“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.” Psalm 146:3, NIV
The very first Baptist convention meeting I remember attending was the annual meeting of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention in 1978. It was meeting in the auditorium of the First Southern Baptist Church of Phoenix, right next door to Grand Canyon University, where I was a student. The Wednesday evening session of the convention had been held at North Phoenix Baptist Church’s new 5,000 seat auditorium to accomodate the expected crowd for the 50th anniversary celebration of the convention. No business was discussed, as the entire evening was built around the celebration. The college students were not only invited to attend, but transportation was provided to get them there. Dr. W.A. Criswell delivered the annual sermon.
The next day, Bible professors managed to get permission for students to skip their regular classes and attend the closing session of the convention in order to hear Dr. Criswell speak again. That was the first time I experienced the business end of a convention as motions made the first day of the convention were discussed and voted on. I don’t really remember the motions, but I do recall there was a lot of discussion, and, unlike church business meetings, there was a lot of dissent and disagreement. In class the next day, Dr. J.P. Dane, a professor who came to the university with years of pastoral experience, explained the importance of the state convention and its entities, and why potential pastors, church staff and missionaries should be interested in what was done there, in spite of the fact that it may appear mundane or boring.
That more or less stuck with me, and as a result, within a couple of weeks of graduation, I found myself serving as a youth pastor near Houston, and as a messenger to the 1979 SBC. The pastor under whose leadership I served had started an independent Baptist church in the Dallas area which he pastored for 25 years. He left it when it would not relocate under his direction, and while earning his doctorate at Southwestern, served on the staff at First Baptist Dallas. I had an interesting perspective on the ’79 SBC meeting.
I didn’t encounter “the controversy” again until I was a student at Southwestern Seminary in 1987. By that time, I had more or less developed the opinion that it was all more about who ran the show than it was about theological differences. From the influence of many fellow students, I developed a determination to “stay above the fray” when departing the campus into the ministry world, and believed that was possible. During my last semester there, the first stormy trustee meeting occurred when rumors began to fly about the impending firing of Dr. Russell Dilday. The end result of the meeting was a mutual agreement on the part of both parties which appeared to extinguish the flames, and which served to convince me that, perhaps, the great controversy was over, and we would all just get along together.
It was while I was a still a student that I served part-time in a church where I got a brief taste of what it was like to cross someone who held the reins of power in a local church, and to learn, unfortunately, what everyone who serves vocationally in a church eventually discovers. I learned that having an opinion, even one you think is soundly based in scripture, can be a problem if it doesn’t line up with self-appointed church royalty, and that if the pastor has been there a while, and has his own set of difficulties to worry about, he’s not going to support you. It was a conservative church, one where, at least doctrinally and theologically, I felt comfortable. However, when you go through a rough resignation process, and a church leader tells you you’re one of those “seminary liberals,” it has an effect.
It was not until I served my second church after graduating from Southwestern that I really took things to heart and began to investigate exactly what it meant to be a moderate Baptist. I had been at a conservative church in a small town in Missouri where events from the SBC might as well have been taking place on the moon. Moving to a larger congregation in a larger town in Kentucky seemed to be the right thing to do at the time. Still relatively new at the process of working with a search committee, I didn’t ask all the right questions, and stepped into a hornet’s nest. It was a church with two layers of entrenched leadership, some of which had come from a split in a nearby independent Baptist church, and for me, it was a revelation. I learned that church members can be mean spirited, controlling, bitter, angry, full of hate for each other, manipulative, and claim to follow the Bible on one hand, while basically ignoring it to do as they pleased on the other. The pastor, having served there for about four years with all of that going on, was burned out, and had more or less gone into his office and closed the door, vowing not to rock the boat until he could get his youngest daughter through high school without having to move her. I stayed about two and a half years before events began to unfold that convinced my wife and I we needed to skedaddle.
Leaving, or being dismissed from, a church with no place to go is an experience that has a deep impact. Those who have experienced it know what I am talking about. I was blessed to have a job, though it meant a large cut in pay, having to spend savings on moving expenses, and leaving what I felt I was called by God to do. When we arrived in Houston, I wasn’t really interested in being part of a church, but my wife insisted, so I insisted that we find one that was as much an opposite of the one we left as we could find. We landed in a moderate Baptist church that had already worked through its issues with the SBC and had come out on the other side apparently unscathed and moving ahead.
Bitterness is difficult to deal with, and I was bitter. I had trusted people who claimed to follow scripture, and believe in it as literally as possible, and they had demonstrated a contempt for that belief by their own actions. They were totally blind to what they were doing. Basically, while claiming that they followed scripture, they followed their own experience, and then found scripture, taken out of context, to support it. They were always right in their own mind, and had a set of inflamatory names to call anyone who disagreed with them. They were, by definition, the fundamentalists.