The 'Uneasy Conscience' of a Modern Southern Baptist
Last week, I wrote a post called “SBC Priorities: Alcohol over Integrity in Church Membership” in which I said the following:
Look, I have never had an ounce of alcohol in my life. Not an ounce, not even wine. I have no desire to defend it, but alcohol is not the problem in the
, we are. We don’t need a resolution on alcohol—we need a resolution on us. If we want to major on the majors, then let’s put the focus on ourselves, our denominational pride, our unwillingness to be honest, open, transparent, and broken. The SBC does not need a band-aid to cover superficial wounds; we need surgery. My question then, is, “Where are the surgeons?” SBC
So where are the surgeons I ask? Let me guide you to the steady hand of an excellent writer and defender of evangelical orthodoxy, Carl F.H. Henry. In his book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Henry mentions in the preface that “some of my evangelical friends have expressed the opinion that nobody should ‘perform surgery’ on Fundamentalism just no, thinking it wiser to wait until the religious scene is characterized by less tension” (xv). Henry goes on to provide several reasons, a part of which I want to quote here:
Fundamentalism [then synonymous with conservative evangelicalism] in two generations will be reduced either to a tolerated cult status or, in the event of Roman Catholic domination in the United States, become once again a despised and oppressed sect. The only alternative, it appears to me, is a rediscovery of the revelational classics and the redemptive power of God, which shall lift our jaded culture to a level that gives significance again to human life (xv-xvi).
Henry wrote this book in 1947 at the close of World War II. In this book, Henry addresses how ill-equipped evangelicals were to addressing the crucial issues surrounding Fundamentalism and offers a detailed complaint about the evangelical weaknesses that were brought to light during this time. In the forward, Richard Mouw explains that this work was
“an invitation to an evangelical cultural involvement that was based solidly on the kind of profound theological reflection that could only be sustained by a social program that was closely linked to a systematic commitment to the nurturing of the life of the mind. And while the evangelical academy has known much scholarly success in recent decades, there is often a considerable disconnect between grassroots evangelical activism and carefully reasoned theological orthodoxy” (xiii).
During this time period, radical textual criticism was rampant among the intellectual elites, the charges of religious superiority in evangelical Christianity was considered “idolatrous” by contemporary pluralists like Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Ernest Troeltsch, and the core tenets of evangelical orthodoxy was under assault—doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the Incarnation. However, Henry remarked that this was not what concerned him. Rather, he said:
What concerns me more is that we have needlessly invited criticism and even ridicule, by a tendency in some quarters to parade secondary and sometimes even obscure aspects of our position as necessary frontal phases of our view . . . it is needful that we come to a clear distinction, as evangelicals, between those basic doctrines on which we unite in a supernaturalistic world and life view and the area of differences on which we are not in agreement while yet standing true to the essence of Biblical Christianity . . . Unless we do this, I am unsure that we shall get another world hearing of the Gospel (emphasis mine) (xvi-xvii).
Here, Henry lands with an emphatic declaration that we are in danger of forfeiting gospel impact in our world because of needlessly welcoming ridicule by parading “secondary” and “obscure” aspects of our faith. Is this not what we are doing with such “ridicule-ous” resolutions as that of alcohol? Do we not have enough opposition with our world and culture because of the god of this world and spirit of this age? Why should we cripple our gospel witness with even more barriers? In light of all this, I write today as a Southern Baptist gripped with an “uneasy conscience.”
Concluding upon his reasons for the immediacy and necessity of surgery upon modern Fundamentalism, Henry asserts that he could not “set aside the conviction that we have not as a movement faced up with the seriousness of our predicament” (xvii). I would like to follow on the heels of Henry by saying that we as Southern Baptists have not faced up with the seriousness of our predicament either. Band-aid sized resolutions work for superficial predicaments, but we are prescribing the wrong medicine because we have not properly diagnosed the disease.
The ultimate concern of Henry should be the siren of the
Those who read with competence will know that the “uneasy conscience” of which I write is not one troubled about the great Biblical verities, which I consider the only outlook capable of resolving our problems, but rather one distressed by the frequent failure to apply them effectively to crucial problems confronting the modern mind. It is an application of, not a revolt against, fundamentals of the faith, for which I plead (emphasis mine) (xviii).
There are those who want to make the charge that Southern Baptists who have spoken out against its extreme fundamentalism are really antinomian or closet liberals. This couldn’t be further from the truth! We simply believe that the recovery of the inerrancy of Scripture should subsequently lead to practical implications based on the sufficiency of Scripture to engage our culture and defend our faith. As Mouw adds,
Not only was it possible to promote an intellectually and culturally engaged evangelicalism, but a worldview based solidly on biblical authority was desperately needed in a social climate where the current theological options had in their own ways failed to provide satisfying answers to the deepest questions of the human spirit” (emphasis original) (xi).
So what has contributed to the “uneasy conscience” of this Southern Baptist? We have failed to apply the gospel of Jesus to our lives and conformed our practices and principles according to the Biblical (or “supernaturalistic” as Henry would argue) worldview built upon the sole sufficiency and authority of God’s inerrant Word. We are currently forfeiting our gospel witness in the culture we are seeking to reach by enacting bogus resolutions which are a far cry from essential and distinctive truths which we profess. And the more we continue to go on this path of misdiagnoses and superficial prescriptions, the more I realize that we have not learned our lessons from the past nor taken our current predicament seriously. Fortunately, our elder generation had a surgeon willing to go beneath the surface of modern Fundamentalism, but the question still remains whether we have men of Henry’s mold to take us to the emergency table.
As I laid in bed last night, I thought about some questions to ask myself concerning my position on matters such as alcohol and any other issue that might arise similar to it. Here are ten questions which I wrote down that I found helpful for me:
- What does the Bible say about this?
- Does this, will this, bring glory and honor to Jesus Christ?
- Hoe does this affect the gospel and its impact and progress in our world/culture?
- What lessons can we learn from church history that may speak to this?
- What would be the possible consequences—intended or unintended concerning this?
- What are the weaknesses, blind spots, or inconsistencies in my position?
- Have I thoroughly considered alternative positions, taken them through the crucible of God’s Word, and fairly weighed them in the balance?
- Is this matter essential (a hill to die on)?
- Will this edify the body of Christ and uphold the integrity of truth?
- If I come to realize that I am wrong, am I prepared to humbly be corrected and change my mind, including the statements I have made in public?
This post is a little longer than my usual articles, but I hope that you find sufficient grounds for the “uneasy conscience” of this Southern Baptist. There are great days ahead for our beloved Convention, but it does not come without the spiritual discernment of rightly diagnosing the diseases that plague us and being willing to be the surgeon who knows more than applying another resolution and band-aid to a problem that doesn’t exist.