The Southern Baptist Experience

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments


We consider our democratic form of government to be safe and secure. So it seemed for the people of the Southern Baptist Convention until the summer of 1979.

The original Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1849 as a consortium of Baptist churches – both Northern and Southern – with the sole purpose of promoting Baptist missions. It was just that – a convention that met annually to chart the next year’s course for mission endeavors. In a few years the Northern Baptists left the Convention over the issue of slavery. Southern Baptists continued on and built a Convention structure that was unparalleled for spreading the Good News of the Messiah’s coming: here at home and around the world.

The original SBC was a near-perfect example of participatory democracy along the lines of the much-older New England town meetings. Back then, every Baptist church was founded on the notion of an assembly of Christians called out and set apart to do God’s word (from the Greek ekklesia). Every local church cherished its autonomy and rejected the idea of subjection to any denominational higher authority. Baptists considered themselves the final arbiters of their salvation based on their reading and understanding of Biblical scriptures. Any doctrinal statements were agreed to and adopted by the local church – usually in the form of a constitution.

Churches were similar in form and function to the New England town meetings. Town meetings assembled periodically to set policy and to agree on town financial matters. Implementation of these policies was placed in the hands of some individual or committee elected for that purpose. Those persons formed a de facto government. Later on, as towns grew, they elected full-time mayors to manage the town’s affairs while the town meeting was not in session. (Even in the purest of democracies, a government of some sort is almost inevitable.)

So it was in Southern Baptist churches. A pastor was called by the church to manage the church’s day-to-day activities with the advice and consent of a Board of Deacons. Various committees were set up for oversight of church finances, mission outreaches, and various other church activities. All of these were subject to the approval of the church in full executive session. Anyone who was a member in good standing had a say in the operation of the church.

This structure carried over into that of the SBC. The Convention met annually to hear reports from organizations called “boards”, to agree on Convention finances, and to elect officials responsible for the convention’s functioning during the coming year. Boards were analogous to committees in the local church. The Foreign Mission Board, for example, appointed missionaries and dispensed funds for SBC mission efforts worldwide. The Sunday School Board, for another, provided Biblically-based instructional materials for use in local-church Sunday Schools. All were funded by the SBC through voluntary donations from the local churches.

An Executive Committee chaired by the Convention president was given responsibility for implementing Convention decisions when the Convention was not in session. Various other committees also operated throughout the year to oversee finances and other issues.

All of this began to change at the Convention meeting in June of 1979.

As might be expected for such an organization, theological and political beliefs spanned a spectrum. Across a broad middle, most churches were conservative in their theology and moderate in their politics. Theology was bible-based with a definite Arminian flavor. Politically, they were democratic with little or no hierarchical structure. The pastor in particular was not superior to anyone else in the church. The pastor was charged with certain duties and responsibilities but was not “in charge”. The clergy-laity distinction was not recognized. Denominationalism was rejected. There was no such thing as The Baptist Church in the same universal sense as The Catholic Church. Churches were viewed as bodies of believers – not consecrated buildings.

On the left, so to speak, were churches that were more liberal in their theology and polity. They were modernistic in their approach to Biblical interpretation and church organization. Some, for example, rejected the gender bias ingrained in Christian life and called women to serve as pastors. Paul’s prohibition of women in positions of authority in the church (I Tim 2:12) was viewed as a that-was-then, this-is-now situation. Their choices were theirs and theirs alone to make and certainly not the business of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The fundamentalists stood on the other side of the figurative aisle. These churches were literalistic in their theology with a definite Calvinist interpretation. Politically, they were hierarchical in structure. The pastor was viewed as “lord of the church” and stood at the head. Fundamentalist pastors were often quite vocal in urging their fellow pastors to tear up their church constitutions and take command of their churches.

Conservatives and fundamentalists had worked together more or less successfully for many years. Fundamentalists were able to get their positions accepted by the Convention from time to time but only after considerable politicking (which didn’t sit well with authoritarian pastors). For example, they able to convince the Convention to ban a book by Ralph Elliot titled The Message of Genesis, which was viewed as too liberal in interpretation. Academic freedom in the seminaries was the thorn that finally goaded the fundamentalists to action, however.

The SBC has six theological seminaries located across the country. In those days they were independent private schools funded in some part by the SBC. As in most colleges and universities, the seminaries were centers for research into the growth of the early Christian churches and into biblical interpretation in particular. Biblical interpretation is by no means cut and dried. The meaning of some words in the Hebrew and the Koiné Greek is to this day obscure, for example. As understanding of the languages evolved over the years, biblical interpretations sometimes went off in directions with which the fundamentalists profoundly disagreed.

At the Convention in June of 1979 the fundamentalists launched a well-planned and apparently well-financedcampaign to take full control of the SBC. The primary target was the SBC presidency. The name of a prominent fundamentalist pastor was placed in nomination. The number of delegates (called “messengers”) from each church is allocated on the basis of size. On the day of the president’s election, large numbers of messengers-for-a-day from large fundamentalist churches were brought in by bus to swing the election in favor of their candidate.

In those days the Convention president had broad powers over appointments to committees and other Convention positions. Through strategic appointments, the fundamentalists were able to consolidate their position and take full control of the Convention. Before the moderates caught on to what was happening, the fundamentalists had solidified their position of control. A “peace committee” was formed in an attempt to resolve differences between the two sides but the fundamentalists weren’t interested in peace. As far as they were concerned, they were the only true conservatives in the SBC and all others were “liberals”.

As an early and clear indicator of the direction the Convention was to take, the president of the premier Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, KY, was replaced by a full five-point Calvinist. Preacher-boys aspiring to the pastorate of a church were to be indoctrinated more than educated in the faith.

Today, the last vestiges of the old, almost-anarchist structure are gone. The old structure has been replaced by a top-down hierarchical structure. The old boards have been replaced by departments in an organizational structure that is more corporate in nature. The seminaries are now wholly owned by the SBC. All now report to the SBC president through the Executive Committee. The Convention still meets annually but its actions are more pro forma than definitive. Consistent with Calvinist authoritarian attitudes, the Executive Committee now sets policy on matters of doctrine and management whether the churches agree or not.

The methods used by the fundamentalists against the SBC were very much like those used by the communists against democratically-elected governments of Eastern-European countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia. Joseph Stalin had promised to allow democratic elections in the Russian-zone countries after the war. They made a show of it, but the communists subverted rules and procedures to their own purposes and very quickly took control of those governments.

So it was in the SBC. The fundamentalists adopted an ends-justify-the-means attitude and simply ignored the rule of law. They subverted convention rules to their own ends and used the democratic process to overthrow it.

Could the Southern Baptist experience happen at a national level? It is possible, certainly, although an enormous amount of planning would be required. This could be accomplished to a point by a small cadre working within the White House or the Congress. At some point, the cooperation of a key group of state governors would be needed, which adds security risks to the equation. After that all you need is some triggering event and a large army of protesters to help destabilize the situation. The Occupy Wall Street movement would meet that requirement and they are in place awaiting capitalism’s expected final collapse.

We have a ticking time bomb in the form of the Euro-zone’s financial problems. The banks that hold the keys to the Euro-zone also purchase our Treasury securities. The Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House could simply sit back and do nothing about the run-away National Debt. Collapse of the Euro-zone economy would inevitably lead to the collapse of the U.S. economy.

In such circumstances, the President would demand special privileges for dealing with the situation as did Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Some of Roosevelt’s initiatives like the Works Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps were useful for funneling Federal dollars into the economy. Others like the National Recovery Act were too radical and were eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Roosevelt respected the rule of law in these cases and didn’t take his revolution outside the bounds of democracy.

Mr. Obama, on the other hand, seems to have less respect for the rule of law. His recent decision not to enforce applicable law in the cases of some illegal immigrants is bothersome. He was reportedly impatient with Republican foot-dragging in the development of his health-care reform law. Add to this the fact that he has radical leftists on his White House staff.

If push came to economic shove in this country, a president could simply rule by executive order and leave the Congress out of the loop. The Supreme Court could rule against him all it wanted. They have no enforcement powers under the Constitution and could be simply ignored. Then it becomes simply a matter of choosing your rioters: encouraging some and suppressing others.

A revolution like the Russian October Revolution would be extremely unlikely to succeed in the U.S. The population is too diverse and political power is too dispersed. We are not a monarchy with a central power that can be assaulted with ease. Nevertheless, we should remember that the Communists gained control of a country that is geographically much larger than ours.

Today’s SBC is very different from the original. Whether or not it is better off depends on one’s point of view. The Calvinists no doubt will say that it is, that it is more doctrinally secure, and that souls are being saved according to God’s true will. The moderates who were literally forced out of the SBC will no doubt disagree. They formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship with the same goals and purposes as before but the magic is gone.

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