Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 8: What Do We Mean by “Resurgence?”

The idea of a Great Commission Resurgence should call to mind at least two concepts with which many Southern Baptists will readily identify: mission and the Conservative Resurgence. My colleague Bruce Ashford has already done a fine job of explaining what we mean when we use the term Great Commission (see his articles here and here). My task is to define the word resurgence and shed some light on why we have chosen this particular word to help cast a vision for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a resurgence could be defined as “a continuing after interruption; a renewal.” Think about this definition in the context of the past thirty or so years of SBC history. The theological-political movement that began in the late 1970s has been called at least three things: a takeover, a controversy, and a resurgence. There is some truth to each of these descriptions, though we need to be clear just what we mean.

The movement was surely a takeover because conservative dissenters successfully replaced the denomination’s leadership by mastering the Convention’s polity, winning democratic elections, and selecting trustees who were sympathetic to the movement’s conservative theological aims. The movement was also undoubtedly a controversy-just ask anyone who was there. But neither of these phrases do the movement full justice; surely it was more than a mere political movement or just another denominational melee.

Despite the political means employed and the controversy generated by all parties involved, the movement that gained control of the SBC during the last quarter of the 20th century is best defined as a resurgence. Since at least the 1940s, SBC denominational leaders downplayed and sometimes rejected conservative theology. Our traditional Baptist distinctives were redefined so that they would be consistent with a hyper-individualistic understanding of the Christian life. This new understanding of Baptist identity fit neatly with a neo-orthodox view of Scripture and a pietistic de-emphasis on doctrinal commitments. Furthermore, it was shielded by a bureaucracy that was intent on defining cooperation as mere financial stewardship, with doctrinal commonality taking a back seat. The basic theological consensus that had existed in the SBC of 1850 had been gradually replaced with a commitment to theological diversity by 1950. Our commitment to conservative theology had been interrupted by pragmatic cooperation and a fascination with progressive theological trends.

Conservatives felt mostly shut out of SBC life and they feared for the future of the Convention, so they formed alternative schools, publications, and networks that functioned as alternatives to the denomination’s ministries. But by the mid-1970s, conservatives were galvanized by the discovery that the Convention’s polity was such that the face of the denomination could be changed through a strategic use of the appointive powers of the denomination’s presidency. Under the leadership of Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, a grassroots movement was launched in 1979 that consistently elected movement conservatives to the Convention presidency. During the next two decades, moderates increasingly disengaged from denominational life, conservatives restructured the bureaucracy, and in 2000 a thoroughly conservative revision of the Baptist Faith and Message was adopted by the Convention.

This movement was a Conservative Resurgence because the conservative theology that had been eclipsed (or at least downplayed) by many denominational leaders during the mid-20th century was restored to a place of prominence in the Convention’s seminaries, commissions, and boards. There was continuation after interruption, and after years of focusing on other things-primarily financial stewardship, bureaucratic efficiency, denominational growth, and a more progressive approach to theology-the Convention’s elected and appointed leaders were again committed to a biblically and theologically conservative faith and practice. There was a renewal of historic Baptist theology in the halls of leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention.

The contemporary SBC is the product of the Conservative Resurgence. This is a very good thing. Every Southern Baptist agency head, missionary, professor, and other denominational employee who has been hired in recent years is a theological conservative. Our mission boards are appointing sound missionaries, our seminaries are educating sound students, and our publishing house is producing sound curricula, books, and other resources. Our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is contending for traditional family values. Southern Baptists should be thankful for the Conservative Resurgence because these things were not always the case two decades ago.

But there is at least a potential a downside to the Conservative Resurgence, albeit an unintentional one. A generation and a half of Southern Baptists was involved in a pitched battle for the future of the SBC. Many are still involved in such battles in their state conventions and associations. These battles are important because truth matters. Nevertheless, we must recognize it is possible to become so accustomed to fighting during times of war that one does not know how to live peaceably with like minded brothers and sisters once the battles are over.

The above scenario is not mythical. It actually happened to many of the separatist fundamentalists in the 20th century. After they lost the battles for their denominations and withdrew from those groups, they turned on each other. Within a generation, fundamentalists were shooting each other and often fracturing over matters such as cultural engagement, degrees of cooperation with and separation from other believers (even other conservatives), Calvinism, Landmarkism, the timing of the rapture, charismatic gifts, the age of the earth, and Bible translations. To this day, there are Independent Baptists who have as difficult a time getting along with some of their fellow fundamentalists as they do the liberal Episcopal priest down the street.

Though I hate to admit this, I sense a tendency toward this very type of infighting among some contemporary Southern Baptists. We are even fighting about some of the same issues over which our fundamentalist friends divided. Southern Baptists must be careful that we do not become too preoccupied with secondary and tertiary matters, lest these issues distract us from the task at hand. According to the original constitution of the SBC our Convention exists for the purpose of “eliciting, combining and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel.” Mission is in our denominational DNA. It always has been.

Conservatives frequently criticize the pre-1979 SBC for emphasizing mission work-and the financing thereof-to the exclusion of sound doctrine. This type of pragmatism created an atmosphere wherein aberrant theology was tolerated and at times even encouraged so long as missionary enlistment increased and the Cooperative Program kept growing. Conservatives rightly rejected this paradigm, arguing that one cannot do authentic mission without being committed to biblical theology and practice. This is a conviction that we must never surrender.

At our present moment in SBC history, it is important to remind ourselves not to confuse the ends with the means. If we are content with simply having theological conservatives leading our various ministries, then the Conservative Resurgence was only a half-victory. Our Conservative Resurgence must give birth to a Great Commission Resurgence. Our use of the word resurgence is deliberate. Just as our commitment to conservative theology was interrupted during the generation prior to the Conservative Resurgence, our commitment to the primacy of mission was interrupted during the Conservative Resurgence, at least in practice. There were important battles being fought within our denomination, battles that conservatives honestly believed would ultimately lead to theological renewal.

With the success of the Conservative Resurgence, that theological renewal is underway (though its completion is surely reserved for the eschaton!). The time has come for a missional renewal that flows from our doctrinal convictions. Zeal for the Great Commission needs to be restored to its place of prominence in Southern Baptist life, not just in theory and rhetoric, but in practice. No matter how much work still needs to be done to bring about further theological renewal in the Convention, we cannot lose sight of the “one sacred effort” that has united us since our earliest days. The interruption is over. The distractions must be set aside. God is at work reconciling the world unto himself, and Southern Baptists need to get serious again about making ourselves available to the Lord to use in his great work of bringing salvation to people from every corner of the earth. Theology and mission go hand in hand. One without the other is an incomplete agenda. One without the other is destined to fall short of what our Lord intends.