The Southern Baptist Convention is a force to be reckoned with. As the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with over 45,000 affiliate churches, it has been shaping and channeling conservative Christian sensibilities since the Civil War, when Southern Baptists split from the North so they could advocate on behalf of slave owners. They fought to keep slavery and lost. Then they fought for Jim Crow laws and lost. Then they fought for segregation and lost. Now, faced with eroding membership, the Southern Baptist leaders are fighting against irrelevance. Unfortunately, they have committed to a strategy that will make it harder for their members – and for all of us—to move toward a future based on collaboration, compassion and practical solutions to real-world problems.
With secularism on the rise, entrepreneurial Christian denominations have evolved a variety of survival strategies. Anglican theologian John Shelby Spong (Why Christianity Must Change or Die) proposes a rigorous rethinking of Christian belief. Mainline and Unitarian congregations have embraced Michael Dowd’s Evolutionary Christianity, an interplay between Christian worship and scientific wonder. Elsewhere on the spectrum, Joel Olsteen plays down theology, instead offering comforting platitudes and promises of prosperity to those who pray and give. Willow Creek mega-church in Chicago pioneered sound and light shows and indie rock bands that entice young people into the club by emulating familiar entertainment media. The Catholic bishops are brazenly trying to recreate an epoch in which they were ascendant.
A few weeks ago the Southern Baptist Convention voted to approve a name change. Congregations will now have the option to call themselves “Great Commission Baptists.” The name change is meant to distance from their past association with racism, but it does much more. To those in the know, it announces that their future will be focused on turf wars – on competing for members and dollars rather than any kind of forward-facing spiritual leadership. To draw an analogy, imagine that Coca-Cola decided to distance from its past sales of cocaine drinks by dropping the “Coca” and calling themselves “World Dominance Cola.” Imagine it announcing to the public: Rather than improving our product, we’ve chosen to focus on our marketing department. That’s essentially what the new name means.
The Southern Baptist denomination was formed in 1845 when Baptists split over a question of slaveholders as missionaries. Freed from the sensibilities of their Northern brethren, the Southern Baptists became strong and vocal advocates for slavery as a Biblical institution. As one leader, Dr. Richard Furman, wrote to the governor of South Carolina, “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”
Over the years, Southern Baptist deacons and pastors moved in and out of Ku Klux Klan leadership positions. In 1956 the minister of the largest Southern Baptist church in the nation testified before the South Carolina legislature, voicing his support for segregation. It wasn’t until 1995 that leaders formally apologized for their defense of slavery and 20th-century opposition to equality for blacks. As recently as the Trayvon Martin murder, the denomination has struggled with embarrassing racist taint. Last week, along with the name change, the Convention elected a fiery black preacher as the first African American president in its 167 year history.
In an alternate universe, the Southern Baptist history of endorsing slavery and then Jim Crow laws, so shameful in hindsight, might have led to broad theological growth. For example, it might have softened the authoritarianism that caused ordinary believers to blindly follow whatever their preachers said. It might have called into question the notion of “biblical inerrancy,” which gives God’s seal of approval to every form of Iron Age bigotry in the biblical record. It might have led to an increase in denominational humility – the sense that maybe there are things to be learned from other kinds of Christians, the outside world, or the moral trajectory of human history. Alas. It would appear that the lesson learned was a narrow one: blacks are fully human and they can make loyal church members. A cynic might suggest that there was no lesson learned: economics were on the side of slaveholders at the start and are now on the side of putting blacks at the helm.
Like the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention almost made a leap that would have brought its teachings into line with compassion and the moral demands of the 21st century. In fact, by the 1970s it appeared that the Southern Baptists might be ready to move into a position at the vanguard of Christianity. Doors were slowly opening to women even at the flagship seminary in Louisville, and scholarship in fields like archeology, linguistics and the natural sciences was penetrating and changing theology discussions.
But then at the national convention in 1979, hard-liners seized the reins of power. Theological dissent was purged. Over a several years, women were removed from positions of spiritual leadership. By 1993 an adroit biblical literalist, Albert Mohler, who had been instrumental in the coup, was installed at the helm of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A 1997 documentary, Battle for the Minds, tells the story of one well-loved but regrettably female theology professor, Molly Marshall, whom Mohler forced out. Under the leadership of Mohler and likeminded theological conservatives, the denomination has pursued the kind of authoritarian Old Time Religion that lead to the 1845 split, with biblically sanctioned sexism and homophobia replacing Civil War-era slavery endorsements.
Like the Catholics, the Southern Baptists recently have doubled down on controlling women as it has become clear that they are losing their battle to ostracize gays. Last year, Albert Mohler told Focus on the Family Radio that Christians need to prepare for gay marriage. “I think it’s clear that something like same-sex marriage is going to become normalized, legalized and recognized in the culture. It’s time for Christians to start thinking about how we’re going to deal with that.”
In January, LifeWay Christian Resources, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, published a two-volume Bible commentary about gender roles. The commentary promotes “complementarianism,” the idea that God made men and women for different purposes. If you couldn’t guess, the purpose of women is homemaking and childbearing. Men are made for marital, social, political, economic and spiritual leadership. Complementarianism is Jim Crow in the gender realm, a desperate last ditch attempt to ensure that straight white males keep dominance over somebody. To date it continues to have broad appeal among Southern Baptist members.
The Southern Baptists are staking their institutional future and finances on the idea that Old Time patriarchal heaven-and-hell religion still has a market and will for some time to come. In their choice of a new name, they have made clear how they intend to compete for mindshare in the coming decades: with better and more aggressive marketing of their traditional theological product. The Great Commission refers to a set of New Testament texts that mandate proselytizing. Quotes vary slightly from author to author, but they are always composed as words spoken by the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. Here are a couple examples:
Matthew: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19 NIV)
Mark: Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. (Mark 16:15-18 NIV)
It’s not a given that Bible-centered Christians should make these passages about proselytizing, belief and baptism the cornerstone of their faith. Some New Testament texts advocate a very different set of priorities. In one place, Jesus says in graphic terms that hell is for those who fail to tend the needy and ill (Matthew 25:31-46). Elsewhere, he suggests that worldly riches mean a person is living outside God’s will (Mark 10:17-25). When asked which is the greatest of the Hebrew commandments, Jesus says that the Torah and Prophets can be summed up very simply: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22: 26-40).
Over the centuries many Christians have made these teachings the center of their faith and religious practice. The result is a spiritual life centered on simplicity and service. A Christianity centered on the Great Commission, by contrast has the following defining features.
1. Every member is a part of the sales force. Great Commission Christianity is first and foremost about recruiting, because membership is top priority. The Great Commission brand says that the most important thing churches can do is recruit more converts. Overseas medical services, inner-city food banks, even friendship –all of these can be smart marketing, but they should be a means to an end, conversion.
2. What is sold is a package of exclusive truth claims. A focus on outreach necessarily goes hand in hand with a certain kind of theology. The recruiting efforts would be pointless if there were many paths to God. The message of the recruiting is that there is only one path to God: being cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Interspiritual or interfaith perspectives are wrong, and adherents need to be wooed from their misguided beliefs to the Righteousness.
3. The measure of a spiritual person is right belief. In this case right belief means something like: You deserve hell; Jesus died for your sins; accepting him as your savior will get you to heaven. Buddhists may believe that compassion is the heart of spiritual practices. Modernist Christians may center in on the words of the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Priorities like these simply don’t work with the Great Commission strategy; they are too inclusive.
4. Other religions and denominations are competitors, not partners. The Great Commission is a competitive strategy; and in fact successful conversion activities often are described as “winning” souls. Creating heaven here on Earth might require interfaith teamwork. By contrast salvation through right belief is an individual affair, and those who believe they are saved and headed for heaven tend to get grumpy if someone suggests that there is no hell.
After failing on the great moral questions of the 19th and 20th centuries—full personhood for blacks and females respectively—the Great Commission rebranding effort that inadvertently shows the world how little Southern Baptist leaders have learned from two centuries of ethical slumming. Mind you, the Great Commission strategy has been a winner for some mega-churches, and proselytizing is strongly correlated with the growth in minority sects like Scientology and Mormonism.
In past centuries religions could capture mindshare through conquest, which is how Christianity spread through Europe and how Islam spread through India. Competitive breeding was baked into both Catholicism and Islam because it offered some additional advantage. But in the last century, the primary mode of competition among religions has been evangelism. In other words, the Southern Baptists have placed their bets on a strategy with some history of success.
Whether they win or lose from the standpoint of re-filling church pews and bank accounts remains to be seen. What is regrettable, either way, is that by choosing to be competitive they have once again pitted themselves against the moral arc of history. Whether humanity can flourish in the 21st century will depend largely on whether we can move beyond competition to collaboration. Population growth, resource depletion and weapons technology have carried us to the point that there are fewer and fewer “winnable” competitions. Humanity desperately needs to find common ground in our shared moral core and dreams for our children. Just as they did on the questions of slavery and the full humanity of women, the Southern Baptists have positioned themselves as moral dead weight, which is a loss for us all.