Tuesday, June 10, 2008

“Somewhere Between Jesus and John Wayne”: My Week at the Southern Baptist Convention

As I’m writing this, I’ve been here in Indianapolis since Saturday, and since the time the Pastors’ Conference kicked off Sunday evening I’ve been searching for words that could paint a picture of the experience.

But when the Gaither Vocal Band took the stage to perform their song by the above name, my search was over.

This has been a surreal experience. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the SBC you can probably tune in online. I’ve done that in the past, and it was quite instructive. When a couple friends joined me in sharing online running commentary, it was also quite enjoyable. (Note: I'm NOT encouraging it as a wise investment of time.) But that was another day.

Today I’m here. To this point I haven’t been able to formulate a coherent, big picture analysis. Perhaps in the process of sharing some snapshot observations a metanarrative will emerge.

My SBC experience began with the Pastors’ Conference, which was formerly an strategic tool of the SBC Conservative Resurgence, but is now essentially a series of sermons preached by men chosen by the leader of the Conference for whatever reasons he chooses.

I’m not going to lie. My expectations were low as the whole thing began. But when Johnny Hunt kicked off the Pastors’ Conference quoting A.W. Pink, twenty ears way on the left side of the room perked up. Later he busted out some Spurgeon and J.I. Packer.

Those moments of encouragement were fleeting. The Pastors’ Conference incarnates the steep price the SBC must pay for years of theological indifference. Sadly, the sermons that interacted most faithfully with the text of Scripture and advanced the fewest unhelpful theological and methodological notions were the ones preached either by non-SBC pastors or by men who gained their theological foundation when liberalism in the SBC was less pervasive and therefore less stifling to conservative students.

Here’s a taste of the Pastors’ Conference:

We heard the “biblical theology” for a come-forward invitation: “I believe the invitation is God’s idea.” God invites people into the ark in Genesis. In the last five verses of Revelation, the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Time and again, Jesus says, “Come.” Therefore, we should invite people to come down the aisle to an “altar” to do business with God because biblical faith is always accompanied by works (true) and the invitation is a great way to demonstrate that (false).

We heard, “Laughter may be the best message you’ve ever preached.” Sadly, I fear this may be true for most of those who "Amen"ed.

We heard interminable appeals to win souls in order to get our numbers up. “Every number has a story.” We heard little if any mention (I’m trying to be charitable) of the fundamental biblical motivation for evangelism of proclaiming the glory of the name of Jesus Christ to all the nations.

We heard three shout-outs to bloggers so far. One encouraged us to use blogs to fight for a Word-centered reformation. Two suggested that bloggers are one of God’s chief tools in bringing unjust trials on pastors. Interestingly, the pro-blogger speaker was also one of few to this point who adopted the novel approach of interacting with the Word of God in his sermon. And even he spoke at a parallel event, not on the official program.

While the guys from my church were chatting at one of the tables in the cafeteria area, a couple friends of our church stopped by and listened to our frustrations. One of them quite plausibly pointed out that the men who have been in the pulpit to this point were the men who received their training in the darkest days of the SBC. They were drawing nourishment while they were in seminary from whatever sources they could find. Though those sources were evangelical, they weren’t theologically sound. So I’m grateful that God equipped those men to reclaim lost ground in the SBC in the 80s and 90s. Nevertheless, I fear that their ongoing influence is undermining the future.

Let me close with a few observations, some of which I’ll articulate in words borrowed from the friends with me. First, in the SBC God is a means to an end. We need to seek his presence because he is the source of revival, which is a way for us to get our numbers up. Second, last year Executive Committee President Morris Chapman berated Calvinists. This year he went after sex offenders. Hmmm . . . Third, SBC preaching is pervasively typological. Every character in the Bible is a type . . . of us.

Finally, the public face of the SBC is functionally atheological. The good news is that I was able to observe some very clarifying evidence that theology does matter in the convention. In particular, the issue of women in pastoral ministry has popped up in a couple of different contexts, and when the chips are down people are making decisions to guard the SBC’s cooperative statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message. Surely there is backbone encased by all the flab, but I wonder how long it can survive under such unhealthy conditions.

So the SBC is in a precarious position. The preaching put on display is counter-productive to the principles of the Resurgence. It’s not that anyone denies the authority, inerrancy, or sufficiency of Scripture. It’s not that anyone would explicitly reject expository preaching. The problem is that the prevailing majority of the preaching that’s on display reduces biblical authority to (at best) a trite series of mottos and (at worst) a jumping-off point for man-centered theology or a comedy routine.

Just as I’ve argued that fundamentalists who profess allegiance to Scripture are hypocrites when they tolerate (and even elevate) preaching that undermines it, so is a fundamentalistic SBC Conservative Resurgence that tolerates what we’ve seen and heard this week.

There aren’t many young people here. There will be fewer the longer the status quo continues. But some with the will and capacity to change that status quo are energized to do so. Keep your ears peeled for an alternative pastors’ conference in 2009 that features preaching that focuses on the good news about Jesus Christ from the pages of Scripture to the glory of God. To the glory of God ALONE.

P.S. As I was typing the above paragraph, an SBC presidential nomination speech referred to salamanders as “fish.” The more I think about it, “somewhere between Jesus and John Wayne” may be too charitable.

26 comments:

Bob Bixby said...

Thanks, Ben.

I wonder what you mean by "tolerate." What do you mean when you talk about Fundamentalists "tolerating" the aberrations of Fundamentalism? What do you mean by a Southern Baptist tolerating it? Is a Souther Baptist who stays in, stays connected, "tolerating"?

Just curious.

Ben Howard said...

Ben,

Thanks for blogging the convention. I wish I could be there, but I chose to go to the Chaplain's conference instead this year. As you can imagine, being a young Southern Baptist myself and coming from a fundamentalist background, I am a little more upbeat than you are about the future. I have seen all the things that you brought up and more in the last 10 years of counting myself as a Southern Baptist after graduating from BJU. I am truly trying to be charitable when I say that I respect the older generation of Southern Baptists and what they went through to return the Convention to a foundation of an inerrant Scripture. However, their training has left them conservative but in many cases poorly trained theologically. Those who were trained at SEBTS prior to the time you and I went there were trained at a completely different school with totally different educational goals and requirements.

I think that there is a whole new generation of young conservative Southern Baptists who are not very involved in the Convention, but are committed to the Word of God and the furtherance of the proclamation of not just core doctrine but correct exposition and hermeneutics. They are more reformed and culturally relevant; and while they are currently not in leadership, I believe that as the older generation retires you will see more in the younger generation come into leadership. There is a serious "good old boys" network in the SBC that is very hard to break through. I've seen that in the local association, 2 state conventions, and dealings with the SBC through NAMB and IMB. If you took a certain professor for Baptist History at SEBTS, then you probably got an earful of the inner politics at the top level of the SBC Executive Committee.

I'll stop there. Thanks again for blogging.

Ben

Kelly Randolph said...

Ben,
You have articulated some of my deepest worries about the SBC. We have become a denomination of paper conservatives. Our paper says we value the sufficiency of Scripture but our practice says otherwise. As one of my old football coach friends used to say, "Look like Tarzan, play like Jane."

Your report reveals that we are trying to shine the gun and load the shell with more powder all the while aiming at the wrong target. As a lifelong Southern Baptist, I am grieved at this state of affairs. I pray that the angst of the younger pastors over these issues will translate into substantive change. I believe that men like Al Mohler and Danny Akin are seeking to train our seminarians in this direction.

Don Johnson said...

Ben

Perhaps the conservative resurgence isn't as "conservative" or as "resurgent" as it is self-marketed to be.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

johnMark said...

Ben,

Thanks for this post. I perked up when I read:

I’m not going to lie. My expectations were low as the whole thing began. But when Johnny Hunt kicked off the Pastors’ Conference quoting A.W. Pink, twenty ears way on the left side of the room perked up. Later he busted out some Spurgeon and J.I. Packer.

But then I read the rest and wasn't really surprised. I've realized that many conservative resurgence type of folks are just as stuck in their traditions. Many of their positions are not based on biblical exegesis anymore than those they criticize for as not being biblically based.

As for the above quote, lately there certainly seems to be some acceptance from Johnny Hunt as far as Calvinistic theology goes. A few of us in Atlanta have noticed. Hopefully.

Mark

p.s. Everyone knows that salamanders are tadpoles! ;)

Ben said...

Bob,

This post is specifically referring to toleration of preaching that undermines the authority, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture.

By that I mean when a guy steps into a pulpit, reads a (usually brief) passage, and then gives evidence that (at best) he picked the passage because it could be construed to give him license to say what he wanted to say or (at worst) he has no interest whatsoever in the meaning of the text, that's a massive problem. A preacher like that may not deny the inspiration, authority, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture theoretically with his words, but he is certainly doing so functionally by his actions.

That error, I believe, is widely tolerated within both independent fundamentalism and the SBC.

Ben said...

Friends,

I've been greatly encouraged since my post yesterday. More on that to follow. I believe every word I wrote, but I have greater reason to hope.

Ben Howard,

Did you sit in front of me in Dr. McDill's preaching class?

Ben Howard said...

Ben,

It wasn't me. I took preaching from Dr. Rummage initially and then another preaching/hermeneutics class from Dr. Aiken.

Blake White said...

A biblical theology of altar calls...wow! Sorry I missed that one.

Ben said...

Don,

The more I think about it, you may have a point there.

The Conservative Resurgence may be as hollow in relationship to genuine conservatism as the fundamentalist movement in relationship to authentic fundamentalist ideals.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben

I guess you could say my earlier comment is all too predictable!!

Just observing from a distance though, I have not been convinced of the thoroughness of the 'conservatives' conservatism nor the strength of their victories. It is undeniable that they have made more progress than I expected, but there remains much more to accomplish before you can say that the SBC is thoroughly recovered.

Your observations in this post make my case on that last, I think.

The fundamentalist movement is harder to make objective statements about since it is not an official organization like the SBC, but a very loose association of somewhat like-minded individuals.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Anonymous said...

There you have it -- the classic fundamentalist wizardry. They can be critiqued as "they" because their association has some organization, but we can't be criticized as "we" because our association is not formally organized. Never mind that there's enough "we" to merit a title "fundamentalism" and easily observable family characteristics and history. There's nothing on paper, so there's nothing there.

Keith

Don Johnson said...

So, Keith, just ad hominem today, or do you care to actually address what I said?

Some SBCers apparently think that the conservative resurgence eliminated liberalism from the SBC, see the Dever-Minnick interview at about the 1:03 mark. It is a little easier to see whether that is objectively true because the SBC is a definable body.

When comparing the SBC to fundamentalism, it is much more difficult because they are not the same kinds of things.

Comparing evangelicalism and fundamentalism makes more sense, though as broad based movements, they are both hard to define, correct?

So what's your beef? Just a knee-jerk anti-fundamentalism?

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben Howard said...

Don,

Where in this report on the convention or either of Ben's other 2 posts, do you see liberalism in the SBC? You continue to say that you are not convinced that the "conservative resurgence" is really conservative, yet Ben's posts don't show that. They do show similar problems that are found in a great many self-described fundamentalist churches. While I said myself that the leadership still has some characteristics that are less conservative, they are by no means liberal theologically, and instead of fighting over music and Bible versions have actually done real battle for the fundamentals of the faith.

Don Johnson said...

Ben Howard:

Hi, I don't think I said there was liberalism in the SBC, though that is certainly still a possibility. What I said was that you can objectively determine whether there is liberalism in the SBC since it is a definable group. When you talk about errors in fundamentalism, it is less easy to define because you have to decide 'which fundamentalism'.

My exposure to the SBC these days is through the news and very occasional contacts with SBC churches here in Victoria, BC. So it is very limited. From what I have read and observed, there still may be liberals in the SBC although it appears a number of them have left in disgust.

What Ben W. wrote in this piece and the others speaks to me of problems with the overall conservativism of what remains in the SBC and the effectiveness of the resurgence. Yes, victories won. Hurray for that. But how complete? How effective? Will it last? Trying to read the political tea leaves from convention reports seem to indicate that there is a bit of a backlash happening against the conservatives with less conservative individuals being elected lately. So again, will the resurgence, such as it is, last? I don't know the answer to that question.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Anonymous said...

Don,

I did not level an ad hom argument. Such arguments are "to the man". If I'd have said you're a flannel wearing canuk, so you can't be right about the SBC, that would have been an ad hom.

What I did was critique the "get out of jail free" card used too frequently by fundamentalists -- the claim that because fundamentalism doesn't have an official membership list, it can't be critiqued as a movement.

I will concede that "fundamentalism" is more akin to "evangelicalism" than to "The Southern Baptist Convention." Your point is well made in that regard.

I also understand, and am happy about the fact, that today fundamentalists of the BJU variety do not want to be lumped together with fundamentalists of the Hyles-Anderson variety.

Nevertheless, there is a "movement identity" that is, both historically and presently, shared by both groups. I hope that folks labor away to establish new groupings that clearly distinguish these types. However, it is, in my opinion, a dodge to say, "Well, they aren't my kind of fundamentalist" if you won't allow evangelicals or SBCers to say "Well, they aren't my kind of _____"

Keith

Don Johnson said...

Hi Keith

You're right, I thought later that 'ad hominem' wasn't the proper term. I apologize. [Be sure Dave sees this!]

In any case, I am not one who minds being lumped together with any group of fundies. I don't agree with a good deal of what "Hylots" do (to use someone else's term), but I recognize that there are some links historically between them and the rest of fundamentalism. In some [many] cases, these zealots do need to be purged from the ranks, if there was a means to do so. Lacking the means, we are unfortunately subject to some tainting by even the most minimal of associations.

I recognize that the same holds true of evangelicals, so it is actual associations/partnerships that I would criticise, not necessarily the fact that some evangelical somewhere did something outrageous.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Anonymous said...

Don,

No apology necessary, but feel free to copy Dave if you'd like. I was not offended at your mention of ad hom. I just wanted to point out that I wasn't attacking your person.

Also, based on your follow up, it seems that your position is more courageous than some. It takes guts to be willing to be lumped together with Hylots.

But, here's a question, if I'm an evangelical who doesn't have any unorthodox associations/partnerships, then what is it that makes me an evangelical and not a fundamentalist?

Keith

Ben said...

Hey Don,

Just out of curiosity, would you want BJU to put Ron Hamilton's church off limits even though he keeps going to "Hylot" world to sing and sell "The Mississlippi River Race"?

I mean, isn't that essentially what you're generally getting at with evangelical associations? Associations with people who have associations with people who have associations with people who compromise the gospel>

Don Johnson said...

Keith and Ben, good questions. I hadn't thought of it that way before.

First, Keith, I have a hard time envisioning an evangelical without some kind of compromised associations that would make it difficult to make common cause. Perhaps you could give a little more specifics?

Ben, I wouldn't want BJU to put a church off limits for those reasons. I do think that Ron's association with Hylot-ville does limit my ability to enter into partnership with him in a number of ways.

I have to say your question is a worthy question and I find myself squirming to give you a straight answer!

It's a pretty good parallel in a lot of ways.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

PS.. After tomorrow I won't be able to be very active in the conversation for a week. I am heading off to family camp and will have extremely limited access to the internet.

Ben said...

Don

I'm not sure we have anything left to argue about. I'm sure we could all have worthwhile discussions about when and where and how we draw lines, but I think we've just reached a baseline agreement that sometimes these questions are blurry and we're going to have to make judgment calls.

That's the argument I've been making, as well as Keith and Dever in his most recent Church Matters post. I think Minnick danced around it as well in the Dever interview. Now it's what you seem to be articulating when you say that BJU shouldn't blacklist Hamilton's church without attempting any kind of distinct theological argument for it.

I don't have any problem with you using your personal judgment on a complex issue like this. I would just encourage you to see some of the complexities in the decisions men like Dever and so many others make. Obviously they'll not always draw the line where you would, but neither would Bob Jones or Dave Doran or whoever the FBFI president is these days. Of course, there's a measure of trust the latter men have likely gained with you, and that's reasonable. But I can only expect that as you keep an open mind, as you are doing here, that some outside your present circle of trust might edge their way onto its fringes.

Seem plausible?

Don Johnson said...

Ben,

I am well aware of the complexities of these decisions. There are a number of men who in years past decided there was no hope of significant change in the SBC, so they withdrew.

For someone like Dever to free themselves from what I see as compromising entanglements would mean a great deal of agony both for the church and the pastor. It is a difficult call, as Dever clearly has weight and influence in the SBC, much more so than a lesser known and less influential local pastor.

Yet for most fundamentalists to really be comfortable with ministry partnership with him, radical surgery would be essential. I think that is what Minnick was hinting at in the interview, but didn't want to come out and say in that format. (Just my interpretation of his remarks, of course.)

So, yes, I have hopes of some change by some men, but there would have to be a clear and radical break with some current associations.

In closing, I recently was in a discussion where a fairly prominent and fairly conservative evangelical figure in the 70s had often been in conversation with fundamentalist leaders concerning his associations with Campus Crusade, especially. There came a point where this figure said something to the effect of "I see the damage they are doing to the church with their compromise, I'm finished with them." In consequence, an invitation to speak at a fundamentalist gathering was issued. Yet the evangelical fellow in his next church news letter announced new events in cooperation with CC. On inquiry with him, it turned out that he backed off from his earlier statement of change and reneged on his promises. And consequently the invitation was rescinded.

In light of that kind of history, for those of us who are committed fundamentalists to embrace some of these men, we will have to see real, significant, public breaking of old compromising ties. That is what it boils down to.

Ok, I guess I should quit. I have a ton of stuff to do today... and my wife will be up soon with a list of instructions!

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...

Don, you wrote:

"In light of that kind of history, for those of us who are committed fundamentalists to embrace some of these men, we will have to see real, significant, public breaking of old compromising ties. That is what it boils down to."

What if I said the same thing about Bob Jones University about its sales of Ron Hamilton tapes in its bookstore?

I think you're avoiding clear answers. I understand why they're difficult, but you seem to be demanding a much more radical surgical action by evangelicals than you're willing to impose on fundamentalists. What if Mark Dever said he couldn't have fellowship with fundamentalists until they had clearly cut off all their ties with revivalists/decisionists/free grace, no repentance Ryrie and Hodgesites and other advocates of easy-believeism?

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ben

Well, I have advocated for the BJU bookstore to get rid of a lot of stuff they carry. I'd start with MacArthur, though, before I started on Hamilton.

As far as offering ultimatums as a basis for fellowship (i.e., partnership) everyone is free to do so. We have to decide who we will work with. There are many guys in fundamentalism with whom I wouldn't engage in ministry together. The fact we share some labels doesn't mean we are closely linked.

I keep harping on the term partnership because I think it makes the issues most clear. I am willing to enter ministry partnership with only certain people. There are others who for practical reasons I'll never have to worry about it, but I will warn my people about problematic authors of widely popular books. That is my job as a shepherd, and that is what fundamentalism looks like on the personal day to day level.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

shirleymckenna@myway.com said...

Hello Ben I am Shirley McKenna I live in New Brunswick Canada,I was watching "The Gaither Gosple Hour" and I heard for the first time the song "Somewhere Between Jesus and John Wayne",I fell in love with the song.Could you tell me where I can get a copy of it? How can I get the words to it? hoping to hear from you. shirleymckenna@myway.com

Ben said...

Shirley, I'm afraid I won't be much help to you on that one.