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The Conservative Resurgence, Convention Bureaucracy, and the Renewal of Southern Baptist Churches

In commenting on the SBC Controversy, Timothy George once quipped that the replacement of one bureaucracy with another bureaucracy does not a reformation make. Others have echoed George's sentiment, most noticeably Nashville pastor and conservative historian Jerry Sutton. I used to as well,but lately I have wandered a bit from my earlier interpretation of the Conservative Resurgence on this particular point. It is not often that I disagree with Timothy George, and on this issue I want to affirm his general sentiment but cast the matter a bit differently. The replacement of one bureaucracy with another is exactly what the Conservative Resurgence was intended to accomplish. But it does not a reformation make. Which is one reason we find ourselves at something of a crossroads as a convention.

When we talk about the Conservative Resurgence, especially those of us who are post-Controversy conservatives, we sometimes claim that our convention agencies and board have been fixed, but our churches still need renewal. Or, to quote one megachurch pastor who spoke at Southeastern's chapel a few years back, "the battle for the inerrancy of Scripture has been won, but the battle for the sufficiency of Scripture has just begun." I think what he means is that the bureaucracy has been rescued, but the churches are still in need of reform. And I agree with him 100%. But first we need to decide just what exactly the Controversy was really all about.

First, we need to recognize that the Conservative Resurgence was never about reforming the churches of the SBC. Far from it. The Conservative Resurgence was about a small group of pastors and others who believed that their churches were already in pretty good shape. Their pulpits were occupied by inerrantists. Their congregations were evangelistic. Their cultural convictions were conservative. And these men were convinced that the vast majority of SBC churches were more like them than they were like the progressives who taught at the seminaries and served as agency heads. So they convinced other conservatives, most of whom were connected with conservative churches, to go to the SBC and vote for presidential candidates who would undermine the progressive bureaucracy that had dominated convention leadership for the better part of half a century. The Resurgence was not about reforming SBC churches, but rather was about folks from conservative churches replacing progressive convention leadership so that the churches would not need renewal at some future date. They obviously succeeded, at least in the immediate goal of changing the character of convention leadership.

Second, this means that the Conservative Resurgence was precisely about replacing one bureacracy with another. It was not about renewing churches, but making sure that theological conservatives were teaching future ministers, training future missionaries, administering Cooperative Program funds, and accurately representing the moral convictions of most Southern Baptists in the public square. The Resurgence was not revival, and it was not intended to be. The resurgence was bureaucratic restructuring.

Third, it is good that the Conservative Resurgence was not about reforming churches. You see, if the Resurgence was about church renewal, then it would have represented an abdication of historic Baptist polity. We are not a "top-down" denomination. The highest spiritual authority on earth is a local church that is self-consciously submitting itself to the lordship and leadership of Christ. For the Resurgence to change churches for good or ill would have meant taking the "Baptist" out of Southern Baptists. The Resurgence was the churches sticking it to the man.

The Conservative Resurgence was a resounding success because it effectively replaced one bureaucracy with another bureaucracy. But Dr. George is right that this leadership overhaul does not a reformation make. At very best, the Conservative Resurgence created an atmosphere where we can begin to ask some hard questions about what it is going to take to see spiritual renewal among the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. Which goes a long way toward explaining why the SBC is currently embroiled in so much controversy among theological conservatives.

Notice the things that Southern Baptists are not fighting about. We are not fighting about the historicity of some biblical miracles. We are not fighting about the need for non-Christians to consciously place their faith in Christ in order to be saved. We are not fighting about the ordination of homosexuals. We are not fighting about whether or not God knows all future events. Unfortunately, progressive Baptists are not fighting about all of these issues either. But for different reasons. Which is why we needed a Conservative Resurgence.

Now think about the stuff we are fighting about. We fight about baptism. We fight about the Lord's Supper. We fight about miraculous gifts. We fight about church discpline. We fight about elders. We fight about Calvinism. We fight about worship styles. Most of those things are not issues that progressives even care about, let alone fight about. They are too busy debating whether or not they should allow unrepentant homosexuals to join their churches and whether "those who have never heard" will be saved.

So, back to the part about renewing our churches. One of the problems in the SBC is that the churches felt that it was the bureaucracy that needed renewal, not the majority of Baptist congregations. And let me say loud and clear that if the choice is between even the most problematic of conservative churches and the pre-1988 faculty of Southeastern Seminary, I'm with the First Baptist Church of Carnal every time. But it is definitely a choice between the lesser of two evils, and I would much rather their be no evils in the equation.

The first thing We need to do is admit that many of our churches are in need of renewal. Maybe even most of our churches. We have confused the gospel with responses to the gospel. We have replaced evangelism with salesmanship and gimmicks. We have cheapened worship by making it a matter of preference. We have traded a robust Baptist theology for a lowest-common-denominator commitment to inerrancy and immersion. Well, sometimes immersion. We have rejected prophets in favor of pretty-boys, we have exchanged expositors for life coaches, we have confused pastoral care with syrupy self-help. We are a mess, and I find it highly unlikely that the solution to our problems will be found in glitzy programs, catchy slogans, or even more baptisms, especially if so many of the latter continue to be preschoolers and recovering Methodists.

Ironically, many of those issues we bicker about are intended to offer the hope of renewal, whether it is practicing miraculous gifts, embracing Reformed soteriology, rediscovering our Baptist (or for some, Anabaptist) roots, or preferring a particular style of worship. And maybe some of these things can contribute to the renewing of Southern Baptist churches. You never know.

This much I do know–the SBC, by which I mean the churches of the SBC, will not experience authentic renewal until we are willing to confess that we need renewal. The first step in that process is admitting that the Conservative Resurgence is over. It was over by the mid 1990's. But the Resurgence was only the first step, the initial impetus to get Southern Baptists to the place we now find ourselves: a convention of conservative local churches wrestling with the implications of the gospel that is the central story line of our inerrant Bibles. It is my prayer that this wrestling will result in genuine spiritual renewal among the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. Because the replacement of one bureaucracy with another bureaucracy does not a reformation make.