Friday, June 15, 2007

The Castle and the Wall, Revisited

The 2007 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting in San Antonio, Texas, has now ended.

When the last SBC annual meeting held in San Antonio ended in 1988, I took the long ride back to South Georgia thinking that the only bright spot in the meeting had been the convention sermon that was preached by Dr. Joel Gregory. The title of the sermon, which is perhaps one of the most famous sermons in the history of SBC annual meetings, was entitled “The Castle and the Wall.” I remember praying, as I sat in the convention center listening to the sermon, that the 32,000 messengers in attendance, who were split right down the middle on the controversial issues of the day, would heed the wise words of that good preacher. But I also remember thinking, because of what we had experienced in the ten years leading up to that San Antonio meeting, that our hearts were too hard and our feelings too hurt and our minds too made up for his words to have any real impact.

I was, I am sad to say but as everyone involved now knows, right. We had become a convention dominated by people who could, with a straight face and apparently without a twinge of conscience, shout “Amen” and warmly applaud words that called us to reconciliation and love while having absolutely no intention of heeding those words.

The sermon was nonetheless a powerful call for us to deal with our theological controversies with hearts and words that befit Christian brothers and sisters. It offered a powerful reminder that our public vilification of one another was doing tremendous harm to our Christian witness. It called us to consider the possibility that in the effort to construct a wall of orthodoxy around the convention we might be building a wall but tearing down the castle.

We didn’t listen. It was too late; the battle had become a winner take all contest and it had become clear who the winner was going to be. Still, the castle was not torn down. The institutions underwent significant change; whether that change was for the better or for the worse depends on which side you were on. But the institutions continued. Because of the changes that came about in those institutions, other institutions with a more moderate bent were birthed.

The wall of orthodoxy was indeed constructed. The Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) took on a more creedal character and then was rewritten in 2000 to under gird the now fundamentalist perspective of SBC leadership. Seminary professors were forced to move on or saw the handwriting on the wall and found other places of service. International Mission Board missionaries lost their jobs because they would not sign the new BFM. But, as SBC loyalists are now finding, building a wall of orthodoxy is a lot like that old potato chip slogan: “no one can eat just one.” One wall is not enough. The SBC built a wall called “biblical inerrancy.” Then they built one called “no female pastors.” Now some want to build one called “no private prayer language” or “no Calvinism” or “more Calvinism.”

Here’s the thing, though: each new wall gets built inside the previous wall, so the boundaries of the SBC just keep getting narrower and narrower.

In an article that appeared on June 13 at, Dr. Gregory reflected on his sermon.
Forty years old and still believing that 80 percent of Southern Baptists might come together, I hoped to sound a note of reconciliation. What I did not know then was the Nietzschean will-to-power of the fundamentalists. Having known Baptists of a more genteel character, I did not credit the juggernaut its actual motivation.
They were indeed intent on building that wall. Some of them are intent on building other walls. And that, I fear, will be the way of life in the SBC for years and maybe even generations to come.

Wall-builders do not like for the walls to be challenged. In an op-ed piece written for Baptist Press (BP), the official news agency of the SBC, Douglas E. Baker reflected upon the 1988 convention in general and upon Gregory’s sermon in particular. Then he said,
Much has changed since that noon hour 19 years ago in the Alamo City when words calmed the vast torrents of theological warfare. … The irony: The denomination seems to be still at war.
The very identity of the Southern Baptist Convention still stands in question for many. New frontiers of ministry in the postmodern age are demanding a re-evaluation of long-standing Southern Baptist programs, and the overall impression that seismic shifts are at work beneath the feet of the denomination have many worried that the way forward might be hidden in plain sight.
Some predict the inevitable loss of the denomination, and if history is a guide, they are correct. The effects of the Fall seldom enable people—even Christians—to work well together for very long. Pride rears its ugly head and personal agendas quickly choke the life out of good efforts and sanctified innovation.
Yet, this could be the Southern Baptist Convention's finest hour if, by the sheer force of God's grace, men of God will rise to remember the heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention and those who gave their lives to establish her in 1845.... Perhaps ... a study of the Baptist past might enable the pastors of the present to press toward the goal of future ministry armed with history's warning that if great humility and prayer do not mark all who perform ministry in the name of Christ, the wall of human arrogance will replace the castle of Christian theology.

It seems to me that the continual building of walls is motivated by fear. For evidence that SBC leadership is still motivated by fear, know this: Baker’s excellent piece was posted on the BP website for only twenty-four hours before it was taken down. That’s not surprising, because frightened wall-builders do not do well with challenge or with truth. But you can still read the BP version here and thankfully a slightly modified version is available on Christianity Today’s website—they have no motivation to take it down!

I’m thankful that Dr. Gregory tried all those years ago. I’m thankful that there are still Baptists who try. I hope that more and more of us will become more and more interested in doing ministry in Jesus’ name and less and less interested in putting up walls to keep the world—and other Christians who don’t say it just like we do—out.


Wade Burleson said...

Very well said.

Thanks for saying it in a forum for all of us to read.

Anonymous said...

Understanding how slowly the pendalum swings, I saw the writing on the wall and decided that it was more important to get on with the King's Business than to struggle with the the Wall.

I removed myself from the denomination and am attending a church that focuses on Kingdom Building instead of Wall building.

I'm enjoying the fresh air.

Don Yancey said...

As a "recovering Southern Baptist" who is now Presbyterian, I have two distinct reactions to the wall building that continues to go on with the SBC. First, I can assure you that the pride, arrogance, and self-promotion that lead to this insidious activity are more than minimally present in virtually ALL evangelical denominations. Our human depravity is one element that binds ALL of us together across huge denominational divides! Second, I still grieve for the SBC as I witness the dismantling of many years of diligent work and ministry by a vast variety of Southern Baptists from all across the country. When simple trust was abandoned in favor of litmus tests of every description and the never-ending "shiboleths" of self-appointed Christian mullahs, the work of the Kingdom done by God's people suffers immensely. "What's in it for me?" has become a cancer that eats up churches, associations, and the SBC. I wonder when we'll see a modern day Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli?