During the height of the SBC controversy in the 1980s, disestablished moderate elites decried the efforts of conservative insurgents as political power-grabs. The whole “battle for the Bible” was more about power than principle, more about control than doctrine. For years, I have believed the moderates were in error, but it seems that their broken clock has finally struck its accurate hour in recent months. The Southern Baptist Convention, the “Conservative Resurgence,” and the Cooperative Program by which millions of dollars are dispersed are being co-opted by men whose actions look more like a ravenous quest for power than a beatified thirst for the righteousness of God. Surely this thesis needs explanation.
Acclaimed sociologist Kenneth Clark has committed the greater part of his academic career to studying the character and abuse of power, especially as it relates to issues of race and political marginalization. His book, Pathos of Power, originally published in 1969, is remarkable for its relevance to the current crises facing Southern Baptists.
The idea of political power is hard to define, but not for failure to attempt its definition, as Clark observes. For lack of an acceptable definition of socio-political power, therefore, Clark looks to physics for the rudimentary components of his definition. Physics, Clark notes, has defined power as “any form of energy or force available for work or applied to produce motion or pressure.” Therefore, Clark argues, when the scientific idea of power is applied to a social, political, or religious context, one can define power as “that energy necessary to create, to sustain, or to prevent observable social change.” This definition includes certain tentative premises, which Clark outlines as follows:
1.Power is amoral; it can be used, as can physical energy and nuclear power, for good or bad ends, but in itself it cannot determine value. It may be rational or irrational, constructive or destructive, in its consequences.
2. Power implies possibilities of choice in determining priorities to be assigned to various individuals and groups within a social system of differential status and hierarchy in the gratification of needs. It implies the ability to make and implement decisions and successfully to control resistance or attempts to impose counterdecisions.
3.In the face of conflict, power may be exercised in varying degrees, the first of which is latent, whereby it demonstrates itself when challenged and to the minimal extent required to meet or contain the challenge. Or it may be exercised actively and usually overtly in the face of continuing or anticipated challenges or conflicts. Power may finally be exercised coercively, whereby the holders of power will enforce their desires in the face of intense and persistent challenges.
4. The conditions of passive or active resistance determine the degree of power exerted in any given situation. Power can be expressed in innocuous ways, such as persuasion, argumentation, etc. It can be expressed in more direct ways in the actual control of the behavior of others, by institutional controls, restraints, sanctions, or privileges. Finally, coercive power tends to be exerted only under the conditions of overt resistance to the less intense forms of power when a significant and sustained challenge arises. The law, the police, and other sanctioning institutions operate with impunity in regulating the degree of dissent, challenge, or demand for change that is tolerable to those who control the power.
5. The hoarding of power, power waste, and non-decision may be seen as affirmative attempts to influence the power equation. The refusal by political or religious leaders to use their power in a moral conflict or controversy is an empirically verifiable exercise in power.
6. Certain forms of power appear to be effective but in reality they are illusory pseudo power. Verbal posturing, unaccompanied by the ability to implement words in action, or the delusion of power, or the mistaken perception of power where it does not actually exist are pseudo power. In quiescent situations, pseudo power appears real, but in conflict or controversy the conscious or unconscious pretension to power is seen to be ignored. Pseudo power cannot sustain, or prevail, under conditions of prolonged protest or conflict. And finally,
7. The voluntary transfer or sharing of power may also be illusory. This phenomenon poses many problems which relate to questions of motivation. When power is “shared” by the dominant, it may be that what is shared is the appearance rather than the substance of power.
With these premises as my point of departure, I want to explore how the quest for and abuse of power in the Southern Baptist Convention is rotting our collective conscience. Indeed, leaders of the conservative resurgence should lie awake at night wondering to themselves, “What should it profit a man if he should gain the whole denomination and forfeit his own soul.” If they aren’t, then we’re in worse shape than I thought. In case they’re reading, then, let me offer some thoughts to get the discussion going.
First, Kenneth Clark recognizes that power and influence are amoral; that is, they are not by themselves either good or evil. When men who lead our SBC agencies and institutions, either as trustees or as executives, are using the influence and position to faithfully execute the desires, goals, and commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, they are using the authority granted them by the convention to achieve positive ends. However, if a man, or a group of men, or a group of trustees, use the positions afforded them by all Southern Baptists to advance the agendas of a subset of Southern Baptists to the exclusion of others, then power has been corrupted and the result is destructive. A board of trustees may use the power granted them by the convention to ensure that field missionaries are faithfully reflecting in their witness and work what all Southern Baptists have defined as the confessional parameters of our cooperative missionary enterprise. If, however, a group of trustees seeks to implement a restrictive doctrinal parameter that does not reflect the diversity on non-essentials that Southern Baptists recognize, then they have abused the power given them, thus constituting an “evil” application of an “amoral” privilege. If it can be demonstrated that the actual policies on private tongues and baptism are not reflective of Southern Baptists confessional diversity, then the board of trustees has abused the authority granted them by the convention to act in opposition to those who have authorized them to act.
Second, Clark recognizes that power elites will always use their power to control resistance and subvert challenges to the power they have achieved. For instance, can the use of the “power” afforded a seminary president by the Southern Baptist Convention to endorse particular candidates for office be understood as an “abuse” of power to “control resistance.” Is it possible that the men with extraordinary influence would use that influence to recommend persons for service on their own trustee boards or the trustee boards of other SBC entities, especially those entities against which they have already made public critique? Has there been undue influence exerted on the nomination process by trustees wishing to bring “likeminded” votes onto their respective boards who might work to remove the agency president? Has there been similar influence exerted by any seminary presidents upon the boards of trustees of the SBC to implement a particular agenda for that institution that falls outside the immediate administration of their own institution? The Apostle Paul instructs Timothy that men who lead the church should be those who “manage their own house well.” With this in mind, is it appropriate or helpful for SBC entity administrators whose own institutions are facing unprecendented shortfalls to circulate missives and white papers about what’s wrong with another man’s leadership? A farmer who is concerned about the fruit of his neighbor’s field when his own is drying on the vine is poor steward indeed.
Third, Clark argues that when challenges to power arise, the powerful will respond with increasing degrees of intensity. Again, the case of the International Mission Board is illustrative. When the problem was a few “undesirables” who had private prayer languages or had been baptized by “unacceptable” ecclesial authorities, the tact was to implement a policy change. One trustee began blogging his dissent, and resistance grew. Moving from argument and persuasion, the IMB Board of trustees chose to remove the “dissentious” trustee, trusting that the SBC would sustain their request. Once again, a groundswell of opposition arose, greater than before. Realizing that their assertion of raw power would not be approved by the necessary majority of convention messengers, the IMB Executive Committee, under the uncircumspect leadership of Tom Hatley, backpeddled, choosing rather to implement a new policy barring dissent. In the meantime, a position paper was offered to assuage concerned Southern Baptists, yet its irrational, illogical, and unbiblical argumentation was summarily dismissed by most anybody who read it. A greater number of Southern Baptists started crying foul, and the blogging trustee would not be silenced. Blogs broke out everywhere, letters to the editors poured in, and unbelievable pressure was applied. The IMB trustees then converged on Albuquerque, where Chairman Tom Hatley, in his final act as chairman, used the office afforded him by Southern Baptists to launch a full-frontal attack on a trustee, recommending that he be barred from doing the very work that thousands of Southern Baptists had elected him to do. As the opposition grew, so did the abuse of power by those who were threatened.
And this is just one instance among many others in our convention today.
Fourth, there is a tendency for those with power who do not abuse it to shrink from confronting those who do. In essence, a “good old boy” network develops, whereby everybody turns a blind eye to everybody else’s corruption in an evil pact of reciprocity. In such a system, you will hear things like this: “We should support so-and-so because of all the things he did for us way back when;” or “We need to stand by the men who led us to power because if we don’t we will only confirm what their ‘enemies’ said about them;” or “It’s perfectly okay for a seminary president to endorse a candidate for president, just like all Southern Baptists can.” Of course, on this last one, I agree. A seminary president should be able to endorse a candidate like everybody else. The only difference is that everybody else cannot use SBC Cooperative Program resources to issue their endorsement.
Again, while it is upsetting that so many are willing to keep silent in the face of such abuses of power, Southern Baptists should be encouraged that “God has saved a remnant” who are willing to stand up and speak out when such abuses occur. Of course, I have in mind the recent position taken by SBC Executive Committee President Morris Chapman, whose courage, sensible demeanor, and diplomacy will calm the waters in Greensboro to some degree.
Fifth, Clark recognizes that not every instance of power is actual power. Some forms of “power” are, in fact, instance of pseudo power. Some claim to have power, but in actuality they do not. When all things are rocking along with little conflict or opposition, those who wield pseudo power are able to sustain the impression that they are powerful. As opposition increases and questions get asked, the pseudo powerful get strangely quiet. In the coming days, more questions are going to be asked about abuses of Cooperative Program resources, about the exertion of undue influence upon the agendas of SBC boards of trustees, and about attempts to use the positions of influence afforded by all Southern Baptists to advance the narrow agendas of a few? Questions are going to be asked about the way facts and figures of our SBC institutions have been reported. More questions are going to be asked about the tremendous Cooperative Program dollars that are used by some in SBC leadership to live like kings on the mite of widows. As these questions are asked, and as the answers are uncovered, I doubt that others will have the wisdom and grace to follow the example of Robert Reccord. Rather, some will dig in their heels and “cash in” their political power to stay in power. When a man’s only influence is that afforded him by his office, he only possesses pseudo power. If a man continues to have influence after he’s out of office, then his power is real and his influence is assured. Or put another way: think of the difference between Adrian Rogers — who had influence without an office — and others whose names you can’t even remember because they don’t have a title or expense account anymore.
Finally, Clark reflects on the “voluntary transfer of power,” alleging that such a “transfer” is really a sham. I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately with all the talk of “bringing new faces to the table.” There are those who say that Ronnie Floyd is going to “bring in new guys” and others suggest that the nomination of Mark Dever as 1st Veep and J.D. Greear as 2nd Veep are ways to bring “Calvinists” and “Young Leaders” into a power-sharing deal with the old graying heads of the conservative resurgence who occupy the key posts of denominational influence. But most people know better. If anybody really thinks that the election of Mark Dever will bring an end to the sniping of reformed theology by ignorant men, then I’ll be shocked. The election of Mark Dever won’t bring an endorsement of elder-rule by Paige Patterson any more than the election of Wiley Drake will bring an endorsement of the Wiley Drake Show by Richard Land.
In light of all this, I would like to make five final comments:
1. The power-elites of the Southern Baptist Convention will use every tool at their disposal, both ethical and unethical, to resist the change advocated on this blog and others.
2. Those of my peers who have cultivated a place of service under the wings of the power elites will be increasingly frustrated as the men who have “groomed” them for positions of power attain their eternal reward, leaving their proteges with the positions and titles but not the influence to lead the convention.
3. If those of us who are advocating change are successful in achieving our goals tomorrow, it will only be a few years before we behave just like those we have opposed today.
4. That is why I have made the private and public commitment never to accept any role in Southern Baptist life except the pastorate of Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington, TX. Of course, I don’t feel like I’m giving anything up. They are the sweetest most Christ-honoring people on earth, and I’m regularly dumbfounded about how a guy like me ended up serving a church like that.
5. Whatever the distribution of power in the convention, for two days every year the playing field is level. Any messenger can make a motion. Any messenger can offer a resolution. Any messenger can speak from a floor microphone. Anybody who doubts me, should remember the day that a little blue-haired grannie derailed Jack Graham’s agenda for renaming the convention. Messengers control the convention, and they can control it if they put their minds to reform and renewal rather than blind loyalty to men who might have betrayed their trust.