Features

See you in St. Louis: SBC 15 years later is a changed denomination

Religion

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

Southern Baptists are set to gather in St. Louis on June 11-12 for the annual Southern Baptist Convention, returning to a city of historic consequence for the SBC's conservative resurgence. As usual, the convention is likely to draw widespread media attention, for Southern Baptists are known for speaking their minds.

Denominations spawn bureaucracies, and these official structures generally try to steer clear of all controversy and cultural confrontation. Not so among the Southern Baptists, for the SBC has become known for taking clear stands and adopting confrontational resolutions. The SBC seems to step on some national nerve just about every time it meets: Southern Baptists have been vilified for promoting evangelism among Jews and Muslims, for insisting that homosexuality is a sin, and for adopting a revised confession of faith that slammed the door on theological revisionism.

The "conservative resurgence" of the 1980s and '90s brought a new generation of conservative leadership to the denomination-and sparked a revolution. By the end of the 20th century, conservatives controlled all the national institutions and agencies of the denomination, including its publishing board and seminaries. This theological reversal was a stunning counterpoint to mainline Protestant liberalism.

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According to the prevailing theory of denominational behavior, the conservative leadership was expected to assume a self-protective stance of avoiding controversy. Some observers predicted that the "new" SBC would assume a stance that avoided cultural confrontation, but the opposite has happened.

As some now attempt to pull evangelicalism to the left, the Southern Baptist Convention and its seminaries have become a powerful force of restraint, and many of evangelicalism's most articulate and conservative scholars now teach at the SBC seminaries. Southern Baptist theologians were at the forefront of opposition to the movement known as "open theism" at last year's annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society and have also led opposition to the gender-inclusive Bible translations.

The translation issue exploded again this year as Zondervan Publishing House and the International Bible Society released Today's New International Version after withdrawing from an agreement not to publish a gender-revised version of the New International Version. When Zondervan and IBS proposed a similar move in 1997, Southern Baptists joined other evangelicals in vocal opposition. Eventually IBS pledged to "abandon all plans" to regender the NIV. But the groups abandoned even that plan, releasing the TNIV as a "gender-accurate" translation.

The TNIV controversy is sure to be an issue at the St. Louis convention, whether or not the convention takes any direct action. The denomination has spoken clearly to the principles at stake, and-while avoiding personal attacks upon translators-will continue to oppose what Southern Baptists see as unacceptable compromises.

On these and other issues, the SBC risks being accused of making much ado about nothing. But the Southern Baptist Convention has learned the hard way that the only way to avoid controversy is to allow compromise.

One of the SBC's crucial lessons came the last time the convention met in St. Louis. In 1987-in the heat of the SBC's internal conflict-the denomination overwhelmingly adopted the "Peace Committee Report." The Peace Committee was formed in 1985 and charged with finding the sources of the controversy, as well as charting a way toward peace. In retrospect, adoption of the "Peace Committee Report" was more significant than the convention then realized.

The most significant aspect of the report was the finding that the controversy was essentially theological, and that nothing less than biblical authority was at stake. As the report stated, "Gradually, it became clear that while there might be other theological differences, the authority of the Word of God is the focus of differences. The primary source of the controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention is the Bible, more specifically, the ways in which the Bible is viewed."

That simple declaration was the convention's first public acknowledgment that the real issue was the authority of the Bible. Once that was clear, the convention's course was cast, and Southern Baptists demanded leadership, agencies, and seminaries that would stand for full biblical authority.

Those Southern Baptists gathered in St. Louis in 1987 did not see controversies over Jewish evangelism, the legitimization of homosexuality, Bible translations, and the normative status of the family on the horizon-but they took their stand for the full authority of the Bible and didn't look back. | R. Albert Mohler

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