For seven years, scandals and public rifts have rocked the declining Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The spectacle of division and embarrassment continued at the just-concluded annual meeting of Baptists in Anaheim.
Now, for the first time, the establishment class of the largest and ostensibly conservative protestant denomination in America is visibly divided against itself. Albert Mohler, the president of the denomination’s flagship seminary, has publicly broken ranks with SBC elites who have rushed to defend megachurch pastor Rick Warren. Warren is accused of violating the denomination’s doctrinal standards.
Warren’s Saddleback church boasts some 20,000 in attendance, making it the largest congregation in the SBC. His 2002 publication, “The Purpose Driven Life,” with more than 30 million copies sold, is one of the bestselling nonfiction books in history.
Warren’s openness to the political left is evidenced by giving the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In Davos, Warren met and befriended National Institutes of Health head Francis Collins, a pro-abortion bureaucrat who joined with former SBC chief ethicist Russell Moore to criticize Donald Trump voters.
On May 6, 2021, Warren’s Saddleback Church ordained three women as pastors, in defiance of both the clear teaching of the Bible and Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM 2000). The latter states, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” Rather than reprimand Saddleback, SBC Credentials committee chair Linda Cooper asked the convention to appoint a committee to study the meaning of the word “pastor” and report back to the convention next year.
In a surprise appearance, Warren addressed the convention: “Welcome to Orange County, with 149 Southern Baptist churches, 90 of them started by Saddleback . . . it is customary for a guy who is about to be hung to let him say his dying words.” Then this: “I have no intention of defending myself . . . I am most like Christ when I refuse to defend myself.”
Warren then read a prepared “love letter” to Southern Baptists. He said he’s planted “thousands” of churches “around the world.” “I’ve had the privilege for 43 years of training 1.1 million pastors. Sorry friends. That’s more than all the seminaries put together.”
By my calculation, that comes to 71 pastors trained per day for 43 straight years! One wonders if the churches planted and pastors trained, whatever the actual numbers, have also adopted a pick-and-choose posture toward the Bible and BFM 2000 articles, as modeled by Warren and Saddleback.
Warren then chided messengers who frown upon the liberties Saddleback has taken with clear scriptural teaching: “Are we going to keep bickering over secondary things or are we going to keep the main thing the main thing?” Warren did not specify the “main thing” referenced.What Is a ‘Pastor’?
Mohler responded, “I served on the committee that brought the BFM in 2000 that was overwhelmingly adopted by this convention. . . If we eventually have to form a study committee over every word in our confession of faith then we’re doomed, we’re no longer a confessional people. . . the words mean what Southern Baptists said in the year 2000 … [that] ‘pastor’ is the most easily understood word among Southern Baptists for pastoral teaching and leadership.”
Cooper, answered, “I know what pastor means but to some of our Southern Baptist churches pastor means a spiritual gift that is given to many people.” Cooper’s response exposes the core cause of theological compromise of the wider evangelical industrial complex — that phalanx of luminaries and institutions associated with Presbyterian Pastor Timothy Keller.
It encompasses not only the SBC but also the Presbyterian church in America, many non-denominational congregations, and every major evangelical publishing house, including the venerable and once-stalwart Eerdmans, which joined in this year’s homosexual Pride festivities. The touchstone of doctrine for Cooper is not the Bible, the BFM 2000, the Christian tradition, nor anything boasting ancient roots, but the committee’s current reading of what “some of our Southern Baptist churches” believe and practice.
We are witnessing the step-by-step genuflection of the last major conservative Christian institutions in America before the same insidious force leftists have succumbed to for 200 years. That’s what Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George called “the imperialism of the present.”
On both sides of the ocean, from the heady days when the father of Protestant Liberalism Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834) held forth at Trinity Church in Berlin to Brooklyn Heights’s national sensation, Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) to that sometime Presbyterian, sometime Baptist preacher at Riverside Church in Manhattan, Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), to today’s Joel Osteen, progressive preachers have made the satisfaction of contemporary sensibilities, not the Bible or doctrine, priority number one. Why do they do it? Because, in business terms, measured in bodies, buildings, and bucks, at least for a time, it works.Catering to the Culture
The fawning protection of Warren by SBC establishment elites in Anaheim is just the tip of the iceberg. For more than a decade, Keller and SBC entity heads have sought, found, and employed “winsome ways” to reach contemporaries deemed capable of keeping evangelicals on the “right side of history,” namely the blue communities of college-educated, Democrat-voting denizens of the nation’s cities and blue enclaves scattered across the fruited plain.
That population has drunk deeply from the well of second-wave feminism that lacks patience with ancient Biblical distinctions between the proper roles of men and women in the church. The businessperson’s hyper-alertness to the satisfaction of contemporary customers, and preservation and expansion of market share, best account for why Cooper cited the committee’s reading of contemporary views about the word “pastor” rather than either the Bible or Article VI of her own denomination’s confession in defense of Saddleback.
Christians anchored to the Bible and the confessions of faith crafted to protect and preserve the teaching of the Bible, have always, eventually, come to recognize such progressive catering to culture as sub-Christian lapses from the faith once delivered to the saints. If history is any guide, the SBC’s current iteration of this old pattern shall meet with a similar fate.Mark DeVine is a pastor, former missionary in Bangkok, Thailand, and a theology professor in Alabama. He is the author of "Bonhoeffer Speaks Today" and "Shalom Yesterday, Today, and Forever."