On Shattering the 11th Commandment in the Southern Baptist Convention

Right Wing Politics, Again?

In 1966, a man named Ronald Reagan ran for Governor of California.

During his campaign, Reagan – who would later become President of the United States of America – followed a rule created by a man named Gaylord Parkinson, Chairman of the California Republican Party. As a Republican, Reagan would go on to follow Parkinson’s politically advantageous rule for the remainder of his life. Reagan called it, “The Eleventh Commandment.” The commandment states, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” But Reagan and the Republicans are not the only ones who follow such a rule.

Calling ‘Foul’ on Justification by Faith

Back in the early 2000’s, James R. White of Alpha and Omega Ministries raised objections regarding Professor Mark Seifrid’s position on justification by faith, resulting in responses from others. Whether White was right or wrong about his objections, and whether White was right or wrong in making his objections public, is beyond the scope of this post. At the time, Seifrid taught at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but has since moved on to Concordia Seminary.

During the aforementioned exchange, White claims he was contacted by a Southern Baptist who complained that White had “violated a sacred trust,” presumably between Southern Baptist brethren. Although White was not and is not Southern Baptist, he has worked alongside of Southern Baptists, written books used in SBC seminary classrooms, and taught at (then) Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (now Gateway Seminary).

White would come to label this concept of not speaking out against the views of other Southern Baptist affiliates, “The Eleventh Commandment.”

Not Limited to ‘Right’ or ‘Left’

But this recognition of the reality of such a rule in Southern Baptist life is not limited to White or those conceived of as his concerned followers. In fact Jonathan Merritt, presumably no fan of White, once noted the same phenomenon in an article for the Washington Post. He writes,

In conversations with multiple denominational employees, all said they felt varying degrees of discomfort with the decision to host Bush and Rubio but cited an unspoken policy against criticizing other denominational agencies and declined to comment publicly.

If White and Merritt, writing from opposite ends of the political and theological spectrum, see the same mechanism in play when it comes to offering criticism of Southern Baptist employees and entities, perhaps there is something to it.

When the Eleventh Backfired

And indeed, there is something to this idea of an Eleventh Commandment in the Southern Baptist Convention. Enter Ed Stetzer,

It’s important to understand that this “no criticism zone” is the approach that the SBC often takes.

The benefit of such an approach is the easier application of an ethic of love as opposed to a culture of constant criticism. But the approach can also backfire, as virtually everyone now knows, given the abuse scandal in the SBC and the ways in which it was covered up. Stetzer’s approach to the Eleventh Commandment is worth quoting,

What we really needed to do was be about our mission and hold each other accountable.

Southern Baptists Have No Pope

In requesting clarity concerning statements made by those in leadership positions within the SBC, or in calling their actions into question, or in considering the idea of a site like Conservative Resurgence: Voices, one faces a number of interesting responses. Some inquire as to backlash. Will offering reasoned criticism raise questions as to an affiliation with so-called ‘discernment bloggers’ or ‘Internet trolls’? Or will doing so result in one’s firing, the firing of a friend, and perhaps the premature end of one’s potential career? People are worried. What exactly happens when the Eleventh Commandment is violated?

To which the response should be, “Who cares?” The presidents of the SBC are not infallible. Baptists have no pope. The seminaries of the SBC were once lost to liberalism and, though they are healthy now, are not altogether immune to that disease today. No one wants to work at an institution where a culture of fear precludes the proclamation of truth. We will follow the Ten Commandments before we will follow the Eleventh, though the Eleventh may at times be entailed by the Ten.

To that end, Dave Miller,

We must restore the concept of respectful dissent.

I love the SBC and have spent my entire ministry serving in it. I want it to succeed. I think there are good men leading our institutions. But we are not a perfect convention and there are things that need to be changed. We’ve lost the ability to accept criticism.

A lot has been said about the “11th Commandment” recently – the unspoken commandment about criticizing other leaders in the SBC. It is unhealthy to have a convention in which disagreement and dissent is viewed as ungodly or unhealthy.

We tend to go to the extreme in this area.

  • Some offer a firehose of false accusation, angry insinuation, and hateful insults about our leaders and entities. After a while, people assume all criticism comes from the same sinful heart and lack of integrity displayed by those who lodge those criticisms.
  • Because of this extreme criticism our leaders sometimes tend to fail to listen to reasoned criticism, categorizing all those who offer a disagreement along with the rabid discernment bloggers.

A few days ago, Todd Benkert wrote a remarkably respectful article about some comments that one of our seminary presidents made. People attacked Todd (and me) because we dared to even ask questions about such comments. Todd honored the man he questioned, but in some eyes, just asking a question is wrong.

We have to find a way to ask such questions. Respectfully. Humbly. With integrity. It is an essential part of our polity is that we hold our leaders accountable.

Amen.

Published by Chris Bolt

Wretched sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Husband, father, pastor, seminary professor, and author.

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