Nathan A. Finn

Historian, Theologian, Teacher, Preacher



March 2011



Some Thoughts on Theological and Methodological Diversity in the SBC

Written by , Posted in Ministry, Missions, SBC, Theology

Warning–this isn’t so much a well-articulated article as it is a running collection of “out-loud,” sometimes admittedly snarky thoughts about a couple of dicey issues. Perhaps I will write something more constructive at a later time. No doubt others will do so and will do a better job of it than me.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Ed Stetzer has published an article over at BtT titled “Traditional, Contemporary, and the Future of the SBC.” Ed basically argues that predictions about the marginalization of traditional Southern Baptists have been grossly exaggerated. Ed believes we are still a predominantly traditional denomination and that the contemporary voices are recent and still relatively few, with the noteworthy exception of the upcoming SBC Pastors’ Conference. Ed doesn’t explicitly define what he means by “traditional” and “contemporary,” but it seems he means the “suits and hymns” folks versus the “stools and rock songs” crowd. Ed concludes by arguing we need to allow for some methodological diversity within the boundaries of our confessional consensus, The Baptist Faith and Message (2000). Most of those who have commented on Ed’s post thus far have agreed with him, though a few readers have raised some pointed questions.

Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, it seems to me that Ed is in part writing in response to Brad Whitt’s recent manifesto “Young, Southern Baptists … and Irrelevant.” Pastor Whitt, whom I do not know personally, is upset by the Pastors’ Conference lineup in particular and the direction of the SBC in general. He feels that Southern Baptists like him have been marginalized by those who are pulling the strings of Convention leadership. He contends that the trendy and/or more Calvinistic Southern Baptists have too much influence in the SBC. Whitt ends by not so subtly implying that the real Southern Baptists need to rise up and take back their denomination from the interlopers. Most all of those who have commented on his post agree, some of them quite, um, colorfully.

I’m somewhat ambivalent toward this whole debate. On the one hand, I’m very conservative–both theologically and methodologically. I don’t have many original theological thoughts and don’t really want to–that’s the way cults get started. I’d like to think I’m a good Baptist Protestant because I hold to sola scriptura and the analogy of Scripture but strive to apply these principles  to ecclesiology just as much as I do to other doctrinal categories.

Furthermore, from a methodological standpoint I’m just not cutting-edge or cool. I certainly don’t dress very cool. Most of the time my shirts are pressed, tucked in, and accompanied by a sports jacket. I still love ties, especially bow ties. I’d rather sing a hymn 75% of the time (assuming it’s a good one) and if the music is so loud I can’t hear myself sing, I’m liable to go curmudgeon on you. I like stained glass windows more than sound stages and tall steeples more than dark warehouses. Screens are great for congregational singing, but dippy video sermon illustrations drive me bonkers. Smoke machines are just off the reservation, period. As for stools, I’ve preached from one before, but would prefer to stand, mostly because I’m too fidgety to sit still for very long (rockers of the world, unite!). I guess all this means I won’t be included in the cool conferences, write for the cool publishers, or garner 10,000 followers on Twitter.

On the other hand, I’m pretty young (can’t help it–it’s my parent’s fault) and mostly Reformed (ditto–I’m just a biblicist). That’s strike one with some folks. I’m a member of a medium-sized church of about 400 or so, which means my church isn’t small enough to be part of the pure majority. Strike two. And I work at Southeastern Seminary, which along with our sister in Louisville is apparently a demon portal through which all the dark spirits enter into our Baptist Zion. Strike three. I guess all this means I am a Presbyterian emergent charismatic hipster who is ashamed of my Southern Baptist heritage.

OK, I’ll be serious. We all recognize that Southern Baptists are a relatively diverse people.  Fortunately, we have a confession of faith that helps us to determine which diverse theological views are outside the bounds (modalism, pedobaptism) and which are inside the bounds (plural elders, particular atonement). If we stick to the BF&M, trust our entity trustees to adopt wise policies, encourage church search committees to ask substantive theological questions, and encourage ministry candidates to be candid and forthright, I really do think we’ll all get along pretty well on the theology end, even if we have some (Christ-like!) family discussions along the way.

Methodological diversity is admittedly more difficult to assess. I think in principle, most Southern Baptists are OK with some degree of diversity but also believe some strategies are out-of-bounds. In other words, I don’t think many Southern Baptists are either extreme of “my way or the highway” or “anything goes–wahoo!” But where do we draw the line? Should we even think in terms of line-drawing?

I think we need to have a family discussion about methodology. We need to come up with some shared principles and values that can help us assess strategies. This is easier said than done, but I think it can be done. We’ve had a major conference on miraculous gifts, two conferences on Calvinism, and about a half dozen conferences on Baptist distinctives and identity. Many of these conferences have generated books or articles that help us think through these issues. I would like to see a major conference on methodology where we come and reason together about issues such as music, evangelism strategies, church planting, church revitalization, etc. I think a conference or two along these lines will at least help all sides to better understand where others are coming from. And along the way, I’m hopeful this type of discussion will help to build consensus among Southern Baptists as we cooperate together for the sake of the gospel.