Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Will a potential schism in the Southern Baptist Convention have broader implications?

Since the Republicans have successfully merged religion and politics in their Party, and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) remain the single largest Protestant denomination in the US and one aligned politically with the Republican Party, intra-denominational politics could easily spill over into electoral politics.

The recent annual meeting of the SBC in New Orleans produced a strange decision about the denomination's name, as reported by Erin Roach for the SBC's Baptist Press, 'Great Commission' descriptor approved by messengers 06/19/2012:

The descriptor "Great Commission Baptists" was approved by messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention by a vote of 53 percent to 46 percent after nearly a half-hour debate June 19 at the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans.

According to results announced Wednesday morning, 4,824 ballots were cast, 2,546 were in favor of the descriptor and 2,232 were not in favor of the descriptor. Forty-six ballots were disallowed. At the time of the vote, 7,831 messengers were registered.

The measure survived some parliamentary maneuvering as a messenger called for tabling the discussion indefinitely and another asked that the convention not consider the issue at all.

Messengers approved the recommendation from the SBC Executive Committee that "those churches, entities and organizations in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention" which desire to use a descriptor other than "Southern Baptists" to indicate their involvement in the convention consider using Great Commission Baptists.

The phrase, messengers agreed, is commended "as one fully in keeping with our Southern Baptist Convention identity."

The legal name of the convention will remain "Southern Baptist Convention."
That sort of mealy-mouthing is unfortunately very typical of SBC ecclesiastical politics, i.e., we changed the name of the denomination, kinda-sorta. Part of the weird ambiguity of the decision has to do with the nominal tradition of local church autonomy in the SBC. In theory, and in legal structure, each church is self-governing. Pastors are not assigned on a central basis as with the Catholic, Episcopal or United Methodist churches. But the denomination enforces a fairly strict level of doctrinal conformity. Any local church that decides, for instance, to hire a female minister is quickly cut off from denominational resources, such as teaching materials.

Every denomination does some version of this, of course. The "brand" wouldn't mean anything if there were no conformity to the agreed consensus that defines it. It's just that in the SBC, this takes place in the context of that local autonomy tradition.

There are rumblings of yet another schism in the SBC. Given the mealy-mouthing factor, it's something of a challenge to tell what it's actually about. But the nominal concern is something called "New Calvinism". This Christian Post article by Lillian Kwon discusses one of the skirmishes, Group of Southern Baptists signs statement rejecting Calvinism 06/08/2012. We've had occasion to discuss this at this blog before, e.g., Calvinism and American conservatism 07/08/2010, which talks about my suspicion that the dour Jean Calvin's (1509-1564) to some Baptists has to do with his theory and practice of theocracy. There I quoted Burke Gerstenschlager's observation, "So comprehensive and extensive is Calvin's concept of predestined government, it effectively invalidates the concept of the Separation of Church and State before it is even introduced!"

So far as I'm aware, though, this aspect of the New Calvinism debate hasn't been put in the foreground by the partisans on either side in the SBC. (To the extent you can tell who the partisans are.) The phrase "five-point Calvinism" appears in discusses of this debate. Lillian Kwan's piece summarize the five points or "'Doctrines of Grace' (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints)".

Our old friend Brother Wade "Sword of Vengeance" Burleson has blogged about the dispute a couple of times recently: 7 Years: The Seed of the Weed Has Bloomed in the SBC 06/11/2012 and Early London Baptists and Today's SBC: A Comparison 07/03/2012. The weed to which Bro. Sword-of-Vengeance refers is not pot; he means hostile criticism of the New Calvinists. (Update 10/29/2012: The Rev. Burleson has changed the name and graphics on his blog to Istoria Ministries Blog; he seems to have kept many of the posts from his previous blog but not the one quoted here. As of this update, the post is cached here.)

Bro. Sword-of-Vengeance claims not to be in the New Calvinist faction. But in that second post, he refers to the following statement by the SBC critics of the NCs as rat poison ("rats-bane"):

Because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person's sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell[.]
If it sounds like good old Augustinian Original Sin to you, it does to me, too, and probably to most anyone else who's ever heard of the concept. But to Bro. Sword-of-Vengeance, it "boldly and forthrightly denies original sin". (Should I even mention the scholarly discussion of whether St. Paul's writing really contains the doctrine of Original Sin that St. Augustine took them to hold?)

In the earlier post, Bro. Sword-of-Vengeance makes it sounds like the anti-Calvinists are the ones who are pushing a denominational schism. He even writes, "I am increasingly uninterested in a convention that repeatedly defines its existence by what it is against than what it is for." But in the later post, we get:

Those Baptists who deny original sin, proclaim free-will and human works to obtain divine favor, and altogether deny historic Baptist soteriolocial principles are the ones who need to explain to the rest of us why indeed they have strayed from the faith once delivered to the saints which was clearly, boldly and unashamedly proclaimed by the those London Baptists in 1644.
Go figure.

I don't know where this is going. And the quality of what theological discussion I've seen about it is not at a level that I find especially interesting.

But it strikes me as the sort of intra-denominational dispute that may wind up having wider effects.

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