Ask a historian about the newest tensions in the Southern Baptist Convention, and you’ll hear words like theology, polity, and methodology.
Dig a little deeper into those tensions, closer to the congregational level, and you’ll hear words like evangelism, missions, and morality:
- Should there be an altar call after every service?
- Should the congregation be led by a dominant CEO-type pastor or a clergy-lay partnership?
- Should a presidential candidate’s party affiliation or political views trump flaws in his or her moral character?
Those are some of the pulpit-and-pew level tensions straining the faith, fellowship, and funding in the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
Those tensions — racial, sectional, but mostly generational — have been forming for more than a decade, thanks in large part to the rise of social media and millennials, and will be on full display this week when the convention holds its annual meeting in Phoenix.
They flared considerably — and publicly — during last year’s presidential campaign, when old guard Southern Baptist leaders like Richard Land and new generation leaders like Russell Moore began to clash over Donald Trump.
It was the first time that had happened since conservative, nondenominational Ronald Reagan faced moderate Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter in 1980.
“Barack Obama didn’t divide us,” said Nathan A. Finn, dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University, a Southern Baptist college in Jackson, Tenn.
“Donald Trump divided us. His personal behavior, his policy views, his temperament and character, his religious values, all were highly questionable.”
Some think Trump deserves a chance, Finn said. His policy views, especially on abortion, are close enough to those Southern Baptists hold. Plus, supporting Trump lets Southern Baptists keep their seat at the table.
But others believe they don’t need to be at the table, Finn said.
“Trump’s candidacy, and now his presidency, are causing us to consider whether we are just a chaplain for the Republican Party, or do we have a prophetic role to play for both parties?” Finn said.
Moore, the president of the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the public face of the network of churches, emerged as a consistent, vocal critic of Trump, even sparring with the candidate on Twitter. Moore issued post-election apologies for his approach, but not his positions.
Land, who is Moore’s predecessor and now the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, joined Trump’s evangelical advisory board, and marveled at the access to the incoming administration.
Calls for unity rose post-election as did criticism of Moore’s posture toward Trump. Questions were raised about whether Moore’s job was at risk. Moore says it wasn’t, and he has the support of his trustees.
“The Southern Baptist Convention is ultimately a close-knit family,” Moore said in an interview. “We love each other, and we work together. We don’t always agree on everything.”
But the disagreements are serious, have the attention of leadership, and could pose a financial threat to the Southern Baptist Convention, which unlike some other denominations is a network of independent churches.
Several Southern Baptist churches across the country pulled, or threatened to withhold, the contributions to the denomination’s Cooperative Program, the convention’s funding mechanism for state and national initiatives.
A Tennessee church, for instance, continues to withhold funds, after the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and the International Mission Board signed a legal brief supporting construction of a New Jersey mosque.
Other divides are generational.
Southern Baptists unite around core doctrine and mission, but the division comes from disagreements on secondary issues, said Jon Akin, the new director of young leader engagement for the Southern Baptist-supported North American Mission Board.
The immediacy of social media exacerbated those differences during the recent election cycle, said Akin, who helped found Baptist21, a group of younger Southern Baptist ministers who explore church-related issues, including the need for a clear division between their Protestant denomination and the GOP.
Finn was born in 1979, the year doctrinal and social conservatives began to re-assert themselves in the denomination’s power structures.
Conservatives believed the Southern Baptist Convention got caught in the cultural currents of the 1960s and 1970s and drifted too far from biblical moorings.
In 1979, they set out to right the ship by electing Adrian Rogers, senior pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, as the first in a now unbroken line of conservative SBC presidents.
The resurgence culminated in 2000, when the SBC made historic revisions in the confession of faith, known formally as the Baptist Faith and Message.
Now, younger Southern Baptists are questioning the institution’s policies and priorities, especially since the SBC has seen an overall decline in baptisms every year since 2000.
Last year’s election for SBC president highlighted the differences.
J.D. Greear, a 43-year-old pastor from Durham, N.C., and Gaines, the 58-year-old pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, were the leading candidates.
While Moore acknowledges generational division, he pointed to the SBC election as an example of just how connected Southern Baptists are across age groups. Moore expects Gaines to win a second term in Phoenix.
But Moore says politics is not the primary issue on the minds of Southern Baptists.
“Most of sort of the outside media world focuses inordinately on political questions, because that’s what’s at the forefront of sort of the conversation bubble of America right now,” Moore said.
Gaines has been senior pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church since Rogers retired in 2005. Bellevue is one of the SBC’s largest congregations and arguably its most influential.
Over the years, its legendary senior pastors — R.G. Lee, Ramsey Pollard, and Adrian Rogers — have served eight terms as SBC president. Gaines made it nine.
Gaines doesn’t believe the intergenerational tensions are any greater than they were in the 1960s or during the Reagan or Clinton years.
“The internet and social media make it seem that way, but the church has always reflected the times,” he said. “We live in challenging times, but I have great hope in the younger generation.”