Fifteen Factors That Have Changed the SBC since 1979, Part 4

This past summer, I began a four-part series of articles titled “Fifteen Factors That Have Changed the SBC since 1979.” Because of a variety of distractions, I only wrote the first three installments. A number of BtT readers have asked me what happened to the final article, including two brothers in the last three weeks. Well, after a five-month interlude between articles, this installment concludes the series. By way of reminder, these factors are not meant to be exhaustive and there is often overlap between them. If you are unfamiliar with the earlier articles, it would be helpful for you to read them before continuing:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

13. The Influence of American Evangelicalism

To be clear, by evangelicalism, I mean the loose-knit coalition of (mostly) conservative parachurch ministries that blossomed in the aftermath of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s and 1930s. Think Campus Crusade, World Vision, Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. When this movement came to national attention around the mid-twentieth century, Southern Baptists on the whole paid little attention. While individual Southern Baptists (most notably Graham) were involved in parachurch evangelicalism, most Southern Baptists who thought beyond their own local church focused on the Convention’s seminaries, mission boards, and commissions.

This insular focus had begun to wane by the 1970s and 1980s, at least among some theologically conservative Southern Baptists. This was in part because of the progressive theology being advocated in SBC seminaries and other denominational ministries. Some Southern Baptists studied at schools like Wheaton, Dallas, Gordon-Conwell, and Trinity. Some opted to serve with nondenominational mission organizations instead of the Foreign Mission Board. Many churches adopted conservative, nondenominational Sunday School curricula in place of the material published by the Sunday School Board. The emerging generation of conservative thinkers was more influenced by Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, Harold Lindsell, and John Walvoord than Southern Baptist professors writing for Broadman Press. Initiatives like Lausanne and the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and programs like Evangelism Explosion were embraced, to varying degrees, by many Southern Baptists. Baptist collegians opted for Campus Crusade and InterVarsity at the state university over Baptist Student Union at the denominational college.

By the last decade of the 20th century, at least some Southern Baptists had become very involved within segments of evangelicalism, especially those committed to priorities like missions, dispensationalism, Calvinism, and a complementarian view of gender roles. “Northern” evangelicals of the baptistic variety became freshly minted Southern Baptists teaching in denominational seminaries. Several SBC scholars served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (including current ETS president and Southern Seminary theologian Bruce Ware). Southern Baptist megachurch pastors have spoken at Promise Keepers. Al Mohler and Richard Land have arguably become as recognizable as spokesmen for conservative evangelicals as they are Southern Baptist agency heads. Several periodicals have dubbed Rick Warren “America’s Pastor.” The list could go on. Southern Baptists have become in many ways the quintessential evangelicals, which has caused concern both among some evangelicals and some Southern Baptists. The “evangelicalization” of Southern Baptists (and the “Southern Baptistification” of evangelicalism) will continue to be a point of conversation and debate within our Convention.

14. The Influence of the Religious Right

Closely related to the influence of evangelicalism has been the influence of the Religious Right. And as with evangelicalism, this influence flows both ways.

To make a long story short, a new generation of conservative evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and other moral conservatives coalesced into a grassroots movement in the late 1970s. Noted for their advocacy of school prayer and Bible reading and their opposition to abortion, the homosexual agenda, pornography, and gambling (among other things), the Religious Right quickly became a major caucus within the Republican Party. Since the 1980s, the movement has led to several minor political parties, has birthed numerous think-tanks and public advocacy groups, and has influenced hundreds of elections at every level of government. And Southern Baptists have been right in the thick of it.

Some of the theological conservatives who helped lead the Conservative Resurgence were also political conservatives who were active in Religious Right organizations. So it comes as no surprise that the SBC simultaneously publicly embraced both a more theologically and politically conservative outlook. (Please keep in mind I am speaking to our corporate identity as expressed during annual meetings of the SBC and embodied in our denominational ministries. I would argue grassroots Baptists were already theologically and politically conservative, which is why our corporate identity became more conservative.) A “resolutions search” at the Convention’s website will yield numerous statements about school prayer, abortion, homosexuality, marriage, gambling, pornography, and euthanasia adopted since the early 1980s. A perusal of past Convention programs will evidence a number of conservative political figures, including US presidents, who have appeared or been officially represented at annual meetings.

The Religious Right and the SBC continue to be mutually intertwined. In recent years, at least two SBC megachurches have hosted rallies advocating conservative judicial appointments. B&H Books published the first edition of Judge Roy Moore’s So Help Me God: The Ten Commandments, Judicial Tyranny, and the Battle for Religious Freedom. A Christianity Today editor has dubbed Richard Land the new leader of the Religious Right and Time magazine named Land one of its 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America based upon his work as “God’s Lobbyist.” Former SBC pastor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was arguably the most popular platform personality of the entire week of the 2009 SBC Pastor’s Conference and annual meeting (judged unscientifically by audience decibel level). These examples are just scratching the surface.

While party platforms and political alliances shift over time, in the near future at least it seems likely that the SBC will continue to be closely identified (at least in perception) with the Republican Party in general and the Religious Right in particular.

15. The Influence of the Miraculous Gifts Movement(s)

Now this one is interesting. Again, the short version will have to suffice. In the early 20th century Pentecostalism began and was noted by its emphasis on miraculous gifts and advocacy of a second baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is evidenced by speaking in tongues. It spawned several new denominations. In the 1960s, the Charismatic movement began as a “Pentecostalish” impulse within the mainline denominations. It was also noted by its advocacy of miraculous gifts, but was a little more diverse concerning Spirit baptism and role of tongues-speaking in said baptism. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Third Wave Movement emerged as a similar movement that was mostly interdenominational and led to the creation of new networks such as Vineyard and Sovereign Grace. It was a bit more tempered in its advocacy of miraculous gifts and in some cases completely dispensed with second baptism theology in favor of periodic “fillings” of the Holy Spirit (not unlike some versions of Keswick Theology). All of these sub-movements are part of a larger phenomenon I call the Miraculous Gifts Movement. Of course there are also many people do not fit neatly in any branch of the Miraculous Gifts Movement, but believe in the continuation of some of those gifts (especially different forms of speaking in tongues).

The Charismatic and Third Wave sub-movements have especially influenced the SBC (and almost everybody else!). Almost all the praise choruses and many of the modern hymns we sing have their genesis in one or more branches of the miraculous gifts movement. Raising one’s hands while singing-once taboo among many Southern Baptists-has become commonplace. Some Southern Baptists practice a “private prayer language” (PPL), a form of speaking in tongues. Anecdotally, it seems a growing number of Southern Baptists are at least open to the continuation of some miraculous gifts, preferring to call themselves “open-but-cautious” (or vice versa).

The Miraculous Gifts Movement has also led to controversy in the SBC. Some churches have been removed from their associations for embracing Charismatic tendencies. Other churches have split because of tensions over miraculous gifts. Both mission boards have formal policies that forbid any form of tongues-speaking, including the recent controversial policy at the IMB regarding PPLs. I think most of the seminaries have similar policies (or at least long-standing practices about such matters). Denominational studies about PPLs have been produced and disputed. At least two trustee boards have experienced tensions over PPL.

It will be interesting to see what further tensions we experience in the SBC over the miraculous gifts. For my part, I can see Southern Baptists either continuing to tend toward an unofficial cessasionist view of the miraculous gifts or maybe gravitating toward an unofficial “open-but-cautious” position (truce?). What I cannot see is Southern Baptists uncritically embracing practices like speaking in tongues, prophecy, being “slain in the Spirit,” etc.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Ruth   •  

    Speaking of Walvoord, have you by chance stumbled across “Pretrib Expert John Walvoord Melts Ice”? It is now on “The End Times Passover” blog owned by Joe Ortiz. Ruth

  2. kamatu   •  

    Dr. Finn, I’m glad you finally finished this series, I thought it was going to be left incomplete.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *