WAKE FOREST, N.C. — Anyone wanting a microcosm of the heartache and hurt that surrounded the fracturing of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and ’90s might zero in on Wake Forest Baptist Church and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
And anyone who hopes that damaged relationships among Baptists might be healing could take a look at those same two institutions today.
Bill Slater, the senior pastor at the church, active in both the North Carolina and national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and Daniel Akin, the seminary president, are friends. “Danny has been nothing but generous, nothing but affirming of me and our church,” Slater says.
And Akin returns the compliments: “Ever since our first get-together, Bill and I have developed nothing but a warm, respectful, loving relationship. I think we would together say that we agree on more than we disagree on.”
That’s a far cry from 20 or 25 years ago. Relations between the historic church and the newer seminary on whose campus it stands could hardly have been more strained as the SBC took a sharp conservative shift. Perhaps the most difficult point came in 1992, when the newly-elected seminary president, Paige Patterson, arrived in town. Patterson and his wife made overtures about joining the church, only to discover that they would most likely be discouraged from doing so. The Pattersons became members of another church.
The church’s deacons faced a dilemma — if the seminary’s leader joined, he could be followed by faculty members and hundreds of students, likely altering the congregation’s historic values.
The seminary had aligned with conservatives who by then dominated the convention, but the church had followed a more moderate path. The seminary itself had been fractured, with many of its more moderate faculty leaving or retiring.
Members of Wake Forest Baptist Church, having dealt with change and loss before, were determined to preserve their heritage and beliefs. The church was founded in 1835 by students at the institute that became Wake Forest College. For more than a century, church and college grew together, with the church building even serving as the campus chapel until the college built one in the 1940s.
The church suffered a major blow in the 1950s, when the college moved to Winston-Salem, taking about 100 member families with it. The saving grace was the seminary, which got its start at Wake Forest in 1951 and bought the campus when the college moved. The church had long been on the moderate end of the Baptist spectrum, taking early stands on such issues as women’s leadership and civil rights.
The conservative shift in the seminary some three decades later left the church bereft once again. It still stood on the grounds of the seminary, but it was no longer oriented toward the school. At about the same time, the town of Wake Forest, not far from Raleigh and Durham, began to grow rapidly, bringing new families to the church.
By 2005, when Slater became the church’s senior pastor, passions over the Baptist rift had cooled a bit. “Before I came, given the whole relationship, one of the things the search committee asked me was how would I relate to the seminary. My answer was ‘I hope like a Christian.’”
Slater arrived in Wake Forest planning to make an early overture to Akin, who had assumed leadership at the seminary a year earlier.
But “I beat him to the punch by about a day,” Akin recalls with a laugh. On his new desk, Slater found a letter from Akin expressing the hope that the two could forge a positive relationship.
Since then, Slater says, “We are good neighbors. We don’t agree on everything, but we haven’t operated out of putting labels on people. … We got to know each other and found some real common ground.”
Akin agrees, noting that the common ground is their mutual Christian beliefs. “We have some theological differences that would prevent us from doing some things together,” he said. “But where we disagree, those issues at this time don’t rise to the level where we say we respect each other but we can’t work together.”
After all, Akin said, the two agree on the important things — among them, the lordship of Christ, Jesus’ commandments to love all people, and the importance of trying to live as Christ did and model his behavior.
“Just being a Christian is something simple,” he said. “Sometimes we try to make it too complex.”
Slater maintains that the church may benefit more from improved relations. As the church’s growth has strained its facilities, the seminary has welcomed it to use several classrooms free of charge on Sundays. When the church needed a place to have a banquet, the seminary offered its gymnasium. The minister of music accompanies seminary music students, some of whom perform in church services.
There are even discussions about the possibility of the church’s expanding, which would involve land belonging to the seminary.
The space-sharing works the other way, too. From time to time, the seminary holds events in the sanctuary.
Perhaps more important are the intangible mutual benefits — the fact that, as Slater said, “We no longer have that wall between us and the campus. That’s kind of been broken down some.”
Both men say that the new rapport in no way compromises the principles of either institution or signals theological changes.
“Our church is increasingly glad that we have a good relationship now, but there is no question that we are going over to their camp. That is not going to happen. We know that, and Danny knows that,” Slater said. “But there is never any questioning of our beliefs. We never have to defend our positions. We respect each other.”
That respect is key in Akin’s mind. “Our political culture today is an embarrassment, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, in the way they conduct discourse. But they are not Christian parties; they are political parties. God’s expectation of his children is considerably higher. They can learn from us if we model it well,” he said.
Akin mentioned a recent event that might be as symbolic of the new relationship as the rebuff of Paige Patterson was of the old. Slater invited Akin to address a Wednesday night gathering at the church on the subject of the “conservative resurgence — or, if you don’t like [that term], fundamentalist takeover — from my perspective, and to explain why I thought that, as painful and unfortunate as it was, it needed to happen,” Akin said. “Their church could not have been more kind to me, and I hope I addressed the issue in a graceful and gracious way.”
Linda Brinson ([email protected]) is a Religious Herald contributing writer, based in Madison, N.C.