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When the Denominational Center Doesn't Hold:
The Southern Baptist Experience


By: Bill Leonard

The fundamentalists have "won" the 12-year battle to control the Southern Baptist Convention. Yet many of them are fast recognizing that winning is not all it's cracked up to be. Fundamentalists dominate the national convention and are fast reshaping the SBC in their image, but they have been unable to re-establish a denominational center. Rather, fragmentation and dissolution have become the order of the day in the SBC.

Moderates "lost but most of them remain within the denomination. Some moderates still hope to retake and restore their beloved denomination, while others continue to wait for the pendulum to swing back to the old center (I'd say the pendulum fell off in about 1985). Still others are refocusing energy in new societies, such as the Alliance of Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Smyth & Helwys Publishers and Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, to name a few. Through it all there remain innumerable Southern Baptist who still claim that nothing has changed or who insist that this is simply a "preachers' fight" like others which periodically have afflicted the SBC. Even after 14 years and massive change in denominational agencies, denial is deep and enduring.

Fundamentalist concerns for centralization also reflect a growing "presbygational" polity within the once obsessively congregational denomination. Desperate to create a new center for the SBC, fundamentalists find themselves increasingly factionalized between subgroups that I call militant and moderate fundamentalists, the former intent on rapid purification of the SBC, the latter a more pragmatic group willing to move more slowly and deliberately in accomplishing its goals. Many agencies are on the edge of another takeover by various types of fundamentalists anxious to impose their own agendas on the denomination or its institutions. What does it mean and where will it end?

I would submit that the genius of the SBC was its ability to shape a center--an identity and mythology--around which a diverse regional, theological and popular constituency could cooperate. The center did not eliminate diversity and conflict--far from it--but it created an environment in which numerous factions could join together (unite would be too strong a term) in common endeavor.

The center was first formed out of crisis--the split with Northern Baptists in 1845 over the slavery question and the subsequent defeat in the Civil War. In the aftermath of war, Southern Baptists were compelled to cooperate with each other. The denomination was charged with articulating an identity for the devastated churches and individuals as well as guiding them to combine limited resources toward collective endeavors--missions, education, publication--that they could not hope to accomplish alone.

This need for cooperation amid devastation no doubt influenced the SBC's move to a convention system somewhat more connectional than the earlier society method used by the Triennial Convention of Baptists North and South. Societies, which solicited financial support for their agencies, gave churches greater freedom of choice as to which programs to support and how they would participate. Churches and individuals could choose which society--home and foreign missions, seminary, publication and the like--they preferred to support. Each society was autonomous. The convention system implied a greater connectedness among churches, which had protected their autonomy tenaciously. (It is ironic that a people obsessed with states' rights and decrying all federal alliances would choose to develop in that crucial moment an organization with decisive federalist implications.)

Yet even while Southern Baptist were forced to work together, many of them were suspicious of alliances that would undermine the primary locus of Baptist authority, the local congregation. The would-be centrists had constantly to reassure the constituency that cooperation came from the bottom up, not from the top down, and that the bureaus would never become a bureaucracy. Better yet, they suggested that the local church was at the top of the denominational pyramid and that the denomination existed only for and through local congregations.

Baptists Historian W. W. Barnes wrote of those early days, "The task of enlisting the Southern churches in a program of missions at home and abroad was tremendous. Many Baptists of the South were so strongly Calvinistic in theology that they could not enter into missionary activity. The ecclesiology of Southern Baptists, especially west of the mountains where the New Hampshire Confession (of faith) prevailed, stressed the local church idea to such an extent that they were afraid of the new Convention, although many southerners thought and wrote in terms of the generic idea, the Baptist Church" (A History of the Southern Baptist Convention, Broadman). Thus the denominational center relied on a softening of Calvinistic theology first on missions and then on conversion, and the development of a coalition that protected local autonomy but promoted denominational cooperation. It worked, but it was a long time coming.

The denominational center was also a mechanism for explaining why the South lost the war and for reshaping Southern Baptist identity. To encourage white Southerners the SBC promoted the "religion of the Lost Cause," which Charles Reagan Wilson (Baptized in the Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause) explains as an effort to help white Baptists in the South remythologize their "place" in the society and the kingdom of God.

The center continued to take shape through organization and program. The early SBC offered churches, associations and individuals a variety of ways to participate and be considered members of the convention. Gradually, however, the convention system, with its corporate connectionalism, prevailed. This denominational machine provided services and identity for churches rural and urban, large and small. It offered a vast array of educational resources for teaching scripture, doctrine, ethics and missions education. It also developed a mechanism for converting individuals, nurturing them in faith and in some cases encouraging them to enter"full-time Christian service" as pastors, missionaries or other vocational ministers.

Connectionalism was tied increasingly to a business model of organization. In 1925 a Committee on Business Efficiency recommended "that the work of the agencies of the convention shall be more closely correlated, and that the agencies themselves shall be brought into such relations with the convention as will guarantee in advance both efficiency of administration and the prevention of incurring any indebtedness, except for current expenses between the meetings of the convention." Theses recommendations led to the formation of a corporate funding mechanism, the Cooperative Program, and consolidation of convention administration through an Executive Committee. Throughout the 20th century the corporate unity and programmatic agenda of the convention flourished, providing a sense of identity and unity for the diverse congregations in the SBC.

That corporate identity mirrored institutions in American business. It also created a new group of "denominational servants," not preachers or laity but people whose careers consisted of service to the denominational system. Denominational centrists soon distinguished between the convention--a functional unity grounded in the local churches--and the convention institutions--seminaries, mission boards, publishing agencies--founded on business principles to organize mission and ministry. Thus denominational success was equated with numerical and financial achievement. Theological disputes were inevitable but undesirable interferences with the real mission of the denomination: greater expansion at home and abroad.

This corporate denominationalism also promised to reward those who supported its endeavors. This was particularly true for those who felt called to "vocational Christian service." These individuals, primarily white males, who came through the denominational pipeline--local church, Baptist college, SBC seminary, denominational support--were led to believe that they would progress up the corporate ladder and achieve recognition as pastors, administrators, denominational servants, missionaries or teachers.

That loyalty program also effectively created a class of "outsiders" who were held down because of deviances in education, networking or theological/personal dissent. This group included liberals and fundamentalists alike, who would denounce the convention machine, the corporate mentality, and the sell-out of colleagues at the alter of denominationalism. But these malcontents seemed only a limited distraction. The machine seemed unstoppable.

Indeed, the SBC avoided major schism longer than many expected. One way it managed controversy among its variety of theological subgroups (Calvinists, modified Calvinists, modified Arminians, Landmarkists and Texans) was through the development of doctrinal statements that were specific enough to be peculiarly Baptist but general enough to include some theological flexibility. Subgroups were not permitted to impose their theology on the entire denomination.

Throughout the recent upheaval warring factions have divided over, among other things, whether the conflict is political or theological. During the early days of the crisis, moderates raged that the "takeover" was a grossly political effort to capture control of convention agencies. They often refused to confront the fundamentalists' theological concerns or articulate their own theological concepts. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, hesitated to acknowledge that the issue involved politics, insisting that this was not a "takeover" but a "course correction" led by people of deep theological conviction. Both sides, of course, were right and wrong. Nothing in the SBC is or ever was done apart from both theology and politics.

When forced to do so, however, the denomination has in the past found ways to confront theological crises while avoiding schism and retaining denominational support from all factions. The Landmark controversies demonstrate this well. Landmarkism was the effort to define the "landmarks" of the New Testament church in the face of denominational pluralism. In their intense focus on the local congregation, Landmark churches would not honor baptisms performed at other congregations, did not permit pastors to preach in pulpits other than their own, and excluded from Lord's Supper observances anyone who was not a member of that local congregation.

The Landmarkist movement began in the 1850s in response to the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession and the restorationism of the Stone-Campbell movement. Graves declared that Baptist were linked to the New Testament community through a succession of churches dating to Jesus, Jerusalem and John the Baptist. They did not need to "restore" anything, having retained primitive Christianity since the first century. Graves and other Landmarkists believed that the SBC should define itself in terms of a successionist ecclesiology binding on all churches and members. Landmarkism and its regional antecedents influenced the SBC well into the 20th century and led to the only major schism to affect the convention. This occurred around 1906, when numerous churches located largely in Arkansas and Texas grew frustrated over denominational intransigence and seceded to form the American Baptist Association, a Landmarkist fundamentalists fellowship.

While Southern Baptists resisted the effort to require Landmarkist definitions of all member churches, Landmarkist congregations were encouraged to remain in the SBC. To do so such churches had to accept or at least tolerate the presence of non-Landmark churches--an uncomfortable compromise for many. The decision to reject Landmark pressures while permitting such churches to remain in the SBC is a significant illustration of the power of the center already evident in SBC life.

That decision was informed by another controversy--one involving William Whitsitt, church history professor and third president at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. In his book A Question in Baptist History (1896), Whitsitt laid the ax to the root of the Landmark tree. His research proved that Baptists, appearing in Amsterdam by 1609, did not practice baptism by immersion for the first 30 years of their history. This meant that Landmarkist claims to an unbroken line of immersionist churches simply could not be demonstrated. So powerful were the Landmarkists and so intense the controversy that although his research was correct, Whitsitt was forced to resign his position at the seminary. While the Landmarkists were unable to impose their definitions of the church on the whole denomination, their tradition was strong enough to bring about the removal of a professor who challenged their ecclesiology. The denominational center was willing to sacrifice one professor rather than endure a major schism. (Officially, Whitsitt was not find; he resigned. An enduring tactic of the denominational center has been to avoid dismissing controversial professors and instead force them to resign. This the institution and the denominational can say that no one was ever find; people imply chose to resign.) Landmarkists were permitted, even encouraged, to remain within the SBC, their place and power significant enough to effect the dismissal of a "denominational servant" who challenged the perceived historicity of their tradition. But the Whitsittites, as they were called, wound up having the last word. Whitsitt's place was taken by E.Y. Mullins, a relative unknown from Massachusetts, who subscribed to Whitsitt's views but did not press them publicly.

A second illustrative controversy involved the theologies of Crawford Toy and J. Frank Norris. Toy was a brilliant scholar of the Hebrew scriptures whose support of modern biblical criticism led to his forced resignation in 1879. While it was noted that Toy "never demanded that his views n any subject should be accepted without question" and that "he gave the argument's pro and con on any disputed question" with "transparent fairness," his approach was not acceptable to seminary president John A. Broadus. Broadus observed that "it was hard for Dr. Toy to realize that such teaching was quite out of the question in this institution" (William Mueller, A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).

Nonetheless, the denomination itself did not clean house. It did not force out of the SBC all who used modern biblical criticism. In fact, E. Y. Mullins hired professors (such as W. O. Carver whose views on scripture were not far from Toy's. Professors, pastors and other simply learned to couch their controversial approaches to biblical investigation in other terms. But clearly Toy's removal communicated that his views were left of center and outside the SBC's conservative middle.

The response to Toy paralleled a similar reaction to J. Frank Norris, the lightning rod for controversy in general and fundamentalist controversy in particular. Norris, the "Texas Tornado," was a populist preacher and outspoken opponent of denominational centrism. He believed that the convention's obsession with order and cooperation permitted liberalism to run rampant through the denomination. Norris insisted that the concern for denominational stability and "niceness" created a blindness to doctrinal compromise perpetuated at Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary--seedbeds of liberalism, in his view. Norris also chafed under the yoke of denominational uniformity, denouncing corporate funding mechanisms that pressured churches into giving unrestricted amounts of money to the denominational "machine." He was particularly suspicious of missions boards and other bureaucratic structures that implicitly or explicitly claimed authority over the local congregation.

By the 1930s Norris and his congregation, First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, were dismissed from the Tarrant Baptist Association. For years he continued to attend the national SBC meetings, often not recognized as a messenger and frequently holding his own rump conventions in a rented hall nearby. During these years numerous SBC centrists--such as George W. Truett and L. R. Scarborough--confronted Norris and challenged his depiction of denominationalism. They made it clear that the SBC would be conservative but not fundamentalist--at least not in the sense represented by Norris. Although Norris led numerous churches and individuals toward the Independent Baptist movement he helped found, the "Norris affair" created no significant schism.

Yet the centrist efforts to moderate theological controversies did not keep heterodoxy from finding its way into the churches. In fact, students of the SBC have generally overlooked the impact of populist theology on the denomination, a theology written and proclaimed not in the seminaries or denominational publications but in revivals, pulpits and Sunday School classes. Thus a denomination that prided itself in maintaining orthodoxy succumbed to the heresy of populism. (This topic is worth several dissertations.) Following are two examples.

First, in the 20th century Southern Baptist modified their theology of a "believers' church" to permit the baptism not simply of children but of preschoolers. Statistical analysis of current SBC baptismal statistics would indicate that anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of that number, depending on the church and the region, is composed of persons six years of age or younger. Thus the SBC has opened the door to semi-infant baptism. A believers' church that baptizes preschoolers is committing heresy against its theology of conversion and its ecclesiology.

How did this happen? To some extent it was the natural outgrowth of the churches nurturing impulse and sensitivity to children raised within the community of faith. It also developed alongside the emphasis on child evangelism and the notion of an age of accountability by which people, even children, become morally and spiritually responsible. No doubt it was linked to the desire for conversion of all people and the concern of Christian parents that their children be saved. It may also have been influenced by some congregations' desire for statistical growth. It developed, I believe, not intentionally but from the popular needs and spiritual realities of the community of faith. The SBC center nurtured it, directly and indirectly acquiescing to the reshaping of a major tenet of Baptist conversionism.

A second illustration is evident in the evolution of the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints into the popular Baptist notion of "once saved, always saved." Perseverance--the idea that those who have received God's grace will be kept by grace and will not fall away--was endemic to the Calvinism of early Southern Baptists. The Abstract of Principles of the Southern Baptist Seminary defines the doctrine this way: "Those whom God hath accepted in the Beloved, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. "Those who receive grace will continue in Christian Sanctification through the power of God.

Sometime in this century, popular Southern Baptist piety transformed that idea into "once saved, always saved," a slogan which became a theology. Evangelists and pastors explained perseverance in terms that maximized justification-entering in--and minimized sanctification--going on. While most did not explicitly deny that perseverance was essential, popular piety heard: "Once you are in, everything else is secondary." Close scrutiny suggests that perseverance of the saint was a long way from "once saved always saved." It is possible, therefore, that heterodoxy slipped into one of the Southern Baptists' most self-defining dogmas.

All this points to the fact that the denominational center was willing to tolerate theological, political and populist extremes so long as they did not present a threat to institutional stability. When a crisis did arise, centrists eliminated troublemakers but avoid a major schism. The convention was dominated by what SBC leader James Sullivan called "the conservative middle," while including those both right and left of center. These people were not excluded from convention affairs (it only felt like that) but they were not allowed to dominate. This led figures such as Paul Pressler on the right and Carlyle Marney on the left to insist, with some justification, that they were never inside the loop of convention leadership. I would contend that they and their cohorts were included in the denominational leadership, but never in numbers significant enough to control or upset the center. Yet these incompatible subgroups could not coexist indefinitely. Centrists surely knew that if one of those subgroups gained control of the center, dissolution of the SBC was sure. Fundamentalists who want ideological identity to prevail over institutional loyalty should not be surprised when institutions flounder under their control. Moderates, who helped maintain the center, should stop assuming that they can get it back or re-create it again. SBC subgroups might note that the latter days of the 20th century are the worst time to take over an old denomination or start a new one.

What does all this mean for the SBC and other denominations? We can note, first, that the SBC established a powerful center that provided a sense of identity and purpose for its constituency. That center was grounded in southern culture, denominational programs and a theology specific enough to be identifiably Baptist but general enough to permit the presence of various sectarian subgroups. That center is lost, and it will be a long time before it is reconfigured.

Those who want to salvage something of the SBC would do well to consider the benefits of the old society method from which the SBC emerged. A de facto society method is now emerging across the SBC. Fundamentalist churches have long designated offerings for selected institutions. Teaching them to do otherwise will be a formidable challenge for the new leaders of the SBC. Moderates are only now learning how to offer society options; many churches are developing multiple-choice plans by which members choose which SBC/Cooperative Baptist Fellowship/local programs they wish to support. Churches forced to choose sides will simply split and add to the fragmentation. It would be best to give churches and individuals choices until new centers can coalesce. The divisions are so deep that the stakes so high, however, that society-based denominationalism may not be possible.

Second, we can see that the breakdown of programmatic identity revealed the vast theological diversity in the convention. Both moderates and fundamentalists are discovering that developing theological consensus, even among themselves, is not easy matter. Those who want theological or political correctness to dominate the center or shape a new center should be prepared for continued controversy and division. The new controversies will be not between SBC fundamentalists and moderates but between opposing or differing factions within multiplying ideological and ecclesial camps.

Finally, it appears that the real problem of the American denominational future involves the issue of identity. The denominational mechanisms that shaped identity and enabled traditions to be passed on to succeeding generations are fast breaking apart or addressing only one of the multiple subgroups. Perhaps the most essential questions for Southern Baptists are: When all is said and done, what will remain that is discernibly, historically Baptist? And how will fundamentalists and moderates pass on an identifiably Baptist tradition to their children?


Copyright 1993 Christian Century Foundation. Reprinted by permission from September 22-29 issue of the Christian Century.

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