World War I ended for U.S. General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing with King George V of England telling the tough leader, "You, of course, will be the next American President." But it was not to be, and a survey indicated that the general's own troops would not support his candidacy. The generals of controversial campaigns, even when successful, are rarely elected to public leadership-which makes what Southern Baptists are poised to do this week in Salt Lake City all the more significant.
Paige Patterson, now president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, is expected to be elected without opposition as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Behind this event are two of the most tumultuous decades in Southern Baptist experience, and one of the most fascinating stories from the history of American Christianity.
"A great battle rages today around biblical infallibility among evangelicals." With those words in 1976, Harold Lindsell, then editor emeritus of Christianity Today, hoped to sound an alarm that would awaken evangelicals to a deadly pattern of doctrinal compromise and lead to a recovery of belief in the inerrancy and full authority of Holy Scripture as the very Word of God.
Mr. Lindsell died five months ago on Jan. 15, and his brave manifesto, The Battle for the Bible, is now more than 20 years old, but the book still reads like a blockbuster. Taking on evangelicalism at large, Mr. Lindsell took particular aim at the Southern Baptist Convention, his own denominational home.
Looking at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1976, Mr. Lindsell was appalled by the unwillingness of faithful Southern Baptists to force a confrontation with theological liberalism in their midst. He documented the denials of biblical inerrancy then widespread throughout the denomination's agencies, and he took hope in the presence of "solid citizens" who could lead Southern Baptists to recovery. Would they? "As of now," he lamented, "the fuse that could cause a conflagration has not been lighted."
The integrity of the denomination was at stake, he argued. "And the longer the Southern Baptists wait, the rougher the battle will be, and less obvious the outcome in favor of historic Christianity." As it turned out, Southern Baptists had been slow to awaken, but Mr. Lindsell's wait was soon over.
The 1979 election of Adrian Rogers as president of the Southern Baptist Convention was the watershed event that launched the battle into its public phase. For years denominational leaders had, in turn, either allowed or encouraged the convention's liberalization. In reality, the trends of theological compromise and liberalization were already far more advanced than even Mr. Lindsell recognized. An elite of elected and appointed leaders held the levers of denominational power in a tight grip, and they were confident of their ability to hold off any conservative challenge.
In a massive miscalculation, the entrenched leadership expected either to defeat or ride out any conservative reaction by force of will and by reliance upon denominational inertia. In the end, both of these previously tried-and-true methods of protecting the status quo failed. The first-ballot election of Mr. Rogers, a powerfully influential pastor in Memphis, was not a fluke-it was the public lighting of a fuse.
Although conservative frustration had been boiling under the surface, a recovery effort would require leadership. Behind the new movement was a strategy put in place by two Texans willing to risk virtually everything-including their personal reputations-for the cause of theological recovery. Paul Pressler, a Texas appeals court judge, read the governing documents of the convention and saw a way to gain control through the election of a conservative president, who would then make like-minded appointments. Paige Patterson, then president of The Criswell Center for Biblical Studies (later The Criswell College), was able to articulate both the problem and the solution in a way grassroots Southern Baptists could understand. Together, they raised up an army of messengers to the annual conventions. Those messengers turned the Southern Baptist world upside-down by electing not just one president but an unbroken series of conservative presidents committed to reclaim the denomination.
The "Battle for the Bible" among Southern Baptists was not without traumatic consequences, as Mr. Lindsell had warned. After conservatives were clearly in control of the denomination, the liberal wing of the convention established two rival groups, the Southern Baptist Alliance and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The alliance was soon to drop "Southern" from its name, and the CBF is apparently stalled-able to attract only a small fraction of Southern Baptist churches.
The SBC, on the other hand, has emerged with its six seminaries and all other agencies firmly under conservative control. Biblical inerrancy is no longer a matter of theological debate, and evangelical conviction is expected of all who serve the denomination's institutions and agencies.
Not surprisingly, there are now more missionary candidates preparing for Great Commission service than at any previous time in the convention's history. The churches have responded with increased support for the convention's unified budget, and total church membership stands at nearly 16 million.
The real question for Southern Baptists is whether the churches will seize the moment, maintain the focus, and keep the denominational ship firmly on course. One danger is the institutionalization of the conservative movement into nothing more than a new Baptist bureaucracy. Perhaps an even greater danger is seduction by America's marketplace Christianity and its lowest-common-denominator approach to doctrine. Pragmatism and postmodernism both stalk Southern Baptists, and the gains of the last two decades can be wiped away in less than a generation.
What happened in the SBC must be set against the trends in other major denominations. Although pockets of evangelical resistance still remain within the so-called "mainline" Protestant denominations, all remain firmly in liberal control. At best, evangelicals have been able to delay what seems to be the inevitable slide of these historic denominations into complete doctrinal dissolution. With each new theological outrage the evangelicals are forced to retreat, and the membership losses continue to mount.
Thus, a remarkable and symbolic event will take place as Southern Baptists meet June 9-11 in Salt Lake City. The election of Paige Patterson as president of the convention brings one of the most unlikely stories of American Christianity full circle. Southern Baptists are poised to elect a leader of the revolution as president of the convention. A gifted theologian and passionate evangelist, Mr. Patterson is certain to provide strong leadership as the denomination enters the 21st century. Somewhere in that great host of heavenly witnesses, Harold Lindsell must be smiling.