Pam and I are sitting in the Charlotte airport on our way to Dallas, TX and the SBC convention where we’ll join up with 25,000 or other folks ready to preach, pray, fight, do business, make pronouncements, raise money, organize, posture, evangelize and in general do what we do more of than anyone else. My dad got it right when he pointed out to me once that Baptists are like cats. When you think they’re fighting they’re actually multiplying.
Southern Bapitists are the largest and best-known branch of the larger Baptist tree. Beginning with English non-conformists in the 17th century, the Baptist movement through the centuries has produced luminaries like John Bunyan, CH Spurgeon and Billy Graham. Along the way it’s also spawned folks like Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. I’m not sure what this says about us or them but find it fascinating to think about.
We were originally part of the American Baptist denomination but went our own way in the mid-19th century because when we wanted to appoint slave-owners as missionaries, the national leadership of the time sensibly pointed out the hypocrisy of preaching the gospel of spiritual freedom to the very people whose relatives were in fact American slaves. Our southern forebears took offense and split from their northern cousins to form a new denomination less encumbered by theological contradictions.
Living with contradictions has been our heritage ever since. In matters of doctrine, race relations, the role of women in church, missions methodology, worship styles or even congregational size, Southern Baptists are comfortable with the diverse and even opposing beliefs and practices within our sprawling evangelical empire. For us, the concept of a tent large enough to accommodate all kinds of people is an article of faith, a principle that at its best gives us a dynamism unmatched by any other denomination. At worse, it makes us a polyglot tribe subject to episodes of conflict and periodic identity crises.
We find ourselves in just such an episode now. At the Dallas convention, all the contradictions, fissures and fault lines in our convention will be on display. The flash point is Paige Patterson, one of the more polarizing figures in Southern Baptist history. But this convention won’t just be about him. It will be instead much broader and looks to change many of the ways we’ve been able to stay together for so long.
I’ll blog daily through the convention and try to keep you up to date on what’s going on. This will be quite a ride!