The New Southern Baptist Convention Tug of War
Dr. Kevin Shrum
Since 1979 the Southern Baptist Convention has been in a process of reclamation and reformation – reclaiming a conservative orthodoxy that marked its origins and reforming its agencies and seminaries in view of that reclamation. Phase one of this process focused on such issues as biblical inerrancy and sound, conservative theology.
During this process, most of the moderate agency heads and presidents who were leaders during from the late 50’s until the late 70’s were replaced by more conservative, biblically orthodox leaders. It is fair to say that as of this writing all mission and denominational agency heads and all six seminary presidents are self-avowed conservatives. Phase one, led by Page Patterson and Judge Paul Pressler, was a resounding success.
Now, a new phase of reformation is taking place within the Southern Baptist Convention. Led by younger leaders, bloggers and cutting edge innovators, phase two brings with it a focus on methodology, style, openness and innovation. This new generation of leaders, while claiming to be conservative, is highly interested in breaking up what they perceive to be the ‘good ole boy’ system that elected SBC leaders and controlled convention activities over the past twenty-five years.
Whereas the conflict of the early 80’s was theological in nature, the emerging conflict now developing is generational and institutional. The older leaders who fought to reclaim a convention that was theologically adrift do not understand the newer leaders who, while they claim to be as conservative, either do not want the institutions the older leaders ‘saved’ in lieu of new systems of denominational structure and/or want to operate those reclaimed entities under a new paradigm. The current conflict is as intense as the earlier conflicts of the 80’s.
The concern of the older generation is that the newer leaders may not comprehend what is at stake structurally and missionally. With one of the largest religious publishing houses in LifeWay, the (WMU) Women’s Missionary Union, the (ERLC) Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, six of the largest seminaries in the world, 7,500+ full-time international and national missionaries, along with 15,000+ volunteer, short-term missionaries each year sent through two mission sending agencies the Southern Baptist Convention forms one of the most effective and efficient denominational structures in the history of the world.
Does this new generation of leaders understand what’s at stake as they take on new leadership roles? If they dismantle the current structure what will take its place? And what will happen to the missionaries that depend on SBC support for their mission work?
In addition, Southern Baptists have one of the most effective and envied methods of financial support known as the Cooperative Program where local church monies are pooled and distributed, avoiding the old societal method of raising money where each organization had to raise its own funds. Will this system be jeopardized by the newer leaders?
The younger generation is convinced that the system that was useful in reclaiming the SBC is inadequate to move the convention forward into a post-modern future. They want to open up the system, allowing more flexibility and theological nuance than did previous leaders, while maintaining the best of the past. Some suggest that the new leaders are no different than previous leaders – one fundamentalist era for another.
Most, however, see this for what it is – the passing of the baton from one generation of leaders to the next, along with the struggles and conflicts that process produces. It’s too early to tell if the new leaders are as orthodox as those of the previous generations. Needless to say, the SBC will look different in the coming generations. Only God knows if we will reclaim our heritage in evangelism and missions, having already reclaimed our theological heritage.