The Clintonization of the SBC
Most Southern Baptists are rightfully distressed if not outright embarrassed by the public policies and moral equivocations of the President of the United States. Bill Clinton assumed leadership of our nation last year with expressions of commitment to religious values that were shaped in Southern Baptist church life. He is, by his own testimony, a Christian and a member in good standing of a local Southern Baptist church.
The frustration which many Southern Baptists have with President Clinton was expressed by Charles Stanley at the Pastors’ Conference prior to the annual SBC meeting in Orlando last June. Without mentioning the Clintons by name, Dr. Stanley cited the parallels between the current administration and ancient Israel under the reign of Ahab. To underscore his point, he read 1 Kings 21:25, “There was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do wickedness in the sight of the Lord, because Jezebel his wife stirred him up.”
During his campaign Mr. Clinton made no apologies for his advocacy of abortion as a fundamental right of every woman and girl. In fact, he won much sympathy from his opponents when he described the process by which he came to his convictions. Only after extensive Scripture study under the tutelage of his now deceased, conservative Southern Baptist pastor did he conclude that the Bible is simply silent on the issue and therefore allows a “pro-choice” position.
Though strongly disagreeing with him, many Southern Baptists took some comfort in the fact that soon-to-be-President Clinton at least made an appeal to the Bible. God’s Word, though misconstrued, was at least being consulted for guidance on ethical issues.
Perhaps this appeal to the Scriptures gave some Christians reason to hope that President Clinton’s policies and agenda would be less radical than what his critics warned. Such illusions are surely by now completely erased. Within the first few weeks of his inauguration President Clinton demonstrated that his administration will openly promote immorality in unprecedented fashion.
The disjunction of profession and practice in our President has provoked the ire of many evangelicals-especially Southern Baptists. How can a man be a member in good standing of a Southern Baptist church and yet promote anti-Christ lifestyles and agendas? The outrage boiled so hot at the 1993 Southern Baptist Convention that one messenger made a motion to discipline Mr. Clinton’s church in Little Rock, Arkansas because they allowed him to continue as a member.
There is a tragic irony in the righteous indignation that has been directed toward the President by his fellow Southern Baptists. President Clinton is in many ways a product of modern Southern Baptist theology and ecclesiology. This is not to suggest that his spiritual formation can be attributed exclusively to Southern Baptist influences. He is, after all, married to a Methodist, a graduate of Roman Catholic Georgetown University, and appreciative of Arkansas Pentecostal revival meetings. And there are doubtless many factors in addition to these which have helped shaped his faith.
Nevertheless, the President is and has been for most of his life a Southern Baptist. How he relates his faith (what he professes) to his practice (what he does) ought to raise serious questions in the minds of his fellow Southern Baptists. As hard as it may be to accept, Bill Clinton’s religion is symptomatic of a shallow Christianity which has grown to epidemic proportions throughout our convention. His high profile has simply given prominence to serious problems which have existed for the last two generations in the SBC.
His faith has been nurtured in a context which, for the last 75 years, has accommodated if not encouraged easy-believism. He has come of age during an era when man-centered evangelism and experience-based Christianity has dominated our churches. Do not misunderstand, man certainly has a place in evangelism, but he does not belong center-stage. That place belongs to God alone, whose gospel it is and whose love, holiness and wisdom have ordained it. Similarly, experience has an important, necessary place in real Christianity. But that place is not at the foundation. The basis of life is truth. Doctrine-right belief-must always undergird experience and practice.
When the primacy of God and the priority of truth are given up, the kind of Christianity which results is inevitably anemic, disjointed and ineffectual. It is more cultural than biblical. Instead of transforming life it, at best, adds a “spiritual dimension” to one’s life. Thus the adherents to this pseudo-Christianity can talk very easily and fervently about their private religion while unapologetically clinging to their self-centered, sin-dominated lifestyles. In their view even though one’s faith does not transform one’s life it still can be regarded as meaningful and important.
President Clinton’s Christianity appears to be of this sort. Because he has such a high profile we are forced to see it in all of its shallowness. But is our President’s religion all that different from a significant portion of our Southern Baptist church members? Is it the character of his faith or its public profile that makes us react so strongly against it? How many of our other members have a similarly disjointed, ineffective faith?
The sad reality is that Bill Clinton typifies millions of professing Christians whose names are on our church rolls. It is a well-known fact that, of the 15 million members which we claim, over 7.5 million are inactive or non-resident. A significant number of the remaining active ones are only marginally so. How many spiritual Bill Clintons are there among these numbers? How many of our members give no evidence of any spiritual life at all? How many of our churches continue to grant full membership to men, women and young people who practice fornication, adultery, drunkenness, and other scandalous sins?
Are not these and other sinful lifestyles too often tolerated in our churches? Where is the righteous indignation against these Southern Baptists? Is their dead faith more tolerable because they are less visible? Is it overlooked in the name of love? Proverbs says the father who refuses to discipline his son actually hates him (13:24). The same can be said for the pastor and church that refuse to confront and seek to rescue wayward members. Certainly it is easier to bash a politician than it is to recover an erring brother. But it is the latter and not the former to which Christ has called us.
It is time for us to face the fact that our nation has elected a man to the presidency who is nothing other than a reflection of millions of our fellow Southern Baptists. Though saying it this way may be a little anachronistic, the Southern Baptist Convention has been Clintonized. Our churches have been ravaged for most of this century with a cheap grace gospel. We have added millions of unconverted members to our rolls. They have the label but not the reality. They are strangers to saving grace.
Now more than ever we need a reformation of our theology and practice. We need to rediscover the old gospel, the one that the Bible reveals which exalts God, humbles man, honors Christ and transforms lives. We must reclaim the doctrine of regeneration as that powerful, heart changing work of the Sovereign Spirit. We must reassert that justification comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone as His righteousness is imputed to us. Furthermore, we must resurrect the biblical teaching that where justification truly exists, sanctification also resides. Without holiness no man will see the Lord.
Along the same line we must labor to return biblical order to our churches. Membership must become meaningful once again. Mutual care, oversight, and discipline must be reincorporated into our congregations. The church that refuses to discipline immorality in its ranks forfeits its moral authority to decry unrighteousness in our political leaders. The Word of God must be given its rightful place of preeminence in our worship and evangelism. We need to rekindle our confidence in both its authority and sufficiency.
If theological and spiritual reformation does not come then many of our churches are destined to remain breeding grounds for empty professions of faith and incubators for unconverted religionists. We cannot afford to continue on this course. The glory of our God and the souls of our friends and loved ones are at stake.
May we learn the incriminating lessons which our President’s faith has to teach us. And rather than self-righteously castigating him as an easy target, may we repent of our own sin and be found faithful in the glorious work of reformation.