The SBC, the Inerrancy of Scripture, and Matt 11:25

I returned home yesterday from a week in Florida that was filled with first-time experiences: my first trip to Disney World, my first visit to my sister and her family’s home, and my first Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting. One of the reasons I decided to attend the Convention this year the summer class I enrolled in at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary about the SBC and its Annual Meeting. One of the books assigned for that course was Baptist Battles by Nancy Tatum Ammerman, published in 1990.

Any student of Southern Baptist History will recognize the year 1990 as the “winding-down” point of the great controversy in Southern Baptist life throughout the 1980’s over whether Southern Baptist seminaries and other entities would be controlled by theological conservatives or theological moderates. The chief theological issue at stake in this controversy was the absolute inerrancy of Scripture. This controversy has been described by historians as the “Conservative Resurgence,” because it resulted in a swing from moderate control of the SBC over to conservative control of the SBC. Mrs. Ammerman is writing as a former Southern Baptist, a sociologist at Emory University, and as one who acknowledges her sympathy with the moderate position.

Though I am usually repelled by books made up of statistics and surveys, this one was fascinating to me. Mrs. Ammerman conducted a study of the differences behind self-described “conservative” and “moderate” Southern Baptists during the Conservative Resurgence. While Mrs. Ammerman acknowledged that theological differences were at the heart of the controversy, she also explored some of the social differences that existed between the two camps. As a conservative, small-church pastor, in a rural, blue-collar community, I found these results to be highly interesting. I won’t offer any further commentary here, but keep in mind as you read these quotes that the great issue at stake in the controversy is the absolute truthfulness of the Bible, which (to use very broad terms), conservatives affirmed and moderates did not. Here are a few quotes from her chapter, “Social Differences:”

“We asked our respondents about their financial conditions while growing up and found that there was little theological difference between those who grew up rich and those who grew up poor. There were differences, however, between people who grew up in white-collar and professional families and those whose parents were farmers or blue-collar workers. Those with higher status parents were twice as likely to be on the left side of the Baptist fence. More than a quarter of them (28%) were in the theologically moderate camp, compared to 12% of those whose families farmed and 16% of those from blue collar homes. Conversely, those from farming and blue collar families were more likely than those from white collar and professional families to be on the fundamentalist side of the fence. The occupational status, but not the income, of the childhood families from which Baptists came seem to have some relationship, then, to the beliefs they held and he parties they joined in the fight.” (129)

“This suggests that the status differences that may exist between conservative dissidents and the denomination’s establishment may be attributed to differences in culture and style of life more than to differences in raw economic privilege. What makes white collar and professional parents differnt is much more than the amount of money they make or the prestige they may have in the community. White collar parents are much more likely to value independent thinking, creativity, and expressiveness in their children, while blue collar parents often try to teach obedience, routine, and self-control. Those differing values, after all, reflect the differences between working with supervisors and fixed tasks, compared to making one’s own schedule and designing one’s own work. These differences in up-bringing may be reflected in the theological party differences we see among Southern Baptists.

“. . . Conservative beliefs seemed to have a very strong hold within farming and blue-collar households, while those who worked in higher status occupations were somewhat more likely to fall to the left of the center and to identify with the moderate party in the denomination. Not only were moderates much more likely to have come from white-collar and professional families, they were also more likely to live in such a family as adults. The result was a fairly stark contrast in the occupational composition of the convention’s right and left wings. The world of moderates was almost exclusively a white collar and professional world, while fundamentalists were distributed broadly across farming, blue collar, white collar, and professional occupations.

“. . . Another result was a difference in personal style and appearance that was regular enough to be noticed by our observers. Rank and file moderates were likely to wear nice tailored suits, and the men often wore oxford-cloth, button-down collar shirts. They were rarely ostentatious; they looked, rather, like they were used to dressing for the office, to fit in with other professional people. The clothing of rank and file fundamentalists varied between outfits that looked new for the occasion and simple dresses and shirts and slacks that had been worn often before. Fundamentalist women were much more likely to wear a fancy dress than a suit, and their husbands occasionally had ties. that were a little too wide or shirts that did not match the rest of their clothes. There was, of course, no uniformity to such observations, but the coincidence happened often enough to make us suspect that real differences existed between the two groups.” (128-129, 133)

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About Eric Smith

Sinner saved by the grace of Jesus, husband of Candace, father of Coleman and Crockett, West Tennessean, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church, student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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