Today’s Baptists have much in common with yesterday’s Alabama fans.
I’ve been an Alabama fan for a long time. I cut my sports teeth on praise of Alabama’s tradition and twelve national titles, but a thirty-year stretch had produced only one championship.
It ate us up inside to live in such tension, the frustration fueling the terminations of several coaches and a major improper recruiting scandal, which buried the program in penalties for several years. Mediocrity seemed our fate.
That is, until January 4, 2007.
Nick Saban arrived on the university’s jet, and three years and three days later I was in the Rose Bowl to watch my alma mater win its first national championship since I was six years old. Bama was back.
The euphoria was indescribable, but during the offseason I noticed a change in my sports consumption habits. I, along with the UA fanbase, had become so fixated on a return to power that I forgot there would be a day after.
Though I knew better at an intellectual level, the ludicrous conclusion of my heart was that there simply wasn’t another football season coming.
Another season arrived all the same and, with it, three humbling losses, as a talented team struggled to find the edge from a year before. The lesson of the preceding years was as sharp as the victory hangover which pained both players and fans: victory in this life is fleeting, and if we forget about the next day or lose our integrity along the way defeat will always follow.
I fear Baptists have failed to internalize similar lessons.
‘The cost of nostalgia’
The movement to remake the SBC, spearheaded by Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson during the 1970s and 80s, embodied many of the same attitudes seen in Bama fans during our lean years.
Appeals were made to “save” the SBC and return it to its former glory. (Branding the movement as a “Conservative Resurgence” tells us much about how they viewed themselves and their history.)
They were ultimately successful in their efforts, but not before un-Christlike means of handling theological conflict chased away seminary professors, ministers, laypeople and even entire churches.
Decades later, these old wounds are yet to heal, SBC baptism numbers are routinely rocky, and the generals of the Baptist civil war are in free fall.
Pressler, a former judge and Texas state representative, faces legal action by three different men accusing him of rampant sexual abuse.
Patterson, accused in a lawsuit of covering up Pressler’s abuse, was deposed from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on May 30 amidst scandals over objectifying comments about women, looking past spousal abuse in couples he counseled, mishandling sexual violence incidents at two different seminaries, and lying to the seminary board about his involvement.
The cost of letting nostalgia and the goal become “once and for all” apocalypticism is far ranging and painful.
‘Always a day after’
The SBC stands at a generational crossroads.
Young ministers and souls open to faith alike hesitate at the threshold, fearful of myopic Armageddons. The world has learned from our example: false finality appeals have become as common as leaves on trees in the evangelical wing of the Republican party, as the SBC’s shift dovetailed with efforts to groom evangelicals as a more reliable voting bloc for the GOP. (As a rule of thumb, anyone who talks about “saving” Christianity just wants your sword, your money or your vote.)
When we acquiesce, we forget tomorrow and the One who holds tomorrow.
Friends, this is a wildly dangerous way to live no matter how we feel about current SBC leadership or theology.
There’s nothing wrong with having goals. They can keep us focused and motivate us, but we can’t forget their shelf life in our striving. Victories in this life always have a day after, and the implications of how we won aren’t constrained by the turning of a calendar page.
If we don’t remember to keep working, victory will sour into failure and collapse.
If we cut moral corners in our desire to reach our goal, our actions will chase us down like the winged Furies of Greek mythology. If we confuse a temporal goal with eternity, we poison the well of our own work for years to come after the goal is reached. This is especially true of Christianity, unless we choose to believe that Christ has not fully secured our redemption.
Losing sight of that is as foolish as thinking a long-awaited championship ends the sport of football.
Geoff Davidson, an alumnus of George W. Truett Theological Seminary, is a minister, writer and library information specialist in Waco, Texas. His first book, Holy Disruption, will be released by Patristica Press later this year.