Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Southern Baptists after the Revolution

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Southern Baptists after the Revolution

Article excerpt

All ecclesiastical revolutions eventually run out of steam. New concerns emerge, and different leaders come to the fore. It is too early to tell whether the election of Frank Page as president of the Southern Baptist Convention signals such a change, but there are signs that a historic shift may be underway within America's largest Protestant denomination.

The pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, South Carolina, Page won a first-ballot victory this summer against two prominent candidates with close ties to what is sometimes called the college of cardinals-a close-knit circle of Southern Baptist Convention leaders who have handpicked the denomination's recent presidents. Even Page was surprised by his election. Since the conservative resurgence began in 1979, only once, in 1994, has a candidate not supported by those leaders been elected to head the Southern Baptist Convention.

Ever since the Southern Baptists were organized in 1845, there has been a machine with powerful personalities struggling to control it. In the 1950s, J.D. Grey, a New Orleans pastor, said of Louie Newton, an older leader from Georgia, "Louie and his buddies have run this convention for too long, and I'm going to take it away from them" -which J.D. and his buddies did.

When the recent Southern Baptist upheaval-called simply the Controversy-began in the 1970s, many saw it as just another preachers' fight, a spectacle with all the charms of a late-night row among alley cats. But two factors distinguished this commotion from earlier power struggles: This was not a palace coup, but a grassroots revolution fueled by a strong sense of denominational alienation by many ordinary Baptists who resented the elitist rule of the Baptist bureaucrats who ran the machine at the time.

There was also a major theological concern, which gave the masses a cause for which to fight: the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Bible. For centuries the Bible had been the central icon in Baptist life, and it seemed to be under attack by some Baptist scholars who questioned the historical and miraculous elements in Scripture. After struggling for more than a decade, conservatives seized control of the denominational machinery and began to implement changes in the boards and agencies of the convention.

In recent years, however, there has been a growing anxiety within the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists support thousands of missionaries through a national giving plan called the Cooperative Program. But prolonged conflict within the denomination's two large mission boards has left many Baptists unhappy. And, as the Internet chatter on Baptist websites before Page's election showed, many feel the circle of fellowship has been drawn much too tightly in recent years. They resent the angry spirit and bitter tone that have marked much Baptist discourse. Some feel excluded and believe the Southern Baptist Convention is being distracted from its primary purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission. The commitment to an evangelical view of Scripture seems secure, but some of the other concerns that fueled the Controversy in the first place have surfaced again-and this time, with a vengeance.

Doubtless, many voted for Page because of his strong support for the Cooperative Program, an important issue for a denomination that has to raise an annual budget of $200 million from voluntary giving. Still, his election was unexpected and can best be explained by an odd coalition of diverse subgroups within the Southern Baptist Convention that came together in Greensboro, North Carolina, to register their concerns. At least five such groups can be identified.

(1) Charismatics. Very few Southern Baptists engage in public speaking in tongues or other Pentecostal practices. But the charismatic movement has influenced Baptist life in music, worship, and spirituality, including distinctive forms of prayer. Occasionally congregations have been ousted from Baptist associations over charismatic issues. …

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