor/Art School Instructor friend inadvertently provided a possibility. Barry suggested that any time Protestants write anything about getting back to the original Gospel he is chagrined. For him, fragmentation is in the Protestant DNA. We write and talk as if Church History began in the 16th Century. And, we often ignore the geo-political world in which the Reformation took place as if future Christian structures and systems would be not in influenced in any way by existing cultural forms.
Protestants easily target the Roman Catholic Church for its organizational resemblance to the Roman form of government. We Southern Baptists, for example, seem unfazed by any similarities our Convention takes to our National Political Conventions. Or, consider the shift in language about deacons after the rise of large U.S. Corporations and their “Boards.” We seem to think that since the Reformation all non-Catholic forms avoided the prevailing cultural influences and instead experienced Divine sanction. History demonstrates few, if any, Protestant groups have escaped fragmentation thereby calling into question any who claims his or her group represents original New Testament expressions. Our obvious kinship would be the Church at Corinth where fragmentation seemed ready to erupt around at most turns.
If fragmentation is not the best way to frame the deep issues that divide, maybe my friend Steve – a church member – offers what ails us all the way down. Steve, who studied biology under the likes of Richard Dawkins back when Dawkins actually taught, regularly sees Christians at war with their DNA. Human beings, he regularly tells me, are like all other species and will do what it takes to survive. Put us into tribes and this internal necessity to maintain a particular identity is compounded. When there is conflict with competing tribal visions – what should the shape of the SBC take for instance – we will war to ensure our vision wins. Maybe stridency is our normal wiring. From birth we want what we want our way.
Maybe you can see how this works itself out as the SBC passes through its historical iterations. We bring to the table a penchant for our vision, Calvinist-Non-Calvinist-Traditionalist-Other – being the right and only vision? At all costs we move heaven and earth shunning manner and ethic to contend for the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Interestingly, we play to a singular direct Biblical reference to contending, but make ubiquitous appeals to said text when warring with culture or inspiring the home team.
Likely most will shun any reference to biology. What good are observations from science? We liked the way the world worked before Copernicus. Earth and human beings were at the center. We prefer the language of The Fall.
Southern Baptists eschew illustrations from liberal Episcopalians. We would hardly listen to observations drawn from evolutionary biology. But, we Southern Baptists cannot avoid The Fall. Whether complete or partial, the effects of the Fall on human relationships and rationality tend to form at least one touch point of agreement among Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC. We prefer our Bible words even if they are derived from our systematizing efforts.
Fall it is. Not the season of course. But, when in the course of Baptist history one wants to look for the underlying culprit for incessant squabbling maybe some would agree it is our fallen-ness. Even as we are being redeemed we must stridently resist any other visions, we think. Our sanctification could not possibly be bound to working diligently through another’s claims having read the same Sacred Text, must less through relationships beyond the sycophantic. No! There is only “my” reading. Consider the first Adam. His action gives impulse to the my moment for us all – decreed or otherwise – at least that is how we re-tell it. When it therefore comes to the Scriptures we find it hard to we before my. In my discoveries, as it would go, I look to coerce the we accordingly. Any resistance must be protested. Stridency becomes the human default.
Could it be we still suffer the ill effects of “my?” Rather than move toward solidarity forged in the common experience of grace do we remain steadfast to move forward my way? I believe so. While most in the SBC would shun a hermeneutic of suspicion, we readily suspect others and bid them prove their credentials according to my vision long before a brotherly, or sisterly, embrace. What if we moved toward the practice of respect rather than suspicion?
Yes, it would take sanctifying patience and subversive humility but would that not be a better witness? Maybe our pursuit of holiness needs to be understood in relational terms like Thomas J. Oord contends. The “Be ye holy,” may need to be instantiated in the very ways we show God’s longsuffering even as we need others to suffer long with us. Could be a variation would be our need to both express and hope for the sort of self-emptying that would privilege the other person, or as a restatement from Paul, “Think more highly of others than yourselves.” We have years of trying it the other way. Why not something new for a change?