This week saw the launch of another bout of drama on the world of Southern Baptist twitter. This time it was centered on a letter written by Paige Patterson in 2012 that called the doctrinal stance of minority pastors into question, with no apparent grounds for the concern except that they were members of minority groups. Now this was almost certainly part of a dialogue and there may be more clarification in sources beyond this letter, but it is hard to see how that clarification could really improve the situation. It is worth noting that this post will not be specifically about that letter or the current discussion surrounding it, but rather on a larger issue that I believe informs this situation as well as many others that have been coming to the front in recent years. However, for the sake of clarity and information, here is the letter in question, and I would like to point out the part of it that I think is most telling for the topic I would like to address.
There is a lot to be said regarding racism in the church, and much of it is being said by people much closer to the topic than I am. As much as I would love to contribute something of value to that conversation, I think right now my time would be better spent looking at a picture that I'm not hearing about as these rounds of drama come and go. To do that, allow me to highlight one sentence from that letter.
"Under Fred's leadership it would be possible for us to slide a long way back toward where we once were, and that would be devastating."
"Where we once were" is a reference to the Inerrancy Controversy, which I believe is the ghost haunting every major controversy today.
A full history of what I will be calling the Controversy or the Inerrancy Controversy, known by the two major sides of it as the Conservative Resurgence or the Fundamentalist Takeover, is beyond the scope of this post. However, to make my point, I must give a brief overview of it and highlight the most relevant facts.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of Christian denominations had to wrestle with the role of scripture in the revelation of truth. The primary camps this usually fell into were those who held that the Bible was fully true in both its concepts and facts (called inerrancy), and those that held it was only fully true in its concepts. The former, for instance, would hold that Jonah literally spent time in the belly of a whale or great fish, while the latter would hold that the lesson taught by Jonah's story was important but the details were probably fictional. The SBC's turn to wrestle with these issues began with commentaries and books published as early as 1961, but kicked into a real fight in 1979. Guided by men including Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers, and Paul Pressler, the churches which held to inerrancy (which was the vast majority of them) sent messengers to the SBC annual meetings and elected Convention Presidents and entity trustees who also held to inerrancy, thereby slowly shifting the seminaries and ministries of the SBC in a conservative direction. The matter was considered functionally resolved with the publishing of the updated Baptist Faith and Message in 2000. Most of those who opposed inerrancy left the denomination.
During the controversy, nearly everything had to be called into question. People seeking to keep their jobs while opposing the shift were very careful about their wording to suggest that they believed in the truth of scripture while avoiding making any solid statements on the details of scripture. Those who considered themselves liberal or moderate described the conservatives as lusting after power and causing unnecessary division in the denomination just to claim control. Some churches that seem to have actually agreed with the inerrantists ended up opposing them out of a belief that the resurgence or takeover was about a political agenda rather than a doctrinal difference. Those who took the side of the conservatives, which ended up winning the day, were those who saw past careful wording or caricatures to look for the doctrinal root of everything that was being said and done. An entire generation started as children, went to Bible college and/or seminary, and then took posts at Baptist churches and colleges during the controversy. That generation, and the one that was leading the controversy, spent over two decades training to see the world along very specific doctrinal lines and to look for the opposition that wore the masks of allies. This was necessary, the whole fight was necessary in my opinion, because ultimately the cause of inerrancy warranted a defense and this was the defense that needed to arise at that time.
The problem comes when you take combat strategies into a time of peace.
My central claim is this: too many of those who spent so long in the thick of the Controversy have never really left it. This is to be expected, to a degree. For an entire generation, the most formative years of their lives were spent preparing for or engaging in a specific fight that had known rules. This is likely true in some degree or another in every denomination that has had some form of this fight. The cultural generational divide would say that some of those involved in the SBC's Controversy were Baby Boomers and some were Generation X (maybe even some Millennials who, like me, would have spent our youths in this and been graduating high school around the time it ended), especially those within the Southern Baptist Convention or connected to its battles; for my purposes I will refer to this group collectively as the Controversy Generation, regardless of which denomination's controversy they were actually raised in. The theology, practice, ethics, and political agenda of the Controversy Generation are defined by the fight over inerrancy. The impact of these events resonates through every aspect of their lives.
So what does that have to do with the letter, or my earlier post about the Founders Ministry dispute? The short answer is that a generation who views the world in terms of finding hidden enemies will always see enemies hiding among their friends.
The Controversy taught that generation that any difference in belief or practice is a signpost indicating a deeper attack on scripture. Those who raise questions about how the SBC handles things are trying to undermine the work of the Controversy Generation in reestablishing the authority of scripture. Those who come from a different perspective and therefore see a different application for the truths of scripture are substituting secular ideologies for the gospel. Every doctrinal or practical difference that can be associated with a different treatment of scripture must be viewed as an attack on inerrancy.
And this is what Patterson was expressing in his letter. Whether conscious or not, the fear was that minority pastors, who have a tendency to view the SBC and the Bible in light of a different set of life experiences than white pastors, are in fact interpreting the Bible as subject to those experiences. That the interpretation of scripture does not begin with the claim that the Bible is factually true and the ultimate source of truth, but rather that the truth claims of scripture can and should be measured against a different standard. This is the same complaint of Founders Ministries, and the same fear that pushes against reform in the treatment of abuse victims, and the same understanding that led John MacArthur to misrepresent the actions voted on by the SBC over this past summer, and the same standard that demanded Kanye West to display a certain level of doctrinal maturity before his conversion can be seen as valid. It is present in churches, ministries, schools, conferences, and online spaces. And the thought process can be shown by example.
Liberation Theology is a school of thought largely held in black churches and present among other minorities that sees a certain relationship between the slavery to sin and the slavery of their ancestors (and/or ongoing issues and oppression they face), and therefore read the liberation from sin and its effects as a particularly notable promise in their lives. While individual views may vary, the core idea of the theology is that freedom in Christ is an important aspect of the gospel that has specific and unique application in their lives. Patterson's letter does not cite the existence of this framework as part of his concern, it is merely being used as an example. Detractors of liberation theology, however, view the emphasis on freedom from sin as a replacement for penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that the primary purpose of the death of Christ is to take on the weight of our sin on our behalf) and, as such, a false gospel. And, of course, a false gospel must come from a different read of scripture; and a different read of scripture, to the Controversy Generation, is probably a sign that inerrancy is being denied. Therefore, by this logic, allowing liberation theology to have a place in the SBC is a challenge to inerrancy and a reversal of the Controversy's achievements. That some opponents also believe the claims of ongoing oppression are false is relevant when it comes up, but on a doctrinal level this is the actual issue.
But this mindset, while a very good tool during the fight for inerrancy, causes more problems than it solves when it is applied to differences that do not come from the issue of inerrancy. Black people who hold to liberation theology, by and large, are not wrestling with what the gospel actually is or how the Bible defines it; they are wrestling with what that gospel looks like as it interacts with their lives and communities. Disputes about the nature of the manifested Kingdom of God do not generally arise from a dismissal of the authority of scripture, but from different attempts to piece together the authoritative clues that scripture contains. Allowing for the use of secular tools designed to help victims of abuse is rarely an attempt to reject the Spirit speaking through scripture as the primary means of healing, but an attempt to understand what specific needs a victim may have and therefore what parts of scripture or aspects of the gospel will best speak to those needs, and how to apply them in a healthy manner. But when these issues are handled with the mindset instilled in the Controversy Generation, the natural response is to oppose good things being handled by righteous servants of God out of fear that anything different is an attack in disguise. This pushes people away who are actually allies, causes continued pain in people who come to the church seeking healing and find only rejection, and damages our witness to those watching how we shoot at each other over every minor dispute.
Brothers, this cannot stand. I have said before that I support the work carried out by inerrantists during the Controversy, and I stand by that; I also believe it is necessary to see the impact the Controversy has had on the people who fought in it, and the ways their scars can cause unnecessary division now. We have had to fight for inerrancy before, and it is possible we shall have to again; but the question right now is what a church that holds to inerrancy will look like in a hurting world coming to grips with a host of problems that are being brought into the light. If we will not fight the battles that really exist because we are too focused on those fought decades ago, we will face a much greater loss than the roughly 1,900 churches who left during the Controversy. It is time to lay these weapons down, pick up the scriptures we fought so hard for, and begin exploring what it looks like to live them out today.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation