These words of Emerson from a not-too-distant century ring true for the Southern Baptist Convention as we enter a new millennium under the hostile gaze of an increasingly secular society. Public policy analyst Francis Fukuyama recently wrote that a number of cultural forces including moral relativism, radical individualism, and the loss of trust in institutional authority have lead to what he refers to as "The Great Disruption" in society. He further notes that the resultant cultural vacuum cries out for the reconstitution of a new social order. It is incumbent upon us as a Bible believing denomination to seize this opportunity, as the early Christians did, to be primary shapers of the new state of affairs in the midst of our contemporary cultured despisers.
The same culturally disruptive forces mentioned above have had their insidious corrosive effect on even our own denomination. The struggle in the institutional life of the SBC over the past twenty years as documented in Jerry Sutton's new book The Baptist Reformation serves as a stark testimony to the schism that results when there is an erosion in the confidence of an unerring Scripture and its authoritative commands. Such schism is inevitable when one values cultural relevance over Christ. Some in our midst have stretched the empowering Baptist tenant of the priesthood of all believers to an irresponsible advocacy of individual interpretation that, for all practical purposes, is unaccountable to fellow believers and the witness of our Baptist forebears. Such unfettered interpretation has led some to question the historicity of certain biblical accounts such as the book of Genesis. Some have doubted the necessity of Christ's death on our behalf.
Most recently, others have expressed doubts about the biblical injunctions concerning family ordering. A few mavericks have even questioned the role of Christ as the only means of salvation. Such interpretive "freedom" is more worthy of the disciples of the libertarian philosopher John Stuart Mill than of the disciples of Christ. It is little wonder that we have experienced a season of denominational struggle in an attempt to restore a more biblically inspired approach to scriptural interpretation.
Lest we gloat over the fact that the relativist barbarians have been pushed outside the gates of our Baptist "Zion," we must seriously concern ourselves with what we are to do now that the revolution is over. As the church historian Timothy George reminds us, "The replacement of one set of bureaucrats with another doth not a reformation make." The necessity of a contemporary Baptist reformation in order to restore denominational vitality is self evident to many thoughtful observers although we deplore the pettiness exhibited and pain suffered by some of the combatants. The sufficiency of the recent struggle to maintain a biblical people is dependent on our future actions under the grace of God.
In moving ahead, we would do well to pay heed to the witness of the Protestant reformers that the church (or denomination) that is reformed must always be reforming itself. Much work remains in the application of biblical principles to our individual lives and the wider surrounding culture. Baptists have been notoriously weak in the articulation of a comprehensive Christian life and worldview, much less its consistent application. The task is before us to winsomely share in word and deed what the indwelling of Christ can do to transform individuals and society.
As a Southern Baptist layman, I would like to make a few modest proposals as we move forward in this post revolutionary era. As a preface it goes without saying that all we do be subjected to the lordship of Christ and that we lead lives of honesty, humility, and integrity. Our evangelistic zeal should be the natural outpouring of fruit-filled lives that testify of the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit. God forbid that we should ever loose this passionate witnessing zeal.
To our denominational leadership, I would remind you that as we sometimes tend to crow of our numerical strength, the surrounding world often thinks that the following words are synonymous with one another - "Baptist" and "braggadocio". We would do well to remember the words of Vance Havner who said, "We Southern Baptists are many, but we're not much!" Our denominational leaders should work to inspire us to do things together that we couldn't do as individuals and churches. "Cooperation" is still a good Southern Baptist word.
We would also call on our leadership to continually remind us of our social obligations as Christian. Our message is not credible if it fails to minister to the material as well as the spiritual needs of others. The Southern Baptist theologian Carl F.H. Henry a full half decade ago put his finger on the cause of a pervasive "uneasy conscience" among conservative Christians - the neglect of Christian social action in conjunction with conventional evangelism. In my recent conversation with Dr. Henry, he noted that there remains much to be done before we can assuage our consciences in this area.
To our seminary leadership, in addition to your duty of training our pastors and other denominational servants, we would confer on you a prophetic mantle. We need you to not only train our future church leaders, but also help us as laypersons to cope with the complexities of modern life. We need you to act as interpreters of contemporary culture and help us formulate a Christian countercultural response.
The ultimate goal is to help inculcate a consistent comprehensive Christian life and worldview that is understandable and applicable to the man or woman in the pew. We recognize that this represents a broadening of the seminaries' traditional roles, but is in step with their attempts to avoid insularity by showing the benefit of the academy to the church.
To our Southern Baptist college administrators and professors, we urge you to take good care of the little ones we entrust to your care lest they stumble. Remember that you will always look better with a tie around your neck rather than a millstone. Never deny Christ under the guise of academic freedom. The world already has enough secular universities. What is needed are more Christian universities dually committed to academic excellence and the application of the Christian faith to all academic disciplines.
We would ask our pastors to live humble lives as you minister to your flocks. Avoid the "cult of personality" that so frequently springs up among evangelical leaders. Besides, we already know what you're really like - we talked to your mother. Also, you don't always have to preach on different variations of how to be happy but rather teach us how to be holy. Make us uneasy in our selfishness but comfort us in our brokenness. And listen to the laity. If you listen to us long enough we'll tell you what's wrong with us (and perhaps what's wrong with you).
Be good to our women. They are our greatest living grace. There must be no misunderstanding here. While we have let the world know of God's delegation of the pastoral office to biblically qualified men, this in no way diminishes a woman's equal value before God as a co-imager of Him. There are a host of other opportunities for our women to equally serve God in our denomination and society. But don't take my word for it - ask Deborah, or Lydia, or Priscilla. Any attempt to denigrate the role of women in our denomination is a sin.
To our laity, our proposals are simple, yet hard. Go hard after God. Honor marriage and uphold the family. Be good neighbors and let love be your distinguishing mark. Let others know that real change is possible in our individual lives through the supernatural regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. Remember that Jesus is our only sustenance. He alone is the bread that nourishes and the water that imparts life.