Roman Baptist Convention, Part Six and Final…

The final post in the series follows:

8. An allurement to extracanonical authorities.

During the days of the Conservative Resurgence, all parties appealed to the Bible. On the one hand there were moderates who claimed to have “no creed but the Bible,” which became a rallying cry for opposition to confessional accountability. On the other hand there were conservatives who claimed to be fighting a “battle for the Bible,” by which they meant a reclamation of the inerrancy principle to guide the convention’s ministries. To an extreme on the moderate side were the liberals — the exact number of which is unknown — who denied the historical reliability of biblical texts. To the other extreme on the conservative side were the fundamentalists — most of whom reject the opprobrious epithet — who affirm the sufficiency of Scripture in principle but not in practice or policy.

There are no longer any liberals in Southern Baptist Convention leadership to which any honest or educated person can point. Liberals have found safe havens for their deplorable doctrines in other academies of theological education. Many moderates are still nominally Southern Baptist, and most of them still support the International Mission Board, purchase Lifeway literature, invest with Guidestone, and contribute to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. They just don’t come to conventions or send their preacher boys to Southern Baptist seminaries or set their Tivos to record the latest interview with Richard Land on FOX.

Regrettably, the fundamentalists remain. I’ve often thought that the Southern Baptist Convention would have been better off if we’d lost 10 percent on either side. Nobody will argue that our convention is more biblically anchored without Molly Marshall Greens or Jack Flanderses or Ralph Elliotts or Temp Sparkmanses. The fact that many in the blogging community will have to google those names is evidence enough that we have inoculated the liberal influence in the SBC.

I’m of the opinion, however, that we might have been wiser to create an environment of theological fellowship in the Southern Baptist Convention that would have driven fundamentalists off stage right while the liberals were scurrying off stage left. For instance, I believe the SBC was unwise to welcome Jerry Falwell to our convention platform as regularly as we did. I think the SBC would be healthier without the extreme right either. Give us the 80 percent in the middle and we’d be better off, I suggest.

Nevertheless, fundamentalists have not only stayed but they’ve continued to exert a controlling influence in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention. Fundamentalists are the ones who forced the silly Disney boycott. Fundamentalists are the ones who forced the silly Richards’ amendment to last year’s resolution number five. Fundamentalists are the ones who keep pushing our convention toward Landmarkism — as in the case of the International Mission Board policy on baptism — or narcissism — as in the case of Malcolm Yarnell’s programme for capital “B” Baptist everything.

For all their talk about “the authority of the Bible,” fundamentalists sure seem to find other authorities with equal or greater influence. When it comes to “beverage alcohol,” for instance, we are told to impose a strict rule on Southern Baptist trustees because of our “history of having opposed the alcohol industry.” For more than one hundred years, we are told, Baptists have been against drinking, as if a history of cultural opposition makes for exegetical precision. Go read the various “white papers” that are disseminated around Southern Baptist seminaries these days, and discover how much talk there is of “Baptist theology” or “Baptist history” and less talk of biblical authority. What began as a push for the authority and integrity of the sacred text has morphed into a relentless push for the authority and integrity of the sacred tradition.

Of course, the Southern Baptist fundamentalists — most of whom are consistently anti-Calvinistic — are selective in their attempts to elevate Baptist tradition to a quasi-canonical authority. Don’t believe me? Go ask Tom Ascol & Company. Basil Manly and James Petigru Boyce and a good number of their contemporaries find reference in Paige Patterson’s scholarship (pause for laughter) insofar as they address issues of Baptist ecclesiology. When it comes to election or the atonement, however, they may as well have written on stewardship.

I guess I’m saying that it bothers me when preachers at Pastor’s Conferences get louder shouts of amens when they quote Criswell or Rogers or Truett or Carroll or Scarborough then when they quote Peter or James or John. Want to get a bunch of Baptists howling, start barking ad nauseum about our “Baptist forefathers.” Want the room to get quiet, try preaching on the Olivet Discourse.

As far as I know, the Conservative Resurgence was about the inerrancy of the Bible…not the inerrancy of Baptist theology or practice. Yet it seems we’re being told the two are somehow caught in a classic case of clinical codependency. This, of course, leads me to my next observation:

9. An overdeveloped ecclesiology

Here’s food for thought: The more Southern Baptists focus on ecclesiology, the less we focus on Christology. The purpose of the church is not to look in the mirror and focus on itself, but to look to the Word and focus on Christ. The more central ecclesiological concerns become to our theologies, the less central Christ becomes. The church is a vessel charged with the responsibility to preach the good news of Christ’s sufficient and completed atoning work, not an academic institution charged with the responsibility to herald the ecclesiological excellence of Baptist churches.

In fact, the first man to bear the name Baptist was, according to Jesus, greatest among those born of women. We should not miss the fact that his preaching was concerned exclusively with the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and not with the peculiar practices of an ascetic people known as Essenes.

Yet Southern Baptists are in real danger of having our theological attention distracted away from the Bridegroom due to an inordinate fascination with the Bride. In this way, we are being led to think that our churches are His Church, and our kingdoms His. This, quite simply, will prove the undoing of our ministry fruitfulness. If we aren’t careful, one day we will wake up to find that our little vine has withered altogether.

In one of his earlier works, Alister McGrath observed the “under-developed ecclesiology” of evangelicals and the “over-developed ecclesiology” of the Roman Catholic tradition. Commenting on McGrath’s assessment, Richard Mouw of Fuller Seminary noted:

“In our efforts to evaluate critically “weak” doctrines of the church we ought not to be insensitive to the dangers posed by “strong” ecclesiologies. We evangelicals have long worried about ecclesiological perspectives that are so highly detailed and all consuming that they marginalize other important theological concerns. In a sense, this worry has roots in the Reformation: when Luther raised a much-neglected soteriological concern about justification by faith, his critics regularly responded with complaints about his weak ecclesiology as allegedly evidenced in his lack of appreciation for the nuances of a proper account of church authority. This is but one example of situations in which evangelical Protestants have experienced the heavy-handedness of a theological perspective that is dominated by ecclesiology.”

I shall leave it for others to determine for themselves whether or not Southern Baptists are being tempted toward an eccentric theology that emphasizes our ecclesiological structures and traditions to the neglect of the gospel itself. Before you form your opinion too quickly, however, I ask you to think about the chief criticism leveled against emergent and reformed pastors by those who claim exclusive prerogative to the Baptist mantle.

10. Excessive entanglement in political affairs.

The history of the Roman Catholic Church is a fascinating and provident study for Southern Baptists seeking to develop our political theology. Of course, it can be argued that Southern Baptists lack anything resembling a political theology or a sufficient hermeneutic to discern between our obligations to Caesar and our allegiance to Christ. Nevertheless, the Southern Baptist Convention has become too closely identified with secular partisan politics in general, and the Republican Party in particular. Every four years the aspiring occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue line up outside the offices of influential Southern Baptist pastors and denominational leaders like Henry IV waiting outside Canossa for the papal blessing.

This year, Richard Land has advised Mitt Romney. Alberto “Guantanamo” Gonzales made an appearance at the Executive Committee. Rudy Giuliani met with Frank Page, and this week we all get to hear George W. Bush address the Southern Baptist Convention. Our resolutions have become increasingly political, ranging from our thoughts on the federal judiciary to our thoughts on the federal judiciary, and even including our thoughts on the federal judiciary. Throw in a eulogy for President Ronald Reagan and a not-so-oblique resolution opposing Democratic initiatives for campaign finance reform, and you’ve got a denominational agenda that would turn loose a ton of confetti on the Republican National Committee.

What can be done about reversing these trends?

Stay tuned for my next post, set to drop before the Tuesday morning session of the 2007 Southern Baptist Convention, entitled “The Way Forward, Part Two.”