Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Crisis of the Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention is in trouble. For thirty years or so our baptismal numbers have been stagnant or even declining. Fewer than half of our members attend services on any given Sunday. The percentage given by churches to the Cooperative Program has fallen significantly over the past two decades. And even though our total membership is increasing slightly, the rate of growth is certainly not keeping with the rate of population growth. But while the statistics paint a pretty bleak picture, the crisis of the Southern Baptist Convention is not primarily one of numbers. The numbers are by and large the result of deeper problems, problems that are spiritual in nature. While these problems have plagued the SBC for decades, over the past few weeks they have been especially noticeable in the SBC blogosphere. The following are just some of the factors underlying the spiritual crisis that we as a convention are facing:

  1. The elevation of tradition to a level that makes it equal with Scripture. Now, no one in the SBC admits that he or she does this, nor do I believe that anyone in the SBC intentionally does this. However, many of the arguments in the recent debates over tongues/prayer language, baptism, alcohol, the Lord's Supper, and ecclesiology have been based on history and tradition rather than on direct biblical evidence. There is nothing wrong with history or tradition, but when we look to them for authority we are in effect denying the sufficiency of Scripture.
  2. The continuing effort to exclude people from positions of leadership and service on the basis of doctrinal views that are not clearly taught by Scripture (or even articulated in the Baptist Faith and Message). In many instances, this is a result of point #1 mentioned above. In case anyone has forgotten, in November 2005 the IMB Board of Trustees adopted policies disqualifying anyone from serving as a missionary who practices a private prayer language or was not baptized in a church that affirms the eternal security of the believer. The problem with these policies is that there in no solid, irrefutable biblical basis for them. (NOTE: I am not saying there is no solid, irrefutable evidence for eternal security; there is. I am saying that there is no solid, irrefutable biblical evidence that links the validity of baptism to a belief in eternal security.) These policies are based on a particular interpretation of Scripture. This interpretation may or may not be held by a majority of Southern Baptists, but other interpretations have just as much of a biblical basis. If we continue down this path of increasingly narrowing the parameters of cooperation beyond what the Bible clearly teaches, the SBC will lose many people who are passionate about their faith and committed to doing the work of the Kingdom.
  3. The willingness to assume the worst about those with whom we disagree. If I may indulge in a bit of hyperbole for a moment, there are some people in the SBC who seem to believe that either Paige Patterson or Wade Burleson is the devil incarnate and that every contentious issue in the SBC is the result of some conspiracy engineered by one or the other. There are those who believe that the Conservative Resurgence was nothing more than a blatant power grab by Patterson, Pressler, Rogers, etc. There are also those who believe that bloggers, led by Wade, are working to undo the Resurgence and bring theological liberalism into the SBC. Accusations of lying, character assassination, and even questioning the salvation of others are not uncommon. Allegations have been made about denominational leaders trying to undermine the leadership of other denominational leaders, even trying to dig up dirt on them. Whether such allegations are true or not, they are indicative of deep problems within the SBC. We either have leaders who are abusing their positions, or we have people who are willing to lie about these leaders. Neither option is acceptable. Some of us seem to have forgotten that we are not enemies, but brothers and sisters in Christ.
  4. A reluctance to engage in honest and open discussion with those with whom we disagree. I suspect this is related to the previous point. It is difficult to sit down and have a genuine discussion with someone you consider to be an enemy. It is much easier to try to discredit those with whom you disagree by labeling them as a liberal or a fundamentalist than it is to defend your own views. There are some who seem to fear that a genuine, open discussion of certain topics will lead people into error or confusion. Thus, efforts are made to suppress dissenting or minority viewpoints. In reality, such fears betray a lack of conviction in one's own position. If you were truly confident in your position, you would believe that it could hold its own when compared to other positions.
If we do not address these issues, the SBC will continue to slide into irrelevance and will eventually cease to be an instrument used by God to advance His Kingdom. We must reclaim a commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture, not just its inerrancy. We must repent of our pride, which manifests itself in a belief that our particular interpretations of Scripture are the only ones that can possibly be right. We must learn to differentiate between essential and non-essential doctrines, and we must be willing to cooperate for the sake of the Kingdom with those who agree with us on the essentials even if we differ on non-essentials. We must agree to disagree on those doctrines that are not clearly and unambiguously defined by Scripture. And we must love and respect one another, even if we do not agree on everything. Fortunately, there seems to be some movement in these directions within the SBC. It is too early to tell whether this movement will take hold of the SBC and bring about genuine repentance and a change of attitude, but there are many people praying that it will happen and working to help make it happen.


Hashman said...

SBC: An Unregenerate Denomination

While many will disagree with some of the assumptions, the article above by Jim Ellif is a powerful summary of SBC problems. Though it doesn't deal with the political issues like Tim has.

Great to see you in church Sunday!
Still praying for your opportunities.


Paul said...


I agree with you. I do have a question about one statement you made. You wrote: "We must agree to disagree on those doctrines that are not clearly and unambiguously defined by Scripture."

Would you say that inerrancy is clearly and unambiguously defined by Scripture itself? Millard Erickson says that it is a logical implication arising out of inspiration, but that it is not a direct teaching of Scripture. If he's right how would that fit into your statement?


Tim Sweatman said...


Elliff's article paints a really bleak, and unfortunately accurate, picture of the SBC. I believe there is a close connection between the problems I discuss in this post and the situation described by Elliff.



Great question. A year ago I could have given you a definite answer, but now I'm not so sure. Erickson makes a reasonable point. I suppose many inerrantists (myself included) really have not really paused to consider whether our views on inerrancy are based on a logical interpretation or clear biblical teaching.

Kiki Cherry said...


Very well said.

Anonymous said...

Tim say to Maria for me. I hope you will find a church where God will help you serve and grow.