For Unity’s Sake, Southern Baptists Separate from World Alliance
by Russell D. Moore
A friend of mine likes to describe the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) controversy to outsiders by comparing the BWA’s international alliance of Baptists to the United Nations. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is like the United States: the biggest financial contributor and also the object of scorn and derision by the leadership of the organization. The BWA leadership is like the UN Security Council: hamstrung by the boutique liberalism of bureaucrats from Western Europe. And the BWA statements are somewhat like a UN Security Council resolution: endlessly debated within but with virtually no effect on the outside world.
Unlike the USA, however, the SBC has decided it can live without its United Nations.
After years of protesting the liberal leadership and anti-American hostility of the BWA, the SBC Executive Committee voted this February to recommend withdrawal from the global ecumenical organization. This June, the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination is virtually certain to sever ties with the BWA.
Critics of the SBC see this as another move toward separatism springing from what they call the “fundamentalist takeover” of the denomination. While many factors are at work in the split, the conflict can be seen essentially as a divergence of visions about both the boundaries of Baptist identity and the purpose of ecumenical cooperation. On both, the Baptist division mirrors similar divides in other Christian communions.
When it comes to the question of Baptist identity, the BWA flap is an international continuation of the late twentieth-century controversy between the SBC’s right and left flanks, a controversy the conservatives ultimately won. Southern Baptist “moderates” and liberals held that Baptist identity is to be found in denominational distinctives: for example, religious liberty, priesthood of believers, believer baptism. For conservatives, these denominational distinctives are set in a larger context, one of confessional fidelity to biblical authority and Christian orthodoxy. The Southern Baptist left—like its counterpart in the BWA leadership—finds unity in a “family identity” among Baptists while celebrating “liberty” on matters like biblical authority and the uniqueness of Jesus.
Hence, the controversy for Southern Baptists over the BWA’s recent acceptance into membership of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), a shadow denomination of former SBC liberals and moderates. The CBF celebrates its lack of confessional boundaries and is unified around two shared points of commonality: nostalgia for 1970s-era SBC pragmatism and rejection of biblical inerrancy. As a result, the group’s seminaries and divinity schools—Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and McAfee Divinity School in Georgia, for example—have become hothouses for religious pluralism, feminist God-language, and historical-critical biblical revisionism. The confessional confusion of the CBF is seen in recent debates over homosexuality, with an older constituency rejecting homosexual ordination and same-sex marriage (but with no theological reason to do so) and a younger constituency pushing for gay liberation.
Despite the guidelines for denominational membership in the BWA’s constitution—requiring each member to have a confession of faith and an independent membership—the BWA accepted this body, which eschews any confession of faith and exists parasitically off the churches of the SBC, counting as an affiliated church any congregation that has at least one member forwarding at least one dollar to the CBF. The membership of the CBF in the BWA was seen by many Southern Baptists as yet another indication that the global body is more interested in the theological fads of Baptist liberalism than in representing the concerns of Baptists around the world.
But, as in the Anglican Communion, the “progressives” in the BWA made clear to SBC conservatives that they believed heresy preferable to schism. BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz appealed to the unity of the church, prayed for by Jesus in John 17, as a reason for Southern Baptists to remain in the organization. Others accused Southern Baptists of “isolationism” and “separatism” as motives for their withdrawal from the BWA. Ironically, however, the conservative-led SBC is far more engaged with non-Southern Baptists than the denomination was when it was led by the moderates. Indeed, the Baptist left has indicted Southern Baptist conservatives for cooperating with other Evangelicals on causes such as Bible translation, world missions, and advocacy for pro-life, pro-family causes.
It is here that the different visions of ecumenical cooperation come most clearly into view. Southern Baptists are motivated by a theological understanding of the church’s role in fulfillment of the Great Commission. They are not interested in the kind of institutionalized ecumenism hoped for by twentieth-century mainline Protestantism. Mention world evangelization, the feeding of the poor, or protection for the elderly and the unborn, and Southern Baptists are quick to partner with other like-minded Christians. Mention setting up an office for “dialogue,” and you will find that Southern Baptists have already left the building.
The SBC’s withdrawal from the BWA is actually not likely to lead to isolationism or separatism, but to renewed efforts at global cooperation. As with the Anglicans and other groups, the churches of the Third World and Eastern Europe are the most confessionally robust and biblically conservative. Liberal Baptists don’t tend to flourish under threat of crucifixion in Sudan. And, like the Anglicans, these confessional churches are the most marginalized by North American and Western European ecumenical bureaucrats.
Confessional Baptists across the world are longing for cooperation with theologically likeminded Christians against the twin pressures of Western secularism and Islamic extremism. They will likely find such cooperation from Southern Baptists. The SBC leadership has pledged to seek to maintain a global witness with other like-minded Christians. The BWA withdrawal, therefore, will be accompanied by a push toward forming such alliances across the planet.
In the meantime, Southern Baptists have decided that when the Lord Jesus prayed “that they all may be one” in John 17, the BWA is not exactly what he had in view.
Russell D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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