Southern Baptists, like most conservative evangelicals, are distinguished by the things we say we believe about the Scriptures. We call ourselves “People of the Book.” That old-time phrase carries with it certain theological commitments, but it also describes our inclinations. When presented with pressing questions, our first instinct is, we say, to open our Bibles. To go to the Book.
This certainly proved to be the case during the major twentieth-century rift in American Protestantism. Southern Baptists emerged squarely on the conservative side of the fight between theological liberalism and orthodoxy, one that was fought primarily on the battleground of whether Scripture is inerrant. Almost entirely alone among the major denominations, Southern Baptists waged a successful campaign in the 1970s and ’80s to beat back the liberal theological incursions into their institutions. Thus, America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), with all its 180-year history, 47,000 churches, and 14 million members, remains conservative and evangelical to this day. At least in theory.
However, a new rift is developing within the SBC, as it is in other conservative evangelical denominations. This time the fight is not as much over Scripture’s inerrancy as it is over its sufficiency. The question is whether Scripture ought to be regarded as a comprehensive guide for the Christian life, the place where our inquiry starts and ends; or is it instead a mere touchpoint to be reinterpreted and mediated through the thick lenses of contemporary sensibilities? Conservative evangelicals claim to believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. But that belief is too often held in only a theoretical way. Many Baptist leaders these days actually appear embarrassed by how the Bible applies to our modern debates.
A genuine, practical commitment to sufficiency regards Scripture as providing a sufficient basis for living a godly Christian life, both for an individual and for ordering and ruling the life of the church. A corollary of this belief is that Scripture’s meaning is plain and accessible to any Christian.
The idea that Scripture is sufficient should function as an anchor for us during times of cultural convulsion. Ordinary believers should be hearing from their pastors and Christian leaders that, come what may and despite what the world says, they can be confident that we have in the Scriptures a clear word from God on how we should live. As a result, we can know what the right and good paths are, even if those paths put us significantly out of step with broader social mores. Although often castigated as anti-intellectuals, People of the Book—by clinging tightly to God’s Word—have a claim to a wisdom that is infinitely truer than the knowledge one can get by earning a PhD.
Too often, however, we see that under very real social pressure, conservative Christians find reasons not to open the Bible. Compromise in our circles now takes on a form that is not a frontal attack on the clear doctrinal lines that have been set out over the last hundred years. No, instead we see creeping attitudes of accommodation that take on the shape of subtly muting Scripture’s voice, limiting the parts of human life to which Scripture speaks, and converting theological questions properly answered by Scripture into questions answered in a therapeutic fashion borrowing from supposed experts in psychology, sociology, and various forms of critical theory. These forms of compromise are more sophisticated than twentieth-century theological liberalism, and as such, they are more difficult to discern, put a name to, and critique.
Let me provide a couple of recent examples from Southern Baptist life that show how this dynamic plays out in practice.
Scripture could not be clearer about natural distinctions between men and women, and how those distinctions should be honored in the home and the church. The office of pastor or elder is expressly limited to qualified men (1 Tim. 2:12, 3:2; Titus 1:5-9). Over the years, the practice of ordaining women pastors has served as a canary in the coal mine, marking churches that are leaving conservative moorings on a host of other matters. We all saw this clearly demonstrated when Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, the largest in the SBC, proudly celebrated the ordination of three women pastors.
A more common, and more subtle, departure by many congregations has minimized the functional differences between men and women in the life of the church. In recent years a trend has developed where women are invited to preach Sunday sermons on Mothers’ Day. Whether through formal ordination or occasional preaching, scriptural teachings regarding the office and function of the pastor, as Southern Baptists have historically understood them, are being abandoned. If we are going to remain a People of the Book, we must firmly resist the cultural pressures that tempt us to eliminate the God-given distinctions in the roles of men and women. Rather, we must unashamedly embrace God’s revealed plan for men and women in the church as right and good and strive to implement it in a fulsome way.
To take another example, scriptural teachings on LGBT+ issues have become, in the SBC, a major point of pain and embarrassment. We’ve now had two successive presidents in the SBC preach very similar (nearly identical) sermons claiming that the Bible whispers about homosexuality but shouts about greed. These claims are inexplicable as a matter of orthodox interpretation, and impossible to square with the Bible calling homosexuality an “abomination,” “contrary to nature,” the grounds for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and a severe form of judgment on fallen humanity. Instead, these sermons show a sad desire to shout about portions of Scripture that sound friendly to the postmodern ear but whisper about the ones that may grate or offend.
These things should not be. The Word of God, we are told, is sharper than any two-edged sword and will not return void. God does not need us to serve as PR agents for the Bible. Rather, he has commissioned us to be heralds announcing the reign and rule of the living King. For the sake of our souls, and those of our neighbors, we must return to the Book without a shred of embarrassment. We should humbly believe all that it teaches and follow wherever it leads, without regard to cost or consequence. For there can be no doubt that our postmodern world, increasingly disinterested in logical argumentation, needs the unvarnished Bible now more than ever.
Tom Ascol is the senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and President of Founders Ministries and the Institute of Public Theology. He is a candidate for president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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Photo by Aaron Burden via Creative Commons. Image cropped.