SBC–Illusion of Unity

Posted on June 28, 2012 by Dr. Jerry Rankin in Rankin Connecting

There was a great deal of rhetoric appealing for unity preceding and at the recent Southern Baptist Convention. Meanwhile, not so subtle suspicions were being expressed and barbs being cast in articles, blogs and verbal communication toward those perceived of tilting toward reform theology.

A vast diversity among those who identify themselves as Southern Baptist is a reality. David Dockery, in his book “Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal,” identified no less than 14 distinct segments that were fragmenting the SBC. It is no longer a simple schism between conservatives and moderates, the divide is broadening among younger, innovative leaders and those perceived as older traditionalists. There is little in common between those opting for contemporary forms and legacy styles of worship and church programs. Growing numbers of larger churches don’t sense much need for the denominational bureaucracy and do little to support it while the smaller plateaued and dying churches are desperate for the benefits that come from cooperation.

It is intriguing that we magnify the doctrinal divide between the landmark and reformed, arminian and calvinist when the basic tenants of our Baptist faith are unquestioned. Compare what a Baptist believes with Pentecostal and mainline Protestant theology and we stand unique in holding exclusively to the inerrant authority of God’s word and sound biblical teaching.

The updated Baptist Faith and Message 2000 would supposedly be the definitive statement of faith around which all Southern Baptists could unite. But apparently that is not sufficient. It is not enough to subscribe to the BF&M; if you do not interpret soteriology as I do your doctrine is not only suspect, it is dangerous to the SBC. There have been motions at recent conventions implying calvinists need to be ostracized from the convention.

There is little to commend unity among cookie-cutter conformists. Unity is significant only in the context of diversity. We are a diverse denomination ethnically, generationally, and in church size and forms. And, yes, there are variations in how Baptists understand and interpret matters of faith while holding to the same common foundational doctrines.

Why is unity an illusion? Because there are those who don’t really want unity; they want conformity to their way of thinking. We have an unfortunate record of alienating those who don’t agree with us, no matter how trivial the differences in our viewpoints. Some will remember as the conservative resurgence gained traction a number of moderate leaders drafted proposals for reconciliation for working together. Sadly, they did not realize no one was interested in conciliatory outcomes. The movement gained control by marginalizing and pushing out the moderates. Some would insist the same strategy is needed to produce the pretense of unity around an even narrower perspective of doctrine and ecclesiology today.

Unity comes from a compelling vision that brings together diverse segments to accomplish a worthy cause together. The Great Commission Resurgence should have produced a synergy to join hands among all elements who identify themselves as Southern Baptist and channel our resources to reach a lost world, but there is no indication that is happening. As long as there are those more interested in casting dispersion on those who are different and willing to alienate non-conformists, unity will be an illusion and nothing more than empty rhetoric.

9 Comments on “SBC–Illusion of Unity”

  1. Clif Cummings

    THANK YOU! I have admired you, prayed for you, travelled with you and had the honor of hearing you preach in my churches! My admiration continues to grow. Please continue to proclaim the truth!

  2. Dave Miller

    Excellent. Thank you.

  3. Tom Fortner

    Dear Dr. Rankin,

    As a Reformed Southern Baptist and a missionary to the motorcycle clubs in the Fort Worth area, I am deeply hurt by those who have asserted that Calvinists are by design non-evangelistic. I wish that those making those assertions would follow me for a few weeks and see that bikers, like everyone else, are only saved when God opens their minds and hearts to His Word through His Spirit. Yet, we see this happen frequently as we develop friendships with people from every patch (club) in the area.

    You are correct that our unity is an illusion. I wish it were not so. Rather than focus on the unity that the 2000 BF&M could provide, instead we shoot at those who don’t say Shibboleth as we say Sibboleth. The SBC doesn’t need a new civil war, but it appears to be where we are headed. Our self-destructive tendencies come from our depravity, not from our superior theology, regardless of our soteriology.

    I’ve served as pastor of three small churches. All three of them were horribly divided against themselves internally. The illusion of unity isn’t just convention-wide, but within every local church body. It’s a huge part of the problem of pastoral turn-over and exiting from the ministry we see today. As many men leave the ministry as the seminaries graduate each year. This, too, comes from our depravity, and not our superior theology.

    I’ve been praying for revival for 40 years, but recently I have come to the conclusion that revival isn’t enough. We need a new Reformation, a recovery of the great doctrines of the Bible and the importance of the church as the teacher of those doctrines. Today’s Christianity light isn’t enough to hold us together any more.

    Serving the Savior,

    Tom Fortner
    Burleson, Texas

  4. Brian Musser

    Dear Dr. Rankin,
    As the Baptist Campus Minister at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA which is a school of approximately 20,000 students and positioned well outside of what is dubbed the Bible Belt, it is disheartening to see the issues that dividing us as a convention. I have never had to explain the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism to the Muslim students that visit the prayer room next my office. It has not come up once in a conversation with any of my atheist friends. However, as I was giving an acceptance speech for winning a University award for work with Diversity and Intercultural Engagement, I turned heads as I highlighted that in the Greater Philadelphia Baptist Association we have approximately 170 churches, 100 of them African American, 30 – 40 of them speaking some other language besides English and the rest probably your stereotypically White, Anglo, Suburban Protestant Churches. This unity in diversity brought me respect from the University and hopefully some honor and glory to God. It has always been interesting to me that Jesus prayed for us to be united. I assume he did this because he knew we would need His prayers on this topic. And I know he wanted because our unity validates that God sent Him in the eyes of the world. Jesus prays that we may be united so that the world will know that God sent Him. This unity thing not only within the SBC but within all of Christendom is a serious matter.


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  6. Brent Hobbs

    I was at Ridgecrest for Centrifuge with our youth when this was posted, so didn’t get to add a comment then, but I did save it to come back to when we got home and I got caught up with a few things. Like Dave said above, I really appreciate your words here and am thankful that many (I think a majority) see through the divisiveness and will not allow it to gain a foothold. I hope that is the case.

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  9. Bob Hadley

    Dr. Rankin,

    You wrote, “Why is unity an illusion? Because there are those who don’t really want unity; they want conformity to their way of thinking. We have an unfortunate record of alienating those who don’t agree with us, no matter how trivial the differences in our viewpoints.”

    I believe this statement is indeed the reason for ALL the controversy. The real question is, who is responsible for wanting “conformity to their way of thinking”?

    One other thing: soteriology is anything BUT a trivial difference in our respective viewpoints. It is not a trivial matter for calvinists or we would not be embroiled in this debate in the first place. The Traditional or non-calvinists are not the ones who have made this an issue. Many are now responding to it simply because they are just now beginning to realize the extent of the proliferation calvinists have made in the entities of the SBC. There are individuals who have done a masterful job of establishing a calvinistic presence in every aspect of SBC Life that has any significance.

    I am not sure that a lack of unity is the problem; there is a move being made to counter the calvinist’s move. If that is divisive then so be it. The question is who is responsible for the divisiveness? Does the responsibility lie with those who have stepped up and stepped in every significant movement within the SBC or is the divisiveness being caused by those who simply are not in favor of this change that has been handed to them?

    There really is no “illusion of unity”. I think the stakes are crystal clear.


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