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Southern Baptists are going to need a bigger tent

Phillip Herring, associate pastor of education at First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., raises his hands in prayer during the "National Call to Prayer for Spiritual Leadership, Revived Churches and Nationwide and Global Awakening" at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 14, 2016, in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Baptist Press/Matt Miller

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) The Southern Baptist Convention was so famously insular for so long that it earned its own joke about members believing they’re the only ones in heaven.

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination was known more for what, and often who, it rejected than what it included — with political warriors in the SBC leadership often alienating other religious groups and particularly the racial minorities in them.

But over the past decade that began to change:

Southern Baptists elected the denomination’s first African-American president, apologized for supporting slavery, apologized to Asians for the culturally offensive “Rickshaw Rally” vacation Bible school curriculum, reprimanded their former Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission chief Richard Land for racially charged remarks, and recognized that its regional-sounding brand has so much baggage that perhaps a name change was in order.

They began reaching out to other evangelical churches and to Roman Catholics on issues of common interest, a collaborative spirit that landed three Southern Baptists in top leadership roles at nondenominational evangelical universities.

Then last week at its annual convention the denomination seemed to confirm its shift toward both ecumenical work and racial reconciliation by taking the first step to joining the National Association of Evangelicals and, most notably, by repudiating the Confederate battle flag.


READ: Southern Baptists: ‘Discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag’


Taken together, these moves represent a significant pivot away from the conservative takeover that began in the 1970s and produced a string of hard-line leaders, said David Gushee, director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University and a columnist for Religion News Service.

Those leaders included the denomination’s president in 1980, Bailey Smith, who declared that God didn’t hear the prayers of Jews.

Gushee and others track the current shift back to the 2006 election of then-unknown Frank Page to the denomination’s presidency. Page represents a generation of Southern Baptist leadership less concerned with political victories and more impressed by leaders who are pastoral, plugged into the broader culture and manifesting biblical fruits of the spirit, Gushee said.

“I would say that leadership in the denomination seems to be passing to people who are still plenty conservative, but they are not mean on the whole,” he said. “They are cooperating with Catholics when they can and other evangelicals. They’re sensitive to the convention’s history on race and trying to get that right. And the Confederate flag discussion … was the next step forward there.”

Without the shift, Ed Stetzer said he may not have spent much of the last decade as director of the SBC-affiliated LifeWay Research or have been considered for the Wheaton College chair he’ll take starting July 1.

“The Southern Baptists were continuing to move to the right and erecting new arguments over secondary, tertiary issues,” Stetzer said in an interview leading up to the June 14-15 annual meeting.

“In 2006, they decided they were conservative enough. They said, ‘This is where we want to be’ — to the disappointment of a significant number of people who wanted to keep narrowing the parameters of cooperation.”


READ: Southern Baptist leader defends religious liberty for Muslims


Stetzer, employed as a North American Mission Board missiologist at the time, said he was considering jobs outside the denomination. Page convinced him to stay and work together.

“In 2007, Frank asked me to preach at the convention. I told the crowd, ‘This is the only place I go where I feel young and thin,’” Stetzer said.

When he starts his job at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton — the flagship evangelical Christian college — Stetzer will be another Southern Baptist in a top role at a nondenominational institution.

The King’s College and Trinity International University both hired Southern Baptists to their presidencies in the last three years — increasing evidence of a decreasingly insular convention.

Page, then pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., said he didn’t seek the presidency and said he was so convinced he would not win that he barely had a platform to discuss as a convention worker guided him toward a post-election press conference. He handily beat two other candidates on the first ballot and went on to serve two terms.

“I assured people I was not trying to undo a conservative resurgence,” Page said. “People feared that. It took three decades to turn us back to a conservative direction. I said, ‘I’m an inerrantist, but not an angry one.’”

Developments since then, he said, have been ones he hoped for.

“Discontinuing the use of the Confederate battle flag — I could not take credit for that, but I hope that in some small way, I encouraged us toward this. We still have a lot to do,” said Page, who became CEO of the SBC Executive Committee two years after his two-term denominational presidency ended and still holds that seat.

Local churches can feel the effects of the denominational leadership shift, noted Mike Glenn, pastor of 10,000-member Brentwood Baptist Church in Tennessee. Glenn, a longtime friend of Page’s, said it’s likely the SBC executive’s ability to find one or two points he can agree upon with someone and then build from there has contributed.

“Several years ago, when we were so actively politically engaged, there were times when statements would be made by Southern Baptist leaders, and we would have to say, ‘They don’t represent us,’” Glenn said. “I think there was a sobering up about the realities of the political process. The Southern Baptist Convention had put a lot of eggs in the conservative Republican political system and got very little in return.”

(Not that Southern Baptists have exactly gone Democratic: the immediate past president of the SBC, Ronnie Floyd, and a longtime SBC leader, Richard Land, are on Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory board, and white evangelicals are still supporting Trump by a wide margin over Hillary Clinton, who continues to draw sharp criticism from many Southern Baptists.)

As for the denomination’s future goals, Glenn would like to see the convention mimic his church, doing more hands-on ministry to communities in need. “We have talked so much and done so little, nobody is listening to us anymore. Provide clinics and services in underserved areas. And then you’ll earn the right to speak.”

The denomination is continuing its outreach to other faiths. This month, the ERLC joined Catholics in a Capitol Hill briefing on anti-abortion issues, said Jeanne Mancini, the Catholic head of nonsectarian March for Life. She said her organization, seeing the potential for like-minded collaboration, long had sought ways to pair on public policy.

“We don’t typically get into theological conversations,” she said. “In terms of public policy, we’re working hand-in-glove, and I’ve never been offended by anything they’ve had to say.”

But while Southern Baptists may have a bigger tent these days, there are fewer members inside it.

Still the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with 15.3 million members, that total has decreased for nine straight years. Not only are members departing — 200,000 of them from 2014-15 — fewer are joining. Baptisms have decreased eight of the last 10 years.


READ: Southern Baptists decline as Assemblies of God grow


Those inside and outside the denomination have different takes on the figures and their relationship, or lack of it, to Southern Baptists’ more culturally relevant approach.

Page, in a news release about the numbers, asked God to forgive a lack of diligence in evangelism. But, in his interview a week later, he said he was encouraged by the more than 18,000 men and women enrolled in Southern Baptist seminaries, a record high.

David Dockery, the president of Trinity International University, said the Page-led shift in approach made a positive difference despite the membership totals: “I don’t have data to support this statement, but while those numbers are a disappointment to all concerned, I think they would have been far greater without those efforts.”

The key is not stanching the flow of members out, Stetzer said, it’s evangelizing more new ones in, and that’s something he hopes to help all evangelicals do in his new role at Wheaton.

Ed Stetzer, outgoing executive director of LifeWay Research, challenged pastors to be authentic in their evangelism, telling them that laypeople won't do evangelism if their pastors don't. Stetzer spoke during the 2016 Pastors' Conference on Monday, June 13 in St. Louis. Photo by Bill Bangham, courtesy of Baptist Press

Ed Stetzer, outgoing executive director of LifeWay Research, challenged pastors to be authentic in their evangelism, telling them that lay people won’t do evangelism if their pastors don’t. Stetzer spoke during the 2016 Pastors’ Conference on June 13, 2016 in St. Louis. Photo by Bill Bangham, courtesy of Baptist Press

While Stetzer strongly identifies with being Southern Baptist — he converted as a young adult after being raised Catholic and becoming an Episcopalian — and sees the denomination’s value, he’s long been involved in a multidenominational, evangelical ministry in addition to his LifeWay job.

“Mainline denominations value ecumenical cooperation much higher as a symbolic representation of unity. For evangelicals, it’s more a unity of purpose than a display,” he said.

For Stetzer, as a Southern Baptist in an interdenominational setting, the key will be allowing racially and theologically diverse groups of evangelicals to collaborate without leaving their convictions at the door.

(Heidi Hall is an RNS correspondent based in Nashville.)

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Heidi Hall

36 Comments

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  • These poor folks just don’t seem to catch on. Why are people leaving a judgmental, bigoted faith? They are decent people of course, and there are now many non-judgmental and not bigoted churches to go to!~

  • Wow. You just generalized a minority of 15 million people calling them all hateful bigots. Who is the intolerant, judgemental, angry person in this conversation.

  • Let’s not be foolish. It is not a generalization when it is the official position of the baptist leadership. And so, the decent people who disagree with that bigoted stance, are leaving to seek those churches which honor the love of Jesus.

  • It won’t be long now until they are apologizing to another group they have betrayed, and electing one of them to their presidency

  • The baptists cannot have things both ways, though they always seem to try! They cannot gather kudos for their acceptance of African Americans and Asians, while they are still treating other groups in the same manner as they treated those to whom they apologize now. That is not acceptance; that is painting over their past, while continuing in their bigotry.

  • No, no, no! Corinthians is supposedly by Paul. (probably not) Paul taught in opposition to Jesus in several areas, including the need to marry. Jesus accepted all people, at least by the tales in the bible. He contradicted himself on marriage, so we can see that the gospels are just words placed in the mouth of a fictional Jesus, in order to express the writer’s own opinion, and that of his sect. The 4 gospels are from different sects of early christianity.

  • The baptists could be so much better people if they only read the 1st paragraph of Leviticus 20, where it is spelled out that the rules against homosexuality applied only to Israelites, and foreigners living within Israel.

  • Bart Ehrman teaches that Paul wrote both letters to the Corinthians, except for some copy damage (1Cor14 rant against women, for example.). Both Corinthians are probably genuine documents from Paul himself, except for copy damage. Based on your comments you would probably like Bart’s books and online videos. Personally I think he is a great teacher.

  • The rules against homosexuality in Leviticus 20 apply only in Israel. The ones in Leviticus 18 apply only in Canaan. This is spelled out in the 1st couple paragraphs of each, in older bibles. Christians have been manipulating the passages as they do their bible reprints.

  • Even the passage in Romans 1 against homosexuality says that being Gay was the punishment God put on people for worshipping a different way than he wanted. In other words, Paul is just repeating the message he found in Leviticus, or scripture as he called it. The worship is what your god hated.

  • Jesus certainly did speak against homosexuality in Mark 7:20-21 where He uses the word “unchastity”, “immorality” and “fornications which includes adultery, incest, premarital infidelity, homosexuality, beastiality and any other sexual conduct condemned in the OT.

  • Thanks for the Ehrman tip. I have read 8 or 10 of his earlier works. I finally gave up on him (though I still like and respect him, and his work) when I realized that he hasn’t completely released his earlier beliefs, and that causes him to hedge in some areas where I feel he just needs to break free. But we all go through this differently, and he has his right to cling, at least a bit to belief. (If that is indeed, what is happening. This is just my personal thoughts. I could be wrong.) 1 Cor seems to have at least 2 later additions to the text, and 2 Cor seems to be a patching together of several letters. As to Paul’s authorship, we shall see, though it is generally accepted among scholars.

  • It is your opinion that immorality includes homosexuality. That is a bigoted opinion which you, and probably your church, bring to the text. It is not in the text, nor is it implied. Mark 7 is also where Jesus says you needn’t wash your hands before eating, so what does he know? In Mark 6, Jesus uses Isaiah as a prophecy of the Pharisees questioning him, but it is obviously not applicable. The Pharisees did not honor Jesus, and they most certainly did not worship him!! This is just religious honoring of the character Jesus, many years after the fact. It could not be relating actual events.

  • No, time has erased the original reasoning. Worship of other gods was the crime, and since the Temples of the other gods had both male and female prostitutes, the bible writers claimed that to be their punishment for having other gods.

  • I think you are missing the whole point of marriage and sexuality biblically. It is a picture of Christ and the church, and before sin entered the world was clearly a man and a woman who would “fill the earth and subdue it.” The differences in women make men better images of God and vice versa. As others have said, the fact that Paul talks about it thousands of years later to the church makes it pretty obvious that the violation transcends a specific time and place. In 1 Cor 6, homosexuality is listed beside other sins that transcend a specific time or people group such as stealing, swindling and idolatry.

    You deny the obvious simply because you don’t want to live under anyone’s rule but your own. One day your rebellion will be crushed by a loving Savior that draws you to Himself or a righteous king who punishes you eternally. I pray it is the former.

  • Some people learn to stop fearing the big bad wolf, while others never do. Some learn that there is no reward at the end of the rainbow, and others keep chasing the dream, because a book told them so.

  • Right about that Dudley. Good work. Ehrman is a skilled scholar whose work is exceptional.

  • But the loving savior doesn’t love you so much that he keeps you from the king who punishes you for eternity for some trifling transgression that you forgot to repent, or didn’t have time to repent, or about which you never heard in the first place.

  • “It is your opinion that immorality includes homosexuality. That is a bigoted opinion which you, and probably your church, bring to the text. It is not in the text, nor is it implied.” Open a Greek lexicon and look up “porneia” (which is translated fornication or sexual immorality in Mark 7, depending on which version you read) and all of those items JP listed are right there. It is a broad term which encompasses all of the sexual prohibitions in the Torah.

  • Baloney. Continue to verse 23 where God rejected Gentile nations for sexual immorality long before there was any Torah.

    “And you shall not walk in the manners of the nation, which I cast out before you: for they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.”

  • Look into what Jews were complaining about in the first place, and you will find it was temple prostitution. Then pseudo-Mark and Paul (possibly pseudo as well) took their prohibitions from scripture (OT).

  • The bible does. Look earlier in Mark itself, and you find “as it is written.” By the way, washing hands after using the bathroom, and before eating is always a good idea, despite what pseudo-Mark claims Jesus said!

  • So god killed people who did not even know they were wrong in his eyes? They had no Torah, they had no bible. You do see the fictional nature of all of this?

  • But then why skip past Levitus 20, first paragraph without absorbing it’s wisdom? Cherry season?

  • LOL! Nice try, but nope. What God rejects before the Torah, He continues to reject after it.

  • Who says they didn’t know? Every observant Jew knows that there is a standard more ancient than Leviticus.

  • No the bible does not. “Porneia” describes everything from temple prostitution to simple premarital sex (which necessitated either a marriage or a fine paid as the price of the maiden’s “porneia”).

    Jesus didn’t say hand-washing wasn’t a good idea. But it was not a Torah command and the Pharisees were treating it as if it were.

  • So why believe the Torah? Do you think Moses described his own funeral? It is literature, not history. It was written to justify Israel. That leaves no room for truth. It is their justification for genocide.

  • Believe it or not, as you wish. But repudiate it honestly instead of cravenly trying to rewrite it.

  • That is an honest repudiation. It is tradition and the text which are not honest. The Torah is claimed to have been written by Moses (whose exodus never took place; Israel Finkelstein, “The Bible Unearthed”) yet it describes his funeral. Moses is considered a fictional character today.

  • Fine. The Torah is fiction to you. Therefore, there is no point in coming here quibbling ad infinitum over the meaning of a fictional text. Adios, then.

  • “Theology is the pursuit of ever increasing exactitude concerning the unknowable.” To this, the Baptists add intolerance, vanity, and ignorance (aka congregationalism) – and Jesus gets blamed for it all.

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