In 1982, James Leo Garrett and E. Glenn Hinson debated the relationship between Southern Baptists and evangelicals. At the time of the debate, the SBC was embroiled in bitter controversy over the nature of the Bible. Luminaries in the evangelical movement – men like Francis Schaeffer, Harold Lindsell, and Carl Henry – were offering crucial support to conservatives in the SBC who were fighting for the inerrantist cause. Seeing that the convention was adrift, many Southern Baptists looked outside the SBC for energy and support in the “battle for the Bible.”
In the Garrett/Hinson debate over Southern Baptist identity, it’s not surprising that Hinson, a moderate Baptist scholar at Southern Seminary, would argue forcefully against linking Southern Baptists with the evangelical movement. According to Hinson, evangelicalism was a northern phenomenon that resembled fundamentalism more than mainline Protestantism. Garrett, on the other hand, saw Southern Baptists largely as evangelicals, albeit evangelicals with a Southern Baptist denominational identity.
Thirty years later, the situation is reversed. The neo-evangelical consensus is breaking down. A series of recent earthquakes over theology and ethics, Scripture and the gospel, have revealed fault lines that challenge the ability for evangelicalism to exist as a cohesive movement of like-minded Christians. When Phyllis Tickle can label Brian McLaren a “modern-day Luther” and still consider herself (and Brian) to be evangelical, it is clear that the word “evangelical” no longer means what it used to.
Evangelicals are facing an identity crisis, and even if most members in evangelical churches have not yet felt the aftershocks, many are already aware that the ground is shifting. Churches built more on pragmatic philosophy than biblical theology and confessional identity will soon be faced with significant challenges. As the earthquakes increase and the fault lines become more apparent, it is possible that a tidal wave of cultural capitulation will carry off a good number of institutions and churches that have historically flown under the “evangelical” banner.
Sensing the coming tsunami, many evangelicals have begun to rally with like-minded Christians in order to bolster their defense against the rising tide. Coalitions have formed. Church-planting movements are on the rise. New denominations have begun. Several publishers are reconsidering their role in the fast-changing landscape of evangelicalism. And of course, there is the Southern Baptist Convention, which represents a staggeringly large number of churches that are doctrinally conservative.
Thirty years ago, Southern Baptists needed help from evangelicals. Today, evangelicals need help from Southern Baptists. This is the time for Southern Baptist leaders to extend the hand of fellowship to like-minded evangelicals, to strengthen the growing number of coalitions, encourage gospel-proclaiming denominations, and cheer on various church-planting movements. Conservative evangelicals need strength and support in their efforts to reclaim the center of evangelical identity.
Unfortunately, some Southern Baptists feel threatened by what this sort of evangelical networking might mean for the future of the Convention. There are some who feel that the purity of Southern Baptist identity will be polluted if we join coalitions or encourage other networks. Instead of extending the hand of fellowship to like-minded evangelicals, we should pull up the drawbridge, hunker down on our hill, and refuse temporary shelter for the evangelical homeless. After all, new partnerships and networks may allow foreign methods and practices (not to mention unorthodox theological convictions) to seep into Southern Baptist churches.
At the heart of this discussion about the SBC is the question: What is the center of Southern Baptist identity? Many point to the Baptist Faith & Message as the confessional consensus that determines our cooperation within denominational boundaries. Others point to a number of traditional Southern Baptist markers of loyalty: giving to the Cooperative Program, style of preaching, or church practices, revival services, involvement at the association and state levels, etc.
Those who emphasize markers of loyalty rather than our common confession adopt a posture of being Southern Baptist over against other evangelicals. “This is who we are. Those outside our denomination are not like us. Therefore, Southern Baptists who network with others are suspect. Their Baptist credentials are called into question.”
On the other hand, those who emphasize our common confession adopt a posture of being Southern Baptist on behalf of other evangelicals. As the tidal wave looms over the horizon, the Baptist Faith and Message is a bulwark of confessional, biblical identity that unites Southern Baptists.
There are evangelicals who do not subscribe to our confessional distinctives and therefore cannot be part of the Convention. But if we as Southern Baptists are right on the gospel, then we should be free to strengthen others who are also right on the gospel. Evangelicalism needs a resurgence of attention on the evangel. Confessional Southern Baptists can and should play a key role in that discussion.
Now is not the time to water down our Baptist distinctives, seek unity at the level of ecclesiology, and pretend that all evangelicals are the same. Allies in WWII did not give up their sovereignty or their countries’ distinctive traits. But neither did they treat each other as opponents. They built bridges in order to see freedom advanced beyond their countries’ borders. Likewise, this is the time for Southern Baptists to maintain the bridges, not tear them down. We stand with evangelical allies. We are in a position to do for evangelicals what evangelicals once did for Southern Baptists.
So let’s be convictional, confessional Southern Baptists with a heart to get the gospel to our neighbors and to the nations. Now is not the time to close our fists and cast aspersion on Baptists willing to stand with those outside our denominational borders. The situation is too dire for infighting and turf wars. Let’s be Southern Baptist – not against other evangelicals, but for the good of evangelicals.
For additional thoughts along these lines, I highly recommend David Dockery’s introductory essay in the recently-released Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism.