Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why I'm Still in the Southern Baptist Convention

I've heard a lot of talk lately of young men who are leaving the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I cannot possibly mention all of their reasons for leaving (for one thing, I'm not aware of all of their reasons), but I know that many are disillusioned by all of the politics and arguing that seem to permeate much of the SBC leadership. For others, the SBC has just gotten too large. Others simply no longer see any reason for the SBC.

I have recently given a great deal of thought to this issue. We as a family are in an odd spot because we are currently home from the mission field for my son to receive treatment for his cancer. Because of this, we are not closely associated with any one church. This has allowed me to step back from any emotional ties I might have to any one particular SBC church, and examine whether or not I want to remain a part of the SBC.

Let me please state that I am very pleased that the SBC places a strong emphasis on the gospel message in particular, and on a literal interpretation of scripture in general. However, there are other, smaller Baptist denominations and associations that do this, too. Therefore, I don't have to remain in the SBC to remain biblical (Sorry to all my Presbyterian friends out there; I really like some things about the PCA, but I just can't get past infant baptism).

As is obvious from previous posts here, I am a Calvinist. I believe the Doctrines of Grace are biblical. However, many in leadership positions within the SBC are either afraid of Calvinism or just plain don't like it (this is ironic since The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is now the largest SBC seminary and is also Calvinistic). Why should I bother remaining in a denomination that, in general, is not welcoming to Reformed theology? There are certainly Reformed Baptist associations, such as ARBCA, I could be a part of.

At this point, I'd like to list several things that I think need to change within the SBC. Then I'll tell you why I have, at least for now, chosen to still be a part of the SBC.

There are three things that I believe are in critical need of reform (please excuse the pun) within the SBC. First, the convention needs to define what it is and what it is not. In other words, how similar do the churches have to be in order to be a part of the SBC? Do they all have to agree on all secondary issues? Do they have to agree on all tertiary issues? What issues are worth separating over, if any? I propose that the SBC revise the BF&M 2000, and clearly state what it means to be in the SBC. On a related topic, I hope we can accept diversity of thought on non-essential issues.

Second, the SBC needs to attempt to do away with the "warfare mentality" that has permeated convention leadership ever since the late 1970's. I do think the "Conservative Resurgence" was necessary at its time. However, almost all the liberals are now gone from the SBC. Let's stop bickering over minute details and unite around the gospel. I'd like to thank current SBC president Frank Page for his leadership of unity.

Third, the SBC should downsize as quickly as is possible. The local church is able to do, and should be doing, much of what the SBC is taking care of right now. I can quickly think of three agencies that the SBC should move to gradually eliminate. The first is Lifeway. The local church can and should be teaching scripture to its members. We do not need all of the other resources that Lifeway puts forth every month. Another agency that the SBC could disband would be the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). We as a convention need to get farther away from politics. This country will be saved by the grace and hope of Christ, not by our jumping into the back pocket of the Republican party. In fact, we often turn-off unbelievers because they hear about what we are against but not what we are for. A third agency that is not necessary is the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Local churches can work together to plant churches all around this country. I want to be clear here: Lifeway, the ERLC, and NAMB are all doing some good. However, they also cost a lot of money to operate. I would like to see that money remain in the hands of the local churches, and put these responsibilities on their shoulders.

So, in light of these changes that need to take place and the problems that the SBC faces, why stay in the Southern Baptist Convention?

I have two specific reasons for remaining a part of the SBC. These are also the only two reasons why I think the SBC should even exist any longer. First, and primarily, the SBC is doing a very solid job in the area of international missions. I can speak from experience in this matter. I believe the International Mission Board's (IMB) focus on unreached people groups (UPGs) is the correct one. I also agree with their philosophy of church planting. In going through the IMB candidate process, I can tell you that we were well-prepared. Related to this is the fact that many of our SBC local churches are too small to be effectively involved in international missions by themselves. These churches may be able to send mission teams overseas on short-term trips, but they would struggle to support families full-time. In general, I applaud the efforts of the IMB.

A second reason for the existence of the SBC (and the second reason I remain in the SBC) is that the six SBC seminaries offer solid theological educations at less than 50% of the cost of most of the other evangelical seminaries in the USA. For example, an M.Div. at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary will cost about $2,600 per semester for Southern Baptists. In comparison, an M.Div. at Gordon-Conwell Seminary costs about $6,600 per semester, while the same degree at Westminster Seminary runs about $5,500 (Click here to find out more about that). Why is this important? If a denomination cannot fill its pulpits, and some are having difficulty doing this, then its churches will struggle. Now, I realize that an argument can be made that the local church should be providing theological training, and that the seminaries should be done away with. While I hope that eventually occurs, I don't think we are in any position to do that right now as a convention.

To summarize, the SBC needs a lot of work. I hope all Southern Baptists will work toward unity around the gospel within the convention. I hope we can all tolerate diversity of thought on non-essential issues. Let's do away with some of the bulk of the SBC, especially agencies that are doing what the local church should be responsible for. Let's keep the SBC together primarily for the cause of international missions, and secondarily for the the reason of providing solid and affordable theological education.


Alan Knox said...


This post shows a tremendous amount of thought and soul-searching. It is encouraging to me anytime someone looks closely at who they are and who they associate with. It is also challenging for me to do the same thing. I know too many people who are Southern Baptists because their parents were Southern Baptists. Thank you for this post!


Eric said...

Thanks Alan. I've been thinking about this for a while now. Whatever form the SBC ends up taking, I hope that more responsibility is handed back to the local churches. I also hope we will be known more for unity and the gospel than for absolute doctrinal purity.