Anyone who’s been paying attention shouldn’t be surprised by the motion adopted at the Kentucky Baptist Convention annual meeting Nov. 14 to consider expelling all churches in dual alignment with the state convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
What’s surprising, in fact, is that the issue of dual alignment hasn’t been forced in more places already.
Further, what might be surprising to young clergy today is that a generation ago, Kentucky was considered a bastion of progressive Baptist life. I know that from personal experience, because 26 years ago I became news director of the state Baptist newspaper affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the Western Recorder. I lived in Kentucky for eight wonderful years, serving the final three as editor of that publication.
I arrived in Kentucky in the summer of 1991, just weeks after the formational meeting of the CBF in Atlanta, which I also covered as a journalist. In those days, the leading figures within Kentucky Baptist life were mainly — but not exclusively — supportive of or at least sympathetic toward the new Baptist body formed in Atlanta. Many of the state’s leading pastors were involved in founding the CBF.
To understand what has happened between then and now, look first toward 2825 Lexington Road in Louisville. That’s the address of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which for more than 100 years anchored the theological perspective of Baptist churches across Kentucky in open-minded inquiry and warm-hearted evangelism. That made the seminary one of the crown jewels desired by fundamentalists who captured control of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and ’90s.
That transformation reached its apex in 1993, after the retirement of President Roy Honeycutt and the election of Albert Mohler as his successor. Today’s Southern Seminary is the reverse image of the seminary that shaped pastors across Kentucky for all those prior years. The ideological shift in the seminary did two things: (1) It empowered the more conservative element already existing within Kentucky Baptist life; and (2) It reshaped Kentucky Baptist life because of the long-time reliance of churches on seminary students as their pastors, interns and staff members.
One of my last acts as editor of the Western Recorder before moving to Texas in late 1998 was to speak at a monthly home meeting known as Barnette’s Lunch Bunch. This conversational gathering was held just a few blocks from the seminary campus at the home of retired ethics professor Henlee Barnette. Upon my leave-taking, I had been asked to speak informally about the future of Kentucky Baptist life.
Whatever I said that day, I don’t remember. But emblazoned in my memory is one line Henlee Barnette said: “Inertia is on the side of the SBC.”
What he meant was a variation of the old adage, “to the victor go the spoils.” Because of its vast size, whoever controls the agencies and institutions of the SBC would have the greatest chance of directing the theology of tens of thousands of churches nationwide. And that influence would be even more pronounced in states like Kentucky, where seminaries hold such ripples of influence.
Faculty and staff of the old Southern Seminary held key roles in the life of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Faculty and staff of the new Southern Seminary also hold key roles in the life of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Despite the presence of strong progressive-minded churches in Kentucky, inertia indeed proved to be on the side of the SBC.
But that’s not the entire story. The KBC’s news office reported that of 56 churches in Kentucky listed by the CBF as among its affiliates, only 45 are affiliated with KBC and only 31 have made contributions through the KBC in recent years. That represents about 2 percent of Kentucky Baptist churches, the report said.
The mystery, perhaps, should be why 45 churches have chosen to identify with both the CBF and the increasingly conservative Kentucky convention. The answer is found not just in Kentucky but across the nation, where dual alignment has been the norm for hundreds of churches trying to please two internal constituencies. These are churches that have hoped to stave off the inertia of the SBC while also denying an inertia pull toward CBF.
What the KBC is considering doing is forcing all these churches to choose sides once and for all. In this case, “KBC” is proxy for “SBC.” Choose you this day whom you will serve: The SBC or the CBF.
Why hasn’t this already happened? Because it has not been in the interest of either the SBC or the CBF to turn away affiliated churches. Neither body wants to lose churches or money — or inertia. And because most pastors desperately want to keep the peace in their divided congregations by not forcing all-or-nothing decisions.
Why force the issue now? Nothing less than the greatest debate facing American Christendom at large: The inertia behind the growing acceptance of Christians into the life of churches without regard for sexual orientation or gender identity. This one issue — and the potential threat of the CBF officially becoming more open to the LGBTQ community — is enough to draw a line in the sand after 25 years of uneasy dual alignment. Expect other state Baptist conventions to follow the example of Kentucky.
And yet in the distance lurks an even greater inertia: the death of denominational identity and the declining financial support for state conventions and national denominations alike. Not even denominational loyalty or theological purity can stave off the pull of a post-denominational and post-Christian age. Inertia is on the side of change.