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Lessons from conservative resurgence still fresh in minds of Southern Baptist leaders


DALLAS (BP)–They said it couldn’t be done. For that matter, it shouldn’t be done.

Former Southern Baptist Convention entity heads doubted the long-term impact of electing a conservative, Adrian Rogers, to the SBC presidency in 1979, writing it off as a political maneuver “loyal Southern Baptists” would reject.

Twenty-five years later many of the conservative challengers are leading SBC ministries, influenced by lessons learned amid the controversy between theological conservatives and moderates. Theological integrity was at the center of the reformation conservatives sought in the denomination. From hiring seminary faculty holding to a high view of Scripture to examining the doctrinal beliefs of missionaries serving at home and abroad, the priority of applying Bible-based convictions can’t be overstated in understanding what is known as the conservative resurgence.

Two recent developments — a restructuring of the denomination’s bureaucracy in 1997 and passage of a revised Baptist Faith and Message confessional statement in 2000 — completed the reformation. The former reaffirmed the local church as the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention. The latter clarified doctrinal guidelines in precise language on issues of biblical inerrancy, church officers and the traditional family — thus removing any question as to the SBC’s stance.


Every SBC entity leader elected after their trustee body gained a conservative majority recognized the importance of grassroots connection.


“Having been part of the conservative resurgence from the beginning, I was very much aware of the fact that many of the agency heads had either purposely or unconsciously insulated themselves from a huge constituency within the convention,” said Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land. “They either ignored them or were unaware of them.”

He recalled a related conversation he had with former Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Duke McCall while the two were attending a Baptist World Alliance meeting early in Land’s tenure. Land quoted McCall as saying, “Well, there’s no question, we got so busy running the machinery of the convention that we lost touch with the rank and file.”

Land determined the ethics entity would not lose touch, pledging the staff was “there to serve the local church.” He keeps a certain number of Sundays open in case smaller churches invite him to preach. “Bigger, multi-staff churches do more planning. By the time smaller churches invite you to preach you’re booked up.”

James T. Draper Jr. accepted a similar challenge when he followed Lloyd Elder as head of the Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources). Back then the editor of the Indiana Baptist challenged Draper and department leaders to seek and accept chances to preach and worship in places like Gas City, Ind., or Goshen, Ark., so to “remember how gritty it can be in a small-town, single-staff church.” Within a few weeks, Draper accepted an invitation arranged by an Arkansas trustee of the Sunday School Board to preach at the church’s Goshen mission.

Draper also changed how the trustees interacted with Sunday School Board staff. “I inherited a debriefing session,” he explained, referring to a meeting his predecessor held with about 20 key administrators after each board meeting. Staff would be asked to share anything they’d heard trustees say about their work.

“Trustees had been told not to talk to staff and the staff had been told not to talk to trustees. I never saw so much smoke and mirrors in all my life. Why not just give straight answers?” Draper asked. “Problems were pushed aside rather than being dealt with.” He immediately changed protocol to encourage interaction and problem-solving between trustees and staff.


SBC Executive Committee President Morris H. Chapman appealed to Southern Baptists to encourage understanding of time-honored principles of cooperation for God’s Kingdom expansion. “Our convention may be doctrinally pure, but without cooperation, without trusting one another, our convention shall cease to have the dynamic missions enterprise that reaches to the far corners of the earth.”

Chapman told a recent conference at Union University: “When those of us who participated in leadership roles in what has been called the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence gather for the silver anniversary celebration, it is something to celebrate. Our beloved Southern Baptist Convention was saved from theological and numerical decimation known to most mainline American denominations in the last half of the 20th century because of the conservative resurgence.”

He added that “thoughtful, aggressive, prayerful politics was integral to its success,” defining politics as the art of working with people. “However, one of the challenges we now face, in my opinion, is how to move beyond aggressive partisan politics to a model of denominational decision-making that is more normative for Southern Baptists and more beneficial.”

Chapman said vigilance against heresy is always a test of faithful Christians, but added, “Some Southern Baptists want to make every decision — even those not affecting doctrine and practice — based on loyalty to friends, parties or agendas.” He predicted that “politics for politics’ sake” will result in “narrower participation in denominational life, a shallower pool of wisdom and giftedness in our enterprises and a shrinking impact upon the world.”

At the Annuity Board, where the focus is on ministers’ well being, President O. S. Hawkins said, “We are stewards of the resources of over 100,000 Southern Baptist pastors, church workers, missionaries, teachers and the like. We treat them each and every one with equal respect and integrity as stewards of their resources.”

To keep that focus in mind, Hawkins said every executive officer displays a picture of a pastor on his credenza. “On mine is a pastor in front of a white clapboard church literally standing in front of a dirt road.” Every Annuity Board staffer is expected to ask, “Do the decisions we make today enhance this pastor’s financial security?”

His own quarter-century of ministering placed him in diverse settings — from a small southwestern Oklahoma town to downtown Dallas. After becoming Annuity Board president in 1997 he reminded the staff of the ministry’s complete name. “We are the Annuity Board of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “We respect the trustees we’re given and they’re very hands-on and active.”

International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin said he was “totally immersed in field responsibilities” during his 23 years as a missionary and “so I was not involved in all that was happening in the SBC up to my selection in 1993.” But he offered unequivocal support for the changes in SBC direction and leadership.

“Our board was obviously shaped by the conservative resurgence and found me to be doctrinally aligned with the direction of the SBC,” Rankin said, emphasizing his belief in biblical inerrancy. “I was committed to lead the IMB in a direction compatible with the resurgence, not because it was expected or my obligation to do so, but because it represented my personal convictions and was essential to effectively fulfilling our mission work.”

The first Home Mission Board president to be elected under a conservative-dominated board previously had challenged moderate leadership from the floor of convention meetings. At the pivotal 1979 Houston convention Larry Lewis offered a resolution calling for doctrinal integrity in SBC entities. A few years later he wrote the first pro-life resolution to gain acceptance from messengers.

Lewis demonstrated his commitment to doctrinal integrity while president of the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board).

“Since my presidency began,” he told Baptist Press in 1997, “no one has been employed to an elected professional position, nor has anyone been approved as a missionary who did not affirm the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the reality of the miracles, the validity of the biblical narratives, or the divinity of Jesus.”

Leading the Implementation Task Force charged with carrying out the reorganization provided North American Mission Board President Robert E. Reccord with the opportunity to “see under the rugs” of Southern Baptist life. “It made me very aware right from the beginning that I wanted to make very clear to trustees without exception or apology that we would support the Baptist Faith and Message 100 percent.”

Reccord said he appreciates that Southern Baptists are unified around major doctrinal issues. “I don’t have to waste a lot of time thinking about every opinion,” he said. “The bottom line is opinions aren’t driving issues. The reality of Scripture is. It is our plumb line by which we measure everything.”


Although an effective case was made for the need of reform at the various SBC entities, transformation of the seminaries was critical.

“Conservatives believed that the denomination was drifting from orthodoxy,” wrote Gregory A. Wills, associate professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Although they raised some accusations against other denominational agencies, the seminaries were the main targets.”

When Bill Crews became president at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in 1986 he said he would ask both faculty and trustees to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message — then the 1963 statement — expecting professors to teach in accordance with it.

“I did not allow any perceived inadequacy in the 1963 statement to hinder us from electing people who would uphold what I understood as the prevailing interpretations of Southern Baptists,” Crews said last year.

Soon after Crews began at Golden Gate, Lewis Drummond was hired to follow Randall Lolley as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with five of his vice presidents, Lolley had resigned to protest changes to the faculty hiring procedure implemented by a bare majority of the trustees. Drummond passed away in January. Former SBC president and Southeastern Seminary alumnus James Merritt told a memorial service honoring Drummond, “It took incredible faith, incredible courage for Dr. Drummond to leave a place of security, to leave a place where he loved and was loved [at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary] and walk into a cauldron that was boiling over with bitterness and hate and anger and know that his chance for success was slim. He knew he would get blamed for everything that went wrong … that he would never get any credit for whatever he did which was right. But if he had to do it again, he would because he was a man of faith.”

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Charles Kelley Jr. was elected from the school’s faculty to follow President Landrum Leavell in 1996. During a convocation address in the fall of 2000, Kelley related how he was “drawn out of the stands, onto the sideline, and into the game” in the midst of the conservative reformation.

“As I progressed in my education and saw the great gulf between the theology of the churches and the theology of many classrooms, I was not very surprised when some 20 years ago a reformation movement began to call Southern Baptists back to their historic theological roots, and that Southern Baptist educational institutions were a particular focus of attention during that reformation.”

In a more recent paper on Southern Baptist polity, Kelley affirmed the concept of local churches directing the denomination. “We found in the work of our churches the agenda for our convention. We heard in the voices of our pastors and people the vision being cast for our future. We knew instinctively the danger of letting any person, denominational body, or entity gain a louder voice than the voice of our churches, for it is through the churches that Jesus has spoken to His people most clearly, and through the churches that Jesus has done the most significant work of our beloved Convention.”

In his 1995 convention sermon Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler said that the restructuring rightly focused on the mission of the churches.

“The Southern Baptist Convention has no mission but the Great Commission ministries of Southern Baptist churches,” he said.

Reflecting on 10 years of ministry at Southern in last summer’s edition of the school’s magazine, Mohler recalled that a naval commander had told him an aircraft carrier can be turned, over the process of many miles, with no perceptible change on the deck. But a tight turn would leave people scrambling for balance in a way that they would remember for the rest of their lives.

“I think that’s pretty much the way the transformation at Southern Seminary was experienced,” he said. “I am now even more convinced that an institution can move from a conservative position to a liberal position inch by inch and incrementally, but to move an institution back in a conservative direction requires a much shorter amount of time to make the issues clear and to get back within boundaries. And that is very traumatic.”

While some might have preferred a calmer transition, Mohler said he now knows by experience and not merely by theory that it is impossible to move an institution inch by inch toward orthodoxy. “If you really believe that these are the eternal truths of God’s word, you cannot accept a strategy that says ‘we’ll try to deal with this doctrine, and then we’ll eventually get to another doctrine which will lead to a third doctrine.'”

Convinced all truth is tied together, Mohler said, “We had to go back and reclaim so much at one time with a sense of urgency. And we knew that it would not be without opposition on and off the campus.” Ultimately, Southern Seminary was sustained by local Southern Baptist churches and the strength of the denomination, he said. “And the Lord saw us through this process of change with Southern Seminary emerging stronger, not weaker.”

Soon after Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees selected Mark Coppenger as president in 1995 he developed a detailed faculty questionnaire to address issues of concern to conservative Southern Baptists that were not reflected in the 1963 BF&M. By filling the numerous vacancies with inerrantist faculty, Coppenger changed the landscape of academic life at Midwestern.

R. Philip Roberts followed at Midwestern, having taught at Southeastern during the years when conservative leadership still drew challenges from faculty. “Theological integrity and the upholding of orthodoxy must be paramount in all of our concerns,” he said. “I keep this uppermost in my priorities when hiring faculty or reviewing curriculum and other seminary concerns.”

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was often praised as the most conservative seminary during the years of denominational controversy. Historian Jerry Sutton wrote that Southwestern probably would have steered clear of all controversy had it not been for seminary President Russell Dilday. In 1984 Dilday labeled the conservative resurgence as a “fundamentalist organization” led by “negative, narrow, legalistic, anti-intellectual, independent extremists on the right.” Dilday urged Southern Baptists to “shun the blatant power struggles and redeploy our energies and resources to the priority of obeying our Lord’s commission.”

Kenneth Hemphill followed Dilday in 1994, pledging to keep the Bible as “the seminary’s textbook and plumb line by which all teaching is measured.” In October 2002, trustees affirmed the 2000 revision to the BF&M as an expression of “a faithful and foundational interpretation of God’s word.” Hemphill said the declaration was necessary for responding to inaccurate representations of “what we teach or don’t teach.”

Last summer, trustees elected Paige Patterson as the eighth president at Southwestern. Patterson had overseen the transformation of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary as president since 1992, revitalizing enrollment figures from 700 students to 2,200.

Southeastern Seminary trustees selected Daniel Akin to fill the vacancy created when Patterson accepted leadership of Southwestern. Akin said that the most important lesson he had learned from the conservative resurgence is that a seminary must be vigilant in maintaining its theological integrity.

“A president must be vitally involved in the hiring of faculty,” Akin said, “and he must make certain that they are committed to teach in accordance with and not contrary to the confessional documents of that institution.”

Akin expects the school’s Abstract of Principles and the BF&M 2000 to be an accurate reflection of the theological convictions of every person teaching at Southeastern.

“It is the president’s responsibility to see that is never compromised,” he said. “Therefore, he must be actively involved in the hiring of faculty and in maintaining the theological integrity of the institution.”

Lewis Drummond never expected to see “real substantive changes throughout the convention” within the quarter-century following Adrian Rogers’ election as president in 1979.

“It’s like the Titanic. They saw that iceberg dead ahead and they spun the wheel hard to the port side,” Drummond told Jim Hefley. “Now if [the conservatives] don’t hang in there and keep turning that ship, they can still hit that iceberg.”

One iceberg continues to disappoint Patterson even in the years that he refers to as the Conservative Renaissance.

“I have been profoundly disappointed at the number of people who were willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of what was declared to be love,” Patterson said.

As he reflected on how the lessons learned from the conservative resurgence influence his own leadership style, Patterson said, “Of course, genuine New Testament style always is based on the truth. The equal but opposite mistake of some who argued for truth was to do it in an unloving way.”

“The two together have led me to understand how difficult it often is to find the balance of love and truth, and this in turn has led me to pray much more for the wisdom of God in the decision-making processes that I pursue.”

At Patterson’s inauguration last fall, O. S. Hawkins recounted the determination of Southwestern Seminary’s founding president, B. H. Carroll, when striving for doctrinal integrity against a call for greater freedom. Carroll stated, “The modern cry ‘less creed and more liberty’ is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jelly fish and it means less unity and less morality and it means more heresy. It is a hurtful sin to magnify liberty at the expense of doctrine.”

Hawkins told Patterson, “Knowing that doctrine always determines duty and knowing your heart for evangelism and missions, you have a mighty pattern and example to follow as you ‘never magnify liberty at the expense of doctrine.'”

Although many of those who led the SBC prior to 1979 questioned the loyalty of current leadership, Hawkins described Patterson as a true denominational loyalist. “You got involved, but with pure motives, a heart of love and a desire, like Carroll, to ultimately preserve the faith of our fathers and to promote unity.”
This story originally appeared in the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CHAPMAN & VESTAL and TURNING POINT.