Third Generation Conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention, Part 1

steve-mckGuest Blog by Steven A. McKinion
He is the Associate Professor of Theology and Patristic Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught Theology, Church History, Hermeneutics, and Historcial Theology classes at Southeastern Seminary. Dr. McKinion’s area of specialization is Patristic Theology. He holds the following degrees: B.A., Mississippi College; M.A., University of Mobile; Ph.D., King’s College, University of Aberdeen. He has been a professor at SEBTS since ’98.

There are two types of under 40’s in the Southern Baptist Convention.  Some look, sound, dress, preach, and act like the first generation of conservatives (those who led the Conservative Resurgence of the 1980s).  These SBs hope one day to pastor a megachurch and preach at the SBC Pastor’s Conference.  They love Jesus, love the Bible, and love the SBC, in that order.

Their SBC “cousins” (descendants of the same “grandparents”) don’t wear suits and ties, rarely say “Aaaaaamen” when someone is preaching, don’t shout “hello?” after making a good point in a sermon, and could not care any less about getting an invite to preach at another church.  They love Jesus, love the Bible, love missions, and love the work of the SBC, in that order.  They don’t look or sound like their cousins, and they don’t aspire to the same roles.

I want to comment on the latter of these under 40s.  I’ll leave it to others to judge their commitment to Jesus, the Bible, and the SBC, as I want to focus on identifying them and their antecedents.

I am an older younger Southern Baptist.  When the conservative resurgence began in 1979, I was 8 years old and more worried about All Stars baseball practice than Southern Baptist politics.  I grew up in rather conservative (socially, politically, and theologically) Southern Baptist churches.  I was baptized into one.  I learned to be a self-righteous hypocrite in one.  I perfected my hypocrisy in yet another.  But I digress.

When the Peace Committee was meeting in the mid-80s, I was more interested in high school baseball, girls, and big hair bands than in Southern Baptist politics.  I continued to feign religious devotion on Sundays while devoting myself to more worldly interests at other times.

I am the fruit of the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence.  The foundation of my faith was laid in churches where the gospel was preached and, sometimes, practiced.  I bought the message of the inerrancy of Scripture and the sufficiency of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  After a period of detoxing from hypocrisy and self-righteousness I rushed headlong into authentic Christian faith, as I had learned it from the generation before me.  Without the great work of those first generation conservatives, I would not be where I am, in many ways.  I am grateful to these men, and see them as heroes.  I love Jesus because of first generation conservatives.

I now teach at a Southern Baptist seminary.  In 1998, when I completed my PhD and became a professor I was 27 years old.  Most of my students were my age or older.  Many of them had walked a similar road as I had.  They were the first generation of post-Resurgence Southern Baptists, as I was.  We shared a commitment to the cause of the resurgence; namely, the inerrancy, sufficiency and reliability of the Scriptures.

Now, I teach another generation of seminarians.  Most of these students, sadly, know little of the CR.  They are like children who don’t know their grandparents but are nonetheless who they are because of the legacy their forebears left.  They can’t name the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention much less the dozens since 1979.  In fact, they don’t really care.  They have taken seriously the admonition not to look to men but to look to Jesus.

My students today are similar to their “grandparents” in many ways.  They preach the gospel, hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, believe in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ, are complementarian, have high moral standards, and are committed to the work of the ministry.

But there is also a great gulf between these generations.  The older generation fought a good fight for good reasons.  They made mistakes (don’t we all) but were devoted to seeing our denomination not abandon the Bible and its gospel, but rather work to fulfill the Great Commission.  They deserve, and have, the appreciation of those who followed them.

Their “children” took the ball and ran with it.  Rather than “camp meetings” with Southern Gospel music they held youth rallies with Christians’ best attempt at rap and rock.  They removed the organ from worship services and replaced it with a keyboard.  They sang songs not found in the Baptist Hymnal.  They preached the Bible instead of just talking about it.  They told people that Christianity was a relationship not a religion.  They did just what their own Southern Baptist “parents” taught them to do.

Then, something strange happened: young people embraced the movement and its message.

So why the gulf?  What are the differences?  In a brief series of articles I want to posit some distinctives of the third generation of conservatives (under 40’s – of which I am one), draw some implications from these distinctives, then offer some possible justifications for why one should consider these missional, gospel-centered Southern Baptist conservatives to be the heirs of the CR.

The heirs to the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC are those young men and women who are gospel-centered, missional, and convictional Great Commission-Conservatives.  They are the third generation of committed conservatives in the SBC and are identified by four distinctives:

Theological Distinctive: third-generation conservatives understand the Gospel to be robust, encompassing ALL of life under the rule and reign of Jesus Christ.  A limited view of the Gospel in which church people obtain a “get out of hell free” card by saying some prayer seems Gnostic, at best, to these young people.  They have come to adopt a holistic perspective in which Jesus is Lord, not just of the believer’s eternal state, but of all His creation.  For that reason, the younger conservative desires obedience to the only Law for the Christian: Love God and love neighbor.  While for many this robust Gospel has led them to a more or less Reformed soteriology (and all that accompanies it), their trending this way is due to a rejection of man-centered revivalism and not due to a convictional association with Dort.  Not all of these younger conservatives are Reformed per se, but they do practice and preach a robust Gospel of the Lordship of Jesus over every area of their lives.

Cultural Distinctive: third-generation conservatives have emerged from both an ecclesiastical culture and an American culture where authenticity is paramount.  Many of these younger Baptists heard from the first and second generation conservatives that the “church” was rife with hypocrisy.  As youth these Baptists saw deacons who were racists and WMU leaders who were gossips.  In response to the proper exhortation of their leaders, these younger Baptists rejected hypocrisy in favor of authentic Christianity.  They have little interest in becoming a pastor in a traditional church, which they associate with self-righteous hypocrisy.  Churches, and church leaders, who place more emphasis on whether a man wears a tie in a pulpit (or even has a “sacred desk”) have no appeal to the third generation.  The Book is sacred to them, not a piece of furniture.  Simplicity stems from autheniticity in their minds.  They are not attracted to churches whose programs designed to make people “functional” outnumber the people trying to run them.  They do not care whether they are asked to preach at the Pastor’s Conference or at so-and-so’s church.  In my experience, these younger conservatives do not have disdain for the “prominent” preachers, they just don’t care to become one of them.

Biblical Distinctive: third-generation conservatives listened to, and believed, the former generation’s call to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture.  When they were told that “Jesus and the Bible” were enough, they believed it, and now act on that confession.  For these Baptists, the Bible is not a handbook for better living or a sourcebook for the end times.  It is, instead, the Word of God, in which and through which God speaks to human beings, revealing Himself and His great plan in Jesus Christ.  They go to the Bible to “increase in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:10).  This commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture explains why they care more about what a preacher says than what he wears or how he says it.  The men to whom they listen are less orators than expositors.  Men like Mark Driscoll, Danny Akin, Johnny Hunt, John Piper, Matt Chandler, Mark Dever, Andy Davis and David Platt (and many others) simply open the text, explain it to listeners, then send them on their way to live it.  The “pathos” of Cicero and Augustine has little appeal to third-generation conservatives.  They are molded more in the image of John Chrysostom than Augustine of Hippo when it comes to their preaching (see my book, Life and Practice in the Early Church for a fuller explanation).  If the Bible is sufficient, they reason, then it should be studied, learned, and lived.

Intellectual Distinctive: third-generation conservatives like to read.  They learned this from the first generation of conservatives who encouraged them to expand their intellectual boundaries, ask questions, read critically, and become more intellectually-grounded than their “enemies” (whoever that is).  This generation has learned to read, and read critically.  They do not accept explanations like, “it’s correct because it is Baptist.”  They are capable of seeing the diversity among Baptists regarding Calvinism, for example, and are capable of therefore living together in missional peace with whom they disagree.  They are also able to discern what the fundamentals of the faith and association are, and act accordingly.  Charges of “ecumenism” will not stick, because third-generation conservatives have rejected theological liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, and strict separationism.

Third generation Conservatives should not be classified by clothes (short sleeves v. suits) or preaching style (emotional v. intellectual), but by the distinctives a robust understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a culture of authentic simplicity, a commitment to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, and an insatiable desire to learn Christ and His way of Life through biblical and theological inquiry.