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20 Reflections After 20 Years

By Walter B. Shurden

Callaway Professor of Christianity

Executive Director, The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University, Macon, Georgia

Note: This article was published in Texas Baptists Committed, National Edition, October 1999, p.19

    1. The most prophetic line of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War: “We will have a great time here, if for no other reason than to elect Adrian Rogers our president.” It came from W. A. Criswell at the SBC Pastors’ Conference in Houston, Texas, in 1979. It brought the SBC house down with cheers and applause. More pessimistic observers would simply say that those words brought the SBC house down. But they didn’t.

    2. The saddest moment of the controversy: Oct. 22, 1986, at Glorieta, N.M., when the SBC seminary presidents caved in before the fundamentalist juggernaut. Glorieta marked the end for the moderates. You do not compromise with truth-oriented fundamentalists who think that they have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    3. The reason for the outcome: passion won; culture played a part; leadership wasvery important.

    4. One of the most often-heard and biggest myths during the controversy: “The fundamentalists will moderate once they get in power.” I stand by what I said regarding the new SBC in my final chapter of the revised edition of Not a Silent People. “Theologically and ideologically the SBC has been fundamentalized; ecclesiologically the SBC has been centralized; culturally, in terms of gender issues, the SBC has been chauvinized; ecumenically the SBC has been sectarianized; denominationally the SBC has been de-baptistified.”

    5. The greatest error history will make in interpreting the controversy: thinking it was a lopsided victory. It was a much closer fight than history will reflect. But history will mark it up as a “win” for the fundamentalists and a “loss” for the moderates without paying attention to the very close percentages by which the fundamentalists won the presidency year after year.

    6. A warning to all from the controversy: The Southern Baptist Church has replaced The Southern Baptist Convention. Moderates must work at carrying their emerging connectionalism lightly. The “community” in Baptist life is primarily the local church. This is neither Landmarkism nor sectarianism. It is historic Baptist church polity.


    7. The bad news coming out of the controversy: It was worth doing then. It will be worth doing again when Baptists have forsaken their Baptistness.

    8. The biggest casualties of the war: little girls born into SBC churches during the struggle who would grow up wanting to be a part of the SBC ministry in the 21st century.

    9. The most appropriate biblical text for the Holy War: Acts 19:32. “Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.”

    10. The most surprising outcome of the controversy: the belief, as Fisher Humphreys said, that the Bible alone is God’s word was unaffected by the controversy. Moderates believe that as much as fundamentalists. Nothing has changed regarding the place of the Bible in Baptist life. Difference in interpretations of the Bible continue, as they always have.

    11. The most forgotten dimension of the controversy by the moderates: that moderates are defined by the two decades of struggle. One understands the moderate longing to get “beyond” the controversy, but the truth of the matter is that moderates are who they are because of what they both resisted and affirmed in the controversy. Moderates will “forget” or “get beyond” at their peril.

    12. A moderate hero who should never be forgotten: Cecil Sherman. He was right more times in more ways on more issues than any other single person. I am grateful for him, for his courage, for his tenacity, for his wisdom, and for his leadership.

    13. The most overlooked dimension of the controversy: the doctrine of God. Alan Neely, another of the many moderate heroes of the war, said correctly that the controversy was “fundamentally an argument about God.” He meant, I think, that fundamentalists were mired in a concept of God that was exclusive, intolerant and legalistic, while moderates pleaded for God’s inclusiveness, forgiveness and acceptance.

    14. One of the biggest victories for the SBC fundamentalist leadership: the triumph of creedalism in SBC life. Even some moderates, under the influence of that triumph, long for a “statement of what we believe.” It is a dangerous itch. Let it itch. Don’t scratch it.

    15. The most pathetic people in the controversy: those who said, “plague on both the fundamentalists and the moderates” and who serenely stayed out of the line of fire. Next to the most pathetic are those megachurch pastors who waited to see who would win before they cast their sails toward the winning fundamentalists. If moderates had won, these ambitious pastors would have gone with moderates.

    16. People who have never heard enough “thank yous” from moderates: old- line SBC leadership that helped launch the new moderate organizations and then gladly stepped aside: Duke McCall, Grady Cothen, Jimmy Allen, Carolyn Crumpler, Foy Valentine, Randall Lolley, and a few others who have been too often derisively labeled the “the good old boys (and girl).” They were indeed a group of good old boys and girl.

    17. I’m glad to be done with the fundamentalist leadership of the SBC that transformed some good, basically conservative denominational agencies into a bastion of fundamentalism. The new SBC is not even close to my Baptist identity. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and The Baptist Alliance are much closer. It feels good to be able to embrace the larger Baptist tradition and the larger Christian community.

    18. I hope moderates will grow more and more into issues of social justice while keeping their Bibles open and their hearts warm. My prayer is that moderates will take seriously what Jesus took seriously. Baptists of our ilk have been big on missions and big on personal devotion, and that is very good. We need to become bigger on justice issues.

    19. I hope moderates will not dumb down our worship simply because dumbing down is the fad and draws crowds. I hope moderates will never get stuck again on issues of size, but I also hope that we will explore the possibility of being Baptist with other Baptists, especially American Baptists, Canadian Baptists, and some African-American Baptists.

    20. The biggest nonsurprise of the controversy: Historic Baptist principles regarding the importance of the individual, the centrality of the local church, religious liberty and the separation of church and state, anticreedalism, and the priesthood of all believers, may be more important at the turn of this century than at any time since Baptists began in 17th-century England.