The Spirit of Conservatism

The Conservative Resurgence (CR) of the Southern Baptist Convention, an organized movement among grassroots churches to reclaim their institutions from a liberal drift, left us with a convention that is conservative in theology. The revisions to The Baptist Faith and Message from 1998 and 2000 testify to that reality.

But conservatism is about more than theology. It is also about a mindset, or even a “spirit,” that guides our perception of the world. As a teacher, I make a distinction between the ability to memorize information and the ability to synthesize that same information and apply it to new, unforeseen questions. Most students can memorize a list of facts from a study guide and repeat them on a test, but those who truly learn what they have studied can also apply their knowledge to questions that weren’t on the study guide.

Did the CR leave us with a conservative denomination only in the sense that we know how to check all the right theological boxes? Or did it leave us with a denomination that knows how to address new challenges from a posture of conservatism, i.e., in a manner consistent with a deep understanding of our theological confession? The former would be a hollow shell of a short-lived denominational reformation, but the latter would leave us with lasting generations of faithfulness. Which one we will ultimately become remains to be seen.

Theological conservatives need more than conservative theology. They need a conservative spirit to go with it, because it is the spirit of conservatism that will guard against the future loss of our conservative theology. What are some defining marks of this kind of conservatism? I will note three here:

(1) Gratitude for the past. It has been said that the main difference between a conservative and a progressive is that a conservative begins with gratitude, and a progressive begins with a grievance. Conservatives are grateful for their heritage, and they reflect on it with a humble posture that is eager to receive and hand on wisdom from those who have gone before. This does not mean conservatives are naive about the failures of past generations. But it does mean that they do not see the world through the lens of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the assumption that the current generation, simply because of its more recent provenance, can claim moral superiority to all others.

(2) A general suspicion of innovation. Not all innovation is bad, but innovative theological positions, which inevitably lead to innovative practices, will be viewed by true conservatives with some level of suspicion. Conservatives know from history that destructive teachings can creep into the church from unsuspected sources, and thus new ideas that do not clearly violate our confessional heritage on the surface must nevertheless be subject to extensive testing and reflection. Over time, some innovations will pass through the safeguards, but many more will likely be filtered out by theological wisdom. Conservatives will, in other words, be very slow to invest themselves into new ideas, knowing that at some future point those new ideas might be exposed as destructive.

(3) A general suspicion of radical claims. From time to time, a new way of thinking arises that presents itself as a new paradigm for seeing the world. As such, it requires radical rethinking of all that has gone before. Here the issue is not merely innovation, but the radical extent of innovation that requires a deep reevaluation of the past. This is the hallmark of progressive thinking, which essentially begins with a repudiation of the past as morally inferior to the present. Conservatives will naturally shield themselves from radical claims that profess that, if we do not get on board with X, we have aligned ourselves with unrighteousness.

If you gaze across the landscape of the SBC right now, you may see a denomination that is, for the most part, holding to the theological orthodoxy of The Baptist Faith and Message 2000. But do you see a strong spirit of conservatism that is ready to protect that confessional heritage for generations to come? In general, it seems that we are a denomination that is more eager to repudiate our past than to receive its wisdom in gratitude. Conservative evangelicalism on the whole has been flooded with innovative ideas in the last few years, most notably critical race theory, “thin” complementarianism, and Revoice theology. It seems that Southern Baptists are more eager to cozy up to these innovative ideas (with the exception of Revoice, so far) than we are to test them with patience. And because these ideas arise within a larger narrative of oppression and liberation, we seem like a denomination that is easily susceptible to buying into the radical claims that accompany them. For example, the linking of our discussion of restrictions on women preaching with the subject of the abuse of women (two very different things) indicates that we are already beginning to see the world through the lens of critical theory; we find ourselves drawing a line between “oppressor” and “oppressed” in every situation. We are, in short, a conservative denomination with the very strong presence of a progressive spirit among us.

Did the CR leave us with a spirit of conservatism that will weather the challenges of the twenty-first century with biblical faithfulness? Only time will tell, but at least for now, there seems to be good reason for concern.

Published by Aaron O'Kelley

Aaron O'Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.

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