by Russell Moore
Novelist William Faulkner once famously told students at the University of Virginia that the southern evangelicals so prevalent in his Bible-Belt ecosystem were not religious. Surprised, the students asked, “If they’re not religious, then what are they?” Faulkner replied, “Well, they’re Southern Baptist.”
What the great man of letters meant was that, in his view, to be a Southern Baptist was a matter of cultural orientation, not a matter of a set of theological precepts or ethical practices or even political stances. For him Southern Baptist identity wasn’t primarily about believer’s baptism or local church congregationalism or the priesthood of all believers or religious liberty. It wasn’t even about God or Jesus or the Bible. It was primarily about an “emotional condition” that was inseparable from the experience of life in the poor and rural American South. To be a Southern Baptist wasn’t, he argued, to identify with a particular intellectual or liturgical condition but rather to simply be a type of person born in a particular place in a particular time.
As much as I hate to take issue with a fellow Mississippian, especially one now long dead, Faulkner was wrong to underestimate the theology and lived church life of Baptist Christians in the South. After all, no matter how captive the churches or the institutions of Southern Baptist life have been to the spirit of the age, and that is all too often, the gospel was always there, if sometimes obscured or even submerged. The gospel, of course, has a way of beating its way out of our jars of clay and then knocking us down off of our feet of clay. Faulkner was right, though, that Baptist Christianity has too often, where it is the dominant religion, traded away the inheritance of gospel distinctiveness for the mess of pottage of cultural civil religion.
At its worst, this sort of cultural Christianity meant captivity of the denomination to the Antichrist views of racial supremacy and with that to the state-sponsored terrorism of the regimes of human slavery or the Jim Crow order. Too often our proclamation looked like little more than a southern-fried social gospel, inviting our neighbors to receive the “good news” of the 1950s American dream. That was true even when we used Bible language such as “revival” and “awakening” or when we spoke of areas of Southern Baptist saturation, audaciously, as our “Zion.”
As I’ve argued elsewhere, that form of cultural Christianity can only thrive where the civil religion it maintains is useful in securing oneself a place in the earthly order. If a revival of biblical orthodoxy does not tear down these golden calves, then a secularizing culture surely will. We should not lament such loss. We should instead be warned by it and prepare ourselves for the opportunity to be the people of Christ in a new era brimming with gospel opportunities.
Organizational consultants tell us that an institution is on the precipice of dying when it sees itself perpetually in the past. That tendency is, of course, always with us. Some would set the “golden age” that they look to as the high point of Southern Baptist programs and cultural dominance. Texas pastor Bart Barber once noted (rightly, in my view) that the Baptist General Convention of Texas’s past tension with the rest of the Southern Baptist Convention, a tension that resulted in the formation of a new state convention, was quite different in one important aspect from the rest of the inerrancy controversy of the 1970s through the 1990s in Baptist life. The Texas moderates, he argued, did not want to go the way of the contemporary Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. They weren’t eager to embrace, for instance, the sexual revolution or the extremes of mainline Protestant theology.
At the same time, he noted, they didn’t want to go the way of the contemporary Southern Baptist Convention, toward confessional clarity on biblical inerrancy and contemporary debates on human sexuality and gender. They didn’t want to go toward the contemporary expressions of each of these options, he argued. They wanted simply to return to the Southern Baptist Convention, circa 1978, and freeze it there. But the era of the 1950s or the 1970s cannot be held for us in amber—whatever our theological commitments.
Others will look to the necessary correcting of the ship, the Conservative Resurgence begun with the election of Adrian Rogers as SBC president in 1979, as the “golden age.” Some do so with the nostalgia that naturally comes to all of us as we age. Some see every issue as coming with the same existential threat that theological liberalism posed to the convention in those days and wish to see the convention in the same sort of upheaval perpetually, even where theological aberrancy doesn’t exist. This comes with its own sort of peril.
David was a mighty man of war, and Israel was right to celebrate his conquests at the direction of the Spirit of God. But David was chosen by God to fight only necessary battles, ones of God’s own choosing. David’s descendants were right to seek to emulate his fighting spirit in the defeat of the giant of Gath or of the Philistine armies that threatened the camps of Judah. They would not do well to emulate his bloodshed of Uriah the Hittite or his militaristic (and egotistic) census of his people.
We should emulate the courage and conviction of the Conservative Resurgence, but we should do so because that fight was rooted in biblical truth. We should not valorize fighting for the sake of fighting. David’s bloody years pointed to King Jesus’s conquest of sin and death and the devil, to be sure. But the peaceful reign of Solomon also pointed to Christ in the “rest” of having all enemies under his feet, of the building of God’s temple. We ought to be prepared for when doctrinal deviancy might tear us apart, but we ought to be grateful when we exhibit the kind of missional unity and confessional consensus, grounded in inerrant biblical revelation, for which the leaders of the Conservative Resurgence prayed and worked.
We should be looking forward to a new era with new challenges and new opportunities. is does not mean, though, that we have not been here, at least in some ways, before. Our ancestors in England and in colonial and Revolutionary America crafted a Baptist identity bound to what historians Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins have called a sense of being “intentional outsiders.” Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams and Isaac Backus and John Leland knew what it meant to be voices crying in the wilderness, and their voices helped shape the future for us even if it meant jail time for them. The Baptist future may look much like the Baptist past—scrappy outsiders willing to face cultural marginalization for holding to the distinctives of a believers’ church ruled by King Jesus alone.
This means we must train the next generation to know and love the Bible, to hear in it the Spirit speaking to the churches. It means we must guard the Baptist contributions to the larger body of Christ—baptism reserved for confessing believers alone, a church that reflects and models the kingdom of priests, a gospel that comes not through coercion of state power or cultural pressure but through the sovereign working of the Spirit through the addressing of free consciences.
There are, of course, several pitfalls to this calling. The first is what many in our older generations (rightly) lament in the passing of a close tie between church and culture. The Bible was easy for me to learn as a child because I was present in my Southern Baptist church each week for Sunday School, two worship services each Sunday, Sunday night Training Union, Monday night visitation, and Wednesday night Royal Ambassadors, at the very minimum. In a time when churches increasingly meet only for Sunday morning worship, perhaps with a home community group hosted at some point in the week, the saturation of children with the Bible poses real challenges that must be met by more than just forty-five-minute sermons that are compilations of Bible commentary quotes.
The second pitfall is that no one and no people enjoy a prophetic calling that requires careful distance from the “tribes” as they are set up at the moment. We can see this with the Baptist distinctive of religious freedom. The Baptist Left often accused Baptist conservatives of abandoning religious liberty. Sometimes they were right, as Baptists fell in line for state-sponsored writing of prayers or for zoning out of existence the houses of worship of unpopular religious minorities. But then again often these Baptist progressives forgot all about “soul freedom” as soon as the question was of a politically similar set of politicians forcing nuns to violate their consciences in purchasing contraceptive drugs and devices.
The Baptist future will require faithful, conservative, confessional Baptists to see ourselves as the best of our ancestors saw themselves—as the people of Christ before we are anything else.
The Baptist future will require us to teach why we believe such strange things as bodily resurrection and miracles and the forgiveness of sins.
The Baptist future will require us to stop trying to reach our “target demographics” and see congregations where carnal divisions are torn down.
The Baptist future will require us to model for our children what it means not to fear man as we stand for our principles against our enemies and against our allies.
The Baptist future will require the courage to say to a dying world, “You must be born again.”
In that I have hope and indeed more than hope. I have a sense of exhilaration. The world needs the gospel. The almost gospels will not keep their promises. And the body of Christ needs the contribution of the cantankerous, Bible-believing, freedom-loving Baptists.
We should pray that 100 years from now our descendants are reaching new generations, sloshing new believers in and out of baptisteries in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. When some ask why they “waste” so much water on such a rite, let’s pray that their witness is so clear that the answer will be, “Well, they’re Baptists.” And when some ask why they would “waste” their time on the sort of miserable sinners and cultural outcasts they are receiving with the gospel, let’s pray that their witness is so clear the answer will be, “Well, they’re Christians.”
Editor’s note: This is excerpted from The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflections, Renewal, & Recommitments.
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