This week, Aaron is privileged to attend the annual Southern Baptist Convention. Do non-Baptists need to care, and if so, what should we be learning? CT ran a really interesting article about the significance of San Antonio, which was the location of an earlier SBC meeting 19 years ago, in which the internal strife of the denomination over Biblical inerrancy was peaking, before conservatives "took over" the denomination.
In the CT article, The Wall is the Castle, the author comments on how internal strife is a poor witness, and how it may signal the decline and end of a denomination, as history has often shown. However, even if this does signal the decline of the SBC, I don’t think that’s a bad thing – in fact, I think it may even be necessary.
Why would I say such a thing? Because historically, Christian organizations become calcified in their own structure, and the best thing they can do is start over. Really. Here’s some detail around my thoughts.
1. The Form and the Power
When spiritual awakening occurs, it produces an unrestricted power that changes people’s lives. People start to gather around this new idea/concept/experience, and pretty soon, in order to keep it from getting all out of control, an organization is formed around it, in order to control quality, and to channel it into useful forms that focus and direct it.
But inevitably, as in all human organizations, the power of the original experience, in this case, an experience with God, can fade, and you are left with the structure. But human organizations take on a life of their own, and often, people end up serving and preserving the structure long after the original purpose and pure power is gone. Instead, you are left with organizational politics and power struggles over the budget.
When an organization reaches this point, it has a few choices. It can
- try to regain the original power
- modify the structure to fit the current experience, if there is one
There is some value in disbanding, because you are not constrained by outdated forms, and existing political and organizational structures.
Now, regarding the Baptists, I’d say that they still have a lot of the power that originally formed them, so they are not merely an empty shell that should be disbanded. However, they seriously need to shed outdated doctrines, practices, and forms to come up to speed.
Which is why I am glad they are currently considering "Calvinism, private prayer languages, alcoholic beverages, and the integrity of denominational statistics." Their current and historic stances on these issues have been hindrances, imo, not helps.
2. Outdated denominational names
Personally, one of the small but important things that has helped churches grow is divorcing themselves from being known for certain doctrinal distinctives, especially in name. Me, I do not want to attend a church that addictively focuses on one doctrine, like believer’s baptism, or holiness, or prophecy. Yet many denominations carry these distinctives in their denominational names. Modern Christians don’t care for these distinctions, which are seen as more schismatic then clarifying.
Why don’t Baptists call themselves just "Christians"? While the doctrine of anabaptism was an important thing to be restored to the church, that train has long since arrived at the station. And are the Southern Baptists just southern, or are they a worldwide faith? They seriously need a new name. This is about more than marketing, this is about vision casting and naming themselves appropriately.
3. Some last comments
The SBs(!) have certainly positively influenced modern Christianity, with their emphasis on world missions and the integrity and inspiration of scripture. But they lost ground in resisting the Holy Spirit in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements (IMO), in holding to outward forms of holiness that were the wrong approach to modern culture (rules like no movies, no card playing, no social dancing), and in being tea-totalers, which is just not biblical (see What would Jesus drink?).
I’m not sure what their beef with Calvinism is, except probably that they don’t like hyper-Calvinism, since it kind of lessens the missionary imperative. But hyper-anything should just be ingored, and the balanced doctrines observed.
And as far as denominational statistics, this is just a symptom of a beurocracy that should be dismantled. Let them all go regional, and forget having to report into the
pope president and central committees.
For the rest of us non-Baptists, the SBC convention is of little import, since we are not affected by the politics of their organization. However, the many fine Christian leaders and missionaries that flow from the Baptist churches into the world is evidence of the excellent doctrines they have held over the years, and perhaps the gospel and the church can benefit from good decisions made there. Let’s hope they lean away from bureaucracy and towards grace and truth. For their sake, ours, and the world’s.
Go read The Wall is the Castle, it’s worth it.