The Conservative Resurgence and the Great Commission Resurgence
By Nathan A. Finn
The past couple of years have witnessed increasing calls for a Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) in the Southern Baptist Convention. We at BtT are unabashedly committed to this vision for the Convention. Danny Akin was one of the first SBC leaders to embrace the GCR terminology and has addressed the topic in multiple sermons, conference addresses, and book chapters. All of us have contributed to an ongoing BtT series titled “Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence.” Bruce Ashford and I are currently editing a collection of essays advocating a GCR. This is our hope for the Convention’s future.
One reason that we are such advocates of a GCR is because we are such strong believers in the Conservative Resurgence (CR). Each of us are second or third generation products of the CR. We firmly believe the SBC is a fundamentally healthier denomination in 2009 than it was in 1979. We are pleased with the overall direction our Convention has taken over the course of the last generation. We do not want to see a return to the pre-CR status quo, which we believe was characterized by an atheological, pragmatic commitment to cooperation that tolerated a variety of unbiblical convictions. We sincerely believe that a GCR is nothing more or less than the next step in the reformation of the SBC that began thirty years ago.
We believe the CR was a theologically motivated grassroots movement to gain control of SBC leadership for the purpose of facilitating theological renewal within the denomination. Conservative success came in several stages. First, the Convention elected a string of conservative presidents who used their appointive powers to secure conservative trustees for each of our entities. Second, with the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1991, moderates began to disengage from the Convention in increasing numbers, a trend that actually began during the mid-1980s. Third, the Covenant for a New Century was approved in 1995 and implemented in 1997, leading to a needed bureaucratic restructuring of the denomination. Fourth, the Baptist Faith and Message was amended in 1998 so as to reflect biblical gender and family views. Finally, the Convention adopted a substantial revision of the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000 (BF&M), resulting in the codification of the conservative theological convictions that inspired the CR.
Our agencies, boards, and seminaries are now led by conservative administrators who are accountable to conservative trustees. We affirm a thoroughly conservative confession of faith. LifeWay is producing conservative curricula and developing conservative programs for use in our churches. Our future pastors and missionaries are being taught conservative theology in our seminaries and a growing number of state Baptist colleges. Our professors are pursuing conservative scholarship that is often relevant to what happens in local churches. Our missionaries are planting conservative churches all over North America and to the ends of the earth. This is the fruit of the CR, and Lord willing, it will be the root of a GCR.
Perhaps the best terms to explain our perception of the relationship between the two resurgences are foundation and permeation. The CR is the foundation of the GCR. We agree with Paige Patterson’s contention that a high view of Scripture is the epistemological starting place from which to resolve every issue in the SBC. Simply put, Southern Baptists are now in a better position to pursue kingdom priorities because of our unswerving commitment to the inerrancy of Christian Scripture and its full sufficiency in all matters of faith and practice. Furthermore, the theology articulated in the BF&M provides us with a basic theological consensus from which we can cooperate together in accomplishing all that God would have for us as a Convention.
While the CR has bequeathed to us a healthy foundation from which to pursue a GCR, it must be more than our launching pad. Biblical theology must permeate everything we do, lest we see a gradual return to the pragmatism of the older consensus. To say it a different way, our theological renewal must lead to methodological renewal as our churches strive to be biblical, covenantal, and missional communities that are shaped by the gospel and spread that good news to all people. As a Convention of churches, our thinking rightly about God needs to issue forth in a living rightly before God. And living rightly before God will mean embracing His missional priorities as they are articulated in Christ’s Great Commission to his people.
Our Convention now stands at a crossroads. We can choose to rest on past victories and turn them into half victories. As Timothy George observed over a decade ago, “The exchange of one set of bureaucrats for another doth not a reformation make.” It we allow the CR to become an end unto itself, we will become increasingly self-satisfied, arrogant, and insular. We will continue to shoot at each other over secondary and tertiary matters, try to out-Baptist one another, and pursue our own little intradenominational fiefdoms. Most important, we will not honor Christ.
Or we can choose the better way and work towards a new consensus. We can allow our love for God and His gospel, our love for one another, and our love of Scripture to ignite in us a renewed burden for the lost and a heart for the nations. We can contend for the faith, including biblical authority and sufficiency, without fracturing over matters not addressed in the BF&M. We can embody the best of our historic theological identity as a missional network of Baptist churches in our 21st century context. If we choose this latter path, we believe that by God’s grace the Conservative Resurgence will blossom into a Great Commission Resurgence. And God will get all the glory.
The time is now. The choice is ours. Join us in praying that we choose wisely by laboring together on behalf of a Great Commission Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention.