Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Independent Fundamentalists and Southern Baptists: Are Their Toes Pointed the Same Direction?

A few weeks ago I met a dear brother who is currently serving as the senior pastor of an SBC church. He gave me permission to share his story without identifying his church, so I’ll provide all the details I can.

He moved to the United States from another continent several years ago to further his education, having already received some theological training and having served as a pastor in his home country. He was soon hired to serve as an associate pastor in what would have been considered a “moderate” Southern Baptist church. From what he told me, it seems that this church was not so much explicitly denying the authority of Scripture as it was simply ignoring it. This approach revealed itself in a shallow, therapeutic pulpit ministry, a de-emphasis of the gospel, and egalitarian gender roles in the church’s leadership.

My friend established a pattern of expositional preaching in the youth ministry, which fell under his oversight, and he invested his life into shepherding the young people under his care. To his surprise, he was called to be the church’s senior pastor when the previous pastor left a couple years after my friend’s arrival.

Since entering the senior pastorate, he has employed the same approach to the Word of God in his pulpit ministry, and he’s taken a painful and costly stand on gender issues. When I asked him about the makeup of the congregation when he arrived compared to what exists now, he said that some of the original members left in anger, some became genuine believers, some began to grow beyond spiritual infancy, and perhaps a few remain members in rebellion. In any case, the current congregation is significantly larger than it was when he first arrived, the gospel has been recovered, and on top of that, he’s pastoring a multi-racial congregation in the South.

I say all that to say this: Some fundamentalists criticize the SBC’s toleration of some moderates within the convention and argue that these churches ought to be expelled. Although I’m not entirely sure the SBC is constituted in such a way as to adopt that approach, particularly for churches that do not send messengers to the SBC annual meeting, I’m somewhat sympathetic with that critique.

On the other hand, it seems simplistic to suggest that the SBC is not contending for the faith when it has clear strategy is to recover churches for the cause of the gospel. The strategy is to infiltrate these churches with conservative pastors who will unreservedly and unapologetically preach and stand for the Word. Sometimes we forget that churches are made up of people. Some of these people in some of these moderate or liberal churches are genuine believers who are starving to death in their spiritual infancy for lack of the mild of the Word. Some of those people are now growing spiritually, and others have now trusted Christ for salvation because they now have a pastor who preaches the gospel.

Clearly, that’s an argument soaked in pragmatism. But that doesn’t mean it consists solely of pragmatism. And while pragmatic arguments can’t prove a strategy is right, they just might not mean that it is wrong either. For years independent fundamentalists have used the “Which way are your toes pointed?” argument to cast suspicion on individuals or ministries who built relationships outside the fold. Sometimes they were proven right. But perhaps it’s time to apply this mantra consistently and to recognize that many people in the SBC have pointed their toes far more in the same direction of the fundamentalists than is easy for fundamentalists to admit. Check out this video (HT: Founders blog) if you want to hear a couple speakers at an SBC conference for younger leaders who sound strikingly like fundamentalists—both for good and ill.

I’m grateful to be able to say that I’ve heard a number of independent fundamentalists begin to acknowledge the healthy changes in the SBC over the past 25 years. They’re also right when they say that the SBC has a long way to go. But what I wonder is whether it’s possible that some independent fundamentalists might have something to learn from some Southern Baptists of conviction. And fundamentalists will not be slow to assert that Southern Baptists have something to learn from them. Perhaps it would be beneficial to the cause of the gospel if individual fundamentalist pastors developed personal relationships with individual SBC pastors. Perhaps that would be preferable to the (two-way) culture of mistrust and misconceptions that still causes many fundamentalists to offer broad-brush criticism and place SBC churches—even the leaders in advancing Baptist conviction, separatist principle, and authentic evangelism and worship—under the designation of anathema.

But hey, I’m just daydreaming.


Don said...

Ben, I don't think the issue with SBC is so much the individual churches but the problematic associations of the main leadership. I get the impression from your post that there are some fundamentalists who are saying things like, "well, if the SBC would only purge the bad churches, then we could cooperate." Am I reading you right? I'd be surprised if anyone was taking that position.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Matt said...

Your link to the video doesn't work. Could you repost?

Ben said...

Thanks Matt. I get a glitch in Blogger every now and then. It's fixed now.

Ben said...


You're reading me right. I've heard the latter problem discussed more frequently as the primary issue. But hey, we're autonomous Baptists, and we have the soul liberty to disagree on what the biggest problems with the SBC are, right?

Josh said...

I used the "which way are your toes pointed" argument in the discussion over at theoblogy about emergent orthodoxy and Tim Keller's comments at the DG conference. :)

Anonymous said...

Ben, great article. I left the independent church and joined a great SB church with the kind of preaching your talking about. The only really big difference between the two is the missionary program. Those in the leadership of the convention have nothing to do with decision-making in our church. My church had over 50% former independent Baptists. It functions in many ways independently. We support a few missionaries outside of the cooperative program. I guess the biggest difference is secondary seperation. We just don't make that big of a deal out of it. Thats why so many of us left the ibf's. Just couldn't stomach the hipocrasy of legalism anymore.

kevin mcfadden said...


"Dear brother"? Whoa buddy, we're not in DC yet:)

Ben said...

Funny. I deserved that.