Southern Baptists at the Crossroads: Returning to the Old Paths

Thus says the Lord: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)

On May 8, 1845, two hundred ninety-three “delegates” (as they were then called) from Baptist churches in the South assembled in Augusta, Georgia, to form a new denomination. From that first meeting to the present, the Southern Baptist Convention has been marvelously blessed by our Lord. Missions, education, benevolence, social concerns–these are among the many avenues of service which Southern Baptists have cooperatively traveled during the last 150 years.

During our century-and-a-half pilgrimage Southern Baptists have made great strides in many of these areas. We have seen our foreign missionary force swell to over 4,000 men and women serving under the Foreign Mission Board in more than 175 countries. Through the Home Mission Board we have an almost equal number of appointees serving in our own nation. Approximately 10,000 students are currently being trained in our six seminaries. The 1995 goal for gifts to support our various mission efforts through the Cooperative Program is $150 million.

Indeed, Southern Baptists have much for which to be thankful as we approach the sesquicentennial anniversary of our convention. However, and with due appreciation for the many outward signs of growth and prosperity, all is not well in Southern Baptist Zion. Spiritual life and vitality cannot be measured simply by large numbers and growing organizations. Otherwise, we would be compelled to give a clean bill of health to the Mormons, Moonies and Jehovah’s Witnesses, all of whom have experienced phenomenal growth over the last two decades.

It does not take much analysis to discover that all across the convention churches are infected with some serious maladies. One of the most obvious is meaningless church membership. Every serious-minded pastor is aware of this.


Meaningless Membership

Southern Baptists have in recent years topped the 15 million mark on our membership rolls. Our fastest growing type of member, however, is of the “non-resident” variety. Add to this the fact that 20% of our members are “inactive” (they are resident–they have not moved away–but they neither attend nor contribute to their church). What this means is that only half of our 15 million members can in any sense be counted as active (that is, they contributed financially or attended at least one service last year).

Even the secular media recognizes the deception of our inflated membership statistics. The Wall Street Journal exposed the facade in an article entitled, “Official Number of Southern Baptists Is Overstated, Even Their Leaders Agree.”1

Baptists have historically championed the twin convictions of believers’ baptism and a believers’ church. The Baptist Faith and Message’s article 7 reflects a long and consistent heritage when it affirms:

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a local body of baptized believers who are associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel, observing the two ordinances of Christ, committed to His teachings, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth.

A church is comprised of members who are in covenant with each other, who observeare committedexercise…and seek. In other words, they are active. The Bible knows nothing of “inactive” or “non-resident” church members. Why then do such people comprise the majority of our membership?

We will never get to the bottom of this question without first examining the current method of adding new members. Specifically, we need to reexamine modern evangelistic practices. When Roy Edgemon, the Director of Discipleship Training for the Sunday School Board, studied this issue, he concluded that too much of our evangelism is “manipulative,” “shallow,” “abortive,” and “without integrity.”2 It is more interested in decisions than disciples.

Too often modern evangelistic technique is geared toward getting a sinner to agree with some facts and recite a prayer. Once this occurs, it is assumed he is saved. Those who go through these steps are commonly judged ready for baptism and church membership. The consequence of such practice, Edgemon observes, is that “we lose thousands of people who are going to die and go to hell, thinking they’re saved. And they’ve never been saved.” This is a sobering thought.

The Bible recognizes the reality of false faith. Demons have faith (James 2:19). Simon Magus had faith (Acts 8:13; cf. vv. 21-23). Many Jews who were impressed with Jesus’ miraculous power put their faith in him (John 2:23-25). But the Bible teaches that none of these were truly converted. They did not possess saving–that is, life-changing–faith in Christ.

Likewise, the first century church was not immune to church members who ceased coming to church–dropouts, if you will. They did not, however, keep on regarding them as members who should be classified as either “non-resident” or “inactive.” Rather, these dropouts were categorized on the basis of what they demonstrated themselves to be-false converts. The Apostle John explains, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19).

The late evangelist, Vance Havner, used to say, “We Southern Baptists are many, but we ain’t much.” Because of deadly evangelistic practices, we are not as many as we may think, either.


Moral Relativism

Another serious problem which plagues our churches today is moral relativism. This actually grows out of the shallow evangelism that has filled our church rolls with unconverted members. When unregenerate people find refuge in church membership they inevitably dilute the body’s corporate commitment to holiness. If a little leaven leavens the whole lump, how much more devastating is a lot of leaven? No matter how congenial and affable he may be, an unconverted church member inevitably retains unregenerate appetites and perspectives. Allegiance to biblical principles which govern Christian and church life will necessarily wane where there is not a whole-hearted submission to Christ as King.

The spiritual disciplines for daily life (prayer, Bible study, worship, evangelism, fasting, etc.) are not only not practiced by the majority of our members anymore, they are rarely even recognized as essential ingredients of vital Christianity. Today the Christian life is typically depicted in emotional terms. Feelings predominate. If _______ (you may fill in the blank here with any number of possibilities: the sermon, the pastor, the choir special, the Sunday School class, the service, the church, etc.) does not make you feel just right, then, by all means, make a change! Many have done just that and so have dropped out, moved on or simply drifted off into spiritual wastelands.

Further, the corporate discipline of the church has gone the way of the Mastodon in the thinking of most Southern Baptists. There was a time when church discipline was recognized by Protestants in general and Baptists in particular as one of the distinguishing marks of a true church. The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 was not only regarded as inerrant, the steps which he outlined there were actually practiced by the churches. Today it is tragically common to have church members living in open immorality with absolutely no response from the congregation of which they are a part.

Thus it hardly even shocks us to read Hollywood badgirl and former Playboy pinup Shannon Doherty describe herself in TV Guide as “just a nice, Southern Baptist, Republican girl.” Of course she is! Why should shameless immorality stand in the way of being a church member? Somewhere along the line, Southern Baptists have lost their moral nerve. The world’s relativism (“nothing is always right or wrong”) and sentimentalism (“because I love you I will let you”) have displaced the Bible’s moral absolutism and genuine love that cares enough to correct.

John Dagg, the first Southern Baptist theologian to produce a systematic theology textbook (see Mark Dever’s article), argued that “when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” If Dagg is correct, what does that say for the state of our churches today?


The Root of the Problem

As disconcerting as our membership mirage and diluted spirituality may be, they are symptoms of deeper difficulties. Like cracked walls in a house, they betray the existence of far more serious, foundational problems.

Why do we have so many people on our church rolls who give little or no evidence of being converted? Why do shamelessly low levels of morality seem to be so widespread and readily accepted in our churches? To find the answers we must reexamine the very foundation of our church life and practice.

It is precisely at this point that our Southern Baptist heritage has so much to offer in the way of help and guidance. The serious issues reviewed above were not problematic for Southern Baptists of the last century. Why is that? What has changed? What did they have that we are missing?

Simply put, the answer is doctrine. The men and women who founded and shaped the Southern Baptist Convention in its formative years placed a high premium on sound doctrine. They took for granted that which we have all but forgotten, namely, that the foundation of vibrant Christian living and healthy Christian churches is solid, biblical teaching.

This was not a novel idea with them. It is taught everywhere in the Bible. When Jesus prayed that His followers would progress in holiness He did so by asking the Father to “sanctify them by the truth” (John 17:17). If we want to grow spiritually, then we must progress in our understanding and application of God’s truth revealed in His Word.

The very structure of Paul’s letters demonstrates the absolute necessity of a sound doctrinal foundation to an effective Christian life. The first 11 chapters of Romans set forth strong, weighty doctrine (including teachings on sin, justification, union with Christ, sanctification, and election). The last 5 chapters are filled with practical exhortations for daily life. These latter principles of conduct are rooted in the previous doctrinal exposition, as Paul indicates when he makes the transition from doctrine to practice: “I beseech you therefore [emphasis mine], brethren, by the mercies of God that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God which is your reasonable service” (12:1). Paul bases his appeal to live righteously on the glorious doctrines which he just expounded. This pattern is repeated throughout his writings.

Our Southern Baptist forefathers saw this and followed suit. They knew that there could never be right living without right belief. So they emphasized doctrinal teaching and preaching. In the pulpits, in the Sunday Schools, on the mission fields-and most certainly in the college and seminary classrooms!-priority was given to setting forth doctrinal truth as the foundation of spiritual life.

So important was this emphasis that in 1891 the Sunday School Board commissioned John Broadus to produce a catechism that could be used to teach sound doctrine to children. That same board published The New Convention Normal Manual in 1913 as an instruction manual for Sunday School teachers. According to the publishers, this book, with its clear affirmation of doctrinal distinctives, helped “standardize the thinking of our people.”

In 1874 the Southern Baptist Publication Society even published a Church Members’ Handbook of Theology to help “secure [the] `one faith’” among Southern Baptists by helping them to “give more attention to the study of the plan of salvation.” This the book does by including lengthy chapters on the doctrines of total depravity, the human will, regeneration, justification, atonement, perseverance of the saints, and predestination and election.

One thing is quite certain: our Southern Baptist forefathers were absolutely convinced of the necessity of understanding and believing sound doctrine. They expected it and insisted on it for all of the members of their churches.


Not Just Any Doctrine

Early Southern Baptists were not content to believe just any ol’ doctrine. They were concerned with sound doctrine. There was from the beginning widespread doctrinal agreement among them. The consensus was built around the great salvation doctrines which were commonly referred to as the “doctrines of grace.” James Boyce, founder and first president of Southern Seminary, described these doctrines in 1874 as being part of the “prevailing principles” which had guided the denomination to that point (see Al Mohler’s article). Forty-four years later in 1918 the second edition of The New Convention Normal Manual made the same claim by declaring, “nearly all Baptists believe what are usually termed the `doctrines of grace.’”

What are these “doctrines of grace?” Specifically, they are those truths of God’s Word which reveal His sovereign majesty in salvation. Historically, these doctrines have also been nicknamed “Calvinism,” not because John Calvin invented them, but because he very proficiently explained them in a systematic fashion. “Calvinism” has been badly abused as a descriptive theological term. Many people use it pejoratively to refer to fatalism and falsely say that it is opposed to evangelism. Nothing could be further from the truth (see Ernest Reisinger’s article).

The biblical understanding of Calvinism may be summarized as follows: All men are totally depraved because of sin. Everyone is born into the world, therefore, without spiritual ability to save himself and is deserving of God’s wrath (Rom. 8:7-8; Eph. 2:1-3). Secondly, God is not willing to let the whole human race go to hell and has, from before the foundation of the world, chosen individual sinners to be saved. This choice is not based on any merit or justification found in the individual but is sovereignly exercised by God solely out of His grace and love (John 17:6; Eph. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13). Thirdly, those who are elected by God were given to Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world so that He should redeem them from sin (Matt. 1:21; John 6:37-40; 10:11, 14, 15, cf. 26-28). This He did in His earthly ministry by offering Himself as a substitute in His people’s place. His death on the cross actually accomplished their redemption. Though His death has some benefit for everyone, it does not actually redeem everyone. Fourthly, God effectively applies to all of His elect that redemption which His Son secured on the cross. He does this by drawing and effectually calling these by the gospel so that they freely come to repent of sin and believe in Christ (Rom 8:30; 2 Tim 1:9). Fifthly, those who have been so chosen, redeemed and reborn will persevere in the faith and thus are eternally secure (Philip. 1:6; John 10:28-29).

As Tom Nettles and Timothy George convincingly demonstrate elsewhere in this journal, these doctrines comprised the common understanding of the gospel among Southern Baptists during their first seventy-five years of existence. They are clearly stated and defended in the writings of former convention leaders such as Boyce, Dagg, Broadus, W.B. Johnson, R.B.C. Howell, Basil Manly, Sr., Basil Manly, Jr., Patrick H. Mell, Richard Fuller, and Richard Furman, to name just a few.

Call it what you will–Calvinism, reformed theology, the doctrines of grace–these truths are nothing less than historic Southern Baptist orthodoxy. This is the theology which gave rise to the formation and early development of the great missionary and evangelistic enterprise which we know as the Southern Baptist Convention. This is what our forefathers believed to be the true teaching of Scripture. These are the doctrines on which they built their churches and which undergirded their ministries. And if these doctrines were true then, they are still true today, because the Bible has not changed, God has not changed, and truth does not change.

If we hope to see a renewal in our churches (how we live), then we must be willing to seek a renewal in our theology (what we believe). Our doctrinal heritage can be very helpful as it challenges our thinking and points us forward into a renewed understanding of God’s Holy Word.

It is a wonderful providence that the sesquicentennial anniversary of our convention comes at a time when there is a growing recognition of our deep need for revival and reformation. We should take this opportunity to remember the rock from whence we are hewn and listen to those who have gone before us, on whose shoulders we stand-those former faithful servants who, though being dead, yet speak.

Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls.

1 The Wall Street Journal (April 25, 1990), p. A16.
2 These and the following comments from Dr. Edgemon were made at the Lousiana Baptist Convention’s 1991 Evangelism Conference.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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