“General William Tecumseh Sherman got it wrong. Peace is hell. In war people think about the country. In peace all they think about is themselves,” said war veteran and wartime president of the United States, Harry S. Truman. From 1979-2000 the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) fought a battle for the heart and soul of the world’s largest protestant denomination, which is commonly referred to as the conservative resurgence (or fundamentalist takeover from the liberal side of the conflict).
The battle for the Bible extended well beyond the borders of the SBC, but the fiercest battles raged within the denomination. I fear Truman’s observation is proving correct in the SBC. The denominational struggle in the SBC produced unity among a broad and diverse group of SBC theological conservatives. The conservative resurgence SBC leaders put biblical gospel fidelity and the future of the SBC ahead of personal preferences and differences. But over a decade after the symbolic final victory of the resurgence at the 2000 SBC annual meeting, the harmony among SBC conservatives seems to have lessened. At least from my vantage point, we conservatives seem far more willing to fight and nitpick each other.
In 1979, the SBC annual meeting took place in Houston, Texas and Adrian Rogers, a theological conservative biblical inerrantist, and the greatest SBC preacher of this era, was elected president of the world’s largest protestant denomination. I was an eleven-year-old child at the time whose biggest concern was playing Dixie Youth baseball for Blue-Gray Civitan Club in Montgomery, AL. I was oblivious to the seismic shift that was taking place in Houston as Southern Baptists returned to their conservative biblical roots. Ten years later, by God’s grace, I became a Christian and identified myself with the people called Southern Baptists.
Adrian Rogers’ election in 1979 marked the symbolic beginning of the conservative resurgence in the SBC (1979-2000). Rogers election was followed by an unbroken succession of conservative presidents who have unapologetically championed the inerrancy of the Bible. The SBC president has the power to appoint those who serve on committees, who nominate the trustees of Southern Baptist entities, who are then voted on by the elected messengers of the SBC. Thus, in two decades, the denomination was transformed and returned to its biblical roots. Paige Patterson, one of the heroic architects of the conservative resurgence, explains that the victory was made possible by the grassroots polity of the SBC, eloquent pulpiteers who led the cause, unity around the reliability of the Bible, fervent prayer, and abandonment to the task (Paige Patterson).
Soon after becoming a Christian in 1989, I began sense a call to preach the gospel. My sense of the call was confirmed when I was licensed to preach at Green Valley Baptist Church in Hoover, AL in April 1994 and then ordained to preach at Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL in October 1997. I provide this biographical information because I am what I call a conservative resurgence tweener. I have one foot in the conservative resurgence generation and one foot in the post-resurgence generation.
I went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to pursue a M.Div. in 1994. I arrived shortly after the trustees fired theologically moderate president Russell Dilday. The first SBC annual meeting I attended was in Atlanta in 1995. I heard R. Albert Mohler deliver the convention sermon, “What Mean These Stones?” (Joshua 4). Mohler articulated a clear, uncompromising theological vision for Southern Baptists with which I thoroughly resonated. It was then I decided if I pursued doctoral work I would attend The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary under Mohler’s leadership. I completed a Ph.D. from Southern Seminary in December 2011. In 2000, I was appointed by SBC president Paige Patterson to serve on the credential’s committee for the annual meeting in Orlando, which revised the Baptist Faith and Message. Appropriately, the Baptist Faith and Message revision committee was chaired by Adrian Rogers and marked the symbolic closure of the resurgence movement.
Those of us in the SBC tweener resurgence category tend to have good friends and ministry associates in the older conservative resurgence generation and in the younger post-resurgence generation of Southern Baptists. I claim no unique wisdom on SBC life, but perhaps providence has afforded those in my group at least the benefit of a unique perspective. The older generation conservatives identify with the words of great SBC preacher RG Lee who was reported to have said, “I was Baptist born. I was Baptist bred. And when I die, I will be a Baptist dead.” The younger millennial generation (born between early 1980’s and 2000) of Southern Baptists are generally theologically conservative, but along with their generational peers, they are inherently suspicious of formal institutions (Pew Research). It is the difference between a generation who paid their bills by check via the US mail and a generation who has never written a check.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not trapped in any particular generation. In every generational culture there are things that are in line with the gospel and things that are out of line with the gospel. Christians ought to have a healthy respect for the past but also an eagerness about the newness of the present and future. I recently saw a Christian leader who posted a tweet about good old days in 1964 when The Beverly Hillbillies was the top rated TV show and then asserted that we need revival. I wonder if it ever occurred to him that for African-Americans, 1964 was not the American good old days, and that we needed revival then to face down the wicked codified institutional racism—a racism all too evident in our SBC churches of the 1960’s.
Every generation has unique strengths and unique challenges. No one should expect a newer generation to sound, look, and approach issues exactly like the older generation. Rather, the hope should be that the newer generation would be faithful to and rooted in the same bedrock truth. Older Southern Baptist resurgence conservatives who look with skepticism at zealous but slightly different younger Southern Baptist conservatives are despising the fruit of their own labors. There is an amazing energy to preach the gospel, plant churches, and reach the nations with the gospel among the post-resurgence generation, and it is matched with robust conservative theological commitments.
With the condition of our seminaries before the resurgence and the current precipitous cultural decline into moral anarchy, this present army of young gospel warriors is a miraculous blessing of God on the sacrifices of the resurgence generation. Not only are our seminaries strong and vibrant, but now with NAMB led by Kevin Ezell, ERLC led by Russell Moore, and IMB led by David Platt, these entities are all energizing and exciting younger post-resurgence conservatives. The differences in style and theology that separate older resurgence conservatives and the younger post-resurgence conservatives are no greater than the differences that existed among conservatives who unified to fight for the heart and soul of the SBC and are all within the pale of historic Baptist orthodoxy. No father should have the unreasonable expectation that his son will be an exact duplicate of himself; however, every father should be overjoyed if his son embodies his core values and convictions.
Young, post-resurgence Southern Baptists who look at older Southern Baptist conservatives with little respect are spending an inheritance bequeathed to them and acting as though they earned it for themselves. Post-resurgence conservatives tend to take for granted the SBC they presently enjoy. It is tragic ecclesial narcissism when someone benefits from the post-resurgence conservative SBC reality and is nourished by our entities and institutions with no sense of indebtedness and loyalty. I would urge younger conservatives in the SBC to take a few moments and read, “‘Once There Was a Camelot’: Women Doctoral Graduates of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1982-1992, Talk about the Seminary, the Fundamentalist Takeover, and Their Lives Since SBTS,” which documents in the words of students who attended just what the culture at Southern Seminary was like prior to the conservative resurgence in the SBC.
If it were not for the sacrifices made by the conservative resurgence generation, the post-resurgence younger conservatives would not be walking the halls of our seminaries and discussing diverse conservative understandings of salvation, ecclesiology, and culture. If the battle for the Bible had not been won in our denomination by the resurgence generation, we would not hear discussions of neo-Calvinism and the SBC traditionalist statement among the post-resurgence students in the halls of our SBC seminaries; we would overhear discussions of the importance of Deutero-Isaiah in teaching us about our Mother-God and how hopeful she is about future. That fact ought to shape how we think about differences we have with other SBC conservatives, genuine and important differences, but ones that do not compromise our shared gospel mission.
Chronological snobbery is prideful self-righteousness whether it comes with skinny jeans and an ESV or with a suit and a Scofield Reference Bible. Post-resurgence conservatives should not live every day as if there was no yesterday. Resurgence conservatives should not live as if yesterday is all that matters today. The gospel liberates us from gaining our identity by denigrating others and liberates us to “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10). The way forward is for all of us to remember that this in not a time of peace. As I have heard Russell D. Moore say, “The Great Commission is not a public relations campaign but a call to spiritual war.” Let’s not think of ourselves as we face spiritual battle. Let’s think of the kingdom of Christ and the outpost of the kingdom—the church of Jesus Christ.