NASHVILLE (BP) — When Baptist conservatives elected Adrian Rogers as president of the Southern Baptist Convention (1979), I had not yet been born (1985).
By the time the Conservative Resurgence had gained the upper hand, I was still watching Sesame Street.
And in the mid-to-late ’90s, when the seminaries were in tumult over conservative-moderate discord, I was playing junior high basketball, not mobilizing messengers to annual conventions in order to get “our guy” elected.
I never knew, firsthand, the narrative that fundamentally defined an older generation of Southern Baptists — the battles over inerrancy, the exclusivity of the Gospel and the role of women in church.
But like a son who knows his family’s history, I know our story. I’ve rummaged through our attics. As a graduate of a Southern Baptist college and seminary, a current doctoral student and now an employee of a convention entity, the stories of Patterson, Pressler and Mohler are cemented narratives within younger Southern Baptist DNA.
As is often the case with high-stakes moments in history, the decision to forge a new identity often comes at a cost. When Luther battled corruption within the medieval Catholic Church, he did so under threat of ex-communication and death. When America’s founders forged ahead with a new project in self-government, they did so cognizant of possible sacrifice of their “Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Truth is costly. Similarly, architects of the Conservative Resurgence paid a price for orthodoxy. Relationships were strained. Churches divided. Left and Right flanks took shape. But the biblical Gospel was worth something to these men — worth dividing and even losing a denomination over. It wasn’t just disputes over property and trustee alignments, it was a dispute about what the Gospel demands of its adherents.
Today, a new generation of young and doctrinally conservative Christians face another identity-determining moment and decision: whether the cost of orthodoxy is worth the sacrifice of our credibility to a culture that grows more foreign to the cultural Christianity that all too conveniently propped it up.
Every generation must “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” So I want to challenge a younger generation of Southern Baptists to count the cost of orthodoxy, of biblical faithfulness — much like what a previous generation of Southern Baptists had to do. But I also want to challenge younger Southern Baptists to see the nourishing effects of orthodoxy. I want us to understand that guarding the sacred trust of orthodoxy requires vigilance, but that it also deposits joy and unity.
So we must ask: What type of Christianity and denomination will we hand down to the next generation? Will we be advocates for a biblical Gospel that promises reconciliation by way of faith and repentance, or, will we peddle a flaccid anti-gospel that allows man to persist in his demise, a false gospel of self-fulfillment at the expense of a cross? Will we offer a superficial gospel, one that says “Peace, peace!” but where there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:13-14)?
Cultural Christianity in America is dying. This is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that the fluff of nominalism will soon wither away. It is bad in the sense that culture will grow increasingly hostile to cultural institutions and natural truths that Christianity has had great influence and instruction on, such as marriage and freedom of conscience.
While the numbers of self-identified Christians hasn’t precipitously dropped, the cultural cache that Christianity once offered is drying up. So we must evaluate the cost of being Christian in a culture that is starting to look decidedly less so. Will Southern Baptists retain a commitment to biblical sexuality? Will we insist that marriage belongs to the Creator, and not to Caesar? Will we demonstrate theological courage and joyful endurance through coming trials or theological cowardliness when the cost of calling oneself a Christian is met with awkwardness? Is Jesus worth the cost of our prestige and our self-obsession with credentialing? Jesus said that He’ll build His church, and that the elightened attitudes of American Millennials & Cultured Despisers shall not prevail against it. Do we believe this?
For a new generation of Millennials, leaders and pastors, we must also maintain a proper sobriety about the consequences of doctrinal drift when the subtle heresies of liberalism and cultural approbation take root within. What has been passed down, we must continue to contend for — and a watchful guard requires us to be wise from both outside and inside influences. While a subterranean and generational crisis over sexuality threatens progressive wings of Christianity, Southern Baptists remain committed to the Scripture’s full and unapologetic authority on all issues, not the least of which is sexuality. We must remain so. And we must also remember that orthodoxy-to-heresy doesn’t often go from zero-to-60. It creeps and lurks. Heresy comes in fits and starts, and through slow bleeds, and so we must be diligent in communicating sound doctrine regardless of where the cultural winds blow.
We must also gladly recognize and assert that biblical orthodoxy is life-giving. It gives life to healthy debates. So today, healthy debate persists about the convention’s coziness with Calvinism versus “traditionalist” understandings of salvation. But, in the least, we’re all in one accord that Jesus’ death is both penal and substitutionary. But unlike some wings of progressivism, Southern Baptist pastors aren’t remotely interested in debating whether to sanction same-sex marriages. This is not said in a spirit of a Pharisee to a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), but rather in an attitude of thankfulness for the preservation of sound doctrine within the household of God (2 Corinthians 10:5; 1 Timothy 1:10-11, 4:6; Titus 1:9).
Contrary to the caricatures, orthodoxy is what allows diversity to flourish within the Southern Baptist Convention. There’s not uniformity in the sense of style, image and tone. What we are uniform on is a commitment to the Gospel. At today’s seminaries, you can find a wide spectrum of people identifying as Southern Baptist: Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Caucasians, Reformed hipsters, tweed-wearing future academics and Southern culture aficionados. That’s the future of the American church, and we’re all there, centralized around one purpose: Jesus and His cross.
Finally, in order to thrive denominationally, the Southern Baptist Convention must be known as a people whose commitment to orthodoxy is motivated by both love and humility. Humble orthodoxy. Nothing else will be the currency of our advance. As my mentor, Russell Moore, likes to say, Christians must be motivated by “convictional kindness.” If we have orthodoxy but not love, we are but a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)
Southern Baptists aren’t perfect. No one said they were, and God help us if we’ve ever been so deluded to think we are. But Southern Baptists are a people of the Bible, rooted in the Gospel and animated by a love to see people know Jesus Christ in life-transforming ways.
Andrew Walker is director of policy studies for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a doctoral student in Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a member of Redemption City Church in Franklin, Tenn.