The Conservative Resurgence a Generation Later: How Are We Doing?

Last night Michelle and I attended a banquet with our faculty, trustees, and board of visitors. The banquet focused on showing appreciation to the faculty at SEBTS. I sat and enjoyed the evening with such great gratitude.

I am finishing my 16th year at SEBTS, which makes me one of the most seasoned profs at the school. We have grown dramatically, from around 1000 students when I came to something like 2700-2800 now. Our faculty has grown from the 20s to the 70s. I have such joy teaching with a faculty not only filled with world-class scholars, but with people who actually love students, the classroom, and the church.

President Akin took a moment to reflect on the goodness of God from the early days of the Conservative Resurgence, a time of renewal in the SBC when we as a convention took an unambiguous stand on the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. As he beamed with gospel pride in the faculty assembled last night, I could not help but reminisce on one of the real concerns in the early CR days. I was only a seminary student then, but I was a foot soldier in the movement, and I remember the concern over where the faculty would come from if in fact the CR were successful (it was). I am humbled and honored to be one of those faculty members today.

A little review: In 1979 I sat in a Baptist University classroom preparing for ministry in the SBC. That year, unknown to me, Adrian Rogers was elected president. That event strategically shifted the trajectory of the SBC. I for one am grateful, for there is no way I would be teaching at SEBTS today had that shift not happened.

We now stand just over 30 years later. How are we doing?

I wanted to take a brief look to see how we are doing, and as one who not only supported the CR in the 80s when we had no idea how things would turn out (I did not wait to see how things went to pick sides), I have had a long term view of our continuing trajectory. Let’s see how we are doing:

Leadership: 3 former SBC presidents in the CR era now lead 3 critical institutions: Tom Elliff, who will speak in chapel today, now leads the IMB; Paige Patterson, an architect of the CR and the man who hired me at SEBTS, leads my alma mater SWBTS; Frank Page now heads the Executive Committee. Page’s role as SBC President included his visionary recognition that if changes beyond the affirmation of inerrancy did not occur, we were still in trouble. He was right.

What about the other agencies?

Al Mohler now leads the SBTS. Mohler has not only become one of the most articulate defenders of biblical inerrancy, he and Danny Akin have been recognized as two of the more promising leaders of the future in the Evangelical Church in America.

Kevin Ezell leads NAMB, a faithful pastor who has had remarkable influence at SBTS, a school greatly changed by the CR.

Akin, a Criswell College grad (a small school in Dallas which has had a remarkable impact on the CR) and a protégé of Patterson, now leads SEBTS, a missions battleship heading to war for the gospel. I know I am prejudiced, but I am also right: there is no school who gets the importance of an uncompromising commitment to the Word of God AND the ability to take the Word to this culture like SEBTS.

Phil Roberts, a SBC blueblood whose dad led a state convention years before, was one of the young academics who helped to fill the void for professors during the changes brought about by the SBC. He taught early on at SEBTS under the leadership of Lewis Drummond.

Chuck Kelley leads NOBTS. Kelley for years taught evangelism there and has been unambiguous in his support of the inerrancy of Scripture.

Jeff Iorg, who recently spoke eloquently in chapel at SEBTS, is a contemporary of mine from SWBTS and another example of one who would fill the professor gap.

We cannot forget Thom Rainer, who studied with Lewis Drummond, leads Lifeway Christian Resources. Another stand up man in the CR, Rainer has been a stellar leader in our time. His books have helped a generation of inerrantists reach people and grow churches.

I could give many other examples. In the 70s and 80s the Indiana Baptist, the paper of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, provided the only state convention-based newspaper that unambiguously supported the CR. I had the honor of serving in that convention right out of seminary. The Executive Director in Indiana in the late 80s and early 90s who wrote some of the most pointed articles of the era was Mark Coppenger. The editor of the paper during that same time was Gary Ledbetter. I served the convention first as a Home Missionary and then as State Evangelism Director. Today Coppenger teaches at Southern Seminary, Gary serves as editor of the state paper for the new and CR-produced Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, and I teach evangelism at SEBTS.

Then there is the immediate past president of the SBC, Johnny Hunt. I first heard Johnny preach in 1989. He was introduced as one of the shining examples of what happens when we stand on the Word. He still is. He is the one who led the current Great Commission Resurgence efforts, aided by several noted above. Ronnie Floyd, who chaired the GCR task force, has been another soldier in the CR.

As we celebrated last night it was not lost on me that we today stand in a continuum of leaders of the CR. But this continuum has not been static. Leaders have recognized over time that changes had to include more than an adoption of inerrancy. The CR was a starting point, a change of trajectory, but it was by no means the end. For instance:

Our leaders have recognized the growing need to reach the cities, the unchurched, those unengaged with the gospel. The fact that we have been successful in reaching people like us has at times blinded us from reaching the teeming masses who are not southern, white, or Republican.

This has led to a renewed focus on church planting. Such a focus has caused a lessening of focus on what had been our bread and butter evangelistically, programmatic and pulpit evangelism (evangelistic methods and evangelistic meetings/pastors). I for one do not think we should jettison those approaches that have helped us, but I completely agree with those who argue for a growing emphasis on planting churches among the unreached peoples of America.

Further, to borrow a phrase, an elephant in the room is that the very venues that once provided the opportunity for younger leaders to come into further responsibility have waned in their influence. For instance, across the country state evangelism conferences, once the largest attended meetings in state conventions, have increasingly older attendees and decreasing numbers overall. As a former evangelism director and someone who still speaks at this, that makes me sad to a certain extent. But today, to become a significant voice one must be effective in podcasting as much as in conferencing. This fact is not a bad thing, as listening to a pastor’s sermon series via podcast in his local church arguably provides a better measurement of him as a leader than one sermon at a conference.

Another recognition by many today is that as pernicious as liberalism was and is, legalism can be just as deadly. However, some fear being called a liberal more than being called a legalist. Jesus condemned both unequivocally. Legalism is a problem in the Southern church, and confusing preferences over unchanging truth should not be a legacy of the CR. I am grateful so many recognize the need to, as Jesus stated it, avoid the leaven of Herod, the Sadducees, AND the Pharisees.

We have also seen a deepening of theological conversation. Inerrancy in fact served to open the door for further conversations related to theology. We have always had Calvinists and non-Calvinists, for instance. During the CR those of a Calvinist persuasion had far less of a voice, with notable exceptions, than those more inclined to promote premillennial eschatology, for instance. So, the shift of conversation in more recent days from eschatology to soteriology has caused some to question our future. I for one am not alarmed, as historically we have seen the pendulum swing. I am grateful for a renewed focus on the gospel, for in great historical awakenings the preaching that characterized such movements was not “how to have revival,” but a renewal of the preaching of the gospel. We see such a renewal today, and that is a legacy of the CR for which I am grateful.

Change is hard. When change begins, it is hard to control a movement. Sometimes it goes in directions some who began the movement did not intend. But I for one, as an early advocate of the CR, sit in wonder, joy, and thanksgiving at where we are today. There is much to be done. But I am excited about our trajectory.

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  1. Victor Lee   •  

    Thorough and insightful, as usual, Doc. Thanks for a great piece. Sitting under Dr. Patterson, you, and other greats in the late 90s was great equipping and a great joy. I was honored to have my tiny role in maintaining the victories in our region by editing The Conservative Record in an era when NC liberals were still fighting hard. Being in that position helped me explore and understand the history of the movement. Finally, thanks for noting the dangers of legalism — in some quarters it is almost as big of a threat as liberalism today.

  2. Bob Cleveland   •  

    Dr. Reid, I have yet to find anyone willing to address the issue of membership vs. attendance .. the matter of fulfilling the Great Commission (making disciples) vs enrolling members. Our church is a model SBC church (10% to Lottie Moon, etc) yet we struggle to see 25% of our members in church. It seems to be that way all across the SBC, too, and I wonder why no one is making this an issue.

    Any thoughts about that?

  3. Louis   •  

    Thanks for these thoughts.

    One finds on the internet from time to time quite a bit of haranguing about this event or that at some local church, association or even an SBC entity, which is then followed by a thorough lambasting of the CR. I usually chuckle because most of the writers who do this are either incredibly bitter about the results of the CR (one writer posted – “The CR will never end!!” or something to that effect) or they were too young to have participated in the CR and really don’t know what they are talking about.

    But their overall point is misplaced.

    The CR was an expression by Southern Baptists that they wanted to be a denomination, and have denominational institutions, based on a confessional identity that was orthodox, as opposed to some other theological orientation. The CR ended in 1992 or so.

    The losing side did not want to have theological confessionalism at the center of denominational identity and life. That is the main distinction.

    In big picture terms, this means that the SBC is theologically oriented. It means that the SBC has a high view of scripture. It means that the SBC is concerned with peoples’ relationships to God. Real missions (proclaiming Christ) is central. Personal salvation is important. The teachings of Jesus and His apostles, as actually stated in the Bible, are emphasized.

    The alternative – theology is a secondary concern, if at all. The theology that exists is hopelessly muddled. Political engagement is primary, and often the engagement that is done is in opposition to the very views espoused by most of the people in the pews (e.g. Do we really want to have Jesse Jackson and someone from Playboy speaking at ethics seminars?). Proclaiming the Gospel takes a back seat. And the “Gospel” is often redefined to mean political engagement in some way or at some level.

    Denominationalism has been on the decline for years. That may continue to occur.

    New, non-denominational movements have sprung up. Thankfully, most of these movements are conservative.

    The old line denominations continue to decline and become less orthodox over time.

    Religious affiliated colleges (that are not SBC controlled) have, in the main, become less connected to the churches that founded them.

    And then, we have general leadership issues. These would exist regardless of which side won the CR.

    So, all in all, it has been a significant and an incredible win. I enjoy attending the SBC meetings. They are not filled with tension. There is a general unity of spirit and purpose, even though we may disagree about many things that are of a lesser priority.

    God bless you and the others at SEBTS.

    Thanks for this post.

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