Friday, November 18, 2005

On Denominations and Militancy: What Was Adrian Rogers Supposed To Do?

By this time you are probably aware that Adrian Rogers passed away earlier this week. When Dr. Rogers was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979, he was the first of an unbroken line of militantly conservative* presidents that continues to this date. His election was the first victory for conservatives (pejoratively called "fundamentalists") in the long struggle to steer the SBC back to its orthodox roots. The ultra-condensed version of the story is that the election of militantly conservative presidents has been the decisive point in turning the convention towards conservatism. The SBC presidents have appointed militantly conservative people to SBC agency boards (missions agencies, seminaries, publishing house, etc.), and those boards have hired militantly conservative leadership for the agencies.
[* By "militantly conservative" I mean individuals not only whose personal beliefs were orthodox, but were also committed to appointing to leadership positions in the SBC only those individuals who were also orthodox. Previous "non-militant" presidents may have been orthodox themselves, but because they valued denominational unity over loyalty to truth, they appointed modernists and non-militant conservatives to key positions of denominational leadership.]
That story is not over yet. Just about every year the agencies are making more definitive steps towards thoroughgoing conservatism, but there are more steps yet to take. The pragmatic strategies that led to a healthier denomination do not apply to thousands of local churches that may be orthodox but are patently unhealthy. Over the long term, the health of the SBC is grounded in the health of the churches. I believe the primary denominational strategy is to churn out thousands of pastors from the renovated seminaries. Those young men will fan out into churches that have deteriorated theologically, spiritually, and numerically in order to infuse new life into them by the power of the preaching of the gospel. The secondary strategy is to continue to plant new churches in the Northeast and the West. Will it work? There is no way to know but to wait and see (and work, if you are in the SBC).

That brings us to the question of the day: Were Adrian Rogers and the other leaders of the conservative resurgence right to remain in the SBC, or should they have withdrawn and separated from the convention because of the presence of modernists and non-militant conservatives? I see three responses to this question that are rational and consistent with theologically conservative principles.
  1. The denominational incrementalist approach. This view is essentially represented by what did happen and what is still happening. Militant conservatives are winning the major battles but are proceeding in a measured fashion. They are trying to maintain a delicate balance by proceeding slowly and carefully so that they do not drive away churches (and their Cooperative Program contributions) that might be reformed in time.
  2. The independent separatist approach.This view says that by the 1970s militant SBC conservatives should have realized that the convention was beyond repair. They should have withdrawn from the convention to form independent agencies led by local churches. The implication of this approach is that the SBC, all its agencies, and many of the churches that have now been reformed would likely have been lost, but a new, much smaller fellowship of militantly conservative churches would have sprung up. From this perspective, the SBC will never be purified because even the leadership is still too tolerant. The overwhelming love in the SBC for all things Graham and Warren is offered as evidence to this view. Those who subscribe to this view grudgingly acknowledge the good that has been accomplished by the denominational reform approach, but are highly skeptical that it will go far enough.
  3. The denominational reformist approach. This approach says that what has taken place in the convention represents amazing progress but still falls far short of what needs to take place. I think this is a relatively small group. Individuals who hold to this view value theological purity over denominational unity, but they appreciate the pragmatic benefits of denominational cooperation. They do not share the independent separatist's understanding of secondary separation, but they share their distaste for the theology and methodology of Warren and Graham. Denominational reformists speak constantly about the purity of the gospel and say things like this:
    I am concerned that the gospel would go forward better if most Southern Baptist churches in America were closed down. So I think most of the churches I am familiar with—many evangelical churches—are not good witnesses for the gospel.
I'm not here to say which view is biblical, best, or wisest. My independent streak makes me lean initially toward the second. I simply have no love for denominations or de facto denominations. I doubt that they are expedient even if they are pure. My realist streak (augmented by the fact that I am a student within—but not a member of—the SBC status quo) gives me some appreciation for the first, but it's way too soft for my theology and my convictions. The third is the most principled melding of the idealistic and the pragmatic, but that doesn't prove its superiority.

Regardless, I do see some irony. I'm an independent fundamental Baptist. Not the fire-breathing, fight-picking, KJV-only kind, but a fundamentalist nonetheless. Sort of like the kind President Carter was taking shots at, but without the tendency towards political power-grabs. I'm the kind that loves America but doesn't want an American flag in the church.

The irony is in the fact that separatist independent fundamentalists would, not surprisingly, advocate the "independent separatist approach," but when they talk about their fundamentalist heritage, they have to admit that the early fundamentalists did not follow this approach. They were at best denominational reformists. They cooperated with non-militant conservatives in the publication of The Fundamentals. Some of them even left the Convention and started a new group in willing cooperation with non-militant conservatives. Only later when this strategy failed did they become independent separatists.

Make no mistake, however. They did not leave because they could no longer in good conscience partner with non-militant conservatives. They left because they lost their battle with modernists for the purity of the Northern Baptist Convention. Had they won the same victories in the NBC that Adrian Rogers and friends won in the SBC, I wonder if the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship would be speaking Denominationalese. I'm glad they're not, but perhaps not for the same reasons others give thanks.

So was Rogers right to fight for the purity of the denomination? Should he have led a mass exodus instead? Will the SBC ever be reformed as thoroughly as it ought to be? I don't have the answers to these questions. But let's be honest. Northern fundamentalists lost their battles. He won his. The fact that we left denominationalism because we could no longer control it doesn't make our history more principled. On the other hand, the fact that Rogers led a resurgence that has won great battles does not prove Rogers was right, and it certainly doesn't mean the war is over.

As I said before, I'm not a Southern Baptist. I'm glad that I am not sending any of my money to support in any minute sense whatever vestiges of modernism remain in the Convention. Neverthless, I'm a bit queasy when I hear independent fundamentalists take men like Rogers, Patterson, and their successors to task for not being militant enough.

I have experienced precious little persecution for being an independent fundamentalist—little more than occasionally having people assume I'm KJV-only and paying double tuition at Southeastern (which does sting a little, I promise you). Some living fundamentalists have payed a far greater price than I, but I'm having a hard time imagining that they have paid a heavier price for their militancy than Adrian Rogers did. If you doubt that, do a little research and read the slander.

One might rightly say that Rogers should have been more separatistic—that he should have gone further—but I'm having a tough time swallowing allegations that he was not militant. All too often, the friends who say these things have sacrificed comparatively little for their principles. Rogers and many others paid dearly for theirs. Rogers did battle royal for the fundamentals of the faith, and he deserves my respect. I think we all owe him the same.


T.J. Pennock said...

I agree.

Anonymous said...

Paleo, excellent thoughts. My wife and I were saddened (and still am) by the news that Dr. Rogers had passed away.

For anyone who actually wants to know, there is a book called "The Baptist reformation". In it, Jerry Sutton lays out the condition of the agencies (primarily seminaries), its leaders, and the direction they were going.

Modernists slipped in under a cover of darkness in the 60s, spoke just enough of the correct language to stay, and came into important SBC positions.

When Rogers was elected president, the modernists despised him because he didn't play ball the way the other conservative presidents did in the past.

One could argue that the SBC resurgence actually had a strategy to win instead of simply fighting the way the NBC did. That strategy was brilliant. I doubt very much that the NBC counterparts would have separated if they knew they were the clear majority but just needed to take the steps to ensure that.

I have met Dr. Rogers. He was a gracious man.

In my bible, he signed it like this:

To James
God is love
Jesus is wonderful

Right now, he knows that more than ever.

larry said...


when you say that original fundamentalists were not the "independent separatist" type, I wonder if that isn't a bit misleading. There was at that time a serious attempt to reform the denominations and structures, which is perfectly legitimate. But over time, they failed, they realized they failed, and so they pulled out. Riley was one of them who pulled out of the NBC shortly before his death because he did not want to die in their company. Jones Sr and Jr tried to be a part of Graham's ministry as well as a part of the NAE to steer it in a good direction, but eventually lost the fight and had to pull out.

With all the effort that has been put into reforming teh SBC, one wonders if a new organization could not have been started from more solid ground. After all, there are a lot of people already doing what Rogers, Stanley, and now Mohler and others wanted to do. The difference is that they didn't really want to be separatists. We can rejoice that they had the success they did, but we can't help but wonder if they didn't compromise too much to do it.

Anonymous said...

Larry, there wasn't a reason to start a new group. The people in the pew were not aware of the modernism going on.

It took a brilliant strategy to not only make them aware, but put the pieces in place to overthrow the libs.

If the majority were conservative, but the powerful were the libs, why would you sound retreat? Jude didn't advocate us retreating for the faith.

The NBC failed because their entire strategy was short term.

A little bit of wisdom might have helped their cause.

Ben said...


I think you're actually agreeing with me. The northern militants only left when their reforms failed, and even then many of them left with non-militants in tow. They became independent separatists only when they lost.

In fact, you have conceded a very important point when you say that "a serious attempt to reform the denominations and structures . . . is perfectly legitimate."

That's exactly what southern militants are trying do do. They have not failed, at least not yet. Clearly, there is work left to do. My point is that it is unfair to judge them while their reforms are still progressing. After all, isn't it northern militants who have popularized the "Which way are your toes pointing?" criteria?

If we believe that Christ wants unity in His Church that is grounded in orthodox doctrine and practice, are we wiser to give thanks for positive change and encourage further reform, or to prate about what hasn't been done yet when the process is still progressing?

I kind of like the latter. Maybe that makes me a compromiser—or worse yet, an optimist.

Mike Hess said...

Rogers will no doubt be remembered as a man of courage, conviction, and integrity. I met Dr. Rogers last February and he was an incredibly gracious man who came across as being very sincere.

It would be a bit presumptious I believe to say that Rogers was wrong in trying to change the SBC from the inside. We as fundamentalists need to remember that he and his conservative friends had their roots in the SBC and felt a strong conviction that it could still be salvaged if they could somehow own the reigns of the leadership within the SBC.

Rogers will truly be missed. Though we as fundamentalists will continue to debate the direction he took, there can be little doubt that what he did was courageous and catapulted the SBC in the right (albeit not totally of our persuasion) direction.

To this day, I still could not join the SBC. But I could and will have wonderful fellowship with faithful servants of Christ within their denomination.