Scorching the earth


In the winter of 1996, we found ourselves making a little more than minimum wage as one of a handful of student workers responsible for collecting garbage on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Riding in the back of an old blue pickup truck, we would make our rounds to student housing, academic buildings, and the presidential home to pick up trash and carry it to dumpsters located adjacent to campus.

One day, while exiting the Ledford Student Center, a white-haired man with paint-splattered clothes and a blue ball cap stopped us.

“I know who you are,” he said. “I’m watching you.”

“And will you do me the courtesy of telling who, exactly, you are?” we asked.

“You’ll know that soon enough,” he responded. And then he walked away.

Over the course of the following weeks, we learned who he was.  He was a student at Southeastern, the father of two sons, a former trustee of the Baptist Sunday School Board, and widely-known and highly respected pastor from the mountains of Virginia. At one point, he was responsible for the launch of Sanctity of Life Sunday on the denominational calendar. His wife worked in the business office at the seminary.

His name, we discovered later that week, was C.B. Scott

Almost ten years later to the day, our phone rang in Dallas, TX.  It was C.B., and he started the conversation with a question:

“Are you going to let them get away with this?”

“They” were the trustees of the International Mission Board. “This” was the adoption of exclusionary policies regarding private prayer language and baptism that made then-trustee Wade Burleson a household name in the Southern Baptist Convention.

C.B. explained what was going on, and then he put the question to us again. Would we, he asked, let Paige Patterson and his cronies on the mission board get away with narrowing the parameters of cooperation and excluding missionary candidates over some tertiary matter upon which sensible, respected Baptist scholars disagreed?

The rest of that story has been reported on any number of fronts. We fought hard, and it got ugly. Then in 2008, we walked away from denominational engagement. Until one year ago this month, when we had another phone call from C.B. Scott that convinced us to enter the fray again.

This time, our skills had been sharpened by a decade of Washington politics. Our professional failures had taught us some hard lessons, and our professional successes had freed us from concerns about ecclesiastic reprisal. Indeed, our native strategic instincts had been tempered through experience by more cautious wisdom.

In the intervening years, the International Mission Board had also reversed the policies that we found so contemptible. Paige Patterson had managed to nearly destroy Southwestern Seminary, and Dick Land had found himself a new job at Norm Geisler’s seminary in Charlotte, N.C. So beginning in November 2017, we returned to active participation in Southern Baptist life and soon thereafter re-launched The Baptist Blogger.

Readership went through the roof. At one point earlier this year, we were receiving as many as 80,000 hits a day. If not for a long-planned trip to the Inner Hebrides in June, we would have been in Dallas for this year’s annual meeting. But in a year’s time, we’ve been to four seminary campuses, twice each to Southeastern and Southwestern, the Executive Committee offices on five separate occasions, and we’ve attended Sunday morning services at a host of SBC churches. We have accepted an invitation to speak at one of them early next year. And God willing, we will be in Birmingham as a fully credentialed messenger from our home church.

Not a day passes that we are not weighing the duration, focus, and intensity of our renewed sense of belonging within and worshipping among the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. What we found upon our return was hopeful, and what we’ve experienced since that return is both spiritually edifying and personally affirming.

So when we learned several weeks ago that the International Mission Board had settled on a candidate to serve as its next president who had not only supported the policies we opposed but was their chief advocate and the chairman of the committee that articulated and enforced those policies, we had to determine if all that has been accomplished in the SBC over the last few months was the removal of one backwards seminary president and the election of his one-time ally.* Had the Southern Baptist Convention been spared the ongoing confessional and institutional assaults from an increasingly eccentric and erratic leader only to elevate another?

Thankfully, that does not seem to be the case.

It is possible that our determination to resume active participation in the Southern Baptist Convention has coincided with a need to ensure that the agenda for narrowing parameters does not raise its ugly head again. Whatever the case, we have resolved that if such an agenda should begin to appear — or even if a whisper of such an agenda could be heard — we would oppose it with all our fire and fury.  Only this time, harder and more effectively before such policies were codified and not afterwards.

We would, in absolute candor, scorch the earth to stop them.

But it does not seem that the missionary enterprise of Southern Baptists will be subjected to a similar controversy in the near future. And for the moment, it seems that the various search committees of SBC entities are being especially careful to screen candidates whose past statements and actions do not compromise the progress that has been made. Indeed, every effort must be made to ensure the convention maintains a course that rightly affirms the dignity and value of every human soul, protects women and children from evildoers, and puts the Gospel above all in both word and deed.

In a conversation we had yesterday with a Southern Baptist pastor, we stated clearly what we know to be our own strength and weakness.  We are demolition experts. We are not architects.  The past decade has taught us a great deal about the need for special care when razing a building so something better can be constructed.  Otherwise, there’s far more cleanup to be done than is necessary and too great a risk of injury to oneself and those around him.

Or like we regularly tell our clients: Do not call in the carpet bombers when a surgical drone strike can do the job more efficiently and at a lower cost. There is no need to wipe out an entire village when you only need to eliminate a single household.

Or if a biblical motif is preferred: a man should not tie the tails of 300 inflamed foxes when a shepherd’s slingshot and a few smooth stones will suffice.

This weekend, we hope to publish a perspective on the issue of missionary candidate evaluation that strikes at the heart of our past concerns.


*Frank S. Page Collection, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.