The SBC will need more than another plan to overcome what ails us.
The National Interest published an article entitled “The Jacksonian Tradition” in the Winter 1999/2000 issue of the journal. In this article, historian Walter Russell Mead described the ancestors of the Scots-Irish population of the American South as “a hardy and warlike people, with a culture and outlook formed by centuries of bitter warfare before they came to the United States.” This outlook carries on in their modern descendants. Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle summarized this observation more succinctly: “The Anglo-Saxon-Scots-Irish people are the most warlike people in history, and their enemies forget it at their peril.”
This warlike mentality continues to define Southern culture, leading us to destroy friendships and relationships with little hesitation when we consider it necessary. Mead aptly described the Southern concept of war, even in personal relations: “The first Jacksonian rule of war is that wars must be fought with all available force…. They do not like the idea of violence on a dimmer switch.” Mead also described another typical Southern trait regarding warfare: “honorable enemies fight a clean fight and are entitled to be opposed in the same way; dishonorable enemies fight dirty wars and in that case all rules are off.” When arguments get personal in the South, Southerners tend to group their adversaries in the latter category.
Unfortunately, our passion for war and violence deeply affects our religion as well. The Southern mentality does not tolerate limited war, driving even Christians to pursue total victory in every situation. The denomination of my birth, the Southern Baptist Convention, originated in this culture and continues to exemplify its mentality. While most historians date the beginnings of the secessionist movement in the South with the end of the Mexican War in 1848, I believe it possible to move the date to 1845, the year the Southern Baptist Convention’s “seceded” from older Baptist organizations over the issue of slavery and missions. Southern politicians did not originate the idea of secession; Southern Baptists had already paved the way.
There’s little reason to recount our turbulent history here. Suffice it to say that the decades since 1845 provide nearly countless examples of Southern Baptist warfare, both within the congregations and on a Convention-wide level. Our inability to accept less than total war over the slightest differences may finally, in this decade, have weakened our Convention beyond any hope of recovery.
One last fact points to the failure of the SBC to overcome its Scots-Irish heritage. In spite of recent efforts that include a formal apology for the SBC’s role in slavery in racism and attempts to expand its base both ethnically and geographically, the SBC’s constituency and leadership are overwhelmingly constituted of white Scots-Irish Southerners.
I thought of our passion for war when I read the latest attempt by SBC leaders to, as president of Lifeway Research Dr. Ed Stetzer described it on Twitter, “end the sniping” that currently pervades our denomination. In the document “Toward a Great Commission Resurgence” (http://www.greatcommissionresurgence.com/), SBC leaders including current SBC president Johnny Hunt and Dr. Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, have called for SBC members and churches to transform ourselves into “Christ-centered, ‘Jesus-intoxicated’ people who pursue all that we do by God’s grace and for His glory.”
The authors also call on the SBC to rethink our relationships with those outside the Church who disagree with us: “Though we believe that God calls believers to speak out against moral ills, this must not be done in a way that is hateful toward unbelievers.” It also briefly mentions our need to replace cultural norms with the dictates of Scripture: “We must recommit ourselves to the full sufficiency of Scripture. It is not enough to believe that the Bible is inerrant; we must also be willing to submit to all of its teachings, even if that means we must relinquish our own preferences or human traditions.”
This document only briefly refers to the cultural issue that underlies the worst problem we face. Unfortunately, a reading of the document reveals that the leaders who formulated the document have still played to our worst passions instead of trying to resolve the dilemma we face: How to tame the warlike culture instead of exploiting it. In Point IV, the authors refer to the Christian responsibility to preserve the Scriptures of our faith as the “War for the Bible.” The leaders proclaim, “Southern Baptists must not retreat one inch from the non-negotiable doctrine that the Bible is without error, lest we squander the gains of recent years.” In Point V, the authors allude to our current debates when they call on Southern Baptists to rally around the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000 “to discern the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary issues, an endeavor that lies at the heart of many of our present tensions.”
Frankly, I doubt that using military terms in the document helps us to address the central issue, and the term “tensions” serves only as an unhelpful euphemism to describe what the SBC faces today. Instead, we find ourselves almost as divided as in 1979, but today’s issues include topics as diverse as Calvinist doctrines and the roles of women in ministry. Some would think the latter topic resolved by the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000, but this document settled little in the Convention; instead, its use by the SBC leadership to enforce doctrinal conformity within our missions organization resulted in a great deal of resentment and mass resignations of professional missionaries. The loss of more than a collective century of experience still hobbles our mission efforts.
Unfortunately, it seems that Southern Baptist Fundamentalism always needs an enemy. I’m not surprised that, after purging the SBC of “moderates,” the conservatives turned on each other regarding Calvinism and the role of women. If these two issues did not exist, the Fundamentalists would have found someone else to fight.
Can anything help the SBC abandon our warlike mentality? How can we transcend our cultural penchant for combat and turn instead to transforming the culture in which we live and minister in Jesus’ name?
Recent discussions with a fellow Southern Baptist over events in his church sent me to the Scriptures to help him answer questions about the direction his church will take in the near future. These discussions have led me to explore a much ignored aspect of Scripture: The necessity of gentleness in our witness.
In the longest recorded set of teachings we find in the Gospels, Jesus used the Greek word “praus” in His list of those whom God blesses: “Blessed are the meek (”prous”), for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Jesus later called Himself “gentle” (”prous”) to refer to Himself in His call to all who “labor and are heavy laden,” promising that all who would come to Him would find that He is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and that trusting in His gentleness would result in “rest for your souls.”
St. Paul also included gentleness in one of his earliest letters. When writing to the Galatian churches in c. A.D. 48-53, St. Paul used some rather violent language against the Judaizers (even expressing his wish they would emasculate themselves!) and their insistence on circumcising Gentile believers. However, this letter also contains one of the most beautiful expressions of the Christian life in the passage we call the “fruit of the Spirit.” When listing those traits that would define the Spirit-filled believer, St. Paul included “gentleness” (using the Greek word “prautes”) as a key indicator of the Spirit’s presence in a person’s life.
St. Paul would later commend gentleness in the most extreme of circumstances. The Corinthian church had degenerated into a faction-riddled mess, complete with show-circus worship services, class-conscious Communion celebrations, and at least one member openly flouting his sexual immorality before the entire congregation. Most Southern Baptists, in St. Paul’s shoes, would have blown into the church like a Texas Ranger of the early 20th century on the frontier, with metaphorical guns blazing, bodies flying, and sinners thrown on their faces in proper humility before their disciplinarian – and loved every conflict-ridden minute of it.
We wouldn’t expect St. Paul to ever consider gentleness in this situation. Yet, St. Paul actually offered the Corinthians a choice no self-respecting Southern Baptist would offer such a crowd. In his first letter to this troubled body, St. Paul asked the Corinthians, “Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” The premier Apostle to the Gentiles, the founder of the church at Corinth, clearly preferred gentleness in resolving the issues he knew awaited him in one of the Empire’s most sinful cities.
St. Peter also contributed to the discussion of gentleness, in another unlikely passage. In a passage dear to the Christian warrior’s heart, St. Peter’s instructed believers that we should always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Nothing stirs a soldier like a good defensive stand (unless it’s a better offensive drive). I’ve heard many preachers exhort their congregations to defend their faith before the unbelievers and seen many Christians enthusiastically accept the challenge.
I’ve noticed that far too many sermons with 1 Peter 3:15 omit the next verse, and I believe I know why. St. Peter did not finish his thought in only 1 verse in our Bibles; his instruction regarding the defense of our hope continues in the next verse. The entire sentence reads thus: “[Be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”
St. Peter clearly linked gentleness and respect for our accuser with the defense of our faith. We cannot defend our salvation without gentleness, and we must respect those who unjustly accuse us or who ask us hard questions regarding the beliefs we hold essential to attain eternal life.
This passage from St. Peter’s first letter especially came to mind when my friend and I discussed the current search for a new pastor at his church. Many of the “Old Guard” in the church grumbled that the previous pastor accommodated the younger generations in the congregation by “softening” his messages. The term “hell fire and brimstone” was overheard more than once when these members began discussing how their pastor needed to improve his sermons. The implied suggestion was the pastor was too “soft” in his delivery of the gospel message. Nothing short of a combative presentation would satisfy these members.
I’ve spent a lifetime as a Christian Southerner in the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ve observed many defenses of the faith and regret to admit I’ve participated in my share of them. I’ve also witnessed the fallout from these “defenses” as the Southern Baptist defender, in a fashion that would have stirred George Patton’s heart, quickly abandoned the defense and shifted to the offensive at the first possible opportunity. As I pondered those encounters, I realized I had never seen anyone argued into the faith, nor did I see anyone led to visit the church as the result of these debates.
I’ve also thought about the aggressive tone of many of the sermons I’ve heard in my lifetime. My father, also a Southern Baptist pastor, often said of those who joined the church because of a fear of hell, “If I can scare salvation into someone, Satan can certainly scare it out.” To paraphrase him, “If I can fight salvation into someone, Satan can certainly fight it out of them.”
If Scripture teaches that the SBC needs to abandon our warlike mentality and embrace gentleness, can we find any instructions in Scripture to help us? How could the call to a “Great Commission Resurgence” have gone further in calling us to more responsibly work for unity within our Convention and a more reasoned witness to those outside our denomination?
For one thing, we must realize that Scriptural gentleness does not contradict Southern values. According to the Louw and Nida Lexicon, the Greek term “prautes” implies “mild and gentle friendliness.” However, the Lexicon clarifies, “The Greeks value this virtue highly so long as there is compensating strength.” Scriptural gentleness, therefore, calls for personal strength of character and self-restraint, traits highly admired in Southern culture. Gentleness does not imply weakness; instead, it demonstrates a self-confidence possessed only by those fully aware of God’s calling in their lives and who know without a doubt that they are living that calling before Him and the world.
If we wish to demonstrate gentleness and self-confidence, we must resolve to respect our opponents as the pinnacle of God’s creation. Scripture teaches that God created humanity in His image, and we must remember that Scripture gives no categories of decreasing importance in this regard. Those who disagree with us still bear the “Imago Dei,” the image of God. As such, they deserve our attention as they present their case. Our opponents also deserve the respect we expect them to show to us. Our Lord clearly taught, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). We want people in the world to hear our point of view, and rightfully so; the Church alone possesses the words of eternal life through Jesus Christ (John 6:68-69). Our opponents will listen to us only if we first show them the proper respect.
We must also remember the true adversary in all spiritual conflicts. In a passage dear to Scots-Irish believers, St. Paul wrote about spiritual warfare in his Letter to the Ephesians. Most Southern Baptists have at least a basic idea of the “spiritual armor” passage, and many can name the basic parts. (The fact that St. Paul employed Roman armor as an allegory escapes us at times.) However, before St. Paul mentioned any part of the “armor,” he first warned the Ephesians of the real conflict: “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Southern Baptists need to remember that all believers, including those who disagree with us on the so-called “secondary and tertiary issues” (Point V), stand together against the forces of darkness that threaten our society and now define our culture. We may disagree with one another on these issues, but we cannot allow our disagreements to distract us from the real enemy. Our adversary works incessantly to divide the Church because he knows that only our unity will convince unbelievers of Jesus’ love for them (cf. John 13:34-35). Our disunity and contentiousness serves only to distract us from our mission of guiding others to the truth of Christ and His resurrection.
Finally, I believe that we must remember our calling to transcend our culture. The history of the Church reminds us of other times in our history that believers have found themselves in circumstances in which cultural norms contradicted with Scriptural commands. Few commands of Our Lord oppose the Southern culture as much as gentleness in our relationships with one another and in our presentations of the gospel to unbelievers in our midst.
I commend the authors of the call for a Great Commission Resurgence. Finally, someone in the SBC recognizes the damage we’ve caused by succumbing to the warlike characteristics of our culture. Even the party currently in charge of the Convention has finally acknowledged the last war – a war that weakened the SBC by resulting in the founding of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship – succeeded only in convincing many potential pastors and leaders of the newer generations to quit the Convention in disgust over issues never discussed below the national level. They see the hostile mentality of the current SBC leadership as blatantly opposed to the gospel of a gentle Christ. Rather than play the game under the current rules, the new leaders choose to leave the SBC entirely and rewrite the rules along Scriptural lines, abandoning the Scots-Irish mentality altogether. In the process, however, I fear the weakening of our missions efforts. The new ministries started by those who leave will perceive no value in the one thing the SBC manages to do well: The Cooperative Program.
I see signs of hope in my own experience. The church at which I currently serve as pastor once held a reputation in our county Baptist association for its business meetings, and not because of the potluck dinners held afterward. The current generation of leaders observed the acrimonious debates (to use another euphemism) of their parents and grandparents, watching as Bible-believing Christians nearly came to blows over issues. The generation that now leads the church decided early in their service that they would hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior. While we still have disagreements within the church, the leaders never allow matters to approach the level of passion they still remember witnessing as children and teenagers.
The Southern Baptist Convention must transcend our history and our nature. We must follow the commands of Our Lord and teachings of Scripture in our relationships with others. In the Christian classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote to believers regarding those who disagree over the so-called secondary or tertiary issues: “If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. This is one of the rules common to the whole house.”
Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Editors. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Copyright © 1988, 1989 by the United Bible Societies, New York, NY 10023 Second Edition.
Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Tradition,” The National Interest, Winter 1999/2000. Available online:http://www.denbeste.nu/external/Mead01.html, last accessed 7 May 2009.
Jerry Pournelle, “Chaos Manor in Perspective,” October 25-31, 2004. Available online:http://www.jerrypournelle.com/archives2/archives2view/view333.html