Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Last Thing I'll Ever Write About Baptists (Part 2 of 3)

It was during the years I spent at Mercer that I began to gain some knowledge of and appreciation for who Baptists were and what Baptists had traditionally championed. I remember no particular lecture or conversation or book that set the process of enlightenment in motion; it must have happened to me by osmosis over the three years that I was consistently exposed to the influence of such fine Baptist scholars and churchmen as Howard Giddens, Harold McManus, and Robert Otto. All I know is that by the time I graduated from Mercer in 1978 I understood that Baptists had emerged from the English Separatist movement of the early 17th century—thus that we did not go all the way back to John the Baptist (unless one uses that name to refer to John Smyth)—and that such principles as the authority of the Bible, believer’s baptism, local church autonomy, the priesthood of believers, and separation of church and state were the time-honored convictions that stood at the heart of the Baptist identity.

Debra Johnson and I were married six days after I graduated from college in June 1978; she had a year to go at Mercer so we stayed in Macon until she graduated in August 1979. From January to August I served in a full-time temporary staff position at First Baptist Church of Macon, a congregation that understood and practiced historic Baptist principles more faithfully than any congregation of which I had to that point been a member; my eight months there served to solidify my commitment to those principles.

It never occurred to me, even as I realized that I was becoming a different kind of Baptist than I grew up being or a different kind of Baptist than those of the more fundamentalist variety, that I would not be able to work in loving cooperation with them for the sake of the cause of Christ—but it would unfortunately occur to some of them that they could not work for that cause beside me and the kind of Baptists with whom I was finding and would continue to find that I had the closest connection.

It was in June 1979 that the Conservative Resurgence in or Fundamentalist Takeover of, depending on your perspective, the Southern Baptist Convention commenced with the election of Adrian Rogers as president of the convention in Houston, Texas. Rogers’ election proved to be the first step in a successfully sustained multi-year strategy to gain and maintain control of the SBC through the slow but sure takeover of the boards of trustees of the seminaries and agencies of the convention.

I entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky in August 1979 and would spend the next seven years of my life earning two degrees from that fine institution. My entire seminary career was lived out in the shadow of the controversy that was raging in the SBC. Indeed, SBTS was one of the prime targets of the verbal and written pot-shots that were regularly being delivered by the foot soldiers of the Takeover.

In early 1980 someone issued a “hit list” of seven professors serving at various SBC seminaries who were, in the judgment of the list issuers, “liberal” and therefore unfit to be teaching at their respective institutions. As it happened I was taking classes with two of those professors, Church History with Glenn Hinson and a Greek translation course on the book of Revelation with George R. Beasley-Murray.

Dr. Hinson was not happy about being included on that list. On the first day of class after news of the list hit the Baptist news, he let a little of his anger show which was very unusual for him. It is true, I am sure, that Dr. Hinson was and is not “orthodox” enough by the standards by which the forces arrayed against him were measuring him and everybody else they had in their crosshairs but I will say here what I have said many times over the years: if the good Lord would give me a choice between being judged on my own Christian faith or that of Glenn Hinson, I’d go with Hinson’s. I have never known a more genuine Christian gentleman

Dr. Beasley-Murray, on the other hand, found the whole thing funny. On the first day of class after the list came out, he pointed out the irony of his being included on a list of “liberals.” Back home in Great Britain, he said, when a Bible Society was producing a new translation, they liked to put him on the committee as the “token fundamentalist.” One’s application of such labels depended heavily on the vantage point of the labeler, I learned.

I for my part was deeply troubled over the attacks that my school and my professors were enduring. My seminary, as well as all the Southern Baptist seminaries, eventually fell and almost all my professors left SBTS, much to my sadness.

It was during my seminary years that I had my first experience attending an SBC annual meeting—and it was the mother of all meetings that I attended, namely, the 1984 meeting in Dallas, Texas in which some 45,000 Baptist brothers and sisters gathered to fight it out in the name of the Lord. I traveled, along with many other students, on a chartered bus from Louisville to Dallas and stayed in a Dallas motel with all the arrangements having been made by the SBTS administration, although we did pay our own way.

After I became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia in the fall of 1986 I made attendance at SBC meetings and at Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) meetings a priority; indeed, I attended every SBC annual meeting from 1987-1991. Over those years, as is well documented, the Takeover forces won victory after victory until finally, by the early 1990s, they controlled every board of every SBC institution and agency.

Here nausea becomes a player in my story.

When I went to Adel, a county seat town in rural South Georgia, I admit that I wanted to shine as a “Moderate,” as my ilk had unfortunately labeled themselves in an effort to deflect the admittedly inaccurate “Liberal” moniker, Baptist; I wanted to lead the way for those who, as I did, knew the true Baptist history and heritage and who, as I did, wanted to preserve Baptist principles in the face of the encroaching darkness—and I wanted to convert those Baptists who did not see and want the things about and for Baptists that I saw and wanted.

And I tried. I really tried. I attended meetings. I voted for Moderate candidates in Baptist presidential elections. I gathered up members of the church to serve as messengers and shuttled them to several state convention meetings and to one national convention meeting—I was able to entice them with a visit to New Orleans, including a very nice dinner at Commander’s Palace and a late night stroll around the French Quarter.

Then one year in the late 1980s—and I really don’t remember which year—I agreed to serve as something like a zone chairman for a Moderate political operation in Georgia; my assignment was to identify churches and pastors that might be friendly to our cause and to contact them to encourage them to have their full allotment of messengers present at that year’s SBC meeting to help us elect the Moderate candidate.

I made two or three such phone calls and with each one my queasiness increased. I found that I was a prime illustration of the truth observed by historians of the Controversy that one reason for the success of the Takeover forces was that Moderates did not have the stomach for the fight. Finally I called the state coordinator and told him that, while I would be present at that year’s convention to vote for our candidate, I simply could not continue to serve as a political operative. It was making me sick.

The last SBC annual meeting I attended for a very long time, and I have attended only one since then, was the meeting in Atlanta in 1991. Every time I walked into the convention hall and took a seat, that nagging nausea would return; it would increase when we stood to sing some song about Christian love and fellowship. SBC meetings were making me sick. So I stopped going.

Perhaps that says about all that needs to be said about me: Moderate political activity to attempt to stem the Takeover forces made me sick and participating in the meetings run by the Takeover forces also made me sick.

I attended the meetings in Atlanta in 1990 and 1991 that led to the formation of what is now known as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). One of my regrets is that I did not return to Adel from those meetings determined to try harder to lead those good folks to go down that road; my one defense is that I believed that most of them did not want to go there and I loved the church too much to inflict such division on them.

I believed then, though, and I believe now, that any Southern Baptist congregation that is not dominated by fundamentalism and that has an appreciation for and a commitment to Baptist principles would be best served by aligning itself with the CBF or the American Baptist Churches or by becoming non-aligned.


PhilipMeade.com said...

Thanks so much for sharing with us my friend, it is always a gift to read your viewpoint. I can remember being so thrilled when you started writing your blog several years ago. I wish other Belmont profs would write.

If you have time, could you define your use of the word "fundamentalist." You use some form of that word 4 times in your post and make a rather bold statement in your last paragraph that hinges on being "dominated by fundamentalism." As I have argued elsewhere, that word has long since lost a universal definition and I believe is now most considered to be a pejorative that represents a method of uncritical thinking about the Bible and faith that always defaults to near Landmark, ultra-conservative positions. That is a far cry from the early 20th century use of the word.

My hunch is that most of your readership will give a hearty fist-pump to your use of the word in this context. I wonder if their understanding of it and yours would be the same? Or even similar?

Michael Ruffin said...

Philip, the fundamentalists who took over the SBC were...I'm not sure that all of the ones running it now, such as Frank Page, are...pretty much demagogues who stirred up the masses by using prejorative labels to name the scholars and progressives whom they despised and from whom they felt they needed to rescue the SBC. They basically corrupted the term "inerrancy" by equating it with "literal," thereby painting the kinds of profs who taught me into a corner from which they could not escape. That is, they could not with integrity affirm the phrase "inerrancy" as the Takeover folks meant it and so, being people of integrity who valued that integrity over keeping their jobs, they didn't.

Now, classic fundamentalism...that which is associated with the series of pamphlets "The Fundamentals"...is something that I have deep and abiding respect for; indeed, I would gladly affirm the vast, vast majority of what such classic fundamentalism affirms although I would likely phrase some of it differently.

You already have too much to do but I urge you, if you have not done so, to read some accounts of what happened during the Takeover. If you can get a copy, read Jerry Sutton's book--it's the "official" SBC version of what happened. But then read something like Grady Cothen's "What Happened to the SBC?" to get the Moderate angle. But above all else...get and read a copy of "The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Inerrancy" which is just that..the papers that were presented at that Ridgecrest Conference in 1987. The format is fascinating. A paper would be presented by a well-known and respected inerrantist evangelical but non-SBC scholar--people like Millard Erickson and Clark Pinnock; then, responses were offered by an identified SBC fundamentalist leader and by an identified SBC moderate leader. Look especially at the differences in approach, in scholarship, in tone, and in attitude between the non-SBC inerrantists and the SBC inerrantists and it will give you a taste of what we were dealing with then. (It's probably out of print. If you'll promise me you'll read it, I'll lend you my copy.)

So as far as the "fundamentalists" of the past 30 years in SBC life go, I mean the ones who engaged in demagoguery and in political shenanigans and in slander in order to gain control of the SBC. I am not saying that they were not legitimately conservative theologically; I am saying that their approach to things was a classic illustration of "believing the Bible" but not in the sense of "living it," which, as I know you remember from your Hebrew classes, is not real biblical "knowledge."

A current "fundamentalist" as I mean it in this particular post is someone who is comfortable with the current state of the SBC--with its politics, with its requirements for its seminary faculties (affirmation of the 2000 BFM, for example), etc. If that is the way a church is, then fine. My point is that if the makeup of a congregation is not that way, then there are better options.

One more thing on the term "fundamentalist"--as I think I remember you saying, and if so I agree with you--the "fundamentalist" mindset is basically "I'm right and you're wrong and so if you don't agree with me I won't associate with or work beside you." There are plenty of those kinds of fundamentalists among Moderate Baptists, too.

Michael Ruffin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
foxofbama said...

Good Stuff; will be passing it along.
Godbold's political bio of Jimmy Carter before his ascension to the Presidency. His days in Georgia; I think you'll like it.


PhilipMeade.com said...


Thanks for your great response. I kept getting a "your comment is too large to post" message, so I am dividing this into two parts:

1. I have indeed read Sutton's "The Baptist Reformation" as well as Pressler's "A Hill on Which to Die." The best I have read by a conservative author is Greg Will's "Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1959-2009." I think it is a fair account of the seminary and Wills is careful to acknowledge the sincerity of the more left leaning professors at SBTS as people who earnestly believed in the supernatural but felt a strong need to alter some things in order to maintain the credibility of the faith in light of a growing skepticism and the "new science" (which is the cause of Elliot's classic "The Message of Genesis). I commend Will's book to you. I have also read Shurden's "Struggle for the Soul of the SBC" which compiles moderate responses to fundamentalism. I have no doubt, and have never argued otherwise, that cruel and Godless actions and attitudes were rampant during that tumultuous time. Hearing testimonies and your own personal involvement during those years has helped soften my heart to so much hurt.

PhilipMeade.com said...

2. I think your definitions of fundamentalism are spot on and are probably worthy to be copied and pasted as s separate blog post. As you demonstrate, there are several meanings embedded in the word "fundamentalist." Probably most, if not all, of your readers (and most of my readers, etc) will default to the "I'm right, your wrong, leave me alone" aspect of the word and yet it seems, if I am reading you correctly, that you mean something a bit different in this specific article. You are suggesting that a fundamentalist is one who is comfortable with the current life of the SBC, and I think there certainly is a difference between the two. I, for example, am appreciative of the SBC and my SBC church, but hope you would agree do not fall into the "slanderous" shenanigan definition of the word (if I do, please let me know privately so I can repent!). So, if that distinction is accurate based on your post, then wouldn't you agree that this isn't limited to SBC churches? If a CBF church is unhappy with the direction of the CBF, they should move on. If a PCUSA is unhappy with the politics of their denomination, they should move on, and so forth. I guess I am trying to understand how "dominated by fundamentalism" fits with your last paragraph as I have never heard the word used as "someone who is comfortable with the current state of the SBC. . ." You appear to be saying that any church or individual that is agreeable with the SBC, the seminaries, etc is "dominated by fundamentalism." Is that a fair assessment?

Finally, if someone carefully defines a fundamentalist as one who is theologically conservative, appreciate of historical theology, in-line with the Five Fundamentals of the "Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy", and appreciative of the SBC, then I have no problem being called one. But no one defines it that way anymore which is why I think using the word in any context without defining it creates unwanted confusion and erroneous labeling.

This is fun, I hope you don't mind the dialogue. I look forward to part 3!

Michael Ruffin said...

Briefly (sermon work awaits) I think that one thing that a Southern Baptist person/church has to be comfortable with is the tendency of the SBC to continue to more and more narrowly define parameters and thus make more Moderate folks/churches feel unwelcome. I'm all for a "big tent" in Baptist life and I recognize well that if you don't some walls in the tent then it ain't even a tent anymore, but still, for something like female pastors to have become a dividing line is a bit extreme. I believe--and I may be wrong about this--that if we were in the middle of a robust economy the SBC, or maybe the state conventions, would be putting out an edict that churches that are dually aligned with SBC & CBF must make a choice and be one or the other. My point is that the sense of unbelonging may be imposed from the outside as well as felt on the inside.

One more thing for now...it's personal but perhaps it's worth considering. You know me. You know how I think. You know how I work. You may even know my heart. Would you regard me as unqualified to teach in a Southern Baptist seminary?

They would.

PhilipMeade.com said...


That is a good point to consider. I of course know your heart for the Lord, your love for students, and your academic excellence more than qualifies you in that sense. Even more than that, I would be perfectly comfortable having you preach a revival in my pulpit (and would love to make that happen). But perhaps there is more to it than that.

Let's reverse it. If you were dean of a CBF seminary, would you hire me to teach NT studies? (Assuming I finished my doctorate and all those things). You certainly know my heart as well, but my guess is that my conviction on complementarianism and the roles of women in the church would preclude me from teaching Paul in your school because, based on those convictions, I would have to teach a doctrine contrary to most moderate thinking. And, even if you did hire me because you know my heart, you would probably lose your job fairly quickly because others would not be so keen on my "fundamentalist" presence in your moderately thinking institution. Which, from my perspective, is fair and just.

Let's pretend there is a "Moderate Resurgence" in the SBC. How many current SBTS professors do you think would be left after 2 years? They would either quit or be fired, neither of which would be due to qualifications.

So, I think perhaps you or I could certainly be qualified in both head and heart, but might not be well suited or "right" for the school and their particular set of beliefs and convictions.

Michael Ruffin said...

Philip, I think you're right.

And I think it's a stinking shame.

For what it's worth, I think it used to kind of be divided by institutions. Southern and Southeastern and Midwestern were regarded as the more "left" places and Southwestern and New Orleans the more "right" with Golden Gate just kind of being in California. More Moderate students, unless they were Conservatives drawn more by geography than ideology, went to one of the first three and more Conservative ones to one of the others. And churches could seek pastors who were graduates of whatever seminary's approach they were more comfortable (although again geography sometimes played a role).

That informal system left room for all sorts of profs and students and churches to find their niche. It was imperfect, but it at least allowed for some diversity and for some room in the tent. Interestingly, once the CR began it became clear that even our most conservative leaders and scholars could not possibly be conservative enough for the Takeover folks.

Somewhere along the line before the Takeover took over, someone suggested that the SBC should divide and give the Moderates Southern and her two children and the Conservatives the other three. Some days I wish that had happened. I think we would have better chanes for rapprochement and cooperation without the glut of Moderate theological institutions that have sprung up.

PhilipMeade.com said...

You know, Mike, that may be the first time I have heard of that concept - that some of the seminaries might have been understood to be on the moderate side and others on the conservative side so that churches knew what they were getting.

That sounds so simple, but so brilliant. You have given me something to ponder, but I think on initial reflection of that idea, I would be in favor of such a system as opposed to the painful reality of losing churches, pastors, and professors.

Thanks for sharing that.