The tension within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) resembles a conflict that we see in many other Christian denominations. In reading a The Thirty Years’ War by Geoffrey Parker I am reminded about how complex, multilateral, and turbulent social relations can become when a society divides over questions of ecclesiology. In the case of the seventeenth-century Holy Roman Empire, over 1,000 individual principalities ranging from the Austrian Empire to small city-states were tugging in multiple directions as they walked through the aftermath of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The Muslim Turks hovered as a constant danger, and the eastern lands of the Holy Roman Empire butted against territories that still fell under the Eastern Orthodox Church. At the same time, the Calvinists, Lutherans, and Catholics all struggled with each other, fighting over each congregation and parish in a dizzying chaos. Other breakaway churches added to the complexity. I pity whoever tries to make a map of the Thirty Years’ War with the goal of clarifying it to the average reader.
So let’s bring this back to the SBC. Whether you are inside or outside the convention, you may feel the urge to simplify the struggle to a simple map. Who are the liberal ones and who are the conservative ones? It was this type of simplification that led many people to misread what was happening at Southwestern Baptist Seminary prior to 2018, for instance. When Karen Swallow-Prior and her friends in the Washington Post-Beth Moore-Jonathan Merritt orbit came forward with a petition against Paige Patterson over allegations that he mishandled sex abuse, many people I knew had no idea how extreme Karen Prior’s movement against Patterson was going to become. Once Patterson was removed, they did not see the enormity or viciousness of the wave of change that was about to come upon the SBC. In short, they did not realize that a bloodless war within the SBC was afoot, and they did not prepare for it or respond adequately to it.
In many people’s minds within the SBC, all the divisions had to do with the divide between Arminians and Calvinists. Since Patterson was not only not Calvinist but quite anti-Calvinist, and since a large majority of churchgoing Baptists were still not Calvinists, people assumed that Patterson could not be taken out of power. I will talk in a moment about why that was a misreading of the situation.
In the meantime, consider what people outside the SBC thought was happening. To the average Washington Post reader, the details of Calvinism and anti-Calvinism were obscure. Many outside observers had no idea what these things even referred to. Most people responding to articles in the Washington Post or Atlantic Monthly believed that this was a dichotomous fight between liberals and conservatives, or more simply, between pro-Trump Baptists and anti-Trump Baptists. They interpreted the removal of Patterson as the success of a younger generation of Baptists in dislodging an older, whiter, and more patriarchal generation that symbolized everything pro-Trump.
So what was really happening? And what’s going on now? It will help to remember the Holy Roman Empire in the seventeenth century. Leading up to the Thirty Years’ War, one principle that caused much of the chaos was the notion of cuius regio, eius religio. This means, “he whose government it is, is he whose religion it is.” In other words, leaders set the articles of faith for the entities they lead. In the case of the Holy Roman Empire, one saw a blend of republicanism and divine right of kings. The Holy Roman Empire was impacted greatly by events in monarchic neighbors like Spain, England, and France. Sometimes it felt natural to appeal to the divine right of kings. But many of the principalities within the Empire had “Electors” and some kind of limited suffrage to determine the line of succession. Both political philosophies supported the basic notion of cuius regio, eius religio. If one used divine-right rhetoric, one would say that God anoints a successor so it is in God’s will for ecclesiastical matters to be fulfilled through that successor’s wishes. If one used republican rhetoric, one could speak in Hobbesian language to say that the Volk or “people” author their own government by engaging in the election system that picks a leader; hence, within this reasoning, whatever religious practice the leader decrees is what the people chose for themselves.
Cuius regio eius religio has a violent downside, which is that competing religious faiths lead to all sorts of political jockeying, corruption, nepotism, and even violent war. Believing themselves to be carrying out the great commission of Matthew 28:19-20 (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all my commands”), adherents of one Christian denomination believe they are doing the Lord’s work by getting people who agree with them into positions of power. Hence in hereditary successions Christian militants seek to figure out which members of the royal family have converted to their church, and if there are none, they engage in multiple devious ways to seduce or recruit some to their beliefs. Then, once they have their designated champion identified, they support all kinds of assassination, dynastic rivalry, bribery, or blackmail to remove any familial obstacles and get their champion onto the throne.
In a republican setting, cuius regio eius religio is hardly less ugly. The flexibility in defining succession makes it such that churches live in a perpetual state of campaigning and streetfighting, vying to get one of their camp into power with the goal of banning, banishing, or crushing opposing denominations. At any moment there could be a reversal, especially if some larger neighboring entity with common religious ties (or common religious enmities) might be persuaded to assist with money, troops, or diplomacy. A Catholic camp in a principality might wish to gain backing from the powerful Spanish crown while a Lutheran camp might try to get Sweden on their side, etc.
In the seventeenth century this ended up in a war of all against all, a particularly frightening bloodbath that kept Germany in its fractured and disunited state. But we should not look at the Holy Roman Empire with derision or mockery, because much of our own situation in the SBC could be compared to it.
Voltaire said famously that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. One could say something similar about the Southern Baptist Convention. It is not really Southern, especially now, with so many international connections and a host of people from non-Southern states in the US drawn to the denomination’s massive resources and influence. It is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, lest we forget. This may explain why people like Karen Prior and Beth Moore never seem to up and leave for more liberal churches that match their feminist, anti-Trump and egalitarian views more closely.
The Southern Baptist Convention is not clearly Baptist either. Other Baptist denominations exist, which do not have the same Calvinist strain that now appears so influential in the SBC. One of the main signs of a Baptist church was always the autonomy of the congregation, congregation-led decisions, and a rejection of anything that looks like centralized pontifical authority. That model is currently extinct as the SBC grows more centralized every year and the politically liberal camp orbiting around the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission or ERLC has infiltrated the top tier of every entity’s leadership. As I learned while working at Southwestern, everything happening in an SBC entity happens according to orders from the top tiers of the ERLC. The turn toward Calvinist elder-led models has simultaneously weakened the individual congregation’s power to resist theological changes imposed from the state conventions or the SBC itself. There are only six seminaries, all led by people who once served under Albert Mohler in some capacity and all lurching swiftly toward the philosophy of the ERLC. Only a few years ago Southwestern had an identity as more traditional and conservative, Southern as more Calvinist, and Southeastern as more open to progressivism. Now it is virtually impossible to distinguish them from each other since they produce pastors of the same flavor and their leaders often tweet nearly identical words of support and agreement with each other. The individual churches that need to look for pastors or staff tend to have to recruit from seminary graduates or seminary students. Therefore all that the ERLC and Mohler had to do, in order to impose their doctrinal and political vision on all 46,000 churches, was to gain firm control over all the Seminaries. They got that.
So the SBC is not really Baptist at this point; it is an ecclesiological mélange of Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Byzantine, and Lutheran structures, with a great deal of confusion as to what in the Baptist Faith and Message actually unites the fifteen million people counted as Southern Baptist. It is also not really a Convention, since that word would imply a certain republican spirit in church governance. When you think of a convention you think of a large meeting of the minds where there isn’t a dynasty or Curia or nomenklatura controlling everything. When you think of a convention you think of a system where people can come, share their views, find common cause, and change the direction of things if it becomes clear the organization is adrift. Today’s SBC is controlled by an infinitesimal elite that keeps most of its dealings and finances secret. A Byzantine system of trustees, resolutions, committees, and parliamentary rules of order makes it impossible for Baptists outside of Albert Mohler’s elite to change anything. And a public-relations machine worthy of the Renaissance Vatican keeps the public constantly distracted or preoccupied with side controversies (such as whether John MacArthur should have told Beth Moore to “go home”) while the deeper structural problems don’t move.
With its population of fifteen million, the SBC is only a little short of the population of the Holy Roman Empire in 1620. Since we are on a similar scale, we should not be surprised when the “map” of the SBC looks a lot like a map of the Thirty Years War. Yes, you have Calvinists fighting with Arminians, but a lot of Calvinists disagree with the direction of Reformed people in the Gospel Coalition and the ERLC. You have a modern-day Hapsburg family composed of the entity heads, the ERLC fellows, a few celebrity pastors, some star professors, and their court favorites fanning out across the landscape to make sure the SBC stays in line.
But just as the Hapsburgs simply could not, no matter how hard they tried, keep the Holy Roman Empire Catholic, we see now that the SBC’s Hapsburgs fool themselves if they think they can monopolize power indefinitely. The fourth estate now includes too many rogue publications like Pulpit and Pen, Capstone Report, Jon Harris, and the Gatekeepers Online, who have large readerships because many Baptists hunger for real news and a break from the Hapsburg propaganda being pumped out of Lifeway, the Baptist Press, and the Twitter accounts of the SBC nomenklatura. The launch of the Conservative Baptist Network drove home the fact that Karen Prior didn’t make the traditionalist majority of the SBC vanish by getting Paige Patterson fired–if anything, she riled them to form a countermovement.
The SBC elites have many ties to the Catholic intelligentsia in the United States. For example, Adam Greenway rose to the presidency of Southwestern, while proudly brandishing his graduate degree from Notre Dame online. Catholic luminary Robert George had as his main protégé Ryan Anderson, who served as editor in chief of Public Discourse, which has published more than a few articles by ERLC fellows or Mohler protégés such as Denny Burk, Karen Prior, and Andrew Walker. Also many in the SBC intelligentsia work with the Acton Institute, headed by Catholic priest Robert Cirico. This can be likened to the diplomacy used by many of the principalities in the Holy Roman Empire to secure the support of Spain or France as a hedge against rivals in the Holy Roman Empire itself. Such détente backfired in the seventeenth century and may very well backfire in the SBC. The ties between powerful Baptists and powerful Catholics runs the risk of creating a mega-elite even more prone to misreading, ignoring, or simply dismissing the legitimate concerns of the rank-and-file in their own churches. As Catholics reel from the controversies caused by Pope Francis, many everyday Catholics look to their well-promoted leaders with the same wariness and frustration that color the everyday Baptists’ feelings about someone like Russell Moore.
While many people, especially outside the SBC (I think here of Ross Douthat or David French) like to summarize the conflicts within the SBC as pro-Trump versus anti-Trump, this does not describe what is really happening. Russell Moore and Al Mohler certainly strained relations with their own people by speaking out so strongly against Trump and by appointing and promoting so many never Trumpers within the denomination. But relationship to Trump is perhaps more metaphoric. Trump’s war against the globalist swamp symbolizes perfectly the groundswell growing in the SBC against the elite that has run their denomination into the ground, absconded with people’s tithes and resources, persecuted prophets within the denomination, and diluted the Baptist Faith and Message to a point where many fear a full-blown apostasy. There may be pro-Trump people who are part of the Baptist elite while there may be anti-Trump people who are part of the rank and file. It’s Trumpism that can help people understand the breaks within the SBC not people’s position on Trump himself.
Just as in the Holy Roman Empire, it can be difficult to know who’s who in the war that is heating up in the SBC. You have people like Adam Greenway who tout their non-Calvinist identities in order to diffuse fears about a Calvinist takeover when he seems to be doing the bidding of the anti-Patterson pro-Mohler camp that is largely Calvinist anyway. You will see many people who tell you convincingly that they are conservative on issues like LGBT, women preaching, or what have you, while their actions behind the scene undermine the denomination’s conservatism because they are secretly driving out staunch conservatives and quietly putting liberals in places of power where they will rise and carry out ideological makeovers when “the coast is clear.”
The SBC will look more and more like the war of all against all as we near the convention of 2020. But as strange as things appear, just remember what Solomon told us: there is nothing new under the sun.