Whither Southern Baptists?

Whither–not “wither.” It is a question, not a prediction. I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, so I try to stay out of the prediction business. But I am concerned about the future of the churches that comprise the Southern Baptist Convention. That concern has led me to pray about and ponder the trajectory of SBC life for more than two decades.

Who knows what the SBC will look like in the next twenty years? But as with everything in life, what you plant today will determine the kind of harvest that is reaped tomorrow. Perhaps some–maybe most–of the seeds currently being sewn are being spread inadvertently. But others, particularly those in the hands of denominational leaders and influencers, are being planted deliberately.

From what is being advocated today It is obvious that there are several competing visions of the SBC’s future that are currently vying for ascendancy. From my limited vantage point, here are some of the more prominent ones that I see dotting the landscape.

The Fundamentalist vision

This hope is fueled by the spirit that gave us the old “Fightin’ Fundamentalist” mentality that characterized many independent, dispensational circles in the last century. I had the, uh, privilege several years ago to be a guest at a small meeting of such brethren who were concerned about the direction of the local school board. The gathering never got past the opening devotional, which was led by one of the more prominent independent pastors in the area. His text, as he announced it, was Ephesians 6:12, “For we do not wrestle… ” (sorry! I meant to use the original KJV) “For we wrestle not….”

That was all that the brother read. Then he launched into one of the most lively diatribes I have ever heard (I am not making this up) as he scolded his fellow Fundamentalists for going soft, no longer fighting and being guilty of just what Paul says, “wrestling not!” That, he said, was the problem with the school board and every other social ill in the county–the Fundamentalists (or, more accurately, “pseudo-Fundamentalists”) had become “sissified” and couldn’t be counted on to fight even if the Virgin Birth itself were under attack.

Well, as you can imagine, after about 10 minutes of this kind of relentless haranguing a few of the brethren couldn’t take it any more and they stood up to express their disagreement. And they did so in such colorful and personal language so as to dispel the speaker’s thesis on the spot. I don’t know how hot things eventually got because as quickly as I could I slunk out the back with the friend who had invited me, hoping that, as we drove off, no one would recognize my car.

I do not see a great deal of this spirit within the SBC, but I do see it. And I fear that there is probably more of it around, lying just beneath the surface, than I care to imagine. This vision would be happy to see the SBC become abrasive, bombastic and incurring the ridicule and wrath of society and Christians of varying stripes so that they can feel good about suffering “for righteousness sake.”

The Fundamentalist light vision

This vision differs from its older, meaner cousin by recognizing that not everyone who disagrees with them ought to be treated with the same kind of intense disdain. Light fundamentalists parcel out their disdain with a certain sophisticated discrimination. In this way they have more tolerance than the unqualified Fundamentalists.

Like their cousins, however, they are theologically 4.5 point Arminians, although some prefer to think of themselves as modified Calvinists. Others go so far as to claim to be only 1 point Calvinists because they reject every point but a version of the last one. Some critics derisively refer to those who hold this position as “whiskey Baptists” because, despite denying the other 4 points of Calvinism outright, they refuse to be separated from the fifth. Actually, even their adherence to the fifth point is suspect and usually is spoken of in terms of eternal security rather than perseverance of the saints. Though certainly not true of all, among many advocates of Fundamentalism and Fundamentalism light their view of eternal security is simple antinomianism. They teach that once a person “asks Jesus into his heart” or “prays the sinner’s prayer” or “walks the aisle” or does some other supposedly sacred act, then, no matter what else he does after that, no matter how devilishly he may live, he is in and there is nothing that he can do about it. In fact, they teach that a man has more free will before he is converted than he does after he is converted.

Nevertheless, this vision of the SBC is willing to tolerate a modicum of theological diversity on these points–provided that those who are more Calvinistic do not get too uppity about it. If the non-fundamentalists are willing to be quiet and keep a low profile and will quit making public the theological underpinnings of the SBC at its founding in 1845, then, in the Fundamentalist light vision of the SBC, they should be tolerated.

The Theonomic vision

This is a rather latecomer to the SBC and seems to have come from an offshoot of the previously mentioned visions. It wants the SBC to be a major player in “taking back America for Christ” because it is convinced that America was founded as a Christian nation. In this vision, the SBC demand respect from Washington DC because of our ability to deliver millions of voters to get the right people elected to get this country back in God’s good graces.

This viewpoint is what motivated one very well-known Baptist pastor to write to me and other pastors in 1996, encouraging our support for the Republican presidential candidate, because, as he put it, our nation “stands at a crossroads.” He went on to make this pitch: “that is why I am calling on you to help me make a difference by using your church to hold a voter registration drive.” The theonomic vision would be happy to see the SBC as a huge voting bloc that is at the beck and call of the most righteous political action committees.

The Theonomic light vision

If Fundamentalism light is more sophisticated than its cousin theonomy light is the less sophisticated cousin in its family. This view has similar concerns about recovering our great Christian nation for Jesus but thinks that this can happen if we can just get prayers back in our public schools and the Ten Commandments posted in our courtrooms and classrooms again. Furthermore, the representatives of this view take retailers’ references to evergreens in winter as “holiday trees” as a godless encroachment on our Christian rights. They have also been known to celebrate as a great victory any announcement that next year, such retailers are going to call them “Christmas trees.”

By issuing boycotts and economic threats these folks believe that they are heavily involved in cultural engagement and combatting worldliness on major fronts. Neither Disney nor Hollywood should expect to be ignored if this vision carries the future in the SBC.

The Superficial Evangelistic vision

Southern Baptists have always been about evangelism. It is part of our genetic code. Part of the reason that this convention was formed was to cooperate together in the work of evangelism and missions. What Southern Baptists have not always been about is superficial evangelism. That has been a late and deviant mutation of our genetic code. The mutant product goes by the same name but is a far cry from the evangelistic enterprise that marked the first 75 years of the SBC’s existence.

Superficial evangelism is satisfied to get as many decisions as possible regardless of how many disciples are made. It is willing to baptize anyone who is old enough to toddle down an aisle, as long as they answer is yes when ask
ed if he or she wants to invite Jesus into their heart, or go to heaven or have a Jesus as a “forever daddy.” This type of evangelism is what has wrecked so many of our modern SBC churches, filling them with unregenerate members and has made a sham of our membership rolls.

Those who advocate this vision may acknowledge there are indeed these kinds of problems, but the solution they offer is simply this, “We must do more of the same, but with greater zeal and enthusiasm!” If this vision prevails, Southern Baptists may well evangelize themselves out of existence over the next few decades.

The Serious Evangelistic vision

This is the healthier cousin of the former vision. The proponents of this view are queasy about superficial evangelism. While they would never be willing to give a car away as a prize to the person who won the most souls to Christ in a given amount of time, they would not hesitate to give one away as a door prize to get people to come to church. After all, it is simply a matter of getting enticing people to come hear the Gospel. “Whatever it takes” is the mantra of this vision because it sees evangelism as “the main thing.” There will be time enough for worshipping God in heaven, now is the time for evangelizing people.

Everything must be sublimated to witnessing. Nothing else–absolutely nothing else–is more important that this. The danger in this vision is that it is this very mentality that is the seedbed from which superficial evangelism sprouts. When evangelism is the main thing then it becomes unhinged from the glory of God. Once this happens, as we have seen countless times in recent history, an “anything goes” mentality takes root and the ends is used to justify all kinds of methods and means.

The Confessional and Missional vision

As the language suggests, this is the vision of the younger generation. For an excellent summary of it see Joe Thorn’s article in the upcoming Founders Journal (#63). At the heart of this vision is the recognition that Christianity is inherently confessional. There is credenda–things that must be believed. Those things should be spelled out, as they have been in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Our confessions should be clear and held with integrity.

But the Christian life also has agenda–things to be done. And what is to be done is to be on mission with the Lord Jesus Christ. Churches should not only be involved in sending missionaries to unreached peoples but should also be self-consciously aware of having been sent by the Lord to reach people, as well.

In this vision the SBC will be filled with churches that are very intentional in their convictions and activities, seeking to know truth and make truth known across a variety of cultural boundaries.

The Rigorously Reformed vision

In this vision of the SBC every church, every institution, every agency, every denominational servant and every pastor would be committed to the Reformed understanding of salvation, or the doctrines of grace. Those who do not share those commitments would be out of sync with denominational identity. The 1689 Confession would be the doctrinal standard for all agency executives and Arminians need not apply.

Lifeway would produce Sunday School literature based on Baptist catechisms. No one would be ashamed to be known as a 5-point Calvinist. Revisionist historiography that suggests the SBC was founded by something other than people of such convictions would once and for all time be exposed as erroneous. Everyone would know and believe the truth both theologically and historically. There would be no more need to describe oneself as a “historic Southern Baptist” in order to identify with the faith of the SBC’s founders.

The Balanced, Biblical and God-honoring vision

Finally, there is what I call, for lack of a better description, the “balanced, biblical and God-honoring vision.” Or, you could simply call it “Tom’s vision” for short (for those still wincing from some of the acid-flinging that took place here earlier, that sentence together with the title for this section is supposed to be a joke). Before giving a summary of of this view, let me say that I am sure other visions could be added and various nuances to the ones I have listed would be appropriate. For example, nowhere in these suggestions have I mentioned the Landmarkist vision, though I think it would be most at home within the first two above.

Furthermore, most of the visions I have mentioned have something commendable to offer (except, of course, the superficial evangelistic one). There are things worth fighting for; we should stand for public righteousness; true evangelism must always be a priority; we should be unashamed of our confession and intentional in our mission; and, the reformed world and life view is wonderfully healthy and helps ground our living in proper relationship to our great God.

But, if I could design the future of the SBC, I would make it Christ exalting and Gospel saturated in every expression of its existence. I know that everyone who would dare to offer an opinion on this kind of speculation would say the same, or least not deny what I have said. I am not suggesting otherwise. Rather, what I am saying is that I believe we desperately need to get back to the centrality of the Gospel in our churches and relationships. The Gospel is not merely for unbelievers. It is for the church, as well. We do not merely enter into the kingdom by the Gospel, we live in that kingdom the same way. Every relationship, every responsibility, every challenge and choice is to be rooted in the Gospel of God’s grace.

Local churches would be given to orderly membership and conduct. Both formative and corrective discipline would be practiced. Our message of salvation would be backed up by congregations that are characterized by the grace that we profess and preach. The priority of the local church in the kingdom purposes of God would be recognized and honored.

It may be surprising to some of my friends (and those who would not count themselves as such) that my vision for the SBC is not that it would be exclusively Calvinistic. Do not misunderstand me. I would be delighted if everyone everywhere came to believe as I do. However, I would never want to suggest that only those who believe as I do should be regarded as authentic Southern Baptists.

Personally, I would rather serve with a humble, loving, Christ-exalting, church-loving Arminian (and I know that there are such) than a narrow, harsh, argument-loving Calvinist (I also know that these creatures exist, too, though such characteristics know no theological boundaries).

Obviously, this vision, as it stands, is somewhat utopian. I readily grant that there are all kinds of practical realities that can never be factored out of any association or convention of churches. But where these qualities prevail, those realities would be seasoned with grace and the prospect of real unity as Baptists committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ would be bright.

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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