In 1925, a loose organization of churches came together to find a way to establish stable support for their collective efforts. What was born from the experience is now called the Cooperative Program. It's grown to be the funding basis for over $300 million in annual support for mission work, higher education, political activism, and coordination.
The difficulty has become this: where money goes, power and controversy follow. The truth seems to be that there is rarely enough money to go around. I remember the first year the IMB went over a $200 million budget, and it was wonderful! Then, it became not much, and has since become far too low. Same thing with the budgets of seminaries and the North American Mission Board.
As such, we've had our share of fighting and disputing over the years about how to prioritize and spend the money. We've had plenty of moments where we've not been pleased with how the decisions were being made. It has extended, at times, to disputes with the people involved. Sometimes this has been because the people have been the wrong people in the wrong place, but sometimes it's just been that we have not been willing to allow people to hold different priorities or different ideas.
This has not been good for us as Southern Baptists. I think we have, over the last 50 years especially, but probably longer, probably all the way back to the turn of the 20th Century and the battles with Landmarkism and Norrisism, become a fighting people. Not just a people that fights for things, but just people that fight. It's one thing to fight for something. We should fight for the truth of God's Word. We should fight for providing care for widows, orphans, and the weak. We should fight against evil things and evil people. We have struggled to do these things.
Yet we have also sometimes behaved like an army without an enemy. We've institutionalized our willingness to fight so much that, even if we don't have a valid reason to fight, we need to do it. We won the “Battle for the Bible” but then we had to pick a fight over specific interpretations of the Bible. An example would be our absolute insistence that women not teach men to the point that we, as Southern Baptists, have fired women from teaching Biblical languages in seminary. Which is odd, since the Scriptures don't speak to seminary qualifications. We've added to the idea that deacons not be given to much wine, but subtracted from being the husband of one wife.
Meanwhile, the fighting has become endemic to Southern Baptist churches. We not only fight between boards and agencies but between churches. We fight within churches, between staff members and pastors, deacons and pastors, pastors and congregations, Sunday School classes! We fight between this committee and that committee, this interest and that interest.
And I think we're tired. Collectively, as Southern Baptists, we've exhausted ourselves in battle. It would be one thing if all the battling was necessary, but much of it isn't. It's just not. We're fighting over hills of beans rather than expanding the Kingdom. We're stressed about whether we should spend money on children's ministry or youth ministry, when we could accomplish both if we would put our time into it. We fight over music style in church rather than be willing to spend enough time in church to sing more than one style! We fight over whether God is regenerating people to hear us preach the Gospel or whether they're regenerated by hearing us preach it. We fight over whether we get to miss persecution at the end or if we'll have to have some. We fight over carpet colors and paint schemes, over who manages what.
These fights have sapped our energy, our enthusiasm. We've won a spiritual war within our denomination/convention only to come out almost spiritually shell-shocked. The Civil War veterans referred to it as having “seen the elephant” and how that changed them. We now either pull-back from any controversy or just roll up our sleeves and brazen it out.
The solution is this: we have to simplify what we are and what we do. In churches and in our denomination. We are not reaching a lost world because we spend too much time and energy sustaining and fighting over peripherals.
Think about it. We fought the “Battle for the Bible” over what was being taught (or perceived that was being taught) in 6 seminaries. Yet there were, and are, seminaries that have no hint of liberalism about them. Well, now that Mid-America Baptist Seminary has rescinded the mandatory necktie policy, I'm sure they're doomed, but there are others. Why did we have to fight over those 6? Money. Why continue? Why not allow these schools to be independent, and then evaluate people rather than degree sources? You almost need a field guide to the SBC 6 these days. One that says “SEBTS: 1975-1982, liberal; 1982-1994, moderate; 1994-2002, Patterson/Baptist Identity; 2002-2010, nearly Calvinist.” That's almost what happens anyway, yet a graduate in any of those years may or may not fit the pigeon hole we stuff them into! (By the way, those are mostly made up. I'm a blogger, not a researcher!)
We fight over whether our missionaries have “prayed in tongues.” Now, personally, I don't see that anywhere in the Bible. Yet for people that meet in church buildings, drive cars, and operate mission boards and denominations to insist against something simply because it's not chapter and verse obvious seems disingenuous. Besides, IMB missionaries are supposed to be leading people to Jesus, and I don't know of any way in which “praying in tongues” privately would hamper that. Yet it became an issue, because we had people that needed to prove they were doing something. Why not consider returning to a simpler format of missionary support? Establish a budget based on CP receipts, elect the actual IMB (we now call them the Trustees of the IMB, but they once were the Board and we recognized that) into regionalized groups. Then, Southern Baptist Church members would apply, their applications considered directly by the Board, and then be trusted to honor the terms of their sending. Every 4 years, bring them home, have them report to their regional board group, and then let them rest and inform churches of the work. Employ a small staff to provide support functions. Contract out to professionals what can be contracted: why do we need our own travel agency? Our own health insurance?
We determined that we couldn't have women in certain church roles, and now find ourselves short of chaplains for women's prisons, because we've equated chaplains and pastors, while Scripture does no such thing. We can't decide who should plant churches, because, while churches should, churches often don't, so we need someone to overrule the lethargy. Yet, are we behaving rightly? We continue to fight over who gets to be in charge of what.
We fight over who leads individual churches, over how they lead them, how often we vote, and a myriad of other things. It's no wonder that people are losing interest, going to “new” churches that are 99.44% Baptist in all but name. We lose them from our churches, we lose strength as a group,and we will continue to suffer for it. Younger pastors consider leaving or leading churches out to non-aligned status. Older pastors consider leading churches toward Missionary Baptist groups or others.
We're going to find ourselves rulers of wastelands before much longer. Is this what we want? There are certain things that are essential to being Baptists. I'd argue these are:
Salvation by grace alone
Security of the believer
Sufficiency of Inerrant Scripture (no mixture of error)
Immersion of believers as a testimony
Priesthood of believers
Necessity of evangelism
Would you believe that's it? Many fights will be fought under #3, because we won't allow people #6, that God, by His Spirit, can help individuals understand the Word without Nashville, Louisville, Fort Worth, or Atlanta getting involved. If the interpretations get too varied, that's reason for other fellowships, but are we not far too involved in things beyond this? What is it to us if a church is primarily elder-directed instead of congregational? If a church applies titles to women as well as men? If a pastor sees grace as resistible or irresistible? If he still preaches the Gospel, what difference does it make?
Yes, I'm being simplistic. Yes, there are complicated issues at heart here, but let's quit over-complicating them. Let's also quit trying to look more than two “what-ifs” down the line, and deal with the right nows.
Otherwise, we'll go the way many other great and powerful religious movements over the years and be relegated to the history books.