They said it couldn't be done. Religious scholars and well-known pastors said it couldn't be done. Historians and futurists said it couldn't be done. Denominational leaders said it couldn't be done. Liberals believed that no band of Bible-thumping preachers, professors, and laymen could ever be used of God to return a denomination to its conservative roots.
We need only to look at mainline American churches to see examples of once-vibrant denominations in agonizing decline. Do you know why? Their leaders abandoned the clear teachings of the Bible. The faithful in the pews and pulpits tried to steer them back to their conservative roots, but were defeated by the juggernaut of liberalism. Their appeals for fidelity to God's Word were ignored.
These well-meaning believers, devoted to the absolute authority of the Bible, were condemned as narrow-minded, uninformed proponents of an outdated theological worldview. As a result, once-proud, gospel-preaching denominations accelerated off the roadway of orthodoxy. They have overturned on the ecclesiastical roadsides. Their wheels are still spinning, and more tragically, their motors are still running wide open — at full throttle – but they're going nowhere.
The flames of revival fires are gone, compromises with the world have come, apathy has set in, and the world is unmoved. All of this has been happening while Southern Baptists have been experiencing God's miracle of returning us to our biblical heritage. Think with me about the fundamentals of cooperating conservatives.
Cooperating conservatives are a convictional people. I'm thankful to be a Southern Baptist. A quarter of a century ago, rank-and-file Southern Baptists became alarmed because we were sliding toward liberalism, and we embarked upon a course correction. The pundits, both the sympathetic and the patronizing, insisted that it could not be done. "The slide from orthodoxy might be slowed but not stayed forever," they stated emphatically. "It is inevitable." So they said.
They were wrong. Against all odds, against the status quo, against the spirit of the age, a convention of churches, this Convention, returned to the road of orthodoxy. The Southern Baptist Convention, by God's matchless grace, avoided the decimation experienced by others, closed ranks with our founding fathers, and declared to the world "We are people of the Book."
What has been achieved is no less than a miracle of God. While history shall record the names of those whom God raised up for this critical hour in our Convention, the conservative resurgence is not about what we've done. It is about what He has done. We owe Him the glory. We have no cause for arrogance or false pride. We have no cause to rejoice except that we rejoice in Him. We have no cause for thanksgiving lest we worship Him in spirit and in truth. The Lord is looking for men and women who have the heart of God. He is looking for individuals who are clothed in humility. God is looking for us to change the world and to do it now.
If our struggle for the authority of God's Word does not lead us to a spirit of humility and holiness, we're already going in the wrong direction, destined to lose our way in the wilderness.
Whatever we do, we must remember … the roadside of liberalism remains hard against the road of orthodoxy. Whether it is called neo-orthodoxy, open theism, post-modernism, or simply politically correct pragmatism, the possibility of wrecking on this roadside is an ever-present danger. So we not only celebrate, but also pledge earnestly to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
This is a time for the declaration of God's grace and goodness. If there's ever been a time the devil would like to see the Southern Baptist Convention crash and burn, it is now. While we celebrate the victories, we must forever refrain from becoming haughty and high-minded. We must hold to all the biblical principles our Convention has embraced historically.
Cooperating conservatives are not only a convictional people, we are also a cooperating people.
There's a road wrongly taken by many on our left, the road of liberalism. But there is also a road wrongly taken by many others on our right side. It may not be as treacherous as the road of liberalism, but it is just as disabling to the Convention.
What is this road? It is the road of separatism — an ecclesiastical methodology that devalues cooperation in favor of hyper independence. In the past, we have avoided this road as fervently as the road on the left. If Southern Baptists steer too sharply toward the right, we will end up on the road of separatism.
Southern Baptists have never embraced the methodologies of separatism. We can be both conservative and cooperative. It is our distinctive heritage. It is the genius of our success. It is our spiritual destiny.
We must never cease to be vigilant against heresy. This is always the task of faithful Christians. However, crusades cannot last forever. Again and again we have debated vigorously that the conservative resurgence was theological, not political; that our objective was doctrinal purity, not political control.
If this is true, the crusade phase of the conservative resurgence has passed. The stated goals have been achieved. The battle has been won. Now there are other tasks at hand. We cannot linger at the base camp of biblical authority. We are a people who not only believe the Book, we are compelled to live by the Book. Biblical concepts such as surrender, sacrifice, righteousness, and holiness must consume our hearts and minds. We must plant churches on almost every corner of every block in this nation. And we must take the gospel to the ends of the earth. This is our biblical mandate. This is our commission.
In the spring of 1990, after it was announced I would be nominated for president of the Convention, I pledged to Southern Baptists that I would enlarge the tent, lengthen the cords, and strengthen the stakes, those same words stated in Isaiah 54:2.
My promise was to all Southern Baptists who believe in the absolute authority of God's Word. Then as now, there were those who rejected biblical fidelity and have excluded themselves from the historic convictions of Southern Baptists. They have excluded themselves from the pledge I made.
While each SBC president has conscientiously sought out Southern Baptists who had never served as a trustee of an SBC entity or on a committee of the Convention, we have never executed to the fullest extent that promise to "enlarge the tents, lengthen the cords, and strengthen the stakes." Why is it important to this day? It is because the Convention is a convention of churches and their members. There is no hierarchy. You who attend the Convention as messengers are the authoritative and final word in Convention business. That is our theology. That is our ecclesiology. That is our polity. Therefore … it is to be our practice.
There are thousands of our people, young and old, just like ourselves who need to be enlisted and encouraged to see that this old ship Zion is still an effective witness for our Lord. She's still afloat. She's still seaworthy. She may be in need of a tune-up. She may be in need of paint and polish. But she's still strong and sails the seas with grace. Cooperating conservatives believe our Convention is at its best only when rank-and-file Southern Baptists are pulling together and on the move. And we need every possible person who loves our Lord Jesus Christ and believes He died for the church to hear and heed the call of God to go to the ends of the earth, empowered by His Holy Spirit.
It is imperative that our Convention return to some sense of normalcy in the operation of the Convention. May I suggest one way to begin the process? Southern Baptists now agree that our trustees should be inerrantists. We believe they should embrace the Baptist Faith and Message (there is only one, you know … the last one). Most believe that trustees and their churches should be faithful in giving a significant amount through the Cooperative Program. We believe our trustees should have a heart for lost souls and be affiliated with churches that evangelize at home and support missions around the globe. And finally, but most importantly, our trustees should be people who have a close daily walk with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Anyone with these characteristics of devotion to the Lord, His church, and our Convention qualifies to serve Southern Baptists in these positions. We should elect trustees who attend trustee meetings with the freedom of conscience to pray about decisions facing that board, and voting accordingly. We cannot allow this Convention to be driven by politics. It must be driven by passion for our Lord Jesus Christ and for the unsaved and compassion for those who are persecuted for Christ's sake around the world.
In a practiced democracy, politics — the art of influence — is always an ingredient. But the passion of a trustee should be born from deep within — from an encounter with the Living Christ — and then he is free to enthusiastically persuade others of the burden God has laid upon his heart. This is how it should be in the church, the association, the state convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention. This Convention deserves to be led by trustees who listen to God's Spirit on the way to making decisions, not trustees who are susceptible to political agendas. Politics for the sake of control by a few is not how our forefathers envisioned the operations of our Convention. But I must warn you. Politics do not die easily. Do you know why? It is because the death of politics in a spiritual environment only comes after we die to self.
The conservative resurgence would not have been successful had it not been for rank-and-file Southern Baptists. Our Convention needs the help of the rank-and-file more than ever. Our Convention needs your participation. Our Convention needs your wisdom. Our Convention needs your leadership. Our Convention needs young men and women to engage in the work and witness of this Convention. We need churches to be planted at breakneck speed. The hour is late. Let us encourage each other. Never has there been a greater need or a greater urgency.
God has enabled us to be victorious in returning to the faith of our fathers. Now He wants to empower us for His Kingdom on earth. The question looms before us, "Are we as willing to be empowered for His glory as we were willing to be enabled to declare His Word to be the perfect written revelation of God?"
Cooperating conservatives are a convictional people, they are a cooperating people, and they are a people of character.
No admonition is more useful to those of us who highly value sound doctrine than "practice what you preach." For cooperating conservatives, believing must be accompanied by ethical living; orthodoxy (right doctrine) must lead to orthopraxy (right practice).
The example of lifeless orthodoxy parading as true faith is found in the Pharisees of Jesus' day. How ironic that these defenders of supernaturalism – the miracles, angels, and the resurrection of the dead, all the right beliefs — were out of touch with the Kingdom of God. The Pharisees had the right doctrines but the wrong measures, the wrong motives, and the wrong means. They measured their righteousness by their rule keeping and their affiliations. They were motivated by selfishness and ambition. They believed the end justified the means. Thus, they employed subterfuge, slander, false witnesses, and murder conspiracies to get rid of Jesus. They congratulated themselves and despised everyone else. They intimidated all who dared to oppose them, threatening them with a first century form of excommunication. But in the end, they missed God and all who followed them, missed God. They had the vocabulary of the people of God, but they did not have the character of the people of God.
Jesus' rebuke of the Pharisees is a lesson for us. Simply holding the right doctrinal beliefs doesn't mean that our behavior is righteous. Christianity should be known not only by its biblical convictions, but also by the life and testimony these convictions inspire. A zeal for the Bible should result in a zeal for "living" for Christ, i.e., treating others with dignity, telling the truth, and insisting upon one's own integrity. A mistake of some fundamentalist movements in the past has been the belief of the adherents that to be right with doctrine is to be right with the Lord. True righteousness was too easily discarded in favor of a type of dogmatism that was stifling and demoralizing to other Christians. In other words, right doctrine was equated to righteous living. They are not one and the same.
Contemporary shibboleths are employed to exclude people. It is the sin of Pharisaism when good people, whose theology and ministry are above reproach, are slandered, discredited, or ostracized simply because they refuse to blindly follow particular political posturing. Innuendos, unfounded rumors, sly winks and nods are as deadly as an assassin's bullet and usually as ungodly.
Could Southern Baptists fall into the error of Pharisaism? Could we ever, while priding ourselves on orthodox beliefs, be out of fellowship with the Living God and the true saints of God? The threat is real. I am concerned, now that we have affirmed by vigorous endeavor that Southern Baptists are people of the Book, that we will develop a censorious, exclusivistic, intolerant spirit. If this occurs, we will be the poorer for it. It will not only result in narrower participation in denominational life, a shallower pool of wisdom and giftedness in our enterprises, and a shrinking impact upon the world, but we will be in the unenviable position of being right on doctrine but wrong with God.
Nowhere on earth, more than among God's people who are saved by the blood of the Lamb, should we find in plentiful supply the endearing qualities of honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness. We can know the Bible and believe in its authority, but what good is it if we do not "walk in the Spirit." Listen to the Psalmist in the twenty-sixth Psalm,
I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,
Test me, O Lord, and try me,
Examine my heart and my mind;
For your love is ever before me,
And I walk continually in your truth.
Psalm 26:1b-3 NIV
God empower us to build His Kingdom upon the earth. God empower us to build our families on the Solid Rock. God empower us to die to self for Jesus' sake. God empower us to be so changed in our daily walk with Christ that the world around us cannot help but know that we know Him.