All ecclesiastical revolutions eventually run out of steam. New concerns emerge, and different leaders come to the fore. It is too early to tell whether the election of Frank Page as president of the Southern Baptist Convention this summer signals such a change, but there are signs that a historic shift may be underway within America’s largest Protestant denomination.
The pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, South Carolina, Page won a first-ballot victory against two prominent candidates with close ties to what is sometimes called the college of cardinals—a close-knit circle of Southern Baptist Convention leaders who have handpicked the denomination’s recent presidents. Even Page himself was surprised. Since the conservative resurgence began in 1979, only once, in 1994, has a candidate not supported by those leaders been elected to head the Southern Baptist Convention.
Ever since the Southern Baptists were organized in 1845, there has been a Baptist machine with powerful personalities struggling to control it. In the 1950s, J.D. Grey, a New Orleans pastor, said of Louie Newton, an older leader from Georgia, “Louie and his buddies have run this convention for too long, and I’m going to take it away from them”—which J.D. and his buddies did.
When the recent Southern Baptist upheaval—called simply the Controversy—began in the 1970s, many saw it as just another preachers’ fight, a spectacle with all the charms of a late-night row among alley cats. But two factors distinguished this commotion from earlier power struggles: This was not a palace coup, but a grassroots revolution fueled by a strong sense of denominational alienation by many ordinary Baptists who resented the elitist rule of the Baptist bureaucrats who ran the machine at the time.
There was also a major theological concern, which gave the masses a cause for which to fight: the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Bible. For centuries the Bible had been the central icon in Baptist life, and it seemed to be under attack by some Baptist scholars who questioned the historical and miraculous elements in scripture. After struggling for more than a decade, conservatives seized control of the denominational machinery and began to implement changes in the boards and agencies of the convention.
In recent years, however, there has been a growing anxiety within the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists support thousands of missionaries through a national giving plan called the Cooperative Program. But prolonged conflict within the denomination’s two large mission boards has left many Baptists unhappy. And, as the Internet chatter on Baptist websites before Page’s election showed, many feel the circle of fellowship has been drawn much too tightly in recent years. They resent the angry spirit and bitter tone that have marked much Baptist discourse. Some feel excluded and believe the Southern Baptist Convention is being distracted from its primary purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission. The commitment to an evangelical view of scripture seems secure, but some of the other concerns that fueled the Controversy in the first place have surfaced again–and this time with a vengeance.
Doubtless, many voted for Page because of his strong support for the Cooperative Program, an important issue for a denomination that has to raise an annual budget of $200 million from voluntary giving. Still, his election was unexpected and can best be explained by an odd coalition of diverse subgroups within the Southern Baptist Convention that came together in Greensboro to register their concerns. At least five such groups can be identified.
(1) Charismatics. Very few Southern Baptists engage in public speaking in tongues or other pentecostal practices. But the charismatic movement has influenced Baptist life in music, worship, and spirituality, including distinctive forms of prayer. Occasionally congregations have been ousted from Baptist associations over charismatic issues. But recent efforts to exclude from missionary appointment all who have a “private prayer language” seemed to many ordinary Baptists both intrusive and unnecessary. As one person said to me, “If we are serious about sharing the Gospel around the world, shouldn’t we be glad that we still have missionaries who pray rather than setting up a bureau of prayer inspectors!”
(2) Neo-Calvinists. Early Baptists, both in England and America, were strongly influenced by Reformed theology, and there has been a growing interest in reclaiming this tradition within the Southern Baptist Convention. The “Calvinism boys,” as one of their detractors dubbed them, have made some folks nervous for fear that too much emphasis on God’s initiative in salvation might discourage human efforts at witness and evangelism. This issue was tackled head on by Paige Patterson and Al Mohler, two Southern Baptist educators, in a public debate at this year’s convention. While clearly holding to different views, they agreed that both parties should have a place at the Baptist table. And Page, not a Calvinist himself, said the same thing. If this spirit prevails, there will not be a divisive fight over Calvinism, as some have predicted. No doubt, both hyper-Calvinism and five-point Arminianism are still out of bounds among Southern Baptists, but between those two extremes there is room for a healthy debate on the precise balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
(3) Woman’s Missionary Union. Another surprise event at this year’s convention was the decision to reject the effort by some to change the auxiliary status of the Woman’s Missionary Union, a missions-support group, and bring it under the direct control of the convention. This decision should not be interpreted as the rise of an incipient feminism in Southern Baptist life (out of more than forty thousand churches, only a few dozen have female pastors), but rather as an affirmation of a pattern of cooperation that has served Baptist mission causes well for more than a century. As someone said, “Instead of our telling women again what they cannot do, for once let’s thank them for what they have done!”
(4) Baptist Bloggers. These are younger, Internet-savvy pastors who represent diverse views across the spectrum of Southern Baptist Convention life. But they all have one thing in common: They aren’t veterans of the Baptist wars over the past few decades. Some of them have been influenced by the Willow Creek and Saddleback mega-church models of church life. They are mostly conservative in belief and committed to sharing the gospel in today’s culture, which, they are quick to remind you, is not the culture of the 1950s. The bloggers are not a well-defined group, but they are adept at agitation and networking, key elements in any emerging revolution. These Baptist bolsheviks are intelligent, articulate, aggressive, and a force to be watched in the future.
(5) Younger Moderates. Most of the older moderate groups defeated in the long Baptist wars gave up on the Southern Baptist Convention some years ago and established their own groups outside—or, at best, on the margins of—the denomination. Some still grieve the loss of the denominational empire that once was theirs. It seems unlikely, however, that such groups can capture the hearts of even the moderates among the rising Baptist generation. One thing is sure: The more such groups embrace the Kulturprotestantismus of the liberal mainline churches, the less likely this is to happen. Yet some of the most substantive theology being written by Baptist scholars today comes from a little-known circle of mostly younger moderates who have shown a surprising interest in quite traditional themes such as the deeper meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the covenantal disciplines of congregational life, and the positive role of creeds and confessions in the life of the church. Steven Harmon’s recent book Towards Baptist Catholicity is an example—and it stands in marked contrast to the older libertarian, Emersonian version of Baptist identity. These younger scholars are not so much a part of the coalition that elected Page as they are potential allies for conservatives within a reconciled Baptist future.
But is such reconciliation possible? It will not be easy and it will not happen quickly. But this summer’s meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, suggests opportunities for a renewed Southern Baptist Convention that can build on the gains of the past generation without refighting all its harsh battles. The coalition that elected Page is fragile and not likely to hold together very long in the absence of a compelling vision of a believable future, one that is faithful to the verities of the Baptist heritage and also generous, winsome, and filled with grace.
Perhaps this attitude is best seen in the most influential Southern Baptists in America today: Billy Graham, a “prophet with honor” and America’s chaplain for more that fifty years; Chuck Colson, evangelist, prison reformer, and cofounder of Evangelicals and Catholics Together; and Rick Warren, a pastor whose writings have touched millions of lives. In their commitment to Christ and the Bible, and their desire to share the gospel, these three represent the best of the Baptist vision today. Each in his own way has wrapped his arms around the world and drawn it closer to the Father’s heart.
Another surprise happened in Greensboro this year. Condoleeza Rice became the first secretary of state to address the Southern Baptist Convention, and she received a thunderous ovation. The media focused on her stirring patriotic speech and the political implications of her appearance. Since Southern Baptists abandoned native son Jimmy Carter and joined the Reagan revolution in 1980, they have become an increasingly important part of those values-voters who have made the Republicans, at least for now, the majority party in American political life. Rice was there, in part, to shore up that alliance.
But something else about her visit should not go unnoticed. Rice, who grew up in the segregated South, became the second Alabama-born African-American woman (Coretta Scott King was the first) ever to speak to the Southern Baptist Convention. The symbolism was poignant: This great-granddaughter of slaves was addressing a denomination once led by slave owners. Such an event would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago—but so would the election of someone like Frank Page during the long years of the Controversy that roiled the Southern Baptist Convention. Some changes are for the better.
George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and
an executive editor of Christianity Today
. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com
This article was originally published in First Things 165 (August/September 2006) 17-19.