What will ex-Southern Baptists be when they grow up?

More than 20 years after the schism in the Southern Baptist Convention, it is still not clear what ex-Southern Baptists will be when they grow up. 

By David Gushee

Follow David on twitter: @dpgushee

It has been 35 years since the Southern Baptist Convention “conservative resurgence/fundamentalist takeover” began in earnest, 27 years since the Alliance of Baptists was formed by frustrated Baptist progressives, and 23 years since the birth of the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship out of the ashes of denominational defeat. (Full disclosure: this year I am serving as theologian-in-residence for the CBF, though this column has been neither authorized nor vetted by CBF staff.)

Institutionally, it’s far more complex than this, of course. Baptist polity is congregational, so each congregation has faced its own, sometimes quite difficult, journey. The Baptist state conventions, and state-based Baptist institutions such as Baptist colleges, each have their own history, of which the Baptist battles and their aftermath are a part. Baptist media and publication outlets continue to evolve. Over a dozen new ex-Southern Baptist theological programs and seminaries have been developed.

Many in the founding generation of ex-Southern Baptists have retired or are near retirement. Seminaries formed in the aftermath of the Baptist divorce offer classes to a vast majority of students who did not live through the conflict. Looking for a vision relevant for the future, they are frustrated when their professors seem stuck in the past.

But what will that relevant future vision turn out to be? What do we even call ourselves? Moderates? (Really?) What will ex-Southern Baptists be when they grow up?

Here I must offer a bit of autobiography, because it informs this analysis. I grew up Roman Catholic in Northern Virginia. Having abandoned that faith after my abortive confirmation, I drifted religiously until wandering uninvited in July 1978 into Providence Baptist Church, the Southern Baptist congregation my girlfriend attended. There a highly evangelistic youth ministry team led me to Christ.

Part of what shaped me as a new Southern Baptist was the very fact that I had neither Southern nor Baptist history. I was an immigrant to this strange new land, a blank slate ready to be written on.

Early on I became imprinted with what I now see was a distinctively Virginia Baptist vision, especially in the Baptist Student Union at William and Mary and then in some summer work at Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va. This probably set me on a “pre-moderate” Baptist course, which was then reinforced when I naively went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1984 — without any awareness that a huge fight was underway — and was educated by mainly moderate stalwarts, just before many left.

I zigged left with a doctoral degree in ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, though I was never overly enamored with the mainline liberal and radical Protestants; I zagged right, or at least center, when I providentially took a position with Evangelicals for Social Action and came under the influential mentoring of Ron Sider, author of the then-legendary Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

As a new doctoral graduate in 1993 I took the only academic job offered to me when I was hired back at Southern Seminary. It was in that brief period, just before Al Mohler became president, when gender-egalitarian, often Northern evangelicals like Tim Weber were being hired at Southern. That was my cohort. A year later we learned to our horror that we would have to disavow our support for women in ministry to gain tenure or promotion, so I had no future at Southern. I jumped when asked by new president David Dockery to go to Union University in 1996, which I could happily serve for 11 years because I was given space to be a Sider-type evangelical Baptist holding down the left wing of a conservative religion department.

But that meant that I was a late arrival to the ex-SBC when in 2007 I came to Mercer University — a lateness that has never been forgiven by certain Old Warriors. Oh, well. 

I believe I now have served here long enough to make a few observations. My core claim is that no particularly clear theological/ecclesial direction has emerged among these ex-Southern Baptists. But it might be possible to at least name a few tendencies. I very much welcome some crowdsourcing here. Who are we?

1) Some are still very much white, Southern, Baptists; they just ordain women and reject the SBC. I think this especially describes a certain older cohort of ex-SBCers. Their “old-school” vibe often comes across as jarring to younger folks who never knew the SBC world.

2) Some are social justice evangelicals. Their theology is orthodox. But they draw their inspiration ethically from progressive Northern evangelicals like Sider and Tony Campolo (or younger figures of like vision). It is still also possible to find those who are inspired by similar Southern and Baptist figures of earlier generations, such as Clarence Jordan, Will Campbell, T.B. Maston, or of course Martin Luther King.

3) Some are essentially mainline Protestants. These are academics attracted to the Emory, Duke or Princeton Seminary models, and pastors attracted to the United Methodist or Episcopalian worship styles. (Some ex-SBCers, of course, including ministerial leaders, have actually joined other denominations.) They often recoil from any identification with evangelical Christianity.

I think these are the three main tendencies. But there are others worthy of a mention: we have some sure ’nuff theological liberals; some neo-monastic Shane Claiborne evangelical radicals; some post-white-South racial reconcilers; some Bapto-Catholic “Great Tradition” Christians; and some red-letter Bible Baptist pietists who just want to love Jesus and love people.

Nature abhors a vacuum. I believe ex-SBCers need some serious theological conversation about who we are, what we believe and what we want to be when we grow up — not to achieve uniformity, but to chart a path toward a robust and faithful future.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.