An effort in the 1980s to investigate and resolve conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention was an initial failure that in the long run helped establish the nation’s largest Protestant body as the conservative evangelical denomination it is known as today. That was the assessment of a veteran denominational leader in a recent interview marking the 30-year anniversary of the final report of the SBC Peace Committee adopted by the convention in 1987 in St. Louis, Mo.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said in a previously recorded interview played on the Sept. 29 installment of the podcast SBC This Week that when the Peace Committee was convened two years before its report was adopted, the power struggle for control of the denomination between factions on the left and right still could have gone either way.
“The Peace Committee was after that extremely close election between Winfred Moore and Charles Stanley, and the idea was that there would be a typically Baptist way of dealing with a huge problem, which is to form some kind of committee,” Mohler told program co-host Jonathan Howe. “It buys time, in one sense. It also formalizes deliberations and, as it is in the government or any other organization, it’s a way of trying to harmonize, if some harmonization is possible.”
Mohler said going into the two-year process, the idea was there “might be some harmonization possible” between the two sides, but by the end “the middle group that went into the process not committed to either side” became convinced that was impossible.
“Organizationally it was a failure, clearly, because the hopes invested in the Peace Committee in 1985 on the part of the convention, at least officially, it was an attempt to bring about peace in the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “It didn’t do that, but you know this is one of those situations in which failure can be more helpful than success.”
Mohler said the Peace Committee brought about an “artificial” peace, but it wouldn’t have lasted. “It would have just delayed the inevitable,” he said, noting that both factions continued to run candidates competing for SBC president until the moderates finally surrendered in 1990.
“So in that sense, I look at it kind of like the League of Nations after World War I,” he said. “You can understand it was kind of a noble effort, but in an historical perspective you can see it never could have worked. That’s kind of the way it is with the Peace Committee, but I’m thankful nonetheless, because even the failure of the Peace Committee served a purpose, to help clarify these issues, and over the long run that may be its most valuable service.”
“I think the most important legacy of the Peace Committee is the fact that in its final analysis, it determined that the causes of the controversy were theological,” Mohler said. “In retrospect, that is the biggest single, I think, decisive issue of the entire process of the Peace Committee.
“The argument was being made by many that ‘it’s not theological,’ and to their credit, not only some of the very clearly conservative leaders, but in the end some of the very clearly moderate leaders, as they called themselves — I’ll use the language they called themselves — also made very clear it is a theological issue,” he said.
Mohler, at the time a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary working as an assistant to the president, recalled when his predecessor Roy Honeycutt returned from a meeting between members of the Peace Committee and the convention’s agency heads in 1986 in Glorieta, N.M., with a joint statement by the six seminary presidents affirming the 66 books of the Bible “are not errant in any area of reality.”
“I was at Southern, and I was in the room when Dr. Honeycutt came back and tried to explain the Glorieta Statement to Southern’s faculty,” he said. “It was an eye-opening experience for me.”
“Honestly, in retrospect, it was one of the most important occurrences I witnessed, because it clarified the issues to me,” he continued. “In that meeting I saw faculty members at Southern in a whole new light. I had known them in the classroom. I had even known them in a doctoral seminar, but to see them in that context, in which they were taking that Glorieta statement about Scripture and making very clear how much they disagreed with it. It was a very eye-opening experience.”
Mohler said the Peace Committee’s work carried on into a committee to which he was appointed to study and revise the Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement. That committeet completed its task in 2000.
Mohler said a previous revision of the document originally adopted in 1925 “had created havoc” ever since its approval by SBC messengers in 1963.
“The statement and the article on Scripture in which it said Jesus Christ is the criterion by which the Scripture is to be interpreted, that was being used in a very neo-orthodox way first, to create a Christological claim in which one could deny historical and other claims made in Scripture, claiming instead that one could abstract a Christ from the Gospels or from selected texts that would nullify other biblical texts,” he explained.
“In particular in the classroom at Southern Seminary it was routine to have that article of the Baptist Faith and Message used to invalidate Paul,” he continued. “By the way, no one during that time would have argued that in Romans 1 Paul was not speaking of homosexuality, period. In other words, at that time there was no claim that there was any lack of understanding of Paul. It was just the claim that if Jesus Christ is the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted, Jesus didn’t speak to x or y, and therefore it isn’t all that important.
“That was the background coming into this, because the Baptist Faith and Message 1963, which came out of the controversy over Ralph Elliott [and] was intended to make a clear statement on Scripture, actually presented to Southern Baptists the opportunity, which they took, … to affirm a neo-orthodox understanding of Scripture.” Ralph Elliott was a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 1960s, whose commentary on Genesis drew fire from critics who charged it denied the historicity of Genesis’s first 11 chapters.
Mohler said the Peace Committee in its findings section isolated specific examples of cases where “in the view of the majority of the Peace Committee or in the view of a significant number of people on the Peace Committee, this violated the authority of Scripture.”
“So when we were on the committee to revise the Baptist Faith and Message, all of that was necessary background,” he said. “We wanted to help Southern Baptists to adopt a statement of faith which would affirm the perfection, the total truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture, and would remove, to whatever extent was possible, obstacles to that full affirmation.”
Mohler said the Peace Committee’s work had less direct impact on another committee on which he worked, a program and structure task force that recommended a restructuring of the denomination in 1995.
“By that time you have a rival alternative organization, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and of course earlier than that you had what was called the Alliance of Baptists, so there was going to be a reshaping of Southern Baptist life,” he said.
“So the Peace Committee was a necessary preparatory work in this sense. The SBC understood that things had to change, and the SBC in the mid-1990s looking to the 21st century said: ‘Let’s go ahead and ask some of the hardest questions. We paid the price to ask the hardest questions theologically. Now let’s ask the hardest questions structurally.’”
Mohler said that before the 1980s, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention were “self-consciously and intentionally” trying to lead the denomination toward the liberal approach to social issues embraced by mainline Protestantism.
“For instance you would have Foy Valentine — who was the executive director of the Christian Life Commission, now analogous to the president of the ERLC — who argued in open that evangelical is a Yankee word with which we would not associate,” he said. “They felt much more at home with the leadership of the United Methodist Church and what became the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) and all the rest.”
“So the SBC was on a delayed fuse going the same way, and some of those leaders, because I knew them very well, believed that delayed fuse was due to a residual conservatism that would eventually be overcome with the suburbanization and sociological changes that would come to the South.
“The SBC was faced during the Conservative Resurgence years with the question, are we going to be a mainline Protestant denomination just trying to catch up with the Episcopal Church and the [United Church of Christ] and all the rest, or are we an evangelical denomination?”