On Jason K. Allen’s “SBC and the 21st Century.”
Dr. Jason K. Allen is the current president of one of the foremost ministerial institutions in the United States, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS). Dr. Allen’s résumé leaves little to be desired when it comes to his caliber not only as a distinguished leader among the broader evangelical educational spectrum, but also as an instrumental voice among Southern Baptists as a whole, who remain among the most influential denominations in the world. His experiences as a ministerial student and pastor allow him to make keen academic and evangelistic observations into some of the most prescient issues of the day.
To that end, The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, & Recommitment is a collection of talks and essays from a 2015 symposium held at the MBTS campus in Kansas City, Missouri and hosted by seminary president, Jason K. Allen. The roster of contributors features a veritable who’s-who of influential ministerial leaders from across the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and beyond, including Russell D. Moore, R. Albert Mohler, Thom. S. Rainer, Jason G. Duesing, David Platt, among several others. The intent of the symposium, and its subsequent record (in the form of this book), serves to articulate the historical values (and shortcomings) within the convention and actuate contemporary members to propel the SBC as a whole towards a rich, vibrant future. As Russell D. Moore expresses in the foreword, “The Baptist future will require faithful, conservative, confessional Baptists to see ourselves as the best of our ancestors saw themselves, as the people of Christ before we are anything else.”1
The SBC and the 21st Century is partitioned neatly into three distinct sections, with contributors navigating from the pragmatic to the axiomatic with consonant clarity. The first subdivision consists of four chapters surveying the inception of the Cooperative Program (CP), conventional demographics, the merits of state conventions, and the place of the SBC within evangelicalism as a whole. The second partition is comprised of six chapters which aim to cover the particular doctrinal distinctives, figures, and controversies that account for the present state of the convention itself. Each contributor tackles a uniquely formative moment (or set of moments) through which the SBC and its constituents have traversed, noting how the triumphs and failures at each juncture have shaped the SBC as a whole. The third and final segmentation of the book addresses the evangelistic and missional objectives of the convention at the local, national, and global levels. These seven chapters feature a rich call to action that synthesizes what Jason K. Allen asserts in the opening introduction, namely, that “denominational decline always follows doctrinal compromise.”2 The point being that doctrinal resolve and theological fortitude will be among the chief reasons Southern Baptists realize a hopeful future, conventionally and denominationally.
If one is looking for a robust chronicle of the SBC, there are certainly more appropriate volumes through which one should wade. The SBC and the 21st Century is light on intricate historical narrative but heavy on present affirmative attestation. The lack of overt historical contextual analysis, then, is no detriment. Rather, the objective of this compendium of articles is such that digressing into historical particulars might have resulted in a misfire. But even for one who is not affiliated with the SBC, however, The SBC and the 21st Century offers a wide array of papers that cover nearly every element that constitutes the SBC in its present form. There is more than enough within this volume for one to gain a firmer grasp of the convictions which form the underlying theological and missiological premises of the convention itself.
Be that as it may, Jason K. Allen states in his introduction that, “No one wonders what Southern Baptists believe on the big theological and social issues of the day.”3 One might be hard-pressed, however, to find aggregate evidence to corroborate such a claim. The SBC’s coeval condition is one that is rife with an assortment of social and doctrinal controversies with which present and future ministers will be forced to grapple. Lamentably this is not anomalous when one considers the contentious sagas that have defined the convention, let alone the dissension which led to the formulation of the SBC in the first place. Indeed, as David S. Dockery puts it, “Controversy has characterized Southern Baptist history.”4 There has been no shortage of disruption to threaten the vitality of the SBC, what with dilemmas revolving around fundamentalism and liberalism, the inerrancy of Scriptures, and not the least of which its own reckoning occasion, slavery.5
But such is what makes The SBC and the 21st Century the hopeful volume that it is; it does not seek to limit the blunders of generations past. Indeed, rather, it aims to vitalize the immediate conglomerate of pastors, ministers, and churches with the reverberating message of the gospel. The pulsating theme of the book remains an affectionate campaign for a renewed interest in the matters of evangelism and missions. Which means “we do not need an improved denomination,” says Thom. S. Rainer. “We need healthier churches.”6
Accordingly, nestled within the second partition is a trio of chapters by Jason G. Duesing, Christian T. George, and Owen D. Strachan, each of which transcend the conventional or even denominational efforts of the book. Christian T. George’s essay, in particular, is striking in ways that eclipse a volume that is otherwise comprised of articles that are largely filled with SBC enthusiasm. George aims to faithfully, though briefly, examine the infamous “Downgrade Controversy” of the late-nineteenth century and identify the exemplary lessons that were learned and how those same lessons are prescient even today. The crux of the book’s (and the convention’s) purpose converge throughout this eloquent discourse, especially where George writes with exploding eloquence:
The confession of faith we as Southern Baptists celebrate draws its distinctives from Scripture. But it does not draw from a Scripture devoid of history. Baptists draw our identity from a particular interpretation of Scripture as it was hammered out in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To untie our tradition from its historical moorings will lead to theological drifting, as Spurgeon witnessed. The mistakes of tomorrow can be prevented by remembering the mistakes of the past. And we must do this with boundaries and bridges. Baptists need boundaries to protect us from heresies without, and we need to bridges to unite us in orthodoxy within. Such shall safeguard us from the errors of our time and the error of thinking our own time is the only time. If ever we, as a convention, needed safeguarding, it is now — safeguarding from the extremes of hyper-Calvinism and semi-Pelagianism, intellectualism and fanaticism, creedalism and creedal-phobia. Baptists do not need to reinvent the wheel of orthodoxy; we need to spin it in a biblical direction . . .
Jesus Christ will eventually cauterize our hemorrhaging. He did this for the bleeding woman in Luke 8, and he will do this for us. Of course, the sickness may get worse before it gets better. Spurgeon once said, “There is no greater mercy that I know of on earth than good health except it be sickness; and that has often been a greater mercy to me than health.” Our bleeding will stop, but it will not be healed with the bandages of consumeristic Christianity. Jesus told us to be salt, not sugar. Nor will we be healed by grasping the latest, over-the-counter, twelve steps to “Your Best Church Now” concoction. Jesus said we must lose our life to gain it.
Instead, our bleeding will stop when, like the woman in the text, we reach out and take of hold of the Man himself — when the Great Physician gives us his spirit to confront the spirit of our age and when the pulpit, not the coffee shop, pulls people again to the pews. The health of our churches depends not on clever inventions but on the lifting up of Christ. We are healed because Christ was harmed. We are saved because Christ was slain. Christ’s bleeding disorder heals our bleeding disorder, and the nails that pierced his skin contained enough iron to ward off the anemia that threatens our spirituality.7
Overall, The SBC and the 21st Century serves as an indelible gospel missive for ministers of all denominational stripes, enriching and encouraging them to a fresh commitment to the doctrinal distinctives that inspire a faithful, hopeful future.
Russell D. Moore, foreword to The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, & Recommitment, edited by Jason K. Allen (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), xiv.
David S. Dockery, “Who Are Southern Baptists? Toward an Intergenerational Identity,” Ibid., 87.
For additional insight into this, I highly recommend this article from my dear friend, Dr. Obbie Todd: “Have Southern Baptists Changed Theologically Since 1845?”
Thom S. Rainer, “By the Numbers: What SBC Demographics Tell Us About Our Past, Present, and Future,” Ibid., 31.
Christian T. George, “Downgrade: Twenty-First-Century Lessons from Nineteenth-Century Baptists,” Ibid., 131, 133–34. See Luke 17:33; John 12:32.