Friday, May 30, 2008

SBC Primer #4 - The Factions

For those of you who don't know, I did not grow up in the Southern Baptist Church, or a baptist church at all, for that matter. I went to church for the first 18 years of my life at a tiny, Cumberland Presbyterian Church in my hometown of Sebastopol, Mississippi. My grandad was the pastor there for 38 years, and I got my spiritual foundation there. It wasn't until I graduated from college and had been working in Meridian for several years that I got back into church. When I did, I felt God leading me to a SBC church in Meridian, where I've been ever since, save the two years Crystal and I lived in Augusta, Georgia.

I say that to say this: I wasn't around for the Baptist battles of the last three decades. I've read a lot about them, but I know that I can never get a complete understanding of them because I wasn't there. Even if I'd been around as a child, I'd probably understand a little better, but alas, I was going to church with baby baptizers (that was just a little dig in case anyone in my still sprinklin' family is reading this - I love you guys).

Nevertheless, I think I might have a different perspective because I wasn't in the middle of everything growing up. I've watched what things have been like over the last couple of years very closely and very quietly, and I think I've discerned a little bit about what the lay of the SBC landscape looks like right now. So without further ado, for the few of you who know even less than I do about all of this, here's my take on what the different SBC factions look like.

Old School Fundamentalists - This is a small group, and getting smaller every year I think. These are the King James only, hymn and Southern gospel-only, frankly known much more for what they're for than what they're against, types. I would be very careful to label any particular person a Fundamentalist, because it has become such a pejorative term in most circles. Not all people who like the KJV or hymns or Southern Gospel are Fundamentalists. I think this group has always been a part of the convention, but I really do think it's getting ever smaller.

Traditionalists - This is where I think a good portion of the older part of the SBC is. They make up the people who've really been the backbone of the convention for the last three decades. They believe the Bible, they like things done formally and traditionally, they're probably heavily involved in the culture war, they're most likely Republicans, and they're serious about evangelism. They're probably very much revivalists, and they believe strongly in personal witnessing. They also likely believe strongly in a Baptist identity, holding very closely to a set of ideals about what the Baptist church is supposed to look like. I think a fair number of people in my church would fall into this category.

Contemporarians - These are people like Rick Warren, Ed Young, and Andy Stanley, who are trying some different things to try to reach people. It may be as simple as contemporary music; they also likely don't dress up quite as much for church. They've adjusted their methods for the society around them. They've also been criticized by many who say they've adjusted the message also. Hence, I think many of them have pulled out of active SBC life, and are going their own way. While they might still be a part of the convention, they are not as active on the political side of it. I also find a goodly number of people like this in my church.

Calvinists - This is a growing and controversial group in SBC life. I'm not sure I'd call myself a 5-pointer, but my soteriology has drifted pretty far in a reformed, Calvinist direction over the last few years, and I'm a big believer in God's sovereignty when it comes to everything, salvation included. The Calvinists are growing especially in the younger age groups, 40 and below, as they've been influenced by people like John Piper and Mark Driscoll and Al Mohler. They've been subject to some pretty harsh rhetoric at times, but frankly, I've seen many of them give it right back. But this movement is growing; I know several people who would call themselves reformed in my church, and some who I think are moving in that direction.

Charismatics - I hesitated even to put this category in, because I don't think there are really many dyed in the wool, classic charismatics in our convention. When you use that phrase, a certain kind of Christian tends to jump into your head; tongue speaking, prophecy giving, faith healing, and the sort. The issue of tongues has recently become a big one in SBC life, specifically the idea of private praying in tongues. I know there is a small, but significant portion of people in the convention who practice this, and that's probably who the charismatic group consists mostly of. I am not including in this group all of those who believe that spiritual gifts are still gifts for today. I think you'll find people like that in almost every group in SBC life, though some are more cautious about it than others. I think my church might have a Charismatic or four in it.

Emerging - This is another I hesitate to add, because I know that there is so much controversy surrounding the emerging church right now. The emerging have a lot in common with the Contemporarians, in that they're trying to to contemporize the church for the culture we're living in right now, but they're trying to do it for a more post-modern culture. That has it's problems because many post-modern folks don't really like absolute truth. I don't think people like that would feel comfortable in the SBC, and I don't think the Emerging church folks in the SBC are like that. But I know a couple of churches that I'd probably call emerging; they're meeting in homes or coffee houses, doing some different kinds of things to reach the culture. I would say the ones I know have their theology on pretty straight though.

Big Tent Baptists - These are the people who fall into any of the above categories, who are kind of tired of all of the fighting. They don't like what they see as a narrowing of the parameters of what it means to be a Southern Baptist. They think if you can affirm the SBC statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, that ought to be enough. They see room in the convention for the fundies and the five pointers and the charismatics and the tie-died shirt wearers, as long as they affirm the authority and inerrancy of God's word, and interpret it in a way consistent with the BF&M.

This is not a perfect list of all the factions; I am sure there are more. Furthermore, there is a lot of cross-pollination between the different groups. Some Traditionalists are Calvinists, and some Calvinists are Charismatics, and some Charismatics are Contemporarians, and some Contemporarians are Big Tenters. I don't want to hem any one particular person into any one particular group unnecessarily. But as best I've seen over the last several years, this comes pretty close to covering all of the groups that are presently part of SBC life.

Now, it's very easy to say that the Fundamentalists want to kick everyone else out of the convention, and the Traditionalists are stuck in the past, and the Contemporarians are compromising the Word of God, and the Calvinists are going to hurt the cause of missions, and the Charismatics are going to cause chaos, and the Emerging folks just want to be able to drink beer and cuss, and the Big-tenters are going to cause us to drift toward liberalism. I've heard all of those arguments made in the past. I frankly don't buy them. I think there is a place for everyone inside the convention, and keeping each of the groups around kind of balances one another out. I personally can find agreement with most of the groups over some of their big issues, though I probably have most in common with the Calvinists and the Contemporarians (both sides might tell you that's impossible, but oh well.)

The point is, with all of these factions, it's easy to see why there is generally a fair amount of infighting and disagreement. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, you know, iron sharpening iron and everything. These disagreements have been around for years, but I think during the convention they'll mainly just kind of boil beneath the surface. But it's certainly more public than it used to be; with the Internet age we now live in, arguments seem to be louder now. That will be the subject of my final post on the SBC.


Brian Bridges said...

Well said, you have just expressed my thoughts and many others I am sure. I can surely relate to many "groups" within SBC life but won't label myself "as" one of them. I love many aspects of the reformed crowd and a few aspects of just about every other. I guess I am an eclectic Baptist. Good stuff, Thanks.

Wade Phillips said...

Thanks for the kind comments, Brian. I think there are a fair number of us out there.