“And I began to question everything around me: the houses, the shop signs, the clouds in the sky, and the engravings in the library, asking them to tell me not their superficial story but another, deeper story, which they surely were hiding.”
These words from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum surely apply to the Southern Baptist Convention’s current state of disarray. Hidden things are coming to light. People are disheartened, asking, “What else?”
As a non-Baptist friend quipped, “Is a Baptist WikiLeaks on the way?”
The SBC is an infinitely complex world most church members don’t know much about. Its flowchart of ministries, agencies and committees can be perplexing.
Nevertheless, these same church members expect SBC leadership to communicate well and are angered when leaders verbalize things thoughtlessly because hurtful things proclaimed in sermons or intoned quietly during counsel already should have been thought through. No excuses.
Whether theological education, church offices or missions, long tenures can work against our spiritual leaders. Once caught up in the swirl of denominational politics, it’s as if they can’t extricate themselves from their prevailing institutional culture. They seem unaware of the difference between biblical principles and what they themselves have created.
As a result, their ‘veteran’ approach to management can become infected by the workplace culture they’ve helped create and sustain in their own image.
Are they concerned about the risks entailed in acknowledging and giving up what they created? Are they concerned with losing influence and control? Are they unaware of how disconnected they’ve become in connection with their own operative ways, means and concerns?
It’s amazing what our superiors can’t see about themselves, and few are free to instruct them without fear of reprimand or reprisal.
So, where do we go from here, Lord?
To the right?
The majority of theological arguments seem to come from the right. The far right, however, can sink too deeply into absolutist, black-and-white views of the world, believing those in power should operate in equally absolutist ways. This means hardcore patriarchy.
No, the SBC shouldn’t go this direction.
Recommendation to the entire spectrum right: now is the opportune time to make clear why complementarianism is the way to go. So, publish a ‘crisis hierarchy’ of all acceptable reasons/scenarios for separation, divorce and remarriage undergirded by Scripture. Make it encyclopedic in scope, superior to current resources. Then, supply the same for racial reconciliation, sexuality, social justice and women’s empowerment.
Leave no stone unturned. The Lord is in the details.
To the left?
Far left practitioners imagine they’re above the fray. As relative sophisticates able to discern the ‘real’ workings of God, some are prone to caricature the right as conspiratorial and driven by sinister, implacable forces.
Lacking insider knowledge about the SBC’s conservative apparatus, they fill the intellectual vacuum with ‘facts’ mixed with conjecture, then expressed with certitude. To wit, their ‘official’ version of things gains the upper hand in their own circles.
No, not this direction either.
But now, the right is handing over actual facts on a platter, and a number of the left’s historical objections have been on the money.
Recommendation to the entire spectrum left: if you’re gloating over recent events, such an attitude isn’t right, and deep down everybody knows this. For the far left, consider anew how the Baptist majority takes the Bible at its word. Most see your ‘distinctives’ as distant to their lives and tie them directly to your decades-long, declining membership. So, at least come back to the center where biblical interpretation isn’t perceived as intellectual gamesmanship.
Many are asking if the demise of the SBC is ahead.
If there’s no repentance, yes, we should anticipate a downward spiral. But if repentance and revival come, no, and maybe the Lord will orchestrate a shift of direction upward.
Are old-school leaders passing quietly from the scene to pave the way for younger leaders, those who’ll deal with questions their elders haven’t asked? It can’t be denied the younger crowd will take over at some point.
Perhaps the SBC needs its share of Socratic gadflies to move us forward culturally, and in ways inviting God’s pleasure without soft-pedaling our doctrinal nonnegotiables.
Neither well-meaning SBC resolutions nor some mishmash of secularist-tinged proposals will give rise to denominational repentance, only the Holy Spirit.
A spiritual word
Either God himself initiated recent goings-on or he allowed it, no question. There’s still something inside us that needs correcting, that God’s word makes clear. The applicable term is ‘remaining sin.’
Yes, chastening hurts. God is no respecter of persons; he outsmarts us by virtue of his love. But consequences for words spoken and actions taken can linger like a stubborn mule.
We’re all ‘underbiblical’ in what we think, feel and do; all our SBC institutions, too. No exceptions.
No SBC entity’s corporate-think lives up to its mission statement. The Christian’s grasp of how underbiblical things really are (no matter which direction we turn this side of the grave!) goes a long way in explaining why things unfold as they do.
Will all this blow over like a hot wind in a summer dry spell? Will the SBC repent, reform, reorganize? Adapt, adopt, morph?
We’ll see, but I’m optimistic about what God can do.
Hal Ostrander is online professor of religion and philosophy at Wayland Baptist University.