I am thinking back on the past and looking at the present for the Southern Baptist Convention, the denominational body in which I was brought up and educated but which I left completely when the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message was adopted.
I loved much about the denomination in which I was birthed and trained, but there were always issues that troubled me. The first was the great sin of division that came when Southern Baptists split from Baptists in the North over the appointment of slave owners as missionaries, demanding that those who saw nothing wrong with enslaving a foreign people be supported while trying to witness even in the very countries from which people had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in the United States.
Sadly, the seminary from which I would graduate had the hidden history of having invested all its endowment into Confederate War Bonds in the hope of continuing slavery. Indeed, had it not been for a rich family from Maryland, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary would have ceased to exist.
After the Civil War, the Lost Cause myth was incorporated into the church literature and moralistic teachings that majored on not drinking, marital fidelity, not divorcing, and avoiding profanity in language — but still never recognizing the sin of supporting slavery and slave owners.
Jim Crow was rampant across the SBC, even if most of us did not recognize it or the sins of the slavery that preceded Jim Crow laws.
The second great failure in Southern Baptist life was the refusal to reunite with Baptists from the North. Indeed, Southern Baptist home missions became enmeshed in planting churches in the north because “Northern Baptists were more liberal and less accepting of our Southern ways.”
In 1960, American and Southern Baptists met in a shared convention at Atlantic City, but when American Baptists began to take positions favoring the desegregation of public schools, the howl against this was heard across the South. My generation was trapped growing up between the federal mandate and Virginia’s (and other states) “massive resistance.” SBC meetings were adopting resolutions proclaiming Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist agent to destroy the U.S. Again, moral leadership was abrogated to proclaim a “personal gospel” without any social implications.
The third great failure came in the divisive campaign called ” the takeover” or the “conservative resurgence,” depending on who was writing about it. Southern Baptists always have been a conservative lot, and I never had heard a single professor in seminary cast doubt on the authority of Scripture, the incarnation, the crucifixion or the resurrection. However, they were introducing students to tools with which to study and apply the Scriptures that often put our generation in conflict with “churches ruled by dead people” (my best definition of tradition).
The name calling, labeling and pushing out of professors who had dedicated their lives to serving as underpaid professors rather than to serve tall-steeple churches that would have paid far more caused me to begin my exodus from the SBC because I did not see the spirit of love Christ commanded nor the care for people who were at the margins of society, except as those who were asked to keep giving money “to keep our missionaries in the field.”
“Every one of those churches would have been impoverished had they not received the gifts of those women.”
In 2000, the SBC became a creedal denomination defining the Baptist Faith and Message as “a statement of doctrinal accountability” (which is the definition of a creed). Southern Baptists no longer were the people who proclaimed “no book but the Bible, no creed but Christ,” a statement often heard in sermons from the mountains of Virginia where I grew up.
This month, the SBC put the final nail in its own coffin, in my opinion, as the body removed more than 57,000 members from its rolls by removing two churches that had permitted women to exercise “pastoral leadership” in those congregations. Prominent extreme leaders published a list of other churches that would be slated for removal, the names of the female ministers, photos of the churches and of some of the women in ministry, and addresses and telephone numbers (with the assumption that the messengers would go home and begin harassing those churches to leave or to fall in line by dismissing their women who minister).
I will confess my involvement readily with women in ministry. I had an ordained woman on our church staff in 1987, shared in ordaining another female minister on a later church staff, helped a childhood friend who returned to seminary in her late forties to find a pastorate, have led an interim followed by two churches that called a woman to be pastor, and I followed two who had been pastors of churches where I served as the interim. Every one of those churches would have been impoverished had they not received the gifts of those women.
I grieve over the SBC for what it could have been, but “the glory has departed.” May God help us all to better understand his love and his ways, but I grieve to see the SBC go down this road that parallels the roads of the past.
Dave Roberts is a retired pastor who serves in intentional interim ministries. He lives in Emporia, Va.