These are interesting times in the Southern Baptist Convention. At least, they are interesting at the denominational level. In a denomination where things have been controversial for quite some time, I don’t know if we are making any progress or not.
From someone who lives and works in the trenches, away from the glitz and glamor of the denominational headquarters or the headquarters of any of its agencies, here are some observations.
There are times when this reminds me of some of the contests for class officers when I was in elementary, junior high and even high school. Competition was serious between those students who thought of themselves as being among the more popular and elite to have their perception confirmed by winning the most votes from their classmates. I always thought that it was kind of ironic (and silly) that the people who wanted to be most popular placed their trust in the majority of their classmates who weren’t in order to make that determination. Once confirmed, they could continue to ignore the unpopular until the next class election rolled around in the fall. To me, it seemed like a lot of energy and effort spent on winning a title with no authority and no real duties to perform.
The Southern Baptist Convention, as a denomination, is not heirarchial or authoritarian. It is an organization of voluntary cooperating churches, rather than the “church” itself, with individual congregations being branches off of the central body. In theory, it exists to serve the churches which cooperate with it in terms of creating agencies and institutions for cooperative ministry which allow churches to be stewards of their resources, mainly in theological education and development of leadership, and through mission sending agencies. In practice, it also exherts a fair amount of influence over how all Southern Baptists are perceived doctrinally, and complete authority over what is taught to the budding young pastors, staff and missionaries in the classrooms of the seminaries.
Personally, I don’t think there are a whole lot of people in the pews of the Southern Baptist churches around the country (but mostly in the 11 states of the old Confederacy and the border states) who give half a hoot about who the officers of the convention are, or who would recognize any of them if they walked into a room (except for the outdated hairdos and clothes that would immediately set them off as preachers). But among the small group of people to whom the convention meetings, institutions and agencies are nearly equal to life itself, two political parties seem to be developing, with platforms and agendas. And they are both appealing to the younger pastors and church leaders for support.
The Joshua Convergence group represents the doctrinal purists. These are the people who support the “Conservative Resurgence” which has controlled the denominations agencies and institutions through trustee boards for about 25 years, with complete control coming since about 1990. Their aim is to make sure the conventions seminaries and missionaries adhere to strict doctrinal guidelines, which they themselves hold. You will hear a little bit about flexibility from these people, but if you read the statement they developed, you will see that there is little room for that. Disagreeing with what they have decided is correct is pretty much out of the question. Even if you do agree, that might not be enough unless you also pay proper allegiance and respect to the few men who have led the Conservative Resurgence since 1979. You have to be “one of them” and not just someone who agrees with most of their doctrine.
The Memphis Declaration people are very similar when it comes to doctrine, but they will allow for differences of opinion and interpretation of scripture on lower “tiers” of doctrinal necessity. Issues like tongues in a private prayer language, or the Calvinist debates are less important to them than opening the doors to people who want to participate in cooperative ministries. They agree with the Joshua Convergence people regarding salvation, the nature of God, the nature of Man, the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, but disagree that belief in a private prayer language of tongues, or adhereing to 3, 3.5, 4 or all 5 points of Calvinism is important enough to restrict their association with people who hold different interpretations.
It is political, because whether one of these viewpoints or the other prevails will depend on how the 12,000 to 15,000 messengers who show up at the SBC annual gathering in San Antonio in June vote for who will lead them. At the moment, no candidate has emerged from the Joshua Convergence, but they’re just getting started and their group is small. At the moment, the Memphis Declaration seems to have the advantage. One of their number is already SBC president, and they have a large blogging network centered around a popular, young Oklahoma pastor, Wade Burleson, who has the added advantage of being the target of some questionable persecution by trustees of the IMB, of which he is also a member, who are part of the other side. The “good old boy” methods of maintaining control, which many Southern Baptists are just now discovering, are a big disadvantage for the Joshua Convergence and Conservative Resurgence.
What I have to sort out is the effect it will have on me. It almost seems that I am back in junior high school, one of those kids who wasn’t part of the elite circle of the popular and well connected, but one who might cast a ballot that would potentially put one person in power over another, or make someone popular by virtue of their victory. In my daily ministry in a small, struggling, inner city church, where I have several responsibilities including how to reach people, assimilate them into the congregation, minister to their spiritual needs, motivate the church members to ministry, minister to many elderly members, supervise the work of maintaining a crumbling, aging facility and trying to make both ends of portions of a very, very tight budget meet, I have to ask whether it makes any real difference who runs the SBC. I really love, and feel called, to what I do, so what does it matter to me?
When I was still in junior high school, I used to think that, outside of our small school in our small town, just a few miles down the road in a much larger town, or in the closest large city, no one knew or cared who the president of my class was, or how popular they were in my school. The day those people graduated and went off to college, they became just exactly like the rest of us who did the same. Outside of the SBC and its inner circle of denominational agencies and institutions is a world where most of the people are lost, caught up in their own lives, jobs, families and problems, and where, frankly, it doesn’t matter at all which political party gains control of the Southern Baptist convention. It seems to me that it would be better to set all of that aside and concentrate on really ministering to the people around us than to waste all that time and energy deciding which “worldview” or declaration or convergence will reign supreme in the Southern Baptist Convention.