New Liberalism and the Southern Baptist Convention: Conservative Silence

This post is the second in a series addressing New Liberalism and the Southern Baptist Convention. “New Liberalism” is a catch-all term for what some see as a theological threat similar to the liberalism of the previous century. This series does not assume that New Liberalism is in the SBC, but is intended to more clearly delineate the concept of New Liberalism in relation to the SBC.

A divide between conservative and liberal ideologies within the Southern Baptist Convention is not as clear as it once was. No doubt this is partially the case because those considered ‘liberal’ are also those who are now outside the SBC, not in! At the same time, many of those who claim to affirm the conservative principles set forth in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 also manage to look ‘liberal’ in a way their conservative predecessors did not. Some of the same causes that motivated liberals of yesteryear now motivate those who claim the mantle of the Conservative Resurgence. This is particularly true in terms of social engagement, and this fact alone has caused no shortage of speculation. Some attribute this difference to an unhealthy political partisanship of the past, but the point here goes deeper than support for the Moral Majority. While the purpose of this post is not to delve into specifics, the ‘culture’ of the CR is being called into question regarding the treatment of women, minorities, and homosexuals.

To be sure, re-examining the implications of the Christian faith is crucial to maintaining the truly ‘progressive’ aspect of conservative Christian theology. The progressive aspect of Christian theology demands that we usher cultural motifs back into Scripture for evaluation such that Scripture serves as a norm, and not such that Scripture is negated. A true theological conservative believes Scripture is sufficient to address everything new under the sun, because there is nothing new under the sun. Theologically conservative cultural engagement takes care to critically analyze whatever comes down the pike, while theological liberalism tends toward an uncritical acceptance of Christless cultural elements driven by supposed moral concern. Opposition to moral revolution, even in terms of maintaining a conservative ideology, and maybe especially in terms of maintaining a conservative ideology, is deemed divisive. Under such an approach, theological liberalism is allowed, not only to creep, but to run wild. Those worried about incremental drift are silenced through the shame of association with divisive fundamentalists.

By definition, institutional integrity calls for some measure of control, which is one reason why accusing leaders of merely wanting control is such an effective means of discrediting an entire institution. Incrementalism also serves as an effective tool to silence conservative critics of leftward drift, especially those conservatives who are concerned about maintaining a compassionate approach as well as their careers. However, conservative resistance to problematic shifts on an institutional level along generational and cultural lines is not sustainable in an environment where its advocates are shamed into silence. Theological conservatives who remain silent, pull back, or so thoroughly nuance their views as to have them die the death of a thousand qualifications will not remain in control for long. They will lose their control, they will lose their institutions, and with those they will lose the propagation of conservative theology.

In the midst of these concerns, the focus often falls upon areas of widespread agreement, and usually for the sake of supposed unity. One can focus on areas of agreement and make it appear that there is substantial unity even where there is almost none. What we disagree on is significant. That is why what we disagree on causes such a dust-up. One can mimic Christian unity by focusing upon open agreements and de-emphasizing disagreements. But some disagreements have major implications, if not for mere cultural engagement, then for the very doctrinal essence of the Christian faith.

In fact, what we see upon further inspection, when once we focus upon our disagreements, are significant differences in our understanding of the Christian faith. Many of these diverse understandings, though they do not disrupt ordinary language, cut into the very meanings of our terms, such that the faith once for all delivered to the saints is understood in completely different ways, though surface-level agreement through the use of shared terms remains. Which is to say, many of those who would affirm, alongside of us, the very same Christian teachings that we would affirm, mean by them something vastly different.

This is one reason why the apparent movement toward the left in Christianity today has no proper name as of yet. This movement differs from its theologically liberal predecessor, though not in every way. On the surface, the two movements look very similar, though the older approach outright rejected the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, penal substitutionary atonement, the miracles of Christ, and the like. This newer, emerging Christian movement affirms all of those doctrines while joining the older liberalism on its social front.

But doesn’t Scripture have much to say with regard to the social front? Were theological conservatives really so wrong about what Scripture does say? Has the culture changed so significantly that all such aforementioned inferences should change along with it?

More troubling, perhaps, is the idea that the more socially progressive element influencing the SBC, for lack of a better way of putting it, should be afforded a seat at the table upon the basis of a relative lack of importance when it comes to secondary, tertiary, and social matters, while those more in line with the older conservative bent should be excluded from that same table. The older theological conservatives, who are most often also social conservatives, are considered outmoded, misogynist, racist, and perhaps worst of all, Republican. Well and good, if the shoe fits, but these secondary, tertiary, and social matters of the Christian faith have undoubtedly come into sharp focus at the front and center of much of the theological discussion within the SBC.

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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