The prominent Southern Baptist (or maybe soon-to-be-former Southern Baptist) congregation Saddleback Church touched off a firestorm last weekend by publicly ordaining three women as pastors. While it’s unclear exactly how the Southern Baptist Convention will react, it’s going to be much more difficult for the convention to separate itself from Rick Warren’s multi-million dollar Saddleback empire than the three small rural churches it recently disfellowshipped for allowing gay members. The fact that this took place at Saddleback is going to force a showdown within the conservative evangelical world.
Add to that the recent departure of Beth Moore and her comments about complementarianism. Add to that the “God-and-country” wing of the convention teetering on the brink of leaving. And then there are the millions of evangelical women who still love and admire Moore, and we have the makings of a once-in-a-generation showdown.
Most denominations regularly have these once-in-a-generation showdowns. For Baptists in the 1840s and ’50s, it was over slavery. For Anglicans in the 1930s, it was the church’s changing role in an increasingly secularized culture. In the 1960s, almost every denomination struggled through the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement. And for United Methodists right now, it is the question of LGBTQ inclusion, which, by the way, I believe will be the once-in-a-generation showdown for the next generation of Southern Baptists.
History offers two firm conclusions about these kinds of theological showdowns. First, they seem to occur at regular intervals — every 20 years or so. It’s not surprising, since every 20 years or so a new generation comes of age in a world that looks different than that of the previous generation. God may not change, but faith has to shift to continue to work in the new normal. So, about every 20 years, a fresh controversy rises to the surface.
“One generation’s controversy is the next generation’s consensus.”
The second conclusion history offers is that one generation’s controversy is the next generation’s consensus. Think about the battle that raged through the halls of SBC churches over the ordination of female deacons in the 1990s. Now think about the silence despite thousands of SBC churches that now ordain women to deacon ministry.
Think about the opposition of prominent Southern Baptists like W.A. Criswell to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. In both cases, what was a controversy at the time now has settled into a quiet consensus. Apparently, female deacons are fine now, I guess, and nobody is explicitly opposing desegregation. Anglicans are pretty settled on the church’s role in a secular state, and no serious theologian is even entertaining the idea of bringing back slavery.
The SBC women-in-ministry and UMC LGBTQ inclusion controversies of the 2020s will likely meet the same fate as these past showdowns. The Beth Moore-Saddleback firestorm may rage through this decade. By the end of the 2030s, though, Saddleback likely will be just one of the hundreds of SBC churches ordaining women pastors. The Methodists probably will split, and each new denomination probably will fire shots across the other’s bow during the 2020s. But by the end of the 2030s, the controversy will melt into consensus. Both Methodist denominations will be basically affirming. This will kick the question down to the SBC, who will one day, probably in the 2050s or 2060s, finally affirm the existence of LGBTQ Christians too. That’s how these things almost always work.
So my advice to denominational leaders: Stop fighting it. Stop kicking against the goads. Culture already has gone there. From what I can see, the Spirit of God already has put a divine stamp of approval on it, and your denominations all will go there eventually. The battles you fight and the controversies you entertain today will become the consensuses of your grandchildren. Or at least the consensus of the few who stick around.
Jason Koon is an ordained Baptist minister who writes at the intersection of faith and politics. He lives in Western North Carolina with his wife and two teenage daughters. His “Almost Ex-evangelical” blog is at www.jason-koon.com.
Saddleback, women’s ordination and Jezebels: An open letter to Al Mohler | Opinion by Jonathan Davis
Why Beth Moore’s departure from the SBC really matters | Analysis by Mark Wingfield
Beth Moore and a lost Southern Baptist Convention | Opinion by David Gushee
Is the Beth Moore Effect a feminist awakening? | Analysis by Courtney Pace