In 1979, I had just graduated from college, and for the first time, would attend the Southern Baptist Convention as a messenger. I’d been a couple of other times before, but never as a voting participant. Of course, the 1979 gathering, in the Houston Summit Arena, now used by Lakewood Church as a worship venue, turned out to be a major turning point in the denomination’s history. At the time, it was viewed by those inside and outside the convention as the “splitting” of America’s largest non-Catholic denomination. As it progressed, it became quite clear that the sides, labelled “conservative” and “moderate” by the media, were not equal in terms of number, support, and ability to use the convention’s relatively backward, provincial system for selecting leadership.
There were cracks and flaws in the denominational structure long before the “controversy” became front page news in 1979. Arguments over Biblical interpretation, the degree of Biblical authority which was reflected in the denomination’s doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith and Message, at the crux of the argument, whether or not the Biblical text, in its original form, was without error. While the moderates claimed that it is irrelevant to declare originals which are no longer in existence, inerrant, conservatives insist that since the process of translation and transmission is incredibly accurate, an inerrant original is vital to the substance of the scripture, and ultimately to what is believed and taught about Jesus himself.
What transpired, which is seen by some as remarkably complex, is actually pretty simple. The convention, as I mentioned, had a very backward and provincial system in place for choosing its institutional and committee leadership. Over time, during the late 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s, the moderate leadership had developed a process which shielded institutional leaders like seminary presidents and the presiding officer of what was then the Baptist Sunday School Board, now Lifeway, the world’s largest and most influential Christian publishing house, from direct scrutiny or accountability to the churches that supported them through the Cooperative Program. The gateway to the inside was through the individual elected President of the convention, who directly and individually appointed the committee on committees, which in turn, nominated the members of the committee that chose the institutional trustees, as well as the members of the executive board and leadership committees of the convention itself. By the 1970’s, virtually all of the boards, especially at the seminaries and at the Sunday School Board, were packed with individuals who had been hand picked by the institutional leadership. Many of them were wives, relatives, in-laws and close personal friends of the leadership, which was shielded from any question or scrutiny involving what they were doing. And most of them were doing as they pleased, hand-picking faculty and staff which shared their views.
The problem, as it was perceived by many Southern Baptists, was that the influence of liberal theology was drifting into its educational institutions, and they had little voice or means to question it, or to stop it. There was plenty of evidence of the leftward drift, particularly as it related to Biblical authority, and prior to 1979, the distinctions between moderates and conservatives were well established in this area. The real question in the controversy was whether the SBC would continue to move to the left, with the mainline Protestant denominations and their theological schools, or whether they would remain, as they always had been, committed to a belief in the inerrancy, infallibility and full authority of the Bible.
Moderate Baptist Mistakes
The initial moderate reaction to the election of Adrian Rogers as SBC President at the 1979 convention was incredulity that conservatives could establish a level of participation in the convention that they hadn’t had before. Their sense of entitlement and the exclusivity which had been carefully established led to a series of reactions that eventually sealed their fate. Initially, they attempted to deny that anything was going on in the seminaries that wasn’t square with the convention’s expressed views, or with what its church members believed, something that didn’t go over very well when the conservatives produced evidence, from a wide variety of textbooks, classroom objectives and teaching, and class notes from seminary professors. The attempts at redefining what was on the record didn’t go over well, nor did the attempt to convince Southern Baptists that what was now being taught in the seminaries was what they had always more or less believed.
It also took a while for moderates to realize that the conservatives were drawing messengers to the convention from a constituency that hadn’t been very active in that regard prior to 1979. From the Houston meeting in the Summit, to the 1989 meeting where trustee board control was secured by conservatives, the number of churches sending messengers to the SBC over a decade was four times greater than it had been during the previous decade. The moderates discovered they didn’t have those kinds of reserves on which to draw.
The moderates also relied heavily on their good-ole-boy protocols to try and hold on to control of the convention. Once the conservatives gained the presidency, the committee on committees appointed like minded conservatives to the committee on boards, and they, in turn, replaced moderate trustees with conservatives. One of the moderate protocols was a “customary second term” which basically allowed them to keep their hand-picked buddies on the boards for an extended period of time. Another protocol was recognition of “good” service as a trustee by being rotated to another board when term limits restricted re-appointments to the same board. The conservatives more or less ignored the protocols, and appointed the people they determined would hold the institutions and agencies accountable to the convention’s constituency. That earned charges of being “unfair,” or “unethical,” but those won’t hold water.
Perhaps the greatest gap between the direction moderates wanted the SBC to go, and the conservatives, was revealed through the ill fated “Peace Committee.” This group, which operated from 1985 to 1987, put together a comprehensive statement about Southern Baptist interpretation of beliefs regarding the authority of scripture, and the scope of the statement in the 1963 BFM stating that the Bible has, for its matter, “truth without any mixture of error.” In the interpretation of that statement, several prominent moderates distinguished themselves from the majority of the convention by asserting this meant only in “matters of faith and practice,” whereas the broader interpretation extended to all areas of theology, history, science and philosophy. Several moderate members parted company from the committee before it rendered its final report, which established for the record the position that the Southern Baptist Convention holds regarding the Bible.
Not a “Takeover”
Criticism of conservatives by moderates, over time, included allegations that they employed “unethical” tactics in their efforts to get messengers to the convention meetings. Some patterns were established during this time that hadn’t been employed previously, but there is nothing inherently unethical about announcing a presidential candidate in advance, nor establishing your own news outlets and journals when the standard, moderate controlled Baptist press refused to carry the stories of conservatives announcing candidacies for SBC offices. I’ve asserted for years that you cannot “take over” an organization in which you already hold membership, are supporting with your finances, and are entitled by your participation to run for elected office.
If there were irregularities, they were never reported, and the registration secretary, Lee Porter, a self-identified moderate, confirmed that there were none. The conservatives got the majority of votes because they were the majority of Southern Baptists, a significant one as it turns out. If the peace committee report establishes the characteristic view of Southern Baptists regarding the Bible, then I would assert that there are few Southern Baptists, less than half a percent of the sum total, who are not in full agreement with its conclusions. If you don’t believe this, I challenge you to comb the spectrum of SBC affiliated churches today, and see if this is not the vast majority view. You don’t have to take my word for it.
Southern Baptists and the Republican Party
By nature, as religious conservatives, Southern Baptists are predominantly Republican. But this tendency extends well back into the 1950’s, if nor before then. The allegation that the conservative resurgence was aimed at turning SBC support toward Republican politicians is not provable by an objective standard. There’s not much question about the high percentage of Southern Baptists leaders who are in the GOP, or the high percentage of their membership which is as well. But even among the moderates, their “bastions” of more liberal religious thought are also major contributors and supporters of Ronnie Reagan’s Republican Revolution. And while schools like Baylor, Wake Forest, and Mercer are known as bastions of Baptist liberalism, they are also known as bastions of conservative, right wing politics. Go figure that one out.
Once conservatives gained control of the SBC, completely over the trustee boards by 1989, the SBC headed toward its highest numerial achievements in personnel on the mission field, total membership, and total receipts through the Cooperative Program. The battle of more than a decade had little to no effect on this great missionary denomination. And even when moderates splintered off, few were actually willing to completely sever their ties with the SBC, and few Southern Baptist churches or church members decided to follow the path they wanted to blaze. These organizations are, by and large, moribund rescue operations, designed for providing jobs and a position of some prominence in leadership to the displaced and disaffected Lords of the Old SBC Manor. People who have once been in the limelight don’t like it when it goes away, and no matter how small the venue, money was raised to give them a place to strut. The money and numbers of churches participating in these groups has been minimal, with virtually no effect on the SBC.
In recent years, the effect of post-denominational thinking has had more impact on the SBC than the moderates did with their attempted split. In spite of the change of leadership, the SBC is still quite provincial and backward in its organizational thinking, and it may be a while before those who are crawling out of the traditional boxes begin to be noticed enough to change denominational policy and structure to be more effective in the post-denominational, modern world. Circumstances may do that, but sometimes that is harder on a group than realizing there’s been a change, and thinking about how to deal with it. I cannot predict where the SBC will be in twenty years, but I can predict where it would have been today had the conservative resurgence leadership not started its campaign to lead the SBC until much later. It would be in a struggle for survival, like the Methodists and the Disciples of Christ.