Baptists in Babylon

By: Hilde Løvdal Stephens

April 22, 2021

Responding to: The Future of U.S. Evangelical Christianity

Baptists in Babylon

Almost 20 years ago, Barry Hankins described Southern Baptists as Uneasy in Babylon. It was an answer to Rufus Spain’s 1967 At Ease in Zion, which described the post-Civil War American South as a place friendly toward Southern Baptists. With a changing South and a changing nation, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) found itself on the defense in an increasingly intense culture war manifested in issues such as race and gender.

But for a long time, things seemed to have been all fine for the SBC. The decades after World War II were a period of growth. President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Al Mohler noted that “Southern Baptists were proud beyond words when, in 1967, Southern Baptists first outnumbered Methodists in the United States.” In the decades that followed, the numbers seemed only to go up.

But not everybody was convinced it would remain so. In his 1976 book The Battle for the Bible, Southern Baptist and longtime editor of Christianity Today Harold Lindsell had warned that those in the SBC who questioned the inerrancy of scripture “constitute a threat to its future.” 

To Lindsell, clear and godly ordained gender roles were the key to hold on to the issue of inerrancy. Lindsell wrote in 1976 that feminist ideas undermined the infallibility of scripture. If one could disregard the Bible on gender roles, should one disregard what the Bible said about salvation? 

If one could disregard the Bible on gender roles, should one disregard what the Bible said about salvation?

As Southern Baptists battled over theology and control over the denomination in the 1970s, Lindsell helped move the denomination toward a more conservative stance in 1979. He urged fellow Southern Baptists to raise the cause of inerrancy. 

Not surprisingly, gender roles became central to the SBC. In 1984, the denomination had declared women ineligible for ordination while affirming the “final authority of Scripture.” The SBC upped the game as it announced in 1998 its support of complementarianism, the idea that God created man for leadership in church, society, and family and woman for a role submitted to men’s authority in those areas. The denomination even made it part of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM), what R. Marie Griffith has described as “the closest thing to a creed in this creedless denomination.” 

To be a biblical Southern Baptist was to hold on to a set of beliefs about man and woman.

To be a biblical Southern Baptist was to hold on to a set of beliefs about man and woman.

Feminism remained a threat to orthodoxy, however. Worried that feminist ideas and practice was seeping into the church, prominent SBC theologian Russell Moore maintained in 2006 that “Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy.” 

Others were more worried that patriarchy was dominating the church. The same year, former President Jimmy Carter announced that he was leaving the denomination over its treatment of women as unequal. 

More recently, the debate over critical race theory (CRT) has reflected similar tensions in the ranks of the SBC. Again, the inerrancy and authority of scripture is key. The presidents of the SBC’s six theological seminaries made it clear where they would draw the line. They jointly published a statement declaring that critical race theory was incompatible with the BFM. SBC President J. D. Greear noted that “The Gospel gives a better answer.” 

Debate over critical race theory has reflected similar tensions in the ranks of the SBC. Again, the inerrancy and authority of scripture is key.

But just what answer the Gospel gives was not really specified. Perhaps reflecting the SBC’s continued commitment to inerrancy, one of the presidents highlighted “the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture” to combat racism in their midst. The denomination expressed similar attitudes when it declared “Scripture as the first, last, and sufficient authority” in dealing with race relations.

The recent takes on race and racism have a narrower focus than the 1995 SBC resolution that called for repentance. Reading it in 2021, what strikes me is that the resolution included phrases that sound familiar to those conversant in key concepts of CRT. The resolution noted that Southern Baptists had been guilty of “perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.” The resolution also addressed what might now be called unconscious bias as it stated that “we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27).” 

By contrast, the SBC now highlights “unity in Christ” and the “eschatological promise” that one day people of all nations will worship God in heaven.

To many African Americans in the SBC, this simply is not enough. They might have remembered the SBC’s messy dealing with the call for a rebuke of white supremacy and the alt-right at the 2017 annual meeting, in which the SBC accepted a watered-down version of the initial proposal after intense rounds of debate. 

To many African Americans in the SBC, this simply is not enough.

Many white Southern Baptists, however, had no problems supporting a president who enjoyed admiration from white supremacists and who on occasion expressed similar views himself. It did not help that Southern Baptists easily overlooked the president’s immorality and abusive relationship with women. By contrast, the SBC urged in 1998 “government leaders to live by the highest standards of morality” in response to Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs. 

High standards did not safeguard girls and women in the church. In 2019, the Houston Chronicle revealed widespread neglect of abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches. Girls and women were not always honored and protected but abused and neglected.

The Trump years were troubled for the SBC in many ways. This period challenged the liberty of the individual in ideological questions even more. Russell Moore described his years as a vocal critic of the president as “lonely.” The theologian noted that the SBC has “to recover the credibility of our witness” in the wake of evangelical and SBC support to President Trump. He was worried that younger Americans now believed that “religion is just a means to some other end.”

But is inerrancy and its attached views on women and race relations the winning recipe for the Southern Baptists and other evangelicals? It does not seem so.

But is inerrancy and its attached views on women and race relations the winning recipe for the Southern Baptists and other evangelicals? It does not seem so.

At the same time as the denomination has maintained a strict line of inerrancy, it has seen declining membership numbers for more than a decade. In 2008, the SBC had more than 16 million members, but just over six million attended church on a weekly basis. In 2019, Christianity Today reported the membership had dropped to 14.5 million, with just over five million people attending weekly services. Young Southern Baptists do not necessarily stay Southern Baptist. Ryan Burge found that “seven in ten” of those raised Southern Baptist “maintained their SBC identity into adulthood in surveys conducted between 1984 and 1994.” By contrast, “nearly half of Southern Baptists kids leave and never come back” in the 2010s.

Faced with these numbers, Al Mohler noted that while “our neighbors gained social capital” in the past, they now might “lose social capital by joining our churches” because nominal Christianity is no longer dominant. Only true believers join a church, he suggested.

With even lower church membership numbers, Southern Baptists (and other evangelicals) may find themselves even more uneasy in Babylon but also maybe even more committed to the battle for the Bible.

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