A modest proposal for a fractured Baptist family

Various Baptist groups spun off during the Southern Baptist Convention inerrancy battle 30 years ago aren’t going to reunite, but they all share one common need.

By Marv Knox

Do you think Baptists ever will get back together again?” a young friend asked over lunch the other day.

His question arose naturally, because this is convention season for Baptists. The Southern Baptist Convention is conducting its annual meeting in Houston this week. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship convenes in Greensboro, N.C., the end of the month. And the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which normally meets in the fall, holds its “Family Gathering” in San Antonio in mid-July.

The main reason these Baptists hold two national meetings every June is because the Southern Baptist Convention split a couple of decades ago. The division resolved a theological-political “holy war.”

The more conservative group called the other side liberals and said they didn’t believe the Bible. The more progressive group called the others fundamentalists and said they desecrated Baptist polity and heritage.

The right wing won the battle and gained control of the SBC, while the vanquished left and formed the Fellowship. Then the rancor spread to many state conventions, such as Texas, where the more conservative group left the BGCT and formed the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention in 1998.

My friend wondered if all those Baptists would reunite someday.

His question startled me. Not because it’s unreasonable. Not because Baptists shouldn’t hope for unity. Not even because God’s grace isn’t broad enough to embrace all kinds of Baptists, but because the issue was settled long ago.

So, I gave him the most direct answer: “No.”

He looked quizzical.

“It’s like this: After a divorce, friends and family of the couple sometimes hope they’ll get back together, right?” I asked.

He nodded.

“But when they marry other people, the odds of remarrying are long. And then, when they have kids with their new spouses, nobody dreams of getting back together. Well, the old conventions still maintain their institutions and send missionaries, while the new conventions support their own missionaries and institutions. They’ve got ‘families’ and ‘kids’ to support, and they’re never, ever getting back together.”

He nodded again but didn’t say anything.

Filling the silence and feeling less-than-holy for making such a dire prediction, I explained I believe in miracles, but I also know human nature and Baptists. “I don’t think they’ll get back together -- at least in my lifetime,” I finished, tossing a caveat of hope there at the end.

That conversation occurred a few days ago, but Baptist conventions have remained on my mind.

The future for which Baptists battled has arrived, and it hasn’t turned out like either side planned. At the state and national levels, both groups are grayer, smaller and poorer than they were before the splits. They probably couldn’t afford to get back together, even if they wanted.

But here’s a positive observation: The antagonism among all the folks who currently are or used to be Southern Baptists seems to have abated in the last few years. That’s probably due to three reasons.

First, time heals wounds. It’s just hard to stay hurt and angry for 30-something years. People have to get on with their lives. And so the penchant for punishment and vindication erodes. Christians see how God worked with them and through them, even out of the worst of times. And, despite it all, we feel blessed.

Second, new leaders have emerged. Both “sides” now look to torchbearers who weren’t even out of high school when the big battles raged. Others are rising who weren’t even born when the SBC split and the CBF formed.

They may have the same theological and political convictions of their elders, but they don’t remember the conflict. It feels foreign to them. And so their forebears’ enemies aren’t their own; they’re just their distant Christian cousins.

Third, for the most part -- a few exceptions aside -- Baptists are humbler now. The realities of tight budgets, decreased baptisms, plateaued churches and cultural power erosion have softened most Baptists. We’re less inclined to look down on other Baptists because we know, from our own experience, how hard it is to keep the faith -- whatever faith you keep.

With that in mind, it’s time for all these Baptists to take the next step on the spiritual pilgrimage we all – ironically -- share.

Why don’t we start praying for each other?

What if the Southern Baptist Convention set aside time in its meeting to pray for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship? And what if the CBF stopped to pray for the SBC? What if the Baptist General Convention of Texas prayed for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and vice versa?

We’re not inclined to “get back together,” and it probably wouldn’t be wise. But, Lord knows, we all could use some prayer.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.