By Gerald Harris, former editor of the Christian Index
Following the 1990 Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans a host of conservative Baptists converged on the Café du Monde to celebrate another victory for the cause of biblical inerrancy.
Paige Patterson, writing in the Southwestern Journal of Theology, proclaimed, “The aroma of café au lait and powdered sugar-covered beignets was discernible several hundred feet from the famous coffee house.
“That night as the convention parliamentarian led the rejoicing conservatives in singing ‘Victory in Jesus,’ that coffee aroma was to conservatives the aroma of life unto life, but to scores of moderates who had tasted several years of defeat, it became the aroma of death unto death.”
I have had over a month to process the events of the most recent Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas; and for me it was a Café du Monde experience. The only difference is that I felt like I smelled the aroma of death unto death – at least for the SBC I have known for a very long time.
The Southern Baptist Convention is not just changing; it has changed. Many will consider it a blessed conversion. Others will feel disenfranchised, marginalized, and excluded. This convention confirmed that my decision to retire at the end of this year is well-founded, because I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness.
I grew up listening to the sermons of R.G. Lee and W.A. Criswell. Those men of God preached with great conviction, emotion, and passion.
R.G. Lee, with his distinctive southern drawl, command of the English language, and masterful oratorical ability, declared, “The Bible is a living Book. Book of the church militant is the Bible. Book of the church triumphant is the Bible. It’s the Book our mothers stained with grateful tears, the Book our fathers touched with reverent hands, the Book that unrolls the panorama of creation, the Book that gives the lofty imagery of the prophets, the Book that gives the portrait of Christ, the Book that gives the philosophy of salvation.”
W.A. Criswell was no less eloquent, but perhaps more direct in confronting liberalism when he declared, “There is some knot on a log, wart on a dill pickle who think that he’s been to school and he knows more than God… We have professors who think theological hairsplitting will save the world. Not in a thousand years. It’s a fervent heart and preaching for a verdict that saves the world.”
Southern Baptists were all about evangelism and missions for many years, but in the last decade it seems that we have changed our focus; and the decline in baptisms at home and abroad have been precipitous.
Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has explained, “The true bad news is that when you put last year in the context of all previous years, it indicates the SBC is in the midst of a decline that shows no sign of either slowing down or turning around.”
The new emphases subtly infiltrating Southern Baptist life seems to be social justice, the social gospel, feminism, tolerance, and intolerance.
First, let us consider social justice. According to David C. Rose, social justice is a solution in search of a problem. I believe that we should show compassion for all people, but when social justice requires compromise on moral and spiritual issues it is desperately wrong.
Rose says, “Social justice is both misguided and dangerous. It is misguided because it regards observed inequality as prima facie evidence of injustice because of insufficient understanding of how a free market economy actually works. It is dangerous because social justice advocates therefore attempt to solve a moral problem that doesn’t exist and, in so doing, reduce a society’s ability to solve moral problems that really do exist.”
Second, consider the social gospel, which has surreptitiously found its way back into our denomination. The social gospel embraces ministries that provide help to the needy – clothes closets, food banks, and health-clinics – almost anything that would contribute to the welfare of society.
Churches should be engaged in these social ministries, but these ministries should not be the primary objective. Every social ministry or act of kindness should create a bridge to share the Gospel.
When I was pastor of Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta I read Steve Sjogren’s book Conspiracy of Kindness. Sjogren gives his readers an almost unlimited list of unassuming acts of kindness that Christians can practice to communicate the love of Christ. I discovered that many of our folks were excited about giving out water on a hot summer day, painting house numbers on the edge of the sidewalk, shining people’s shoes for free in the mall, and even providing free gift wrapping for a department store at Christmas, but they never shared the Gospel.
Good deeds are important, but there are countless service organizations that help the public. Christians not only have the privilege of putting a man in a new suit, but putting a new man in a suit as a result of the change wrought by sharing the Gospel.
Third, Southern Baptists seem to be welcoming a feminist movement in the church. George Barna reports through his surveys that the majority of attendees in a typical church are women. He refers to women as “the backbone of the Christian congregations in America.” He also reports that 93 percent of the senior pastors in America are men.
However, does that mean that we should seek equality for women and ordain them as pastors? It has been rumored that one of America’s most notable Bible teachers, Beth Moore, should become the SBC president in 2020. If she did, she would be placed in a position of preaching the president’s sermon.
The Bible does not support the practice of women serving as pastors or teaching men (I Timothy 2: 12), but the intrinsic value and extreme giftedness of women have throughout history fortified and enhanced the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the church.
Fourth, the menacing worldly view of tolerance has raised its ugly head in the Baptist church. There was a time when lifestyles embodied in the LGBTQ community were universally condemned.
Today because of the normalizing of this deviate behavior in the media, the propagandizing of students in the schools, and the sensitivity training of corporate America we are getting too comfortable with sin and tolerant of aberrant lifestyles. The pulpit must not be silent in this day of tolerance lest our congregations become lukewarm. George Whitefield said, “Congregations are lifeless because dead men preach to them.” Adrian Rogers said, “The sins we once hid in the back alleys, we now parade down Main Street.”
Fifth, whereas tolerance abounds in some areas, intolerance abounds in others. It was good that we recognized our U.S. military and had a patriotic emphasis in the first session of our Convention in Dallas, but I could not believe the disrespect some messengers demonstrated regarding the invitation of Vice President Mike Pence to address our convention. Three motions were made to try to prevent him from speaking and when he did speak some walked out of the convention center obviously protesting his presence.
Have some Southern Baptists become like Jehovah Witnesses who refuse to salute the flag, do not rise in response to the playing of the national anthem, and often choose not to vote in elections?
The New Testament gives us some broad principles on how we are to respond to our government. Romans 13 declares that the origin and institution of government is something that God has ordained. I Timothy 2 reminds us that we are to pray for those who have authority over us. If God has established the government for our good and asked us to pray for those who rule over us; and we are fortunate enough to have a Christian as vice president is it right to protest his invitation to speak to SBC messengers?
In the late 1960s W.A. Criswell predicted that Christianity would be virtually extinct by 2000. He believed it would happen because so many preachers had “lost the conviction that the Bible is the Word of God.”
Perhaps the Conservative Resurgence postponed what Criswell thought was inevitable. He said then and I believe he would say now, “I believe it is time for every pastor and church member to call upon God to intervene on behalf of his church” – and I believe we need His intervention in the life of our Convention.