It may just be a matter of perspective, or of the fact that prior to graduating from college in 1979, I wasn’t all that interested in things that were happening in the Southern Baptist Convention, but it seems that we have entered a period of time in which there is almost constant controversy. The Pressler-Patterson “Conservative Resurgence vs. Moderate” controversy that dominated the convention for two decades has seemingly turned into several small, smoldering controversies as a move toward a particular group’s agenda and perspective of “doctrinal purity” has clashed with the views of others, not over Biblical authority, but over a whole variety of issues from conflicts over practices of the “emergent” church community, to differences of opinion over interpreting scripture related to the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, to Calvinism, to arguments over secular politics.
It has been difficult, at least for me, to sort through all of this, and keep up with it. When I graduated from college in 1979, prepared at that point to answer a call to vocational ministry of some sort, I was aware of what was happening, but I thought it was just one of those things that would eventually work itself out. Frankly, I didn’t see that the differences between the groups would become so deep, and the feelings become so badly hurt that any kind of reconciliation would appear to be impossible. I don’t believe the sides were all that far apart, but in the fight over control of the convention’s offices and the trustee boards was so bitter that individuals were pushed out on limbs where they might not ever have gone.
There are a lot of people who feel caught in the middle, and I’ll put myself in that category. On the one hand, I believe the Bible is the authoritative Word of God, and that its narratives are both historically accurate and spiritually authoritative. In short, I believe the words of scripture are both inspired by, and illuminated by, the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, I must ask the question as to whether a politically planned and conducted campaign that manipulated a system based on trust to aquire the power to implement an agenda that, in hindsight, exaggerated the threat of “liberal” influence in the SBC was necessary. There are many events in the history of the conservative resurgence that look machiavellian, and which have given the denomination a black eye. And now, it seems we are sinking even deeper into controversy over new issues that bring more division.
The fact that this is happening within the ranks of our own denomination is the enemy’s work. What else could it be? The opportunity to reach the world with the gospel message, with available technology, has never been greater. Yet we are divided and arguing over things that are insignificant. We are, in fact, looking a lot like the churches that John wrote to in the early part of the book of Revelation. Those whose spiritual security lies in doctrinal purity are putting their trust in the academic and language skills of scripture analysis, hoping they will be able to get inside the mind of the writer, and hold to a doctrinal position that somehow pleases God. But like the Ephesian Christians, they have lost their first love, at a high cost, and they still have no guarantee that the exacting, detailed, doctrinal conclusion they have arrived at is anything more than their own interpretation of it. The other side of that is to incur the wrath of God with a form of religious practice that isn’t pleasing to him because it is indeed in error, such as that practiced by the Gnostics and the Nicolaitans, who led the church astray for their own selfish purposes. Somewhere in all of the confusion, there is a place where we can please God, find redemption and advance the kingdom.
“Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.” I Corinthians 12:13
The Bible holds the key to spiritual unity in Christ. If we believe what it says is truth, then we are well past the time for practicing it in our own house.