DECATUR, Ga. (BP) — It’s fun being the rebel; that is, until, you become the establishment.
As a member of the “Generation Y” population, I never witnessed the scuffle that led to the Southern Baptist Convention’s divide between the denomination’s moderates and conservatives.
As a 20-something seminary graduate, the heritage of the conservative-moderate crisis loomed heavily over my time at ground zero of the crisis: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The story, controversy and ultimate comeback of Southern Seminary saturate the school to present day. Students are reminded that doctrinal drift is no more than a generation — or, in some cases, one publishing contract — away. And before signing the Abstract of Principles, professors are solemnly warned that deviating from the school’s confession will result in their termination.
Some view an academic culture like that as stifling or given over to hysterics. I call it sober-mindedness. It is also a preventative from conversations that outrightly thwart biblical authority.
After attending “A [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality & Covenant,” co-sponsored by the moderates disgruntled with the SBC’s conservative direction — the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship — I have a message to tell my fellow 20-somethings within the Southern Baptist Convention: The Conservative Resurgence was a battle worth having and a hill worthy dying on.
Though I don’t wish to stoke any remaining fires of the conservative-moderate divide, readers should know what went on at the conference. Positive things were said, especially David Gushee’s address on re-emphasizing the idea of “covenant” to our marital and ecclesial ethics.
Troubling things — actually, very troubling things — were said, too. Like the plenary address by an openly gay divinity student who emphasized that LGBT relationships contribute much to the idea of “covenant,” such as obliterating gender norms. The student went on to suggest that “when no predefined gender roles exist to unthinkingly guide how intimate relationships are to be fostered, the potential — at very least — is present for covenants forged not according to centuries of gender role residue, but through commitments to mutuality and equality.”
It would be easy for SBC conservatives to stand askance, waving their finger at the CBF saying, “See, we told you so. We knew this is how you’d all end up.” Vindication, however, is a faulty form of justice because it is often self-prescribed. Southern Baptists have no room for grandstanding. We, the inerrantist, the establishment, have our own miscues as far as denominational sexual ethics are concerned. We’ve been far too complicit in partaking of the American divorce epidemic. Too many have allowed experience to justify divorce. But we can be thankful for the SBC’s direction. We’re a flawed people, but not defiant. Southern Baptists are debating Calvinism and multi-site churches, which, I believe, are healthy debates measuring high fidelity to the Bible. We squabble over Cooperative Program percentages; not over resolutions on the covenantal merits of same-sex relationships. We don’t muddy the waters on abortion, believing the “safe, legal and rare” moniker inferior to simply “illegal.” Southern Baptists have not sponsored conferences in which the condemnation of divorce is seeking to be lifted, as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship accomplished with this conference on the subject of homosexuality. Younger Southern Baptists ought to be thankful for being spared such “conversations” and denominational referendums, one in which youthful angst is catapulting the CBF to embrace LGBT relations as normative.
My time at the “Sexuality and Covenant” conference as a reporter was valuable. It allowed me first-hand observation of what happens when Scripture’s authority and clarity is subjected to competing authorities. What I witnessed before the altar of “conversation” was a fellowship cementing its sexual ethics away from Scripture and elevating experience in its place.
It is hard to be certain what the fallout will be from the conference for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Some attendees believed that a commitment to church autonomy will allow each and every congregation to structure their expectations on sexual behavior. Autonomy and biblical diversity, though, are two separate issues. Diversity that allows for sin undermines what constitutes church autonomy.
The voice of the youth at the conference was (almost) unanimously in support of LGBT inclusion in the life of the church. This fact indicates a real divide looming over the CBF’s horizon, a divide that church autonomy will not, and cannot, soothe. Church autonomy is an insufficient denominational ethic and authority when other long-held ethics collapse and other authorities emerge.
The moderates of yesteryear may have been conservative on sexuality, but their grandchildren certainly aren’t. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has a tough future ahead, a future I predict that will reopen the wounds among moderates and become a debate over the trustworthiness and truthfulness of the Scriptures. History, I think, will repeat itself.
Andrew Walker lives in Kentucky and writes for the Institute on Religion & Democracy (theird.org), where a version of this column first appeared.