THE COLLAPSE OF CULTURAL CHRISTIANITY AND THE RISE OF THE BAPTIST MOMENT
In 1987 Richard John Neuhaus published The Catholic Moment. Neuhaus’s argument was that the Catholic Church, especially in the United States, was best poised to meet the cultural contest and its challenges. What was clear to me when I first read this book was that if there was a Catholic moment, it had already passed by the time the book was even published. I would suggest, however, that we now have every reason to believe that we may be entering “the Baptist moment.” As cultural Christianity takes its final breaths, Baptists may be ousted from any place of prominent cultural influence, but our theological convictions uniquely situate us to respond to the challenges posed by late modernity.
Our commitment to regenerate church membership, the baptism of believers only, and our understanding of the nature of the church gives Baptists a unique voice in the face of disappearing cultural Christianity. I honestly believe that in coming years evangelicals will increasingly look to Southern Baptists due to the ecclesiological crises created by the collapse of cultural Christianity. The coming generation will urgently need the wisdom and biblical conviction of Baptists on these issues.
But Baptists will only be prepared for this challenge if we retain our theological integrity and remain faithful to our doctrinal convictions. To that end, let’s consider ten questions as we reflect on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention and Baptist identity in the twenty-first century.
UNAVOIDABLE QUESTIONS FOR SOUTHERN BAPTISTS IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
1 . Will Southern Baptists embrace an identity that is more theological than tribal? The older I get the more I recognize the value of the tribal inheritance I received as a young boy. This is why I phrased the question “more theological than tribal” rather than “theological instead of tribal.” In fact, I believe it is impossible to survive as a community of conviction without having a certain amount of tribal identity. But, as many young Southern Baptists now realize, tribal identity is not enough. Tribal identity alone will eventually give way to theological accommodation. Our identity must be more theological than tribal, and that requires a change in the logic of the Southern Baptist Convention, certainly a change from the logic employed during the middle and late decades of the twentieth century.
2 . Will today’s generation summon and maintain the courage to minister Christ in a context of constant conflict and confrontation? In our generation and the generations to follow, there will never be a faithful ministry that does not face constant conflict and confrontation with the larger culture.
If we are seeking peace with the culture, we will abandon the gospel. Are we ready for the challenge? Will we demonstrate theological and moral courage in the face of stiffening cultural opposition?
3 . Will Southern Baptists find a healthy balance between evangelical identity and Baptist conviction? One of the lessons we can learn from the evangelical movement is that its central weakness was not epistemological. Its central weakness was not its commitment to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Its central weakness was ecclesiological—in particular, an undervaluing of the local church. As Southern Baptists we must be staunchly evangelical, but we must also be unashamedly Baptist. Evangelical is essential, but it is not enough.
4 . Will Southern Baptists maintain the intellectual and moral credibility to speak truth as we live truth? As Southern Baptists we must not only define what we believe but affirm those same truths with our lives. Southern Baptists must live before the world the convictions we teach, or we will lose all credibility to teach and preach those convictions. Even as Carl F. H. Henry called a generation for the evangelical demonstration of our faith, the same call must now be issued to Southern Baptists.
5 . Will Southern Baptists embrace the deep roots and riches of the historic Christian tradition without apology? Far from being merely of academic interest, our understanding of Baptist origins really does matter. We must remember that while the early Baptists were at pains to demonstrate their differences in matters of ecclesiology from other Protestants, they also went to great lengths to demonstrate that they stood in continuity with confessing, believing Christians throughout the ages. Early Baptists recognized that they had inherited a theological treasure from previous generations that was not distinctively Baptist but was rather, to use Thomas Oden’s term, classically Christian.
One of my most important moments at seminary came in the first minutes of my first church history class with Professor Timothy George. He began the class with these words, “My name is Timothy George, and my responsibility is to convince you that there was someone between your grandmother and Jesus and that it matters.” As Baptists, we need to learn that lesson well. Southern Baptists, particularly SBC pastors, must understand that they are in a long line of godly men that goes back, not just to 1845, but to a room in Jerusalem where Jesus sent his disciples into the world.
6 . Will Southern Baptists preserve the essential gains of the Conservative Resurgence of the last quarter of the twentieth century? Will we unashamedly and rigorously hold to inerrancy? Baptists must recognize that Scripture and Scripture alone is the norma normans non normata, the norm of norms that cannot be normed. The Bible alone, inerrant and infallible, must remain foundational for our epistemology and always serve as our highest authority—the norm that norms all others.
7 . Will Southern Baptists be comprehensively confessional and not merely anecdotally confessional? Baptists must recognize that our confession must be more than a document we turn to in crisis or emergency situations. Our confessional identity should shape our articulation of the faith and regulate our theology, teaching, and preaching. If we do not regain a sense of being comprehensively confessional in all we believe, teach, and preach, then we will ultimately fail to be confessional when it matters most.
8 . Will a new generation of Southern Baptists be eagerly and authentically Baptist? This means Baptists must unashamedly and with theological depth articulate, defend, and live out our ecclesiology. Even as we claim continuity with classic Christian tradition, we also must unashamedly hold our dissenting opinions from other traditions in terms of our doctrine of the church and the ordinances. We must be authentically Baptist because we believe our convictions on these matters are authentically biblical and essential to a right understanding of the church.
9 . Will Southern Baptists produce a generation of pastor-theologians adequate to the challenge of late modernity? It is not enough that we produce theologians. Of course, we should be grateful for the wonderful theologians and professors faithfully serving our denomination in colleges and seminaries across the world. But the future of the denomination comes down to whether we are producing pastor-theologians—men who can faithfully do the work of theology in local congregations situated in a hostile culture.
10 . In the words of Jesus in Luke 18:8, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? Though we do not know the future of the Southern Baptist Convention, we ought to at least ask this question of ourselves. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the Southern Baptist Convention? If so, and we must pray that it will be so, it will require us to regain a clear and robust understanding of theological identity. Our responsibility for our denomination and our churches is to be found faithful to that end.
May the Lord, indeed, find us faithful. Amen.
This essay is an excerpt from my chapter in The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, and Recommitment, edited by Jason K. Allen (B&H Academic, 2016).
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Publication date: August 4, 2016