The Type of Statesmen Southern Baptists Need, Part 1

In honor of our national elections, I want to offer a reflection on the type of statesmen I believe Southern Baptists need. I think this is an important issue because Southern Baptists are in the midst of a transitional era. I assume there are few who would question this. And there is perhaps no greater evidence that we are a denomination in transition than the hopes expressed and concerns raised about Convention leadership (both present and potential) over the course of the last decade.

Over the past five years we have witnessed the passing of some of the key leaders of the Conservative Resurgence from the denominational spotlight. Adrian Rogers is now with his Lord. Jerry Vines and Jimmy Draper have retired from their noted positions (though not from gospel ministry). It is likely that in the next half decade or so we will witness the retirements of Paige Patterson, Morris Chapman, Ed Young Sr., and Charles Stanley. Men like Jack Graham and O. S. Hawkins are likely in the final decade of their current ministry positions. The younger pastors and agency leaders of the 1990s are now middle aged, many with grandchildren. This means we need some new younger leaders, or at least godly and gifted men who have the potential to be future leaders.

This need has not gone unnoticed on the part of some of our current leaders. Draper took several steps during his final years at LifeWay to reach out to younger pastors. The past two SBC presidents, Frank Page and Johnny Hunt, have called for a greater investment in future leaders. Hunt, who is the current president of the SBC, has long been known for his personal commitment to mentoring men for pastoral ministry and other positions of spiritual leadership. Many others have observed the phenomenon of “younger leaders,” whether real or perceived, taking a greater interest in Convention affairs, often through electronic media like message boards and especially blogs.

Many current leaders and other observers have expressed concern about some of these younger leaders (or perhaps better, possible future leaders). Some are concerned that younger pastors and seminarians may be insufficiently committed to the SBC in an increasingly post-denominational age. As a Baptist historian, this is certainly one of my concerns. Others fear that too many younger Southern Baptists are committed to, or at least show too much sympathy for, Calvinistic theology. The assumption is that Calvinism-or at least too much vocal Calvinism-is a threat to the SBC. Whether this assumption is true or not (I think not), there certainly are a lot of younger Southern Baptists who seem more interested in attending conferences like Together for the Gospel than regional pastor’s conferences hosted by SBC churches or state convention or even the SBC annual meeting itself. Other concerns about the younger generation include a lack of commitment to certain historic Baptist principles, an alleged antinomian streak, an unhealthy openness to interdenominational cooperation, possible Charismatic or Third Wave tendencies, an insufficient appreciation of the Conservative Resurgence, a lack of commitment to the Cooperative Program, and a lack of respect for past and current Convention leadership.

Concerns about leadership have always factored into our denominational controversies. William Whitsitt resigned as president of Southern Seminary at the turn of the 20th century because of grassroots concerns about both his orthodoxy and his character (he rejected the perpetuity of immersion in an anonymous article and then denied writing the article when questioned by his trustees). J. Frank Norris was shut out of denominational life because of the often outrageous tactics he used in criticizing SBC leadership. Both the Elliott Controversy and the Broadman Bible Controversy were, at their core, concerns about the orthodoxy of professors and the integrity of a denominational bureaucracy that often covered for them. This was also the principle concern of the Conservative Resurgence: compared to most Southern Baptists, SBC leaders were either too theologically progressive or were willing to defend a status quo that encouraged-or at least tolerated-theological aberration.

Even our more recent controversies are about leadership. Though the Baptist Faith and Message was revised at several points in 2000, no revision garnered more attention than the statement that pastoral ministry is reserved for biblically qualified men alone. All of our paid denominational leaders were required to affirm the revised BF&M, which caused tension at some agencies, especially the International Mission Board. Elected trustees are also required to affirm the confession and no would-be Convention officer has any hope for election unless he or she accepts the BF&M. The more recent imbroglio over the baptism and prayer language guidelines at the IMB has been, among other things, a debate about how well a particular trustee board has led its agency. There have also been tensions about potential trustees whose churches do not give 10% to the Cooperative Program or who personally drink alcoholic beverages, the biblical appropriateness of females serving as certain types of seminary professors, and the propriety of agency heads running for elected denominational office. All of these concerns have to do with leadership.

In light of the role that leadership concerns have played in current and past Convention controversies, my next post will offer my personal reflections about the type of statesmen that the SBC needs. It is my hope that these posts will be a reminder to our present leaders and a challenge to all those who may one day find themselves in a position of denominational influence, whether paid, elected, or appointed.

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