Blurry vision and how we got here: The ex-SBC, part II

Why ex-SBC Baptists tend to lack theological clarity and identity, how we got here and why it matters. Part II in a series. 

By David Gushee

Follow David on twitter: @dpgushee

Given the wide conversation sparked by my last column, about the lack of theological clarity and identity found in that slice of the U. S. Christian community that became ex-Southern Baptist, I follow up today with reflections on some of the sources of that lack of clarity. Again, I welcome crowdsourcing here, and I am fully aware of the limits of my own or any other individual’s perspective. I am also aware that ex-SBC life varies quite a bit across the vast expanse of the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Southwest. But here is my general analysis: 

Great diversity concerning what it meant to be Southern Baptist long predated the convention schism of 1979-1991, especially given our commitment to congregational autonomy. This diversity was for a long time papered over by at least a limited shared identity provided by the Cooperative Program and the institutions and projects it funded. After the SBC split/takeover, the ex-SBC side never replaced the Cooperative Program and its institutions with anything similarly identity-producing. New ex-SBC institutions were, relatively speaking, weak and fragmented. 

The convention controversy of 1979-1991 took a particular form that played a key role in later shaping ex-SBC identity or lack thereof. The “takeover conservatives” always said the fight was about theology, notably biblical inerrancy; their opponents mainly said it wasn’t about theology, but about Baptist polity, or about the insertion of worldly political organizing techniques into Baptist life, or about the naked connections between the SBC conservatives and the religious/political right. But the takeover conservatives won. 

Those on the “moderate” losing side were often thrown on the defensive about their doctrinal purity as their opponents set the terms of the debate. Under attack, it became very important for the moderates to appear conservative on both theological and social issues. And a goodly number of them were in fact quite conservative if we are thinking about any reasonable spectrum one could draw of American religion as of 1985. (I know from liberals. I went to both Southern Seminary and Union Seminary. And Southern was nothing like Union.)

So in one sense, the split was a fight between two groups of conservative, white, Southern Baptists, one theologically/politically very conservative and one largely center-right moderate-conservative (with a small center-left caucus). The moderate side got in the habit of being very, very cautious about sending any signals that might validate the deadly SBC charge that they were “liberals.” This built an intrinsic caution into the DNA of most ex-SBC institutions founded in the wake of the schism, with everyone always looking over their “right” shoulders for incoming missiles. That tendency inhibited the formation and articulation of a constructive theological/ethical vision. 

This also helps to explain to my younger readers, like my dear student friend Lesley-Ann Hix, why the ex-SBC world seems surprisingly sluggish on issues of gender (though the restrictions facing women in the SBC are a different matter altogether, and this must not be forgotten). The founding generation of ex-SBCers did not actually burn with a Christian feminist agenda, even though protecting space for supporting women in ministry was indeed important to many. The moderate Baptists mainly wanted the freedom to keep on doing what they had been doing — having the option of ordaining and appointing women to pastoral ministry, albeit in practice this was confined largely to associate pastor roles. A more thoroughgoing overturning of the largely male religious power structure has never been evident in any part of Baptist life in the South, though the 2013 appointment of Suzii Paynter as head of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship certainly is a dramatic step forward. 

This same analysis may also speak to why ex-SBC institutions have generally made little progress on a Christian racial justice and reconciliation agenda, at least until recently. Turning largely white Baptist colleges, seminaries and churches into intentionally multiracial communities with shared interracial leadership was not on the agenda in 1990. Recent progress on aspects of a racial reconciliation agenda by the New Baptist Covenant initiative, supported strongly by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, is laudable. But the ex-SBC side did not launch with a terribly strong agenda of this type, and some are not enthused even today.  

Baptist anti-creedalism also has played a role in how we got here. Precisely as the new SBC leaders moved toward greater creedalism, with closer attention to systematic theology and precise doctrinal formulations, leaders of the new ex-SBC institutions often refused to offer substantive theological affirmations. The survival of freedom of conscience in ex-SBC institutions has been hugely important, and I am personally deeply grateful. But sometimes it has been difficult to know what kind of theological vision our fellowships have been pursuing. As my mentor Glen Stassen has often said, freedom alone is not a sufficient foundation for Baptist identity. 

Finally: the ex-SBC world has not produced a particularly robust body of theological writings. There are practical reasons for this, such as the shattering of earlier contexts for intellectual training and the diaspora of the Baptist intellectual leaders of that era. Still, that was 20 years ago, and despite a few wonderful exceptions in various fields, the Baptist intelligentsia is not really setting the world on fire. Not many Baptist professors (and pastors) write much, and few that do are read outside our subculture. 

So there is something of a vacuum in Baptist intellectual life. To the extent that “our” people get their ideas about what it means to be a Christian from what they read, they are borrowing from other traditions. So some are reading Richard Rohr and some Shane Claiborne and some Dietrich Bonhoeffer and some Augustine and some Parker Palmer and some Tom Oden and some Barbara Brown Taylor and some Stanley Hauerwas and some N.T. Wright and some Frederick Buechner and some Ann Lamott.

And maybe some are reading liberationists and voices from previously marginalized communities. And some are reading bloggers like Rachel Held Evans. And a lot read whatever pops up on Facebook. And some aren’t reading much at all. Lacking leadership in our own fold, we default to the voices of others. I am not arguing for Baptist parochialism. I am arguing for much more intellectual firepower coming from our side. 

I was asked by a correspondent why any of this matters. Because without a vision a people perish, and the mission of the church fails. The Christian faith is not effectively transmitted across generations or communicated to unbelievers. Our pulpiteers so often lack compelling vision. Our churches get outcompeted by congregations with greater passion, sharper identity and clearer theology. Within our congregations, hidden or poorly articulated theological assumptions bring division, especially when a community unaccustomed to thinking theologically has to do so in a crisis — or fails to do so. 

These are not small problems. The faithfulness, and viability, of our part of the Christian community is at risk. I will offer some suggestions and observations concerning a way forward in a later column. 

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