FINDING THE BAPTIST "CENTER"

Published in the Texas Baptists Committed Newsletter in December 1994

by Bruce Prescott, Ph.D.

In 1925 the Southern Baptist Convention adopted the confession of faith known as the "Baptist Faith and Message."  For the next 35 years the only Baptists who questioned the confession were Fundamental Baptists like J. Frank Norris and those who founded the Independent Baptist movement.  In the early 1960’s some Fundamentalist leaning SBC pastors began complaining that the "Baptist Faith and Message" allowed too much diversity in biblical interpretation and needed to be revised.  In 1962 the Southern Baptist Convention appointed a committee to review the 1925 "BFM" and make recommendations to the convention concerning the need to revise it.  The committee was chaired by Dr. Herschel Hobbs.  His committee made a few minor changes and resubmitted the 1925 confession to the SBC. The SBC readopted the "BFM" in 1963.

Some were unhappy that the "Baptist Faith and Message" was not rewritten.  As early as 1964, groups of Fundamentalist pastors were loosely forming what, in 1973, would be formally organized as the "Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship."  Their intention was to get Baptists to adopt a more conservative statement of Baptist doctrine.  The BFM Fellowship is the beginning of the "conservative resurgence" that would later take control of the SBC and redirect it toward the beliefs of Independent Baptists.

In 1964 I was making a public profession of faith in Christ and being baptized as a believer into an SBC church.  That was also the year that my pastor handed me my first copy of the "Baptist Faith and Message."   That confession of faith was my introduction to Bible doctrine, biblical interpretation and Baptist beliefs.  Outside the Bible itself, that document has exerted more influence over my thought and understanding than anything that I have ever read.  It made me proud to be a Baptist.  It gave me permission to think about my faith.  It sparked in me an abiding interest in doctrine and theology.  Every word I have ever formally spoken or written has been within its parameters -- every sermon, every lecture, every paper, every article, every word of my doctoral dissertation.   Traditionally, fidelity to those basic Baptist beliefs was enough to keep you in good standing in the SBC.  The "BFM" reflected the Baptist "center."  In 1979 things began to change.

The change in the SBC since 1979 has come without notice by some Baptists, some have been surprised by the changes, and others do not comprehend what the changes mean.  Whether it proves to be a blessing or a curse, the changes in the SBC have neither escaped my notice, nor caught me by surprise, and the reasons for the changes were never beyond my comprehension. 

My education in the differences between Southern Baptists and Fundamental Baptists dates from 1966.  That was the year my parents bought a new house.  With the change in residence came a change in church membership.  It was Baptist, but it was not Southern Baptist.  Fundamental Baptists tend to be intolerant, uncooperative and anti-intellectual.  At that time, none of those things mattered to me.  It began to matter after I went to one of their youth camps and felt God’s call to give my life to the ministry.  After that, I became a Fundamental Baptist "preacher boy" and my pastor began to groom me for ministry in Independent Baptist churches.

At first, such a possibility was appealing.   Independent Baptist preachers exercise a lot more uncontested authority and power than most Southern Baptist preachers.  They rarely hold a business meeting.   They delegate no responsibilities to any committees.  The deacons meet once a year and only to assist with the Lord’s Supper.  The preacher is accountable to no one but God.  As pastor, he shepherds the flock and his sheep follow him without question.  Gradually, however, I began to have difficulty reconciling such pastoral authority with the doctrine of "individual soul competency" and the "priesthood of every believer" that I learned from the "Baptist Faith and Message."  Nor could I reconcile their fervent desire to subordinate the authority of the state to that of the church with what I read about the separation of church and state in the "BFM."  Long before 1970, when I moved my membership back to an SBC church, I knew from these doctrinal differences that God was calling me to ministry in Southern Baptist churches rather than in Independent Fundamental Baptist churches.

Shortly after I returned to the SBC I was taken under wing by another group of ministers.  They were SBC evangelists and pastors who learned that I was a preacher boy who came from an Independent Baptist church.  They were involved with the "Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship" and considered me a ready ally in their movement to rid the SBC of "liberalism" and make it more like Independent Fundamental Baptists.

The targets of their displeasure within the SBC were the Christian Life Commission, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, and the Seminaries.  Whenever I asked them why they did not leave the SBC and join the Independent Baptists, they spoke with one accord.  The refrain was that, if changed, the sheer size of the SBC would be a mighty force to bring "revival" to America.   "Reviving America" for them, as for Independent Baptists, meant elevating the church above the state, declaring the United States a "Christian Nation," and putting prayer back in the schools.  Some of the very issues concerning religious liberty that led me to leave the Independents and return to Southern Baptists.

Even as a teenager I knew that what they had in mind was radically different from what Baptists usually meant by "revival."  When I was growing up, the word "revival" referred to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform hearts and lives.  Change began within an individual and spread from one person to another.  To an ordinary Southern Baptist a revival was a spiritual movement.  Fundamentalists, however, used the word "revival" to talk about the power of a social movement to change the country.  It began with an election and spread from one institution to another.  To a Fundamentalist Baptist a revival was a political movement.

I could spot the difference in what these Fundamentalist Southern Baptists were saying for two reasons.  I had studied the "Baptist Faith and Message" and I had read church training study course books on Baptist history.   

I knew how Baptists had been persecuted by "state churches" in Europe and Colonial America.  I knew that Baptists fought in the revolutionary war to secure religious liberty for themselves and all Americans.  I knew that John Leland and Virginia Baptists refused to ratify the U.S. Constitution until the First Amendment was added to assure that church and state would not be united in America.  I knew that the necessity for separation of church and state was rooted in the biblical understanding of salvation and the Baptist concern for the spread of the gospel.   Baptists knew that real faith could not be propagated by the compulsion of law.   Enlisting the power of the state to enforce Christian beliefs and values violated the spirit of the gospel.  It made the "good news" bad news.  That is why article 18 of the "Baptist Faith and Message" states, "The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends."  Moreover, I knew that the institutions and agencies that Fundamentalists had identified as "liberal" were all concerned to preserve and protect historic Baptist beliefs concerning salvation, religious liberty and the way the gospel should be spread.

Needless to say, those involved in the "Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship" did not succeed in enlisting me for their movement.   They were opposed to the very things that made me a Southern Baptist.  There was no doubt in my mind, however, that they were serious about changing the SBC and that they were building an organization that would help them accomplish their objectives.

Six years later, while I was in seminary, the Fundamentalists succeeded in electing one of their own as president of the SBC.    In 1979 few Southern Baptists took notice.  The professors at the seminary discounted the movement as an extreme swing of a pendulum that would inevitably swing back to the historic Baptist "center."  I wanted to believe them, but my own experience with the Fundamentalists convinced me that they were being underestimated.  These Baptists had a different mind-set, played by different rules, and had a different goals than traditional Southern Baptists.

I looked for leaders who had a more realistic appraisal of the Fundamentalists.  I found two.  One was Ken Chaffin, then pastor of South Main Baptist Church in Houston, Tx.  The other was Cecil Sherman, then pastor of First Baptist Church of Ashville, N.C.  In my eyes, they were like two "Jeremiah’s" warning Southern Baptists that the SBC was being taken over.    In those days, however, the thought of a takeover seemed preposterous.

In the early 1980’s, few doubted Fundamentalist leaders when they denied they were part of a movement to take over the convention.    Five years later, those same Fundamentalist leaders were trumpeting the success of their takeover and endorsing it as a model for how Christians could takeover political parties and acquire control of civil government.   Ironically, most of the professors at Southwestern were still waiting for the Baptist pendulum to swing back to the center.  Tragically, they still believed the Fundamentalists when they said the changes at the other seminaries were only designed to make them as conservative as Southwestern.

While Southwestern’s faculty hoped to be the glue that would hold the SBC together, other Baptists were certain that trusting Fundamentalists was risky business.   The trustees at Baylor University acted to prevent a takeover and made plans to launch a new seminary.   Recent events have confirmed the validity of their conclusion that, for Fundamentalists, the end always justifies the means.  Every institutional president and every moderate leader running for president of the SBC has found that half-truths, misrepresentations and outright lies all became the necessary means to achieve the Fundamentalist’s end.   Now, 15 years later, the Fundamentalists have made a clean sweep.  They have replaced the head of every institution and agency in the SBC.

The plot to takeover the SBC has been a poorly held secret.  Anyone who bothered to look could easily find open admissions and documentary evidence of a well defined strategy.  The Fundamentalist’s plan was to elect the presidents of the SBC for ten consecutive years.  Their presidents would only appoint Fundamentalists to be trustees of SBC institutions and agencies.  Their trustees would replace the heads of all the SBC institutions and agencies with Fundamentalists.  What has not been so clear is the ultimate purpose for all these changes.  Their words sound pious.  They say they want to exercise the full weight and force of every institution in the SBC to bring "revival" to America.   The kind of "revival" they are working toward will soon become apparent.    It will have little to do with the activity of God’s Spirit and much to do with social movements and power politics.

The leaders of the SBC are finished with the war to take control of the convention.  They are moving on to U.S. politics.   The politics of abortion is the reason why the Home Mission Board has diverted mission money from evangelism and church planting to create alliances with Catholics and set up an office to lobby in Washington, D.C.   Politics are behind the unprecedented activism of the Christian Life Commission in Washington, D.C.    Fundamentalist political ambitions explain the defunding of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.  The BJCPA exists only to remind Baptists of their heritage in securing religious liberty and to help them preserve the separation of church and state.   Their money went to create a Public Affairs Committee to lobby congressmen.   Shortly after these lobbies were set up, Independent Fundamental Baptist Jerry Falwell cited them as his reason for disbanding the "Moral Majority."    Southern Baptists used to stand against the subordination of the state to the church.   Today, we do Falwell’s work for him.

Before the Fundamentalist takeover, Southern Baptists were bipartisan politically and spoke about ethical issues from a moral high ground.  When our leaders kept the denomination above political processes, we were assured of having the moral authority to be heard by both political parties and all sides on important issues.   Today the SBC is viewed as the right wing of the Republican Party.   Our voice is counted or discounted before we speak.   Nothing dilutes our effectiveness more than being taken for granted.

Being taken for granted does not set well with Jerry Falwell and the Fundamentalist leaders of the SBC.   These political king makers were disgruntled first by Carter and the Democrats and then by Bush and the Republicans.  Neither mounted successful campaigns for a second term.   No one will take them for granted in 1996.   In my opinion, the recent divisive events in the SBC have been carefully timed to insure that nothing can divert SBC leaders and institutions from exerting influence on the U.S. presidential election in 1996.

In the beginning, the Fundamentalists rallied people to vote with them in SBC elections by claiming the seminaries were full of "liberal" professors.  Most SBC preachers were educated at Southwestern seminary.  Fundamentalists knew that the charge of liberalism would not ring true if they challenged Southwestern.  Most Baptists, however, knew little about the other seminaries.  One by one, they denounced and replaced the presidents and faculty of those schools while they commended Southwestern’s faculty and president.  Then abruptly, in March of 1994, the rhetoric changed and the president of Southwestern was fired.  Dr. Dilday’s termination is the most divisive single event in the history of the SBC.   Protests have arisen from all quarters -- some of the loudest from among those who supported the Fundamentalist movement.   In Texas, the Executive Board of the Baptist General Convention of Texas voted overwhelmingly to condemn the actions of Southwestern’s trustees as being "irresponsible and unconscionable."   At the SBC meeting in Florida, a "young" Fundamentalist from Florida seized the occassion to oppose the SBC establishment’s endorsed leader for the presidency of the convention and unexpectedly, won.

Could the pendulum finally be swinging back to the historic Baptist "center"?   That remains to be seen and depends on who defines the "historic" Baptist center.   Those best equipped to define "historic" Baptist beliefs are Baptist historians and theologians.    Historians and theologians, however, traditionally serve as professors at seminaries.   They are being replaced as fast as the presidents.    Already their replacements are working overtime to rewrite and revise Baptist history and doctrine.

When Baptist historians and theologians become divided over our beliefs, will Baptist laymen be able to know whether we have returned to the "center"? 

Yes, if they will study the "Baptist Faith and Message," read Baptist history, and then watch what the leadership of the SBC is doing.  Here’s a simple rule of thumb.   You will know that the SBC has returned to the "historic" Baptist center when three things happen. 

1) When SBC presidents return to preaching the power of the gospel to save and transform individual lives instead of spouting the empty platitudes of civil religion.  

2) When SBC executives return to extending the kingdom of God, which is not of this world, rather than building a political kingdom in this world, and  

3) When SBC institutions return to the work of missions and evangelism rather than working to influence politicians and legislators. 

When the SBC once again is concerned to secure a hearing for the gospel, then the SBC will have returned to its most distinguishing historical beliefs.  That can only be done by protecting church/state separation and insuring religious liberty for all -- even for those who are not Christians.  Governments cannot make Christians, only the gospel can.

Is it likely that the SBC will return to these historic beliefs?  That is doubtful.  The recent actions of SBC leadership, the executive board, and the trustees of SBC institutions have one common thread.  All are preparing to exert the concerted influence of the SBC in the 1996 U.S. presidential election. 

Is it a mere coincidence that the some of most vocal critics of the current administration are Jerry Falwell, SBC presidents and SBC executives?  Is it accidental that the trustees abruptly fired Dr. Dilday rather than ease him out in 1996 when he was due to retire?   Is it by chance that the second most divisive event in the history of the SBC came just three months after the first?  The repercussions from the SBC’s refusing funds from CBF are just beginning to be felt.  That second divisive event was designed to silence the last remaining voice for religious liberty within the SBC. 

I am convinced that both of these bombshells, the firing of Dilday and the exclusion of CBF, were timed to allow the dust to settle before the national political elections.  The first bombshell was designed to propel, the second was designed to push moderates out of the SBC.  This, they hope, will make the SBC pure enough to receive an infilling of Independent Baptist churches.  They have already issued several open invitations to a reluctant "bridegroom" whom they affectionately call "uncle Jerry."

Indeed, it is a trying time to be a Baptist.  When SBC leaders flirt with politics and court Independents, only those Baptists who keep themselves informed and are grounded by an understanding of Baptist doctrine and history will be able to find and hold the "Baptist center."

 

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